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Movie Review: “DARIO ARGENTO PANICO” intrigues without getting very profondo

Friday, February 2, 2024 | Docs, Reviews


With Dario Argento, Asia Argento and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Simone Scafidi
Written by Manlio Gomarasca, Davide Pulici and Simone Scafidi

The documentary DARIO ARGENTO PANICO is structured around a trip with the Italian horror maestro to a countryside hotel, where he’ll be working on his latest script. What that script is is never revealed, nor is the promise of an in-depth look at his creative process paid off. The location simply provides an attractive backdrop against which director Simone Scafidi can capture the giallo auteur on camera, as the basis for what proves to be an entertaining if not quite essential study of the man, more than his movies.

Debuting on Shudder tonight and playing a few screenings over the next week at New York City’s IFC Center, PANICO first finds Argento in vintage footage, walking through some underbrush, personally creating sound effects for one of his features. He has a reputation of being a literal hands-on filmmaker, donning the black gloves of his villains to “murder” his actresses, and it initially appears that PANICO will dig into his…let’s say complex standpoint toward women on screen. There’s quite a bit of early discussion regarding the influence of his mother, a photographer who captured female stars like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida on her camera, but if there’s a line to be drawn between that experience and what some have seen as an objectification of women as victims in Argento’s cinema, Scafidi doesn’t go looking for it.

What he instead pursues is a portrait of the director who shook up his country’s film industry, becoming one of its most successful figures even as respectability eluded him, and a man with fears and foibles of his own. We learn of the overwhelming nervousness that afflicted him on his first day at the helm of his debut feature THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, and Argento himself, again in an older interview, confesses to feelings of depression whenever he starts a production. Through interviews old and new with the man himself, plus contemporary on-camera chats with family and collaborators, Scafidi presents a more personal portrait of the filmmaker than we’ve seen before, and than we often see in docs on genre artisans.

Nonetheless, PANICO skirts exploration of a truly darker side, even as some of its subjects drop overt hints about it. We’re told of tension between Argento and some of his stars, including BIRD’s Tony Musante and OPERA’s Cristina Marsillach, though when Marsillach herself recalls their interactions (seated in Parma’s Teatro Regio, where OPERA was shot), she steadfastly accentuates the positive. There’s interesting discussion of potentially troubling parallels between FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and SUSPIRIA and the filmmaker’s first marriage and parentage respectively, but these aren’t pursued as far as they could be. The best passage comes late in the movie, when his daughter Asia sits down for a lengthy reminiscence in which she speaks in depth about her many roles for her father, including the more uncomfortable experiences (like performing a sex scene for him in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA).

Of course, dishing dirt wasn’t, and shouldn’t necessarily have been, Scafidi’s primary goal here, and he has elicited a number of revealing anecdotes from his various subjects. The true celebration of Argento comes from fellow film artisans Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn and Gaspar Noé (the latter of whom directed Argento as the star of his drama VORTEX). They speak with great admiration and appreciation of Argento’s game-changing contributions to the screen scene, with del Toro offering the best observations (among them an incisive and funny comparison of Argento’s movies to fairy tales). Here again, though, the impact is somewhat blunted by the lack of supportive clips from many of the chillers in question, presumably due to rights issues. Only DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA and TENEBRAE are excerpted, with the others represented via still images and occasionally nifty behind-the-scenes material. More understandably, the director’s largely negligible 21st-century filmography goes pretty much unaddressed.

There is also much high regard paid to Argento by collaborators Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava, Claudio Simonetti, Franco Ferrini, Luigi Cozzi and producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori (looking rather like Rodney Dangerfield and sounding rather like Harvey Fierstein), who in the film’s oddest moment appears to be taking credit for the storyline of SE7EN. It’s good to see them all offering tributes to the man with whom they made genre-cinema history, and DARIO ARGENTO PANICO succeeds overall as both a celebration and exploration of its subject. But given that it spotlights a filmmaker defined by the brashness of his style, the doc winds up feeling a little over-cautious in its approach.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).