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Chris Gallant (ed.), Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento (Guildford: FAB Press, 2001), 318pp. Hbk. ISBN: 1-903254-078 £29.99

Reviewed by Leon Smith

 

Art of Darkness is a comprehensive collection of articles on, and reviews of, the films of Dario Argento, Italy’s leading horror filmmaker over the past 30 years. As usual FAB Press have ensured that the book is likely to appeal to both students and fans of the director’s work in equal measure. It is exceptionally well presented and packed with high quality stills and promotional materials from Argento’s films. The book is organised into two main parts; the first contains five themed essays on Argento’s work, all written by the book’s editor, Chris Gallant. These are followed by individual reviews covering each of Argento’s films from a variety of authors, including Kim Newman, Gary Needham, Stephen Thrower and Mike Lebbing. Finally, it concludes with Julian Grainger’s exhaustive filmography, which covers Argento’s work as director, producer and writer.

Chris Gallant’s essays contain some of the most thought-provoking and original analyses I have come across dealing with Italian horror cinema. Though there has been a reasonable amount of academic interest in, and writing on, Argento’s films in the past ten years, most has either been overly reliant on Lacanian analysis, or so embedded within the auteur tradition that applying it elsewhere has proven problematic. Gallant has achieved a balance in his work that is admirable. Not only does he not tie himself to one given reading of the director’s work, but he also offers a theoretical blueprint for further study of the horror genre in general, and Italian horror cinema in particular. The first of these essays, “Threatening Glances”, draws a number of parallels between Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Argento’s cinema, particularly Opera (1987). Gallant elegantly tackles such concepts as sadism and reflexivity, spectorial uncertainty and exhibitionism and scopophilia, clearly demonstrating Argento’s fascination with the position of the audience in viewing his texts, and his resultant desire to manipulate and assault their gaze.

The second essay, “In the Mouth of the Architect”, tackles the difficult concept of the postmodern Gothic, and how this is represented in the films Inferno (1980), Suspiria (1977) and The Church (1989) (directed by Soavi, but produced by Argento). Gallant skilfully guides us through the development of the Gothic as a concept, before seeking to embed Argento’s work within this tradition. Whilst acknowledging the difficulty in defining the Gothic, Gallant goes on to define the concept as it relates to the subject at hand. This he does by making reference to Hutchings’ formulation of Gothic Horror as a specific sub-genre of the horror genre. Gallant confines himself to ‘the horror film which ransacks the catalogue of historical aesthetics, exemplified by Argento’s Inferno and Suspiria’ (p.22). Of particular interest is the primacy that Gallant’s analysis places on the representation of language and the (uncertain) status of knowledge and knowing. In his conclusion Gallant points out that ‘[Inferno’s] narrative’s central enigma must be insoluble - at its core lies the characters’ search for forbidden knowledge as they attempt to orientate themselves in their illusory, disorientating surroundings, following language and codes, trying to grasp meanings which essentially don’t exist’ (p.32). This is the crux of Gallant’s argument; the Gothic’s perceived function in disrupting meaning can allow no room for its reconstruction in Argento’s darkly postmodern diegesis. Here the only certainty appears to be death.

Gallant extends the scope of the Gothic to incorporate issues surrounding hysteria, abjection and corporeality in the next chapter, “The Phantom’s Bride”. The final two chapters, “The Art of Allusion” and “Quoting the Raven”, take a slightly different tack, engaging with the politics of Argento’s aesthetic, and tracing the influences of painting and Poe on his cinema. Gallant’s observations on Argento’s use of the ‘plan tableau’ in the creation of set pieces, embedded within a tradition of ‘art-house’ film making, goes a long way to answering many of the criticisms of his over-stylisation and disregard for narrative coherence which have been levelled against him in the past.

The review section of the book is considerably less satisfying than the initial chapters. Though Gallant’s reviews of Le Cinque Giornate (1973), Opera (1987), Two Evil Eyes(1990), The Phantom of the Opera (1998), Sleepless (2000) and Argento’s productions are as insightful as his opening essays, the other contributions are less consistent. Kim Newman’s review of Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) is perfunctory at best. Whilst this is one of the least well known of Argento’s films, it is still an important film within his oeuvre, and worthy of more attention than it is given here. The fact that the review is by far the shortest in the book is not the main problem; rather it is Newman’s failure to tackle any of the numerous themes the film presents (Argento’s use of the giallo genre to explore his technique, for example). Stephen Thrower’s piece on Suspiria (1977) goes to the other extreme. It is disproportionately long, and though he makes a multitude of interesting points, he seems to be overly concerned with discussing and imposing his own taste in music on the analysis. Not only does he make the value-laden judgement that ‘prog rock’ (broadly speaking the style of Suspiria’s score) is more appropriate to Argento’s cinema than heavy metal (which Argento has used in both Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987) - the latter is particularly effective as the metal tracks are juxtaposed with Verdi’s Macbeth or the operatic-style soundtrack). Thrower then goes on to claim that ‘Argento’s work shares a spirit with the music and lyrics of Bryan Ferry, not merely “stylish” but about style’ (p.132-133). This may be true, but it is not particularly interesting and does nothing to further the analysis. The other contributions are interesting in their own way, although one wonders what brief was given to the contributors, as the level and type of analysis fluctuates wildly. An honourable mention should go to Gary Needham, however. His analysis of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is both original and engaging. He tackles the difficult issue of the construction of masculinity within the film with relish, and clearly demonstrates how this is controlled by both cinematic technique and the subversion of the generic norms of the detective genre.

Art of Darkness is ultimately, like many of the films of the director it celebrates, a work of flawed genius. However, for anyone interested in Argento, Italian genre cinema, or ‘art-horror’ it will prove invaluable. More importantly Gallant’s insights will open a number of new and exciting avenues of research into both Argento and giallo and orrore cinema.

 

Leon Smith is a Lecturer in Film Studies at De Montfort University, where he specializes in Italian horror and exploitation cinema. He is currently completing postgraduate research on the Gothic in Giallo Cinema.

 

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