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.