Horror, Magic & Argento

Published On November 4, 2014 | By Artgaze | b-grade films, cult horror films

B-Grade Horror, Giallo and Dario Argento  – Jeanette Hutchinson

Listen to this film score while reading the article Goblin – Suspiria (Main Theme )

The commercial success of the early horror films in Hollywood such as Cat People (Tourneur, Lewton 1942) inspired the independent cash-strapped studios to make popular low budget imitations termed B-Grades, paving the way for future Independent directors with a love of the genre such as Italian auteur Dario Argento (b.1975)  to reconcile the horror genre into contemporary culture, through artful sets and a contemporary sound track, while throughly crossing the boundaries of conventional good taste.

The influential B-grade horror films made during the 40’s and 50’s in Hollywood were often blends of genres, such as director and Independent producer (1924-1978) Edward D. Wood’s  outrageous 1959 horror/science fiction film Plan 9 from OuterSpace. Plan 9 features invading aliens resurrecting the dead to do their work, including sexy, goth horror star of the era ‘Vampiria’ who portrays a newly hatched, zombie  wife (before zombie films were part of popular vernacular).

Such films were generally shown in niche movie theatres, and later  dominated the midnight movie sessions of the 70’s, appealing to a broad audience that enjoyed film outside of the mainstream experience.The term B-grade  movie continues to be used in a broader sense to refer to any low-budget, commercial or independent motion picture of various genres.

Cat People (1942) is a definitive example of the low budget B-grade film made by commercial studios such as RKO  in the 40’s. The films popularity ensured a sequel was made in 1944 The Curse of the Cat People. It  differed from traditional horror films that dealt with animal/human transformations through the use of modern locations as opposed to historical. Cat People also contains a surprising subtext, that reflects the social and political issues of the era. The film, shot notably during World War Two, depicts a clash between an unstable European culture, heavy with tradition and superstition, against an ambitious and conservative America of the 40’s. The conflict between the two different cultures is most obvious in the relationship between the mismatched married protagonists, Serbian born-artist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) and typical American guy, marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith)

During the making of Cat People  director Lewton (1904-1951) became admired and imitated for his inventive use of sound effects to create a psychologically, ambiguous atmosphere of fear. In one of the scariest scenes of Cat People, Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph as the other woman) is stalked in the shadows by an unseen, menacing creature as she walks along a dimly lit, lonely suburban street to a bus stop. This tense scene is unexpectedly broken by the hiss of the bus as its doors swing open, prompting both on screen character and the audience to react. The low budget theatrics and inventive devices in Cat People place the film as a forerunner of the contemporary horror/ thriller that relies on suspense, often predominantly  built up through sound, as the major device for imparting fear rather than the monsters themselves.

The success of these films influenced  the making of the Italian ‘Giallo’ films (pronounced Jahlo) which emerged in Italy during  the 1960’s.The term translates as yellow and was coined by the Italian director Mario Bava, a reference to the yellow binding of the cheap Italian sex and crime novels of the 30’s and 40’s that the films imitated in style. The Giallo differs from  former subsets of horror, in that Giallo films are always graphically violent throughout the entire film. This requires the makers of Giallo to invent various new cruel and bloody ways in which to stalk and kill off most of the characters, until the surviving hero or heroine is the only character left standing if lucky. The favored method of killing in the Giallo film is repeated stabbing or slashing with a knife or other sharp object. This gruesome technique gave birth to the ‘Slasher films’ which emerged in the early 80’s defined by graphically violent imagery, such as Friday the 13th (1980) which features an unseen, psychotic killer who stalks and viciously kills his victims in blood-spattered, frenzied scenes.

Auteur Dario Argento (b.1940) is possibly the most artistic Director of  Giallo film. Argento’s recurring motifs are experimental and dreamlike sequences produced in violently saturated color. His distinctive shooting technique includes the employment of a restless camera that follows the main characters every movement, zooming in and lingering on key scenes. Argento uses long tracking shots that crawl up the outside spaces of buildings and into weird interior angles, mimicking the voyeuristic perspective of the film’s stalkers. In the 1985  Documentary on Argento by  Michele Soavais,’Dario Argento’s World of Horror’ Argento explains,’In the end it is you, the spectator, who kills or who is murdered’.

The sets of Suspiria (1977) also reflect Argento’s love for the decadence of original avant-garde film style. The films sets consist of a pastiche of Gothic styles that refer to both the expressionist and Art Deco film sets of the 20’s. In a scene set piece near the conclusion of  Suspiria, Argento creates an allegorical, corridor of hell in the passageway of a ballet school at night through the use of heavy Gothic emblems, baroque fabrics and decadent Art Deco style architecture. All the more corrupt and menacing for being shot in luminous red tones. Objects are lit up in the shadows and take on uncanny connotations that signify the supernatural space of the building, an Argento hallmark. In the lead up to another favourite scene in Suspiria, a giant Peacock statue is both beautiful in a modernist decandent kind of way, sinister amd mesmerising, gleaming in the dark room of the school principal (the leader of a secret coven of witches) that Suzy (Jessica Harper) the film’s heroine-protagonist has stumbled into unwittingly .

Argento’s collaborations with Italian progressive rock band GOBLIN add to the filmmakers experimental, style with unique film scores composed of opera, rock and whispery voice overs. GOBLIN (formed in the 70’s), frequently collaborated with Argento, most notably creating soundtracks for films Profondo Rosso in 1975 and Suspiria in 1977. Other film soundtracks and a concept album (Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark.  listen here >Goblin. Il Bagarozzo Mark. followed, then the score for the European version of George A. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead. The last collaboration with the Argento took place in 2000, with the film Non ho sonno (Sleepless) listen to sound track Goblin – Non Ho Sonno

Argento has continued the theatrical tradition of the early avant-garde artists through the vehicle of the horror film. The surrealist fascination with blood, magic, the paranormal, madness and dreams are sources for a play on the vulnerability of the body and the mind. Argento is a master of manipulating audiences fears connected to these themes while seducing them with his stylish sets and  intriguing plots.

Watch Suspiria (my favourite Argento film) if you love great camera work, surreal architecture in film and a good dose of Italian 70’s style synth in a film score.

feature image: Argento (1977), film still from Suspira, Suzy in the head witch’s room with the crystal peacock.

Sources –

Dario Argento’s World of Horror (1985) “Il mondo dell’orrore di Dario Argento” (original title)
R 76 min – Documentary | Biography Director: Michele Soavi, Writer: Michele Soavi, 1985.
Hawkins, J. (2000) Cutting Edge Art Horrific and the Horrific Avant -garde, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Hutchings, P.(2004) The Horror Film, Pearson Education Limited, England.
Klinge, PS, Kling. (1983) Evolution of Film Styles, University Press of America, USA.

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