How I Came To Horror (3 Of 4)

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‘A filthy scarecrow waves his broomstick arms’

How I Came to Horror (3 of 4)

by Pablo D’Stair

I pretended to like Dario Argento well before I’d ever actually watched a film by Dario Argento—not out of straight deceit but just because his name would come up now and again when I was an impressionable young lad who had hardly watched any movies but wanted to come off as a hip insider. Most frequently, Argento’s name and the titles of his films would be mentioned by a certain friend of mine while we watched Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm over and over again, my friend smoking pot, me for some reason highly resistant to doing that but having no aversion to downing large amounts of NyQuil-thinned-with-Gatorade to get a wee bit out-of-body, myself.  Argento was lauded as a master of ‘the Italian horror movie’ and I decided I loved not only him but the ‘Italian horror movie’ genre as a whole, sight-unseen—indeed, I would recommend Argento movies to people, still having never viewed a single one myself, and would always feel puffed up when someone nodded enthusiastically, telling me they loved Argento, loved all his crazy shit.

This tendency I had for posturing-based-on-the-opinions-of-others, my meek young self needing to feel pre-validated before putting actual thoughts and ideas out there, was often instrumental in helping me endure films I eventually earnestly came to love (or at least appreciate) but that without an irrational need to ‘defend my already professed opinions’ I likely would never have sought out and even more likely would have shut off two or three minutes in to, dismissing them as discount-bin crap—Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, for example, Carter’s The Creeper, Sergio Matino’s Torso or Anguish by Bigas Luna.

Argento became something peculiarly important to me when I finally encountered his work and gave it consideration, and this is what I will explore here in the third of my four part series on how I got swallowed up by Horror Cinema.


When I was just out of high school and writing my first narrative novel, I bought and carried around on my person a meat-cleaver (always carefully wrapped and concealed in the inside pocket of whatever coat I had on) to ‘keep me in mind of the character’ I was writing. Silly, of course, and other than being tucked in my pocket, all the cleaver ever did was cut peanut-butter sandwiches in half—but having it on me constantly stirred memories of my old friend talking about Argento, about ‘The Hatchet Murderer’ in a film called Profondo Rosso (my pal always liked to give the Italian titles, when possible, very likely a large part of why my youthful-poseur-self so clung to the affectation of liking the stuff).

Timing was quite serendipitous for me to actually look in to Argento, for Anchor Bay must have just done a concerted re-release of not only his stuff but the films of every big-wig of Giallo (Lucio Fulci, The Bava’s Mario and Lamberto etc.) the store I frequented just bursting with them—give it five months, I’d go to this same store and maybe find one or two, another few months and it was like they never existed.

I found Deep Red (AKA The Hatchet Murders) but instead of taking it up, I kept looking and came across a film called Tenebre. Now, this seemed to be my kind of shit—almost eerily so—at least as far as plot summary.  Not only did it stroke my ‘wannbe novelist’ hard-on (my being in the throes of writing my own ‘giallo-esque’ masterpiece) by having the hero be an author, but the set-up scenario was an iteration of an idea I (and probably every other aspiring thriller writer) had considered tackling—women are being killed in the same manner described in the books of the hero-author and, just so this fact didn’t go unnoticed, were having the pages from the books stuffed in their dead mouths.

Wonderful—yes, Tenebre please and let’s see what this Argento is all about.

The first thing I noticed about the film was that I wished it were in Italian with subtitles, because the sound on the transfer I’d bought was horrendous—especially odd due the fact that I think all the players were actually speaking in English.  I was only versed in ‘dubbed cinema’ by way of kung-fu movies—Shaolin Temple vs. Lama, Incredible Kung-Fu Mission, The Bone Crushing Kid—where the dubbing being absurd was incidental at worse, actually added to the effect, at best.

With Tenebre, though, I had a hard time getting through the dub, it was like a static layer that kept me from penetrating into the film-as-surrogate-reality—‘the red-red kroovy’ ultra-technicoloring of the blood and things of that ilk only adding to the distance.  I was very conscious of ‘watching a movie’ in a pointedly different way than I had been before, at least when trying to take it seriously and get wind of its actual intent.

None of these superficial things could be said to be Argento’s fault, though, so I began the film again, conscientiously making myself think of it as a sober-minded cinematic expression, my initial reaction more culture-shock than response-proper.

What I noticed about Argento, post-reset, was that he was all about heavy synthesized music and POV kill sequences—lengthy POV kill sequences.  In fact, he just really seemed to dig POV sequences, kill-shots or no.  This was not something I minded, don’t misunderstand, but certainly the technique was used to an extent I had not before come across—indeed, I kind of dug it, especially since the sequences weren’t cleanly controlled like more contemporary through-the-killer’s-eyes scenes I’d experienced, in fact there was a kind of illogic to them, the camera eye didn’t exactly seem to correlate to the killer’s eye, it was a kind of hybrid, free-floating close-up/obstructed-shot generator.

In between deaths (these violent sequences nowhere near as ‘crazy’ or ‘operatic’ as I had heard about being Argento’s identifying trait–descriptive words, I add, which I later discovered to, yes, very much be his cuppa) the film was stagey in a way I liked, something to akin watching top-shelf community theatre–it didn’t have a classic or Hitchcockian style to it and didn’t seem like American cinema from the corresponding era, there was a very unique timbre to it, far from verite naturalism but far from straight-up precision framing. It was boring, is maybe a better way to put it, but not boring like anything I’d been bored by before.

No, let me re-state: I wasn’t bored by it, it just wasn’t titillating me, even the murders seem kind of set-piece short-films on their own, and throw in the odd ‘flashback’ sequence (skewed through the mind the killer) and the film had a lazy roiling vibe to it—it’d get where it was going, things would drain to some specific spot, so patience and puzzling simultaneously at plot and at style seemed the order of the day.

This got me thinking about some of my own embedded notions about cinema, things I probably took for granted and didn’t mark as odd or kind-of-silly in American films but that through a foreign aperture really stood out as peculiar. All of the elements in Tenebre—from the dialogue to the timing of events to the rationale behind hero-action and villain-motivation, the very reasons events went down, when, why, and how they did–were no different than in the typical, more contemporary American horror/thriller film I’d happen on, it was just that in an American film they seemed harmless, even appropriate, but with this Italiano flavoring they just seemed dipshit.

I realized I tended to approach scenarios in horror/thriller as though the filmmakers were trying to represent tangible reality, looked at them as things being presented with utmost sobriety, the logic of them meant to hold up to inspection. But when did that happen?  Seldom, if ever.  Even when a scene-cut or character-motivation had an internal, filmic logic, nine-out-of-ten times in a horror or suspense film that logic only held up in relation to making it possible for the next set-piece, the next victim, the next “twist” to go down—if rational thought was applied, if time-and-space functioned in horror cinema as in reality, well then most horror films would not maintain very long without seeming like some drivel from the weird kid in grade school everyone knew was cretinously full-of-shit but for some reason had to be allowed to mix with the normals.

As a writer, this ‘use of illogic-as-effect’ was something I resisted—I always told myself, when plotting out a suspenseful thing, that the mechanics had to function according to what would lead to safe resolution for all parties, my job being to cleverly search out some ripple that would turn a reasonable expenditure of effort on the character’s part in the direction of, say, ‘not getting killed’ into the exact thing that would undo them. Because otherwise, suspense was just wacky, whorey make-believe, all of it entirely superficial. Case in point, the basic premise for Tenebre—victims being killed according to the writings of some schlocky horror author—to me had an earnest sense of vice-grip dread, taken as a set-up. There should be no way out of it for the hero because, obviously, the third-party killer would act to keep them in the thick, would not somehow take for granted that whichever action the hero decides on (or doesn’t) would, like clockwork, lead to their demise—no, the villain would be an ever observant, malevolent thinker, hatching machinations to doom the hero regardless of their intelligent and measured attempts to not be doomed.

But that isn’t what went down in Tenebre—nor anywhere else in Horror Cinema that I could recall, at the time—and so Agrento’s film brought to my full attention the fact that even the best horror/thrillers, the ones I loved, they never fucking worked this way—the sleuthing, for example, on the part of the hero seems counted on, if not entirely necessary, for the killer’s plan to work.  Stupid.  Lazy.  Tenebre seemed stupid and lazy and made me rethink things from Hitchcock onward as also stupid and lazy.

Until the actual, undeniably brilliant twist Argento delivers—a twist which not only worked on a first view as so many would (so many which later would reveal themselves to be asinine trickery demolishing all attempts at re-watching with enjoyment) but which actually served as an artful, principle alteration to the film being watched when re-watched.  The years since viewing Tenebre, I admit, have diminished my awe at the reveal that the hero actually became the killer (the author took advantage of the fact that his writing was being used by the murderer, discovered who the murderer was,  then murdered the murderer in order to freely proceed with his own set of killings) but the ins-and-outs of how the stylistics of the film not only were able to keep me-the-viewer from knowing this but also functionally held up, after the fact, as having self-sustained purpose stuck with me fast.

Tenebre was a pulpish film-architecture that seemed to fully grasp and play with what supported it and the twist, I remember thinking, was less about a shocking-plot-reveal and more about a desire that the film, as a whole, be seen as a genuinely clever authorship—and this is why, I came to think, the elements of classic whodunit so oddly mixed with the brutal pop-snuff-murders and with the camera-batics inserted where none seemed necessary.  The fucking film wanted me to understand it not as the surrogate-and-clever-reality I was so much trying to, but as almost a meta (though no quite) commentary on artist/audience interplay—Argento was having a pure excursion in cinema, using genre to push style, hopefully, into the same realm as substance.

I wouldn’t say he succeeded in this exactly, let me add, but he turned a good trick trying.


Since Tenebre I have built and maintained an affinity for Argento, but it never seems to gel with the affinities of other professed aficionados and drinkers of his particular hooch.  Sometimes I think this is because I look at Giallo as a combination of “horror and thriller” the emphasis on the second ingredient and so my finding anything ‘scary’ or ‘jarring’ is not ever in the cards when I go peeking at the maestro’s work—I look at his stuff as Art-house Plaything where many a fan I bump in to would put his work frankly onto lists of ‘scariest movies ever,’ thus keeping us always unable to share a ‘Right on’ over anything mutual.

It’s also that the violence of Argento, as orchestral/big-band as it can be in some instances (the opening death in Suspiria) or as meticulously miniature as it can be in others (the bullet through the peephole in Opera) always seems to me to not be where the filmmaker’s head is at. Every time someone praises Deep Red for the ‘teeth cracked against the desk corner’ or the ‘person being dunked and dunked and dunked in boiling water’ my mind fixates, instead, on the composition of the shots prior to the first scream, the streets of Italy made to resemble the Hopper painting ‘Nighthawks’ or the wonderful-and-to-no-import stylistics of the camera whooshing over the piano keys and the lines of music penciled on the staffs of the hero-composer’s music book while the killer POVs his way to the apartment door to whisper spooky threats.

I seem to remember once hearing Argento say he felt trapped in his fan-base, that he envied his contemporaries who could experiment with shoulder-cams and documentary verite in Horror while he would have to promise ‘big crazy shit’ (my words, not his), needed to render maggots raining and eyes held open with needles and pits of slushfied corpse in order to get funding or distribution.  And in watching much of his more contemporary work, I feel a bit sad that he’s seen as past-his-prime, as I cannot help but think he’s just doing what he always wanted, free to give it a whirl now that nobody much is paying attention—the Card Player, Sleepless, even the Adrian Brody vehicle Giallo (while I cannot help but say are largely pieces-of-shit, as cinema) don’t seem so far from any of his earlier works, the same presence of mind once given to phantasmagoria now given to simple layers of daily-grind grime.

Anyway, all this to say that Argento, by way of Tenebre, gave me a real and cherished glimpse at pulp-made-majestic, at the actual possibility of walking the razor line with cinema between One Thing and Another, never quite being either—because this is something I’ve become very watchful for and something that exists most palpably, in my experience, in Horror Cinema, this desire not just to paint in glorious strokes ‘our world,’ be it light, dark, or grey, but to tread a world between ours and some other, to color the canvas of moving pictures with gruesomeness as an excuse to be gaudily conscious and brazenly unconscious all at once.


Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer.  Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing late in 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.

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