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A Quiet Word With Dario Argento, Italy’s Master of Horror

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ROME — For a person who has spent nearly 50 years scaring the pants off movie audiences, the Italian director Dario Argento doesn’t come across as frightening in any respect.

Soft-spoken, even a bit reserved, Argento was anxious to wrap up a recent interview in order that he could see his grandchildren — the offspring of his daughter, the actress Asia Argento — before traveling the following day to Recent York, where “Watch out for Dario Argento: A 20-film Retrospective” is running at Lincoln Center through June 29.

“I won’t see them for some time,” he said of the kids, before shooing his interviewer out the door. Hardly the modus operandi of a “master of horror.”

But that doesn’t mean that Argento, 81, shouldn’t be still up for a little bit of mayhem or gore.

His most up-to-date film, “Dark Glasses,” which premiered in February on the Berlin International Film Festival and had its North American debut within the Lincoln Center retrospective, delivers classic Argento moments: throbbing music that sometimes bodes badly; gruesome, blood-oozing murders; nail-biting chases (this time involving a blind protagonist); and lots of plot twists. Yet the film can also be surprisingly tender: At its heart is a relationship between a lady and a young boy whose lives intertwine through tragedy.

“The film is different from others that I’ve made,” and the finale even has room “for somewhat tear,” Argento said within the antiques-stuffed lounge of his home in an upscale Rome neighborhood. A bulging bookcase along one wall was affected by a few of the many awards he has won during his long profession.

Two recent additions are prizes he picked up in August on the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. One was a lifetime achievement award that was presented to him by the director John Landis, who said on the ceremony that he had insisted on giving the prize to Argento in person. The opposite was in recognition for his debut acting role in “Vortex,” Gaspar Noé’s moving film concerning the decline of an elderly couple. (Argento had a bit role as an altar boy in a 1966 movie, nevertheless it was uncredited.)

It’s quite a profession arc for a person who first worked as a journalist after which film critic for a left-wing Rome newspaper; co-wrote the story for Sergio Leone’s classic “Once Upon a Time within the West” (1968) with Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci; collaborated with George A. Romero on the zombie apocalypse classic “Dawn of the Dead” (1978); and recently wrote two books — an autobiography, called “Fear,” and an anthology of scary stories, titled “Horror” (2018).

Argento said that he got his first scare as a small child when his parents — his father was a movie producer, his mother a famous photographer — took him to see a production of “Hamlet” in Rome. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father appeared, young Argento went “into convulsions,” he recalled, and yet he was also intrigued. “A seed was planted and it grew,” he said.

And it continues to grow. The day after his work on “Vortex” was done, Argento was at work on “Dark Glasses,” whose filming had been delayed by the pandemic. The movie is an Italian “giallo” film — a broad genre that may contain elements plucked from murder mysteries, detective crime or horror, including the slasher subgenre. Argento is the living master of giallo movies.

True to form, the deaths in “Dark Glasses” are in-your-face violent, starting with the garroting of a female prostitute early within the film. Brutally murdered women are a troubling leitmotif in giallo movies, though Argento countered that he had also “killed off loads of men” in equally gruesome ways.

And, he added, he had written courageous female roles, too, especially those portrayed by his daughter Asia, who was his leading lady for a few years. “She’s played many strong characters,” he said.

Argento burst onto the Italian movie scene in 1970 with “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,” a classy and visually lush giallo film that established him as a rising cinematic star and garnered him the nickname “the Italian Hitchcock.”

“Argento’s movies are sometimes stuffed with these surprises, these twists,” said Russ Hunter, an authority in Italian movies who teaches at Northumbria University in northern England. But Argento also dropped at the screen a “sort of bravura visual style” that went on to influence other filmmakers and to determine him as a cult director with die-hard fans, Hunter added.

With “Deep Red” (1975), considered one of his most celebrated movies, Argento used kinetic camerawork and plush visuals to construct drama (not to say the computer graphics of Carlo Rambaldi, who went on to win three Oscars). In “Suspiria” (1977), light and color do the trick. “There’s such a incredible use of color saturation, which creates an otherworldly ambience,” Hunter said. Contrasts in colours create moods which might be “unsettling and uncanny,” he added.

Argento said that even when the worlds he creates seem flamboyant and stylized, that’s only for show. “Inside, on the core, there’s truth, something real, something deep that comes from inside me, from my dreams, from my nightmares,” and these visions reverberate with people, he explained.

Though he said that he had never undergone psychoanalysis, Argento noted that he holds Sigmund Freud in high regard and visits his home in Vienna each time he’s in the town, “taking a look at the couch that so many have lain on.”

Luigi Cozzi, a director who has worked with Argento on several movies, recalled that it took him three months to search out a camera that might create an effect that Argento wanted for a slow-motion automobile crash within the finale of “4 Flies on Grey Velvet.” Eventually, Cozzi found a camera that shot 3,000 frames a second — used to observe the damage and tear of wheels on trains — on the University of Naples and rented it. The scene was a couple of minute and a half long.

“One other director would have made do with something else — not Dario,” Cozzi said in an interview in a Rome shop called Profondo Rosso (Italian for Deep Red) that he opened with Argento in 1989. The shop is chock-full of horror paraphernalia, books and films, in addition to masks and faux limbs, and it also houses a museum dedicated to Argento, featuring objects from the director’s movies (within the basement, naturally). Argento pops in ceaselessly and makes a scheduled appearance every Halloween, Cozzi said.

“Dario innovated the language with which horror movies were made,” Cozzi added.

Jason Rockman, considered one of the hosts of a Montreal radio station who visited the shop recently while on vacation, agreed.

“There’s every little thing in his movies, mystery, but in addition this stylized vision, the sense of dropping in on a precise moment that you simply’ll never see again,” Rockman said. He was upset, he added, that he wouldn’t give you the chance to make it to Turin, where the National Cinema Museum is hosting an Argento exhibition until Jan. 16.

“We desired to have fun Dario Argento,” who’s experiencing a “rediscovery with a recent generation of critics” said Chiara Sbarigia, the president of Cinecittà, which co-produced the Recent York retrospective. “We wanted him to have an official recognition, in addition to a recognition of our work and the work of our restorers,” she added.

Argento said that he probably wouldn’t stick around for the screenings.

“I don’t wish to see them again. Those that I’ve made, they’re done,” he said. “Now I’m considering of latest things.”

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