Why Dario Argento thinks the gory scenes of movies are "the most important parts"

The Italian master of garish and supremely elegant horror discussed his beginnings in the film industry as part of the BFI Southbank's Gothic season.

I haven’t seen more than a handful of Dario Argento movies, nor am I an aficionado of giallo, but Thursday evening’s on-stage interview with Argento as part of the BFI Southbank’s Gothic season was a delight. In his chirpy, heavily accented English, the Italian master of garish and supremely elegant horror discussed his beginnings in the film industry, first as a critic and then as co-screenwriter with Bernardo Bertolucci on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Argento himself will never make a western. “I don’t like horses. I don’t like pow-pow-pow [he mimed a quick-on-the-draw gunslinger]. I don’t like landscapes. I like cities. Lots of cities. I like buildings. I like streets.” Leone, he soon discovered, had no truck with talk. He taught Argento that “the camera is master.” “He said, ‘Films are all speak, speak, speak, speak! I don’t like speaking. I like silence. This is cinema.’”

It was a lesson Argento learned well, as proved by one of the excerpts shown during the interview: the sequence from Tenebrae in which the camera prowls up one side of an apartment building, over the roof and down the other side. But in conversation he used words beautifully. At one point, he broke off to recount to us all the story of how he was the victim of a cashpoint mugging in London this week; the way he mapped out the movements of himself and the thief had the zinging clarity of a storyboard. And there was a choice moment when he began a story with the words, “One time I was in jail…” Hold on, hold on—why was he in jail? “Well, a policeman had come into my home, something to do with the finances, and he said, ‘Maybe you have drugs here?’” A small stash of hashish landed Argento in prison for several days. “It is a good experience,” he chirruped. “I meet lots of people. I remember when I was in college—it was no different. Maybe for long time it is terrible…”

A remake of his film Suspiria has been mooted for many years—the director David Gordon Green was trying to make it fly at one point—but Argento was dismissive. “The film is there. If you want to see it, just put the DVD in.”

He was not particularly enthusiastic, either, about most modern horror. “Fear has disappeared. No more fear. In Asia it is different. They’ve discovered again the fear and the psychology of the characters. Without psychology, the horror film doesn’t exist.”

For good measure, we saw a clip from his 1987 film Opera in which a woman has needles taped beneath her eyes to prevent her eyelids clamping shut while her lover is brutally murdered: she has to watch, or risk tearing her eyelids to shreds. A perfect metaphor for the cinema of Argento. He hates it when he hears that viewers have closed their eyes during the gory sections of his movies. “They are the most important parts.” He said that he wishes those needles could be handed to audiences on their way in to see his films. We all laughed—nervously.

Italian film director Dario Argento poses during a photocall for Dracula 3D on November 20, 2012 in a hotel in Rome. Image: Getty

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times