Friday, May 23, 2008
THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION (2008) d. Dario Argento
Reviewed by Rick Trottier & Mark Nelson
Delving into any collected set of films is always a treat, but when the collection is that of a living master of the horror craft, it is twice as nice. Dario Argento has worked in film for more than 40 years, but since his directorial debut with BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1970, his works have evolved and his style continues to be a powerful creative force in cinema, influencing the techniques of many film makers since the 1970s. THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION: 5 FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO includes some interesting works that span a lesser known period of Mr. Argento’s canon. TENEBRE (1982) and PHENOMENA (1985) are considered to be from the latter stage of Argento’s “great years”, while THE CARD PLAYER (2004) and DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK? (2005) are from Argento’s recent resurgence. That leaves TRAUMA (1993), which dates from a period when Argento’s films were less well received.
Summarizing and analyzing Dario Argento’s films in chronological order allows the truly astute scholar of The Master’s work to see its progression and path to the present. TENEBRE, starring Tony Franciosa, Mirella D’Angelo, John Saxon and Christian Borromeo, is the story of Peter Neal, a writer visiting Rome whose novels become the muse for a murderer. As suspicion mounts and doubt is cast on nearly everyone, no one is sure who the killer really is. PHENOMENA, starring Jennifer Connelly, Daria Nicolodi, Donald Pleasance and Patrick Bauchau, is the story of Jennifer Corvino, a boarder at a Swiss school and who exhibits a personality disorder mixed with a propensity for sleepwalking and the uncanny ability to communicate with insects telepathically. She becomes ensnared in the machinations of a serial killer, whose murders she views during her troubled bouts with sleep. Before long, Jennifer must find a way to escape from the killer’s net before she is the next victim. TRAUMA, starring Christopher Rydell, Asia Argento and Piper Laurie, is the story of a psychologically troubled girl who returns from a hospital ward only to see her parents brutally murdered. Enlisting the aid of her lover David, Aura searches for the killer, only to put herself in harm’s way and to face truths more dangerous than the killer’s weapon. THE CARD PLAYER, starring Stefania Rocca, Liam Cunningham and Silvio Muccino, is the story of a kidnapper/killer who challenges the Italian police to play video poker with him in an attempt to tip his hand as to where his victim is hidden. Inspector Anna Mari and Detective John Brennan must team up with computer card shark Remo to beat the killer at his own game before more innocent citizens are abducted and murdered. Finally, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK, starring Elio Germano, Chiara Conti and Elisabetta Rocchetti, is the story of Giulio, a film student obsessed with the works of Alfred Hitchcock. He probes into a murder committed in the apartment building across from his and suspects an elaborate plot involving the alluring Sasha and her equally enigmatic and hypnotic friend Federica. Before long, Guilio is dodging attempts on his own life before he can solve the crime, forcing him into a cat & mouse game with his own neck as the prize.
TENEBRE was Dario Argento’s return to the giallo format after his two film supernatural hiatus of SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. Despite being a return to his “roots”, TENEBRE has many characteristics that set it apart from Dario’s earlier giallos. While it has a classic giallo storyline set to a vibrant Claudio Simonetti score and it is edited and photographed with the same care and thought given to artistic composition, TENEBRE does not have the same vivid coloring or ornate interior and exterior set design as does DEEP RED or its predecessors. What is intensified is the onus on spectacularly gory death scenes and wonderfully lurid shots of incredibly sexy Italian women, one of which is a she-male (just so you know). Some of the amplified sexuality of TENEBRE seems to almost anticipate the evolution of Argento’s modern films as he would move away from the more Puritanical style of one of his inspirations, Mario Bava, and embrace the more aggressive visual style of the 21st century. Despite being a somewhat atypical example of Dario’s giallo genre, TENEBRE is a very engaging film intellectually and emotionally, and it is sadly, often overlooked as part of the “greats” canon. The extras menu starts off THE DARIO COLLECTION very strongly with a 17 minute featurette about the film with both Argento and Daria Nicolodi. That is followed by a 5 minute interview/short documentary with Dario called “The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento”. Next is a 2 minute mini-featurette called “Creating the Sounds of Terror” about sound effects. There is also a 2 minute alternate end credits music mini-featurette, an audio commentary with Argento, music composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci, the theatrical trailer and the ubiquitous and fairly standard Dario Argento text biography. TENEBRE is a good film to start with since it is the bridge between the legendary past and Dario Argento’s successful present.
PHEMOMENA is probably the strangest of the ARGENTO COLLECTION, for it combines much of the carefully composed and lavish exterior sets and landscape photography with the artistically crafted and plentiful gore of his earlier giallos like CAT ‘O NINE TAILS. However, there are bizarre yet compelling supernatural elements typical of films like INFERNO. PHEMOMENA is a film of contrasts. During the day, there are customary bright, outdoor colors juxtaposed with elegant, flamboyant rooms of schools and offices, but at night there are the moody blues and blacks of the ominous environs and the chiaroscuro of shadow-dappled leaves tossing in unsettled winds paralleling the unstable internal natures of many of the characters. A young Jennifer Connelly, raven dark hair diametrically opposed to her white garments, adds a lovely, ethereal presence which is balanced grimly by Daria Nicolodi’s stark and almost mannish menace. The extras menu of PHEMOMENA is the deepest treasure trove of goodies in this collection, spearheaded by an audio commentary with Argento, makeup effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, music composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci. There is a 17 minute featurette called “A Dark Fairy Tale” exploring the background and sources of PHEMOMENA, a 5 minute interview with visual effects wizard Luigi Cozzi, a 9 minute talk show interview on “The Joe Franklin Show”, 2 music videos: “Jennifer” by Claudio Simonetti and “Valley” by Bill Wyman, the theatrical trailer and a text bio of Dario Argento. Between this compelling and visually stunning film and the “boat-load” of extras, PHEMOMENA is one of the jewels in this crown.
Leaping forward into a new decade is TRAUMA, a film with much that will please any Dario fan, but with many drawbacks as well. While TRAUMA is often visually dynamic due to composition and lighting efforts, since it was filmed in the United States, it does not evidence the same grandeur and elegance that Argento’s European films do. While there are some capable actors in TRAUMA who give solid performances, the fact that most of the cast is American, wearing unimpressive, early 90s fashions and without the stateliness of that undeniable Continental glamour, the end result is a film that feels like Dario Argento but does not exude that same stylishness. Even the musical score is without dynamism and does not carry the viewer along on a tide of emotion and chills. The story has an excellent premise, but it wanders due to a great number of convolutions and the pacing is also very inconsistent. Finally, while gripping and sometimes shocking, the fantastical nature of many of the death scenes stretches the logic of this film. Unlike the supernatural “Three Mothers” epics and the somewhat science-fiction based PHEMOMEMA, most of Dario Argento’s films have their feet firmly set in believability. By making TRAUMA a contemporary tale with a sense of realistic horror, to strain the bonds of reason leads it down a less successful path. TRAUMA does have one of the deeper extras menus including a 19 minute documentary with Dario called “Love, Death and Trauma”, which may be one of the most interesting featurettes in this collection. There is an 8 minute special effects featurette called “On the Set with Tom Savini” which will delight his legion of fans. In addition, there is an audio commentary with author Alan Jones, a nearly 5 minute collection of deleted scenes, the one and only poster/stills gallery in this collection, the theatrical trailer and the Dario Argento text biography.
By the time the 21st Century dawns, we arrive at THE CARD PLAYER, which is both a departure and a return to form for Dario Argento. Some of the story and visual elements evoke BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and OPERA. Many of the exterior sets of the urban streets and the pastoral garden cemetery have that same lushness of BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, while the abductions scenes and the intensity of the “damsel in distress” vignettes are deeply reminiscent of OPERA. Keeping that in mind, the introduction of computer technology as a major plot device and setting much of the film in the stark, mechanically-dominated, techno-world of a police station creates a contrast that is both a clear strength of the film and a possible detriment to Argento purists. Be that as it may, the more briskly paced, real time story helps to make up for the fact that THE CARD PLAYER is not quite as visually stunning as classic Argento. For those who worry, there are still some moments that drip with a panoply of shadows, light and color, as well as Dario’s customary close ups on people’s reactions and specific story props of importance. For being a recent film, THE CARD PLAYER has a surprisingly deep extras menu including an audio commentary with author Alan Jones, a 13 minute documentary on the film with Dario called “Playing with Death”, and a fabulous 17 minute featurette on Claudio Simonetti called “Maestro of Fear”. There is also a 9 minute industry promo of the film, the theatrical trailer, a 5 minute “behind the scenes” montage that plays like a music video and a Dario Argento text biography.
DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK, being the newest of the ARGENTO COLLECTION, is also one of the most surprising. It combines all of Dario’s love and respect for his inspirational mentor Alfred Hitchcock, and much of the visual splendor that made Argento a legend in films like DEEP RED. The story is a nod to REAR WINDOW and without shameful thievery, it borrows many key story elements from that classic, but they are blended with Argento’s superb fascination with intricate and stylish architecture, eye-catching urban landscapes, monochromatic set pieces and engrossing close-ups on minutia or mechanisms. In addition, Argento lovingly photographs the glamorous and vibrantly sexy actresses in this sensuous film. The end result is a film that looks modern but feels like a step back to Dario’s most successful film years and clearly restores the master to his rightful pedestal among the greats. DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK has a very thin extras menu including a sixteen and a half minute “Backstage” featurette which allows the viewer to see the filming and special effects process of an Argento set. There is also a Dario Argento text bio segment. After four other extras menus that were a rich haul, this extras menu is something of a disappointment. In the end though, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK is a very enjoyable film that is a treat for the eye and a balm to the Argento-loving soul.
Most of the time, boxed sets are retrospectives of a film maker’s best works, most popular works or sometimes selections of their favorite works. THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION: 5 FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO is a look at films that do not always receive the acclaim that they may deserve, but they do provide viewers with the opportunity to bask in movies that are a little rarer. These five films are presented in their original aspect ratios and with their blazing or moody colors and rich soundtracks fully restored so that any lover of the Argento canon will be suitably impressed. In addition, all five films have received new anamorphic transfers, making them an even more exciting visual experience. THE DARIO ARGENTO COLLECTION: 5 FILMS BY DARIO ARGENTO can proudly take its place on your dvd shelf next to your first rate versions of DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA, BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and CAT ‘O NINE TAILS where it rightly belongs, improving any collector’s canon of the Argento library in a truly delightful and appropriate manner.