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Reel Life: the stylish horrors of Dario Argento



George Romero had him write the story and musical score for Dawn of the Dead. John Carpenter and Brian De Palma have acknowledged borrowing his cinematic methods--having the camera take the point of view of the stalker, for instance, or creating tension through the use of claustrophobic settings. Who is he? Italian director Dario Argento, whose style-over-substance horror films--two of which are showing at the Film Center this weekend--quietly earned him a cult following back in the 70s. "All my techniques force the audience to confront the strong emotions deep from the soul," says the 51-year-old filmmaker. "Sometimes these emotions can be unpleasant and distasteful, but life is much more than just normal good feelings. No?"

As a teenager Argento was a frequent moviegoer, one especially drawn to the work of expressionists Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur, and Edgar Ulmer. "They created mystery and terror through light and shadows. The plot really didn't matter. It was an excuse for the characters to share their dreams and nightmares with the audience."

The scion of a prominent movie family--his grandfather distributed foreign films, and his father, Salvatore, is a veteran producer--Argento dabbled in journalism before turning to script writing in the early 60s. "Because everybody knew I was so crazy about the cinema, I was asked to critique movies for several newspapers [in Rome]," he says. Among the friends he cultivated along the way were his mentor Sergio Leone, fellow intellectual Bernardo Bertolucci, and composer Ennio Morricone. In 1967 he hatched the plot for Leone's spaghetti-western epic Once Upon a Time in the West and collaborated on the script with Bertolucci. "We thought up ways to subvert the audience's expectations. Sergio said, "To hell with the story, that's boring. I want close-ups, long shots, and lots, lots of emotions."'

In 1968 Argento made his directorial debut with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, based on his own screenplay. "It's a murder mystery but with some elements of horror," he says. "I didn't want to do straightforward horror. I always want to add some style, some black comedy." The stylish thriller hit box-office gold in Europe, and even won some critical praise. Horror movies were beginning to make a comeback in America around that time, and in 1971 Argento churned out Four Flies on Grey Velvet with a couple of Hollywood ingenues in the leads and Morricone in charge of music. He followed that with Deep Red in 1975 and Suspiria in 1976, featuring Jessica Harper and faded stars Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, which established his cult status.

In Suspiria Argento's over-the-top art direction is practically the story itself. A boarding school in the Black Forest where rebellious young girls vanish mysteriously is gradually transformed from art nouveau womb to crimson death trap, a visual metaphor that spawned imitators including The Amityville Horror. Yet there's an element of tongue-in-cheek in the drawn-out, visceral killings. "Like in the spaghetti westerns. I learned from Sergio to exaggerate, to embellish," says Argento. "I always push the accelerator."

Throughout the 80s most of Argento's films had limited runs or went straight to video; his personal favorite, Opera, played mainly at festivals and in retrospectives of his career, and his last film, The Devil's Daughter, was "mutilated" by the distributor. Fresh from LA, where he's been prepping his latest project, The Stendhal Syndrome, Argento will talk Saturday at the Film Center following two screenings. Suspiria begins at 6 PM and Four Flies on Grey Velvet at 8; admission is $5. The Film Center is located inside the School of the Art Institute, at Columbus and Jackson. For more info call 443-3733.

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