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.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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