Filmmaker Dario Agento “the Italian Hitchcock” has produced violent and terrifying films, yet Argento’s films possess a mystical, visual beauty. I spoke with Derek Botelho, author of The Argento Syndrome, a  retrospective and examination of the Italian auteur’s films.

Jeremy: Argento was told folk horror stories as a boy, and from what we have been told by psychology, formative years make quite the impression on us through adulthood. Derek were you told scary stories as a kid which brought you to Argento?
Botelho: I was never told scary stories as a kid; I seemed to discover these things on my own as nobody in my family really liked them. My dad, up to a point, but he was much more into action and science fiction and my mother seemed to have no opinion on the matter as long as we weren’t watching science fiction or action! I remember watching The Exorcist very young and loving the scare. I even had nightmares about Regan being at the end of my bed at night. Even though it was terrible, I kept going back for more, reading scary books for kids and adults when I could get them from the library. I recall doing a book report on Stephen King’s Carrie in second grade, and in sixth on Misery.
J: What Argento film did you see first and how much an impression did Argento’s  1996 film, The Stendhal Syndrome make on you? Do you scare easily?
B: My first Argento film was Tenebrae, and I was around 13. I remember we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at a friend’s house and I rummaged their VHS collection and came across Unsane. I watched it that night and was drawn in by the strangeness of it all. The music was odd, the daytime being scary was new, and it just felt so different, I was hooked on this strange vision. It wasn’t until years later I saw another one of his movies and even remembered who he was. Living in the middle on nowhere in the early 1990’s I didn’t have access to many things art wise, so I just grabbed what I could when I could, and the stranger the better. I didn’t see The Stendhal Syndrome until I was about 21. A friend of mine from the Midwest mailed me a bootleg of it off of a Japanese source I believe. It was several generations down and pretty muddy and blurry, but I fell in love with it. The second time I watched it, my grandmother watched it with me and that was an experience. She liked it, but was put off some by the violence. She was a tough lady, and she watched nearly all of his movies with me when I lived with her in my early college days. To wrap this up, I don’t scare easily movie wise, I used to as a kid, but now they’re just fun. But if you take me to a haunted attraction at a theme park or anything like that, I’m terrible…a nervous wreck. I need to hold someone’s hand and close my eyes sometimes and I’ve suffered panic attacks in these things. But I keep doing it. What’s wrong with me?
J: To readers just finding Argento, why the title The Argento Syndrome?
B: Well, the title is an obvious play on the film title but just as the titular syndrome affects Anna, perhaps Argento’s movies seduce his audience in a way. It’s more a clever pun than anything deep. Read into it what you will…or won’t. It’s up for interpretation.
J: The Stendhal Syndrome: how do we unlock the film or should one just enjoy the nightmare?
B: The film is really underrated in my book. It’s one of his best scripts and certainly the most complete character he’s ever written, the entire movie is about Anna and her descent into hell. Again, you can try and psychoanalyze the character, or yourself, while watching it if that’s your desire. Many will just watch it and take it at face value.
 J: What is the horror master’s “dream logic.”  
B: That’s another vague and interpretive thing to try and pin down, but I’ll try. I think Argento is only concerned with building a world, whether it’s “realistic” or not. As long as this world obeys its own internal logic, and makes some kind of relative sense, that’s all that matters. And often times, like in Inferno, there really are no rules. Anything can and will happen. Even the more naturalistic films, let’s call them, are kinda trippy. Cat O Nine Tails even has some odd things, like Catherine Spaak’s Velcro clothes that just leap off her body and that otherworld gay bar. Nobody’s ever been in a place like that! There’s the weird scientific nonsense that makes zero sense based on that old Victorian pseudo science…you can pick this stuff out of a lot of his movies. Again, I think he’s just creating mood and a place for his characters to play. And for him to play.
J: Cinema has a long relationship with women as the victims, starting with The Perils of Pauline (the 1914 silent) with Pauline tied to railroads tracks, waiting for her knight to rescue her. What do you think Argento thinks of women?
B: I think Argento thinks very highly of women and doesn’t doubt their intelligence or importance in the least. It’s merely a function of the genre that women are victims because it’s a well worn device that works! He’s said, as has DePalma that they’d rather film women because they enjoy it more. I don’t give these misogyny claims any ground. It’s art, and more than half of the human race is female, so they’re gonna get knocked off and look great in the process. But remember Argento also uses women and girls as the heroes, so you can’t paint him with this brush too readily.
J: Dario is aware art imitates life, and misogyny started in the bible. Is Argento holding a mirror up to the audience regarding women?
B: In a way, perhaps he is, but again, it could be a bit of reaching. We’ve always lived in a patriarchal society and I’ve be lying if I said that women don’t have it harder than men and have had to fight harder for basic things. Even now this battle over women’s health care in the U.S. is a very scary. So the battle of women over evil is very real! In movies it’s just a bit more artfully arranged.
J: Is Cat O’ Nine Tails a warning on what curiosity did to the cat?
B: That may be part of the joke, but I don’t know. The title has nothing to do with anything in the movie. There is that line in the movie about the clues being like nine tails, but it’s such nonsense. At least “bird” and “flies” the titles have some bearing.
J: His daughter Asia talked about being naked and worst in her father’s films. How do you see Argento’s relationship with actress Daria Nicolodi? 
B: Well Daria and Dario naked made Asia, speaking of naked, so I’d say their relationship was great…for a while. It’s akin to Bergman and Ullmann, or Allen and Farrow, or Keaton. When an artist finds a muse, it brings something out of them, and meeting Daria definitely sparked a fire in Dario. Even when they hit the skids it worked, I think Daria is fantastic in Phenomena and Opera. She’s a much better performer than she’s given credit. I’d love to see her do a play someday.
J: How does Argento fit in today’s political correct world?
B: Well he’s worked in genre and so you can get away with things there you can’t perhaps in other modes. So, I don’t think it really affects him. I mean, he’s had his films censored, but many horror filmmakers have gone through this. The “PC culture” has really seemed to leave a ding on academia more than the art world. It seems colleges encourage professors to coddle students and not “work them up”. This trigger warning nonsense baffles me. If anything is leaving a mark on his work negatively it’s that he’s not writing his own scripts. Being a hired hand doesn’t do him any favors.
J: A plethora of youngsters get Argento, but how would you convert the novice to Argento and what film should that novice start with? I say read your book with one’s first Argento film . 
B: Well, I’ve found there is no “converting” where Argento is concerned. People either like what he’s doing or they don’t, or in many cases they only like him selectively. I know Suspiria is one of those movies most people tend to love and it’s their door into his work and when they discover the bulk of his movies are nothing like this, they’re disappointed and walk away. I showed Tenebrae to someone recently and he said it was complete nonsense. That really stunned me as I think Tenebrae is one of his stronger films.
J: Argento’s feelings about actors? Hitchcock called them cattle and Argento has been called “the Italiain Hitchcock.” The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is his suspense film (directors have learned suspense from Hitch) so if Dario kept hearing he was “The Italian Hitchcock” did Dario feel compelled  to make The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as an ode to the master of suspense?
B: I’m sure he felt like it was a compliment to be compared to Hitchcock, who wouldn’t like that? He redefined cinema in so many ways! But I think that comparison is strange because their films really are nothing alike. There have been small homages, as in Trauma with Brad Dourif’s head being shot like James Stewart in Vertigo and of course, “Do  you like Hitchcock?” And the bit in Two Evil Eyes with Martin Balsam climbing the stairs like Psycho, but nothing deep or significant like what DePalma has done, he really took the language of Hitchcock and carved it into his DNA. In regard to the actors, Argento does like them for the most part, sure he’s had his squabbles with some here or there, but nothing that would poison him from using humans and making everyone CGI or anything. In my experience watching him work, he’s just pressed for time and trying to make his days, and if something isn’t working he steps aside and thinks and redesigns on the fly. He has always been nice to people when I’ve been around him on a set, and even took breaks to pose for pictures with fans. So dealing with people behind or in front of the camera, he’s used to it.
 J: What visually did master Dario bring to horror?
B: Just a sense of surreal glee and daring, and some editorial flourishes that nobody had really done before, the editing in Four Flies and Cat O Nine Tails is special sets up what he would do later in Deep Red especially. .
J: Why does Argento use primary colors?
B: That must be a hold over from Bava and his love of German expressionism. He managed to combine them into his own style.  The story of him being influenced by the visual look of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is well known, so you can look there as well.
J: Tell us how Argento’s  use of music from the group Goblin is a main character to Argento’s works.
B: Well the seeds I think were really sown with what Morricone did in Four Flies on Grey Velvet. That odd jazz-rock music that didn’t fit into anything, but managed to somehow elevate this movie into another realm. I’d guess Argento had something bouncing around in his head from this experience, that was quite negative, and he heard something in the band Cherry Five and asked them to record and compose for him. They changed their name to Goblin and it’s never been the same!
J: Tell us about the Gialli influence.
B: Argento has always loved Fritz Lang and the Germans. I think if he could have made The Black Cat with Lugosi and Karloff he would have been happy. Perhaps M and Metropolis as well, for some reason this Edgar Ulmer version of The Black Cat seems very proto Argento to me. In a way maybe he’s been chasing this ideal of being like these heroes ever since that he found his own language and path along the way and has become the same figures to a generation of new film directors and writers. But I’m only guessing here.
J: You’re an taught me  Argento’s  gialli influence. Would you tell our readers a thing or two with your analysis and what films of Argento’s did he begin?
B: Just a sense of surreal glee and daring, and some editorial flourishes that nobody had really done before, the editing in Four Flies and Cat O Nine Tails is special sets.
J: Why eye close ups and he narrating his films? 
B: The eye is the window to everything, inward and outward. It’s one of the first things we notice about someone and what we take our first visual cues with. It’s human and animal…
J: Is Phenomena still rated X and should it be rated X?
B: Phenomena should be rated “C” for Crazy because it’s so insane and childishly silly that an “R” is as bad as it deserves. That initial X rating in the states dropped off with the edits when it was released as Creepers and in the UK it never made the nasties list, so it can’t be that bad! In Italy it was released with a 14 certificate, so kids could go see it!
J: How would you defend master Dario from his detractors?
B: I won’t, and don’t. Opinions are opinions. It’s not my job to change anyone’s mind, only make them curious.
J: What film directors did you interview that readers should know are in your book ?
B: I am proud to have spoken with John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Mick Garris, and Asia Argento, I admire them all for different reasons. Stuart is a brilliant man who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He’s a great filmmaker and theater mind. Mick is just a ball of passion. He really loves the genre and it shows. For those who slag him off for being nothing but a Stephen King acolyte or what have you, read some of his fiction, he’s got a great story telling gift. He’s just happened to hit this gold mine and befriend and be lucky enough to adapt king numerous times, don’t hold it against him! Carpenter, nothing can be said, a legend, and it was an honor. Asia Argento I adore, she’s doing her own thing and not resting of her laurels being the kid of famous people. A true artist, love or hate her, she’s going to be remembered.
J: Harvey Keitel can’t look at the plaster head from Two Evil Eyes? 
B: No, it really freaked him out, I asked Sally Kirkland about this and she just laughed. She really liked Dario, and said Keitel was always on top of everything!
J: Your personal favorite Argento films and  least favorite of his films? 
B: The tops for me, Tenebrae, Opera, Bird, Flies, Stendhal
Bottom, Dracula, Giallo, they’re just phoned in.
J: What’s the difference between exploitation “horror” like Friday the 13th to the art of Dario?
B: Well many would argue he’s just making slashers like F13, so it’s all how you see it.
J: Sell Dario Argento and your book to the readers and that they should watch only subtitled versions?
B: Sell my book? Well if you’re a fan of Argento, pick it up and hopefully I can give you some new insights and you’ll get some new information from me and the folks I was lucky to talk to about the man! I won’t do that regarding subtitles only because if you watch the English dubs you get some interesting vocal performances from some great actors. David Hemmings and Tony Franciosa are better in the dubs, the Italian actors can’t do what their natural voices can do. Same goes for Malden and Musante. STENDHAL definitely is better in Italian as it’s Asia’s voice. Shame they didn’t keep her English vocal work, they shot the whole thing with her actual voice and I’m sure it was fine.
J: Any meaning to read into Argento’s films, I see xenophobia, with an American like Jessics Harper in Suspria. How about in Suspria where the dog going for his owners throat… Is Argento saying yes we love dogs, but be warned, “man’s best friend” can turn on the owner like our fellow man.
B: Like any piece of art, you can see it numerous ways. So I don’t like to do a lot of this analysis and tell people how to think, I just want them to think.
J: Tell us what your next book or what we should look out for next from you.
B: Well I’ve written a play about the summer Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers spent writing together in Nantucket. I’m planning a staged reading of that in Los Angeles early next year and I’ve got some great actors attached. As for books, I’m hammering away on a project about horror anthology films. I’m also writing a screenplay. So, words are flying all over the place.
 The Argento Syndrome by Derek Botelho is available on Amazon. Dario Argento’s  films can be viewed on Netflix and Amazon.

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