Gorgeous Camp, Campy Gore – Three Films By Dario Argento

By Ezra Stead

The Phantom of the Opera is a film Dario Argento was born to make. The Phantom of the Opera, Italy, 1998

Jenifer, USA, 2005

Pelts, Canada / USA, 2006

Directed by Dario Argento

Italian filmmaker Dario Argento is widely known among horror fans as a distinctive, sadistic auteur, a director who has found beauty in terror and mutilation with films such as Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and Opera (1987). It is often forgotten that he also helped write one of the greatest Westerns of all time, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), but that makes sense, as he has devoted his career as a director to the creepily atmospheric and macabre, delighting in tales of the supernatural and visions of brutal but creative murder. Suspiria is generally considered to be his masterpiece (and it is certainly one of the prettiest horror films I’ve ever seen) and I actually like Opera even more in many ways, but this entry in my ongoing Halloween Movie Month (HMM … yeah, I like that acronym better) series will focus on three newer films with which I recently caught up, including his two contributions to Mick Garris’s always intriguing Masters of Horror series.

First up is The Phantom of the Opera, Argento’s thoroughly campy and lurid take on the classic tale originally published by French writer Gaston Leroux in 1910 and subsequently adapted for projects of varying quality over the following century. Argento is an ideal filmmaker to tackle this subject matter, given his obvious preoccupation with musical theater, so it’s somewhat surprising to note that he didn’t get around to it until two decades into his career. He takes some liberties with the original story, most notably the fact that his Phantom (Julian Sands) is not disfigured in any way. I don’t mean he’s very handsome despite a bit of facial scarring like Gerard Butler in Joel Schumacher’s gorgeous but staggeringly boring 2004 musical version, I mean his face is completely unblemished. Other than the fact that he was raised by rats in the labyrinthine caverns beneath the Paris opera house and his rather troubling predilection for gruesome murder, he’s kind of a catch, if you like gloomy, melodramatic goth dudes. Sands plays the role with studied humorlessness, somehow managing to maintain a straight face while reciting dialogue like “I was abandoned in a river of space and time.” When you think about, isn’t any river necessarily a product of space and time, much like all other things? Also, he was literally abandoned in a river, so the poetics are largely unnecessary. Anyway, the Phantom falls in timeless love with Christine Daae, an up-and-coming opera singer played by Argento’s daughter, Asia Argento, which lends an extra air of creepiness to any scene in which she is meant to be overtly sexual (see also Katrine Boorman as Igrayne in John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur for more of this type of father-directing-daughter-in-sex-scene weirdness). So yeah, it’s campy, but what do you expect? It’s The Phantom of the Opera. While not nearly as good as the classic 1925 version starring Lon Chaney, it’s at least good, gory entertainment that didn’t put me to sleep, like Schumacher’s version did.

Jenifer is an effective short chiller with killer effects.Masters of Horror was a two-season Showtime series created by Mick Garris, a filmmaker who found his groove adapting Stephen King stories for movies, TV and, mostly, TV movies such as The Stand (1994) and Desperation (2006). The format is simple: each episode is a different stand-alone, hour-long short film by a respected horror filmmaker such as John Carpenter (Cigarette Burns) or Takashi Miike (Imprint). Argento was one of the first directors to jump on board, delivering the fourth episode of the first season with his bizarre and surprisingly comical short, Jenifer. The story, adapted by star Steven Weber from a short story by Bruce Jones, concerns a police detective named Frank Spivey (Weber) who rescues a disfigured young woman named Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming) from the meat cleaver of an apparently deranged homeless man (Kevin Crofton). Before he dies from a gunshot wound inflicted by Frank, the homeless man tells him, “You have no idea what she is.” Obviously, it’s no spoiler to say that the “deranged” homeless guy is absolutely right, but throughout most of the film it is just laughable how out and out mean everyone is to this poor girl, who can’t even speak to defend herself. People unabashedly shrink back in horror when they see her and say things like “What is that?” while she’s standing right there. This would work better if Argento had chosen to keep her face hidden throughout, as he does for the first fifteen minutes or so, or if the reveal of her face were more honestly disturbing, rather than the clearly attractive woman in grotesque prosthetic makeup that Jenifer clearly is, but as it is, most of the supporting characters just seem like huge jerks. Once Jenifer starts revealing the true self about which the homeless man tried to warn Frank, though, this movie gets pretty damn good, with tremendously effective gore and shock scenes and an ending that manages to be very satisfying despite its complete predictability. The moral of the story: never trust ugly people.

Argento’s second season film, Pelts, is almost as good and even more effective with its gore. Meat Loaf Aday (perhaps the greatest stage name of all time) plays ruthless fur trader Jake Feldman, who is out to convince a stripper named Shanna (Ellen Ewusie) to love him, or at least become his arm candy / property, despite the fact that he tries to rape her in their first scene together. That’s just the kind of guy Jake is, so we are set up to be anticipating his Tales from the Crypt-style comeuppance. This is delivered in the form of a bunch of cursed raccoon pelts that have an unstoppable allure for Jake and anyone else who comes in contact with them, but also tend to drive people to grisly, extremely painful suicides after this contact is made. It’s sort of a much less hilarious and more effective take on M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, with raccoon pelts taking the place of … all the plants in the world. Meat Loaf is good and sleazy as Jake, the story is good and Argento’s direction is solid, but the real star of this film is the special effects makeup work led by Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger, who share this credit on all Masters of Horror episodes. Their work here is some of the nastiest I’ve ever seen, and certainly not for the weak-stomached viewer. Pelts is a deliriously nasty short film from Italian master Dario Argento.

All in all, Argento is a director who has embraced camp and humor in the horror genre without sacrificing the extreme gore or the beautiful imagery for which he is known. The Phantom of the Opera is more vintage Argento, with its overwrought setpieces and campy acting styles, plus its loving panoramas of the opulent opera house. It is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is for the best because when it does, it tends to be funny anyway. On the other hand, his two Masters of Horror shorts, while not as distinctively Argento’s style, are nonetheless a breath of fresh air in the career of an old, almost forgotten master still working today, in much the same way that Carpenter’s excellent Cigarette Burns helped to revitalize his somewhat stagnant creative output. Late period Argento films are still very much worth watching for any horror aficionado, and the sadly short-lived Masters of Horror can be commended for bringing out two of his best.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.


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