Horror Debates: Is Dario Argento Overrated?

What better debate to kick off the new week than a debate over another one of the Masters of Horror? Tonight's arguments are being posed by LoTTD member and fellow blogger TL Bugg from The Lightning Bug's Lair and James Gracey of the esteemed Behind the Couch (also the author of a new book on the man himself). The question at hand?

Is Dario Argento overrated?

No - TL Bugg: When this debate about Argento was proposed, I knew I had to jump in on this one. As a latecomer to the Italian films, it has only been in the last couple of years that I started catching up on those films. While I started with Fulci’s Zombi 2 and Martino’s Cannibal God, I chose to begin watching Argento with Opera, a film I had serious problems with. While it was a well made film, the metal soundtrack that the killer seemed to carry around with him bugged the crap out of me. I’ll admit it, after that film, I wondered what the fuss about Argento was.

Being a brave fellow I decided to go back to the beginning and check out his first giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. After taking in this deftly wound thriller, I started to see why people were crazy for him. Then I watched Susperia. After drinking in every frame of the 98 minute film, it all began to become clear. Not only was he a filmmaker of great skill who could utilize a rich color palette and amazing camera movements, but he was also a great storyteller. As soon as the film ended, I pushed play and watched it again because I didn’t want to miss a single frame. (When I bought a large LCD TV recently, it was the first film I had to see.)

These two films illustrated how Argento had taken the marriage of art and horror that Mario Bava had pioneered to a whole other level. Bava’s films may have looked lush and colorful, but Argento was using the colors to move the narrative forward. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. As I carried on watching his catalog I was equally blown away by films like Deep Red, perhaps the greatest film to carry the giallo label, and Tenebre, a departure from the gloomy color bathed films as Argento proved that horror could happen in the brightest of places.

Now the most recent of these films I have mentioned was 1982’s Tenebre, and it is when you get into the late ‘80’s and beyond that Argento’s reputation begins to suffer. If you sit down and watch dreadful pap like The Card Player or The Phantom of the Opera, then there’s good reason to doubt that it could even be the same Dario Argento. (Though I thought his 2 Masters of Horror episodes, Pelts and Jennifer were amongst the best of that series.) Because of missteps like the aforementioned films and, more recently, Mother of Tears and Giallo, people are ready to write Dario off. Doing this does a disservice to the incredible material he produced in the ‘70’s and the legion of film makers that he influenced including directors as diverse as Wes Craven, Quentin Tarantino, and Gaspar Noe. Few directors cast a shadow of influence so wide, and fewer have so many great films in their catalog at all.

Is Dario Argento overrated?

Yes - James: For years now Dario Argento has been riding on the coattails of the success of his earlier work. Like so many horror directors who experienced their heyday in the Seventies and Eighties, his more recent output marks him as a director whose work as a whole is at best wildly uneven and at worst shambolic, dated and utterly redundant. Indeed the last ‘great’ film mentioned in the counter argument was released in 1982. Over twenty years ago!
Famed for his lurid giallo movies, Argento works almost exclusively in a subgenre that was not only specific to Italian cinema, but whose influence and popularity was basically specific to a certain timeframe too - namely the Eighties. It was unable to obtain any sort of legacy other than one of nostalgic curiosity.

One of Argento’s characteristic traits is his unflinching ability to churn out the same entourage of ideas, images and stories time and time again. And again. His repertoire is severely limited, and nowadays this is even more glaringly obvious because the stylistic excesses he once lavished upon his early works are now completely absent, thereby ensuring the revelation of the threadbare narratives and stories more obviously than ever before. Pretty colours and fancy camera work does not a good film make.

Of course allowances can be made and excuses proffered in defence of the man who directed one of the most influential, daring and unique horror films of all time: Suspiria. Much like Tobe Hooper though, (both directors are often mentioned in the same breath as examples of filmmakers who all too briefly exhibited something truly original and startling in their early work but never came close to truly realising their full potential throughout the remainder of their strangely vacuous careers) Argento has never come close to equalling the impact of Suspiria or Deep Red. One or two great titles from years ago is not enough to ensure one’s presumed greatness or relevance is maintained. Argento is a director who has long since been thought too highly of, his films thought way too much of and whose reputation has been built up more than it ever had any right to be. Audiences are constantly let down by each new film - the culmination of this crushing disappointment perfectly exemplified by the latest plunge in his already long-sagging career: Giallo.

Let’s face it - he is an overvalued has-been.

The critical acclaim of the likes of Deep Red or Suspiria has ensured the vast majority of his more or less unimpressive body of work has been overprized; his lasting influence magnified beyond any level of credibility. He has never exceeded the expectations lavished upon him by adoring fans, the likes of whom constantly jump to his defence by citing the likes of Suspiria as justification for his continued overestimation.

Argento was once so keen to be aligned with other horror directors such as Wes Craven, John Carpenter, George Romero and Tobe Hooper. Well now is clearly is - and he can take his place with pride amongst these other ‘luminaries’ as a horror hack who has really lost his touch and is even less relevant now than he was back then.


Thanks for the fantastic arguments gentlemen, and we now hand the debate off to you! Voice your opinions on the great (or overrated) Dario Argento in the comments below, and don't forget to pre-order your copy of James Gracey's book today at Amazon.com:

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


Aaron said...

Bugg brings up some great points, but I'm gonna have to go with James on this one. No one will ever take away from the fact that Argento made some of the greatest Italian horror films of all time and arguably the best Giallo ever made in "Tenebre" (my personal favorite Giallo, hands down), and let's not forget his involvement with "Once Upon A Time In The West" which is one of the greatest movies of all time PERIOD, but he's not a "master of horror" and he's made enough SHIT in his career to completely tarnish whatever legacy he had. Anyone who has seen his most recent film "Giallo" will probably agree that this man's best days are far behind him. Just like George Romero, I think Argento is highly overrated and the chances of him ever making a good movie again are slim to none.

But I still love the guy!

Alec Pridgen said...

Are we just going to completely ignore the existence of a little movie called 'Phenomena' here? Am I the only that freaking loves this movie?

Aside from that, I really liked 'Do You Like Hitchcock?' and really don't get the hate for it. Are all horror films made for TV inherently bad?

Besides, 'Mother of Tears' has a Udo Kier getting his head bashed in, Dario's ex-wife playing a ghost and a woman impaled by an obelisk. What more do you want people?

If you're going to talk overrated, let's talk Fulci. The man could make inventive gore scenes, but his movies almost never live up to them as a whole. He makes great highlight reels, while Argento makes good films. Period.

Can that still count as my submission since my spot just kind of got jumped over? No offense to those who contributed, but I was really looking forward to this one.

Christine Hadden said...

Wow. If I didn't know better I'd think James had a severe case of the blahs when it comes to Argento.
But I know better;)

As a rather big fan of Argento myself I would take great offense to the 'overvalued has- been' comment, but such an excellent case is made for the "hack" side that let's just say I'd want James on my side in any debate.

Great arguments, both.
But Argento's films speak for themselves- though his finest work is over twenty years old they still pack a punch.
So I'm still on the NOT over-rated side:)

B-Movie Becky said...

Great debate guys. I do think Argento is a tad overrated, but not a hack. I think he has a few briliant films, but I have not been impressed with most of what I've seen (including Tenebre).

Granted, there are a few I still need to see (The Bird with The Crystal Plumage, specifically). I absolutely adore Suspiria, and I really like Deep Red and Opera. I do think he is riding on the coattails of a few great films in an otherwise lackluster career.

And James' point about Argento's films being dated is undeniably spot on. I would argue that Suspiria is his only truly classic film that will remain timeless. Even though Deep Red is great, it's still trapped in a time capsule.

Argento has created lasting images, a unique set of work, and a couple great films, but I don't think he is a brilliant storyteller.

I Like Horror Movies said...

Argento is an experience. He is usually most Horror fan's first introduction to the insane and brutal world of Italian Horror cinema. His striking visuals and teeth-clenching violence make his films jarring, and also help fans to overlook the often convoluted and asinine plots.

I love Argento to death, and he easily ranks as my favorite director of all time. His later films may be spotty, but there is no single Horror director that can claim to have a perfect track record. How many of Hitchcock's films are considered classics out of his extensive catalog? Wes Craven has one terrible film for every great one. THEY LIVE and PRINCE OF DARKNESS are both extremely dated. Even the great Mario Bava began churning out weak cases of style over substance by the middle of his career.

Argento's films are unforgettable and an attack on the sense (or in TRAUMA's case, an attack on the viewer's intellect and taste). He is not a perfect filmmaker, but he is a distinguished one that I feel is entirely deserving of the Master of Horror title!

Thanks for the amazing debate guys, great work!!

Will Errickson said...

Honestly, I think all those guys--Argento, Craven, Carpenter, Romero & Hooper--are, to a degree, overrated, when their entire filmography is considered. That doesn't mean I don't LOVE individual films of theirs; indeed, each of those guys has created at least one immortal horror classic. I think they all suffer from the Coppola syndrome: they hit all-time highs early in their career and so maybe it's unfair to expect them to continue to deliver. From that era of horror/exploitation filmmakers, I'd posit only David Cronenberg as someone who's gotten better and better and is now not a cult filmmaker but a world-class one.