Saturday, July 19, 2014

ITALIAN HORROR WEEK - The Argento Syndrome Review

The directing Filmography of Dario Argento stretches back to 1970 when he first created The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and in the time since many writers have come to assemble analytic works that attempt to "figure out" what makes an Argento picture a work of pure, original horror. I am not an expert on the tomes based around his life and work, but I can tell you that my most recent read, The Argento Syndrome by Derek Botelho published by Bear Manor Media conveys a unique perspective on the life and films of Argento and those who have worked around him, called him friend, boss and father. Think of this as a complete story and not just one that focuses on the ultra-technical or the analytic. This is a story of people making movies and movies actually attaining life. Above all the reader learns how an uncompromising artist can create works that horrify without giving in to the pressures of the movie industry while bucking trends to create genres. 

From the outset of the story we know that Botelho will be telling his personal journey into Argento's world of horror. We learn how the author and filmmaker met through some arranged encounters that lead to a friendship that allowed for a intimate look at the director. Botelho starts at the beginning with Plumage and works his way through the most recent Argento picture, Dracula 3D. Interlaced are interviews and anecdotes that allow for a richer understanding of the creation of each picture as well as of Argento as he has been seen through the eyes of collaborators and actors. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is my favorite Argento picture. Sure, I have moments where I think that Phenomena (or as I always call it Creepers) steps in but for the long haul it has always been Plumage. Botelho creates a world in which Plumage was conceived taking great lengths to stir the potential stories that could have existed with the end result. This first chapter alone feels a bit long only in that it delves into the alternate universe of Screaming Mimi, a book and movie with which Plumage shares similarities, but each subsequent chapter yields a concise history and creation notes concerning each picture from critical analysis to production notes including reception of the picture and place within Argento's career. The only exception is the discussion of Scarlet Diva and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, films created by Asia Argento. It would be important to note that the book is called The Argento Syndrome and not the Dario Argento Syndrome; given Asia's integral part in Dario's career, telling her story is important.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book isn't the early chapters. Most Argento fans will relate well to the first half of the book, reading about fan favorites and relishing in stories surrounding movies they've seen and loved a hundred times over. The latter chapters in The Argento Syndrome go in depth about the period in Argento's life post Italian Horror golden age. In all the discussions of his work, it seems that fan generally agree that Argento's more recent productions are different from his early work. He has evolved. The industry evolved with both the budget and market drying up for Italian dark fantasy productions. These late chapters open up each film, dissecting each one offering insight into why they work or do not work rather than simply labeling them failures or qualifying them against Argento's earlier pictures. Granted this book is obviously written by a fan of his work, but Botelho is honest. He isn't afraid to lay into a production for its flaws or make insights into why the public might not appreciate a certain film. I am as guilty as anyone of simply bunching the more recent Argento pictures together and forgetting about the films that work and the moments that are successful in somewhat unpopular pictures. These chapters are important for the Italian Horror fan to read and then, hopefully, give some of these movies a chance. You won't agree with all of Botelho's assertions, but his perspective is worth considering. 

The interviews inserted in between most of the productions are lengthy and full bodied with stories from the production as well as an elaboration on the place in which each interviewee dwells outside the world of horror and Argento. This can lead to a feeling that we've ventured too far off the path of the intended goal at times (the focus on Argento as opposed to the interviewee himself). Still the inclusion of each interview is important to telling a complete story that allows for a third person perspective on Argento outside of Argento's realizations and the author's discussions. Interviewees include John Carpenter, Asia Argento, Stuart Gordon, Leigh McCloskey, William McNamara, Pat Buba, Billy Jett, Hope Alexander-Willis, Walter Fasano, Sean Keller, Marta Gastini,  Luciano Tovoli, Tony Musante, Mick Garris and Maitland McDonagh. There are some names here I'm sure we'd love to see included, but overall this is the most complete portrait of Argento we could hope for in 2014. The inclusion of Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter to offer Argento's place in the word of horror is paramount. 

The Argento Syndrome is filled with stills and production photos from various sources including some from the author's personal collection. Each chapter begins with a piece of art that encapsulates the mood and concept from the movie to be discussed as created by Micah Mate. These prints are creative and are sure to become fan favorites. The cover art is Silver Ferox Design who is responsible for some my favorite packaging (this review is of the black hardcover edition). Botelho also signed my edition before mailing it making it a real treat for a fan of Argento and a fan of the author's writing. You can order a signed copy via his website.  The book is fully indexed which is a nice added feature to assist with easy reference for the scholar.

I couldn't put this book down. I'd marathon read it into the late hours of the evening and have plans to re-read it to gain new perspective on the career of Argento after rewatching his movies. Hell, a few of us have been in discussion to do a retrospective series on his entire filmography in podcast form, so this work may become ever more important to that discussion. I recommend this to fans of Italian Horror, fans of Argento and viewers who think they know everything there is to know about Argento productions. Chances are you haven't seen the personal side to the story and maybe you've overlooked some key insights in his catalog. Keep in mind that while I have only focused on a small portion of the book, each of Argento's pictures including his TV efforts are represented. Find your favorite and dig in. 

You can pick up a copy of The Argento Syndrome on hard or soft cover now. Also follow along on Facebook.

Also keep your eyes open for Botelho's next project, currently under development. We will announce more when the time is right. 

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