My somewhat spoilery notes on Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009).
Sadly, Dario Argento has now been directing disappointing-to-disastrous movies for twice as long as he made remarkable-to-brilliant cinema; between Tenebrae and Phenomena, a switch flipped and each new film has been a tough watch for those who loved the ‘early, funny movies’ (picking up on that reference, there are many parallels between the careers and artistries of Woody Allen and Dario Argento – though Argento is stuck in the Cassandra’s Dream mire, with no Vicky Christina Barcelona uplift in sight). If La Terzia Madre/Mother of Tears was like watching the lasting achievements of Suspiria and Inferno torn to pieces by harpies, this isn’t quite as great an assault on Argento’s non-supernatural thriller mode – if only because a seam of humour is introduced, perhaps by Adrien Brody against the writer-director’s wishes, that at least makes the more ridiculous stretches laugh-out-loud absurd. Using this title implies an ambition to sum up a whole genre, the way Love Story or Ghost Story do: but this is just another giallo rather than a definitive essay. Mostly, it’s a dispiriting shambles, especially when echoing the old Argento – in early sequences, Japanese tourist Keiko (Valentina Izumi) and French model Celine (Elsa Pataky) take taxis in the rain and are driven through the streets of Rome away from their intended destinations. Suspiria and Inferno feature similar sequences which are riots of bravura effects, mixing sound and music to perfection, and inflating a red herring into a set-piece. Here, the taxi rides aren’t a red herring – the cabbie actually is the killer – but the effect is a flat reprise, which unwisely reminds you of lost glories.
The maniac (Brody, billed as ‘Byron Diedra’) has the puffy-faced, big-nosed, all-over make-up job look of Gregg Henry as the Indian in DePalma’s Body Double. Known as ‘giallo’ because jaundice gives his skin a yellowish tinge, he also sports a Rambo wig and headband, a jutting chin and a resentment of beautiful, foreign women. He cuts up girls’ faces while they’re chained to a table in his lair (a disused gasworks) and, like several other recent torture freaks (cf: Scar), likes to overlap victims, so he works on one while the next is in the room being softened up. Giallo also masturbates while looking at images of mutilated women on his PC, mumbles incoherently, has a flashback to his miserable origins as a hooker’s cast-off kid and needs to keep regular hospital appointments which eventually allow the hero to catch up. Inspector Enzo Avolfi (also Brody) is a lone, unconventional cop who works out of the basement and specialises in bizarro cases like this. The viewpoint character is Linda (Emmanuelle Seignier, looking rough), Celine’s worried sister, who latches on to Enzo and follows him around as he does his sleuth thing. If Giallo is an extreme version of the sort of misogynist loons who stalk in The Card Player or Sleepless, Enzo is a more original character, even if he overlaps with Dexter. After witnessing his mother’s murder as a child, Enzo happened across the killer (a butcher) while in his mid-teens and brutally slaughtered the bastard, which brought him to the attention of his cop patron (Robert Miano) – who found him red-handed, but accepted his explanation and set him on the path to being useful in society (it’s suggested he’s been killing killers off the books ever since, though he’s not a full-blown serial murderer). Brody and Seignier have hilarious scenes as Enzo gives a hardboiled precis of his origins and m.o. and, after a finale in which the killer is done away with but the sister isn’t rescued, the relationship sours as Enzo walks away miserably while the heroine shrieks that he’s a useless asshole. It’s just possible there’s irony here, stressed in a silly coda as a random cop finds the leftover victim tied up in a car boot.
Argento has complained that this was taken away from him and re-edited, so it might not be all his fault – then again, it’s marginally less terrible than Mother of Tears, which he was happy to sign, so perhaps it was once even worse. By now, it’s beside the point to complain about the repeated abuse-of-pretty-women theme, since there isn’t even a sado-erotic charge to the overfamiliar torture scenes; it’s maybe more offensive that this harks back to the Rondo Hatton theory that disfiguring diseases produce serial killers, but Giallo isn’t even as yellow as the Yellow Bastard in Sin City.
Gary McMahon I don’t think Argento has ever been a good director – he struck lucky with Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno (his best film) and a few great scenes here and there in other projects (Opera, Tenebrae, etc). Everything else he’s done has been pretty poor. Like a footballer having a couple of good seasons before reverting back to type, Dario will be but a footnote in the history of genre cinema, IMHO.
J Todd Kingrea Good thoughts, Kim. As a huge fan of Argento, I too have been disappointed with his work since the mid-80s. It’s as if he’s coasting on his celebrity (despite how much he may deny any celebrity stature). He had a grand chance to conclude “The Three Mothers” trilogy with a statement, but that didn’t happen. From your review here, it sounds like he’s missed another opportunity to definitively punctuate the whole subgenre.
Neil Snowdon Even Tenebrae didn’t really do much for me. I’d go further back and say Inferno was the last really successful feature that he made. Since then, the only thing that’s really impressed me as a whole (there are always single shots and scenes) was The Black Cat segment of Two Evil Eyes. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I remember thinking it was really good.
Brian J. Showers It’s a pity that Argento’s work is strongest as vignettes. Certain scenes are masterful, but whole films can be wobbly. But I do get the impression from interviews that he’s always been more obsessed with scenes (details) than the larger picture. It’s just that in some films the scenes add up better than in others.
Russ Hunter Interesting stuff, Kim. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve not had the chance to catch Giallo yet (even crap takes its time to trickle this far South West) and it’s sad to hear of another wasted opportunity. As you say, the title Giallo implies some kind of comment on the genre as a whole and if this is it then it’s a pretty sad indictment. I was *hoping* for so much more but knew it wasn’t really going to come.
I read in an Italian interview with Argento that he is going to make films until he dies (which he stated after noting that his mother is in her late 90s). Now a truly terrifying prospect.
David Edwards Yes, gash, wasn’t it? Wonder if this will ever see a cinema….
Kim Newman Well, it’s already played the biggest screen in London – once. Now I reckon it’s DVD hell …
James Lowe Maybe instead of being a comment on the genre, Argento figured Giallo should just have a generic title, like calling it Film or Random Horror.
Anyone see Pelts, Argento’s contribution to Masters of horror? It had some entertaining/amusing scenes. Also, I find Trauma pretty watchable. The killer’s explanation at the end cracks me up.
Gabe Powers ‘early, funny movies’. That was great.
Colette Balmain I thought Mother of Tears was unacceptably bad, I think many of us were hoping that “giallo” would be a return to some sort of form. I shall see it in dvd hell then!
Ben Stoddart Sad to hear it’s shit but on the whole not surprised
James Witcombe I enjoyed The Stendhal Syndrome, but can’t stand many later Argentos. Really wanted this to be good.
Mark Thompson Ashworth Straight to dvd in Italy too after a festival screening in Rome during the summer. I really do think TRAUMA warrants more appreciation than most fans and critics accord it, but the risibly fake severed heads and (thankfully) brief appearance of that band under the closing credits do ruin things a bit. I’d say TENEBRAE was the last truly successful Argento movie. I never understood why people raved over OPERA – empty, boring and absurdly cast.
Everyone expected the same thing when Giallo was announced, that. finally, Argento would knuckle down and produce the proverbial late career meisterwerk – hopefully a definitive comment on the titullar genre, as you say. But this wishful thinking. Sadly, I think the choice of title simply betrays laziness and creative exhaustion. One shouldnt rake over rumours, but what was all that about him being too exhausted to finish Inferno and the Bavas stepping in? I am certain I recall an interview with a Phenomena cast member who claimed Argento confessed that even at that point, he felt his muse was exhausted. Personally I think everything up to and including Inferno is top notch – though plot was never his strong point and I think he was obviously glad to abandon logic altogether with Suspiria. But what should have been only the beginning of a new genre of surrealistic, horror-deco fantasmagorias seemed to bring his artistic ambitions to a climax. The long wait between Inferno and Phenomena was an warning. I still think the latter has the last flailings of an auteur within it, it’s many absurdities included. It’s a shame Argento couldn’t forge a new horror art cinema of Italy, a new opera (not the new Opera). I wonder if he didn’t lose interest in the subject, then try to second guess the expectations of his audience, falling into a mediocre hinterland, neither art nor trash. Some of his decisions have simply boggled the mind! There is a work of fiction to be derived from this sad state of affairs – a new Faust? Was the real Dario murdered and replaced? Did he have an envious, untalented twin?