By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
With DARIO ARGENTO PANICO, premiering February 2 on horror streamer Shudder, documentarian Simone Scafidi offers an unflinching and at times uncomfortable look inside the life and art of one of horror’s most revered and complicated auteurs. Given unparalleled access to Dario Argento during his writing process for what is being touted as the 83-year-old maestro’s final film, Scafidi’s film is revelatory, and much like its subject, brilliant, frustrating and enigmatic.
A follow-up to Fulci for Fake, Scafidi’s 2019 doc/biopic of Argento’s late contemporary and occasional rival Lucio Fulci (whose work Scafidi prefers, eliminating any pretense that the director’s latest film is a work of fawning fan service), DARIO ARGENTO PANICO presents a portrait of the Master of Giallo as both legendary filmmaker and a deeply flawed artist. Ultimately, Argento’s fans and detractors may walk away from the film vindicated. Still, Scafidi’s skill as a filmmaker shines, giving context to Argento’s tumultuous rise and critical decline as well as insight into his personal life and creative process.
Recently, RUE MORGUE spoke with Simone Scafidi, then deep in post-production, about chronicling the life and legacy of one of horror’s living legends and his own development as a fan and filmmaker.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with RUE MORGUE. Let’s talk a little bit about your experience with Dario Argento’s films. How were you first exposed to his work? What is your favorite Argento film, and how did it affect or inspire you?
My relationship with genre cinema started when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I saw, on television, Four Flies on Grey Velvet. I was really shocked by the scene [in] the beginning of the movie, in the theater, when Tobias, the leading character, is photographed by the killer, who is wearing a very strange, childish mask. But it’s also a really scary mask. That image – that mask – really chased me in my nightmares. In fact, I immediately stopped watching that movie because I was really, really frightened.
And then, when I was a teenager, my love for the cinema came from my family. My mother and my father were not related to the world of cinema, but they were good spectators, and so, at home, on TV, we watched Hitchcock and Billy Wilder and Federico Fellini movies. My parents always let me be free to watch whatever I wanted. And they also watched whatever they wanted, also in my presence.
So they let me see any kind of movie. I discovered, first of all, the American horror movies – The Exorcist, the zombie movies by George Romero, of course, and The Shining. Then, I decided to come back to Dario Argento, and I started to rent his movies, starting with, of course, the masterpieces – The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria and so on. The first movie of Dario Argento that I saw in a theater was The Stendhal Syndrome. But Argento was not and is not one of my favorite directors. Of course, I love him. I think that all his movies, from the first one until Opera, are all masterpieces, and I also think that movies like Trauma and Dark Glasses are full of interesting things and elements, but my heart was in other directors like Lucio Fulci, Stanley Kubrick and [Orson] Welles.
But I have watched all of Dario Argento’s films, and I read a lot of things about him. I was also really fascinated by his way of making movies and also by the way he became a real rock star. Argento was one of the first in the early ’70s to use television to become famous.
So, when I was at the world premiere of Fulci for Fake, and the movie went well – it was released in a lot of countries – me and the producer of the movie were thinking, “So, what’s next? Another biopic and about who?” Luigi Cozzi made a television documentary about Dario Argento, but there was no real movie about Dario Argento. So that was the challenge. And, you know, in Italy, films about great directors are made by great directors or by great cinema personalities. So I was a little, you know, scared. Why should Argento do a movie with me? I am an underground director. But we found a contact for him, and we talked with him and his agent, who also has a little part in the movie. We explained our idea and the focus, starting with movies; Dario became a director, blah, blah, blah, but then we tried to find the man, the human being. So, Dario accepted. And then, in June of 2022, we started our journey.
Do you think you found the real man?
Yeah, I think that I found him, thanks to the people who are in the movie who talk about Dario. I think that this movie – and this is the one thing that everyone that has seen the movie told me – this movie is quite moving. But it’s not a sad movie. It’s not a movie about a man who is 83 years old, and so, all of his best life is far away. That’s not there. I really started to love him. I first said that he was not one of my most beloved directors, but now, he is because when I heard this man, this great man, this great director who, at his age, is already struggling with this nightmare, with this monster, with his fears. He also feels a real euphoria when he’s preparing a new movie. I understand that, for him, making movies is something more important than a job, but then he became famous, and that is something that is really linked with his way of living. Making movies is ending for him. I think that in this pinnacle, in this urgency or panic, you can see Dario as a human being.
Of course, there is the image that Dario created. Dario always portrayed himself as the master of fear. And he always tried to stay apart from the world of cinema. He is very generous, but you don’t know many personal things about Dario. In the movie, of course, we don’t want to investigate only the nice life parts of his life. But thanks to Asia and Fiore, his daughters, weighing in on his being a father, of being a husband and a lover, a lot came out, and I’m really happy and really satisfied about it because it was not so easy to touch some themes. I think that it is useful to understand that the great director is also a human being. The great man, like everyone, has difficulties, and those are portrayed in this movie.
Was there anything about Argento that you discovered during the making of the film that you found shocking or, at least, surprising?
Several things. Some things remain outside the movie; Some are in the movie. The one thing that I think, from the beginning, that was really important was his relationship with his father, Salvatore, because Salvatore was not only the producer of many of Dario’s movies but was the man always on the side of his son. I was really touched when he talked about his father.
The other thing is the way he succeeded at being a father, with two daughters from two different women. the way he succeeded in staying together for many years, with his daughters and doing the same for one and the same for the other. I mean, in the ’70s, in the ’80s, in the 90s, Dario Argento was a superstar. He was always away from home, but he tried to stay with his daughters, always bringing them on the set, but also trying to be part of their lives, their ordinary lives. That is very, very interesting to me.
The goal of the movie was not to discover something, right? Dario Argento has been studied for decades. What can you discover about him? Yeah, there’s one thing about a very big American movie that he was supposed to direct. I don’t have the title. I left that to the audience, the surprise, you have never read about this fact that he was supposed to direct this very important psycho-thriller of the ’90s with big stars.
I was interested in understanding the man and putting that in front of the camera and trying to get something sincere out of him. Of course, like all human beings and especially, like all directors, maybe he told some lies.
Agento has often been compared to Hitchcock. Do you think those comparisons are fair?
Well, Argento said in several interviews that he is unique, that his cinema doesn’t come from Mario Bava or Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock. Of course, he took some from them, from each “cook,” and he said it in the movies, especially the camera work. The camera is God for each of these filmmakers – and also for Sergio Leone, the great Italian director. So, he takes some things from each.
In a certain way, his characters became more human in his last movies [compared] to the ones that are so beloved … I remember that when I went to the theater to see Dark Glasses, at the end of the movie there was this ancient couple [in the audience], and the man was weeping. And his wife said, “What are you doing? It’s only a movie.” … So maybe, in the last of Dario’s movies, maybe the technique, maybe the plot, maybe the cinematography is not like the great masterpieces of Dario Argento, but there is something more in the characters.
DARIO ARGENTO PANICO debuts exclusively on Shudder on February 2.