It’s another week’s worth of horror, fantasy, and science fiction film reviews at Cinefantastique’s Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast. In episode 5:4.2, Steve Biodrowski exorcises HERE COMES THE DEVIL, a Video on Demand opus from writer-director Adrián García Bogliano; Dan Persons stakes Dario Argento’s DRACULA, the Italian filmmaker’s eccentric variation on Bram Stokers immortal vampire; and Lawrence French recalls THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, the Gothic-themed spoof starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Boris Karloff.
Also included is the usual rundown of the week’s home video reviews, including FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967) and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1922). And don’t forget: after all the reviews are done, stick around for the “after-show” – in which the recording software continues to capture the musings of the three podcasters as they try to figure out whether the giant praying mantis in Argento’s DRACULA is related to the bee in Universal Pictures’ classic black-and-white version of DRACULA (1931).
Would be more accurately titled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (as the title appears on screen) is nowhere near as laughably ridiculous as his previous foray into costume bedecked Gothic Horror, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), but that is still a long way from good. Fans who take a look out of a misguided sense of loyalty may find a few drops of gory glory in Luciono Tovoli’s luscious cinematography, but like the titular character, the film itself presents a handsome appearance hiding a corrupt, empty soul – animated by blood but devoid of any true life.
The screenplay, loosely cobbled together from Bram Stoker’s novel, feels as if it were written by someone who had read the original text, then scribbled down some fragmentary notes while half awake after suffering a fever dream in which bits and pieces of the source were jumbled together with other adaptations. That may sound off-the-wall enough to be interesting; unfortunately, the finished film feels as if it did not go before the cameras until the fervid dreamer’s mental state had been counter-acted with a heavy dose of valium. Dario Argento’s DRACULA is not only insane; it’s insanely dull.
The story restricts itself to the environs surrounding Dracula’s castle, including a village that owes its prosperity to the Count (though at a terrible price). Jonathan Harker (an unimpressive Unax Ugalde) shows up to catalog Dracula’s library (a plot device lifted from 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA), but it turns out that the vampire is not really interested in getting his books in order. What he is interested in does not emerge until various other stuff has happened, little of which shows Dracula acting in a way designed to bring about the goal he eventually reveals: getting Mina Harker to his castle because she is the reincarnation of his lost love.
That’s right: Argento re-roasts the old garlic-laced chestnut previously used in DARK SHADOWS; SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; Dan Curtis’s 1974 telefilm version of DRACULA; and Francis Ford Coppola’s overwrought (and embarrassingly mis-titled) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. That, however, is not the real problem.
The real problem is the same one that plagued THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Argento randomly inserts a series of expository scenes and violent set pieces that overshadow the original narrative. You would think that a story about blood-drinking vampires that can be destroyed only be staking and decapitation would provide ample opportunity for sanguinary delights, but that is not enough for Argento, who takes time out to show Renfield splitting someone’s head open with a shovel and another Dracula acolyte hacking someone to death with an ax. As if that were not enough, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) is given a back story via flashback, in which he first learned about vampires when he witnessed Dracula attacking the patients of his mental hospital (um, why?); and later Dracula manifests as a giant praying mantis that impales a human victim on its pinchers before eating his head – a scene whose irrelevancy suggests the film should be retitled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”*
Consequently, when the scenes from Stoker’s Dracula do arrive (such as the staking of Lucy, played by Asia Argento) they are anti-climactic, their impact diluted by the gore that came before. At times, these bits seem simply shoe-horned into the film at random, as when the famous scene from the book of Dracula, scaling the castle wall like a lizard, flashes by for a second – just long enough for us to wonder why it’s in the film. (For dramatic effect, he pauses to hiss – at nothing in particular, unless perhaps it is the audience.)
It’s not only the onscreen blood that’s thinned by this approach; Stoker’s narrative beats are dulled as well, rendered as obligatory after-thoughts. A major element of the novel is Lucy’s transformation from innocent British lass to sultry vampiress. Argento’s DRACULA, however, begins with a local village girl, Tanya (Miriam Giovanelli) bitten by Dracula and turned into the vampire bride who greets Jonathan Harker when he reaches the castle. Since we have already seen this human-to-vampire transformation take place once, when Lucy’s turn arrives it has a been-there-done-that quality to it, with Argento tossing it off as quickly as possible.
It hardly helps that Argento goes out of his way to sexualize Dracula’s female victims before they fall under his spell: Tanya gets lusty sex scene with her married lover; Lucy and Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) get a nude bathing scene (yes, Dario films his daughter naked once again). With the women already sexy, there is no opportunity for a startling transformation from virginal innocence to voluptuous wantonness, further undermining the story. (This might have worked if Argento had deliberately inverted expectations, suggesting that the more sexually liberated characters are less likely to be seduced by Dracula’s erotic allure, but no such luck.)
All of this underlines one of the film’s major failings: the story has been ripped out of its original context, robbing scenes of their effectiveness, and little if anything substantial has been added to replace what was lost. Stoker’s Dracula is about an ancient evil that invades modern London, transforming everything it touches with a bloody version of the Midas Touch, spreading a contagion that could potentially sweep the entire country. Argento’s DRACULA is about some guy who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend and doesn’t mind who he has to kill to do it.
Unlike London in the novel, the European setting of the film, the village of Passburg, is mere background; Dracula’s impact on it barely registers. There is talk of a pact between the villagers and the Count – presumably a non-aggression pact, though what the villagers get out of it is not clear, and the idea seems to exist only so that there can be a scene wherein some villagers talk about breaking the pact, whereupon Dracula kills them all, providing another opportunity for carnage not related to the main story (including a grizzly throat-ripping and a nicely rendered though completely gratuitous scene of the Count telepathically inducing a victim to blow his own brains out with a gun).
I know what you’re saying: It’s a Dario Argento film – who cares about the plot? It’s the bravura visuals that count! Aye, there’s the rub. Argento’s DRACULA superficially simulates the look and approach of classic Hammer horror films, with a familiar narrative dressed up in colorful new accoutrements, erotically charged and splashed with blood, but the similarity ends there. The staging of the action is lethargic, lacking the gusto of director Terrence Fisher’s work in HORROR OF DRACULA (compare the Count’s interruption of Harker’s brief encounter with vampire bride in both films, and you’ll see what I mean).
In fact, with its more overt sex and nudity – not to mention directorial indulgence – Argento’s DRACULA more resembles a Ken Russell film, but the flamboyance here seems more scatter-shot than enjoyably excessive. The same pictorial beauty is there, the same unfettered urge to overthrow MASTERPIECE THEATRE-style reticence in favor of explicit eruptions of disreputable imagery that would be proscribed in more “respectable” fare. The difference is that, as wild as he was, Russell usually seemed to have a point, and unlike Argento, he knew when he had overstepped the boundary of outrageousness into deliberate camp, inviting the audience to laugh along with him at the material (e.g., THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Argento, on the other hand, seems merely clueless. As a result, DRACULA feels like a more lavishly produced version of 1970s Euro-trash, or a more beautifully photographed version of a Paul Naschy film (think FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) but without the joyful exploitation energy that made that kind of cinema fun, regardless of whether it was “good” by conventional standards.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that this approach drains the actors of any dramatic blood. Not only do the English-language vocal performances sound phoned in by bored thespians; the cast tends to act as if they never read a script but simply had it explained to them over the phone, after which they arrived on set and Argento simply said, “Do that thing we talked about.” If you hadn’t seen Thomas Krestschmann, Rutger Hauer, and Asia Argento doing better work elsewhere, you might think they were the most untalented actors on the planet. Krestschmann (who was frighteningly deranged in Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) is most ill-served, rendering a static Dracula who lacks the hypnotic seductivness of Bela Lugosi, the predatory dynamism of Christopher Lee, and the romantic allure of Frank Langella; hell, he even makes Gary Oldman look good!
For all the film’s faults, DRACULA does feature Claudio Simonetti’s best non-Goblin score, an orchestral work that ditches the composer’s usual synthesizers in favor of theramin and violin solos; sadly, he squanders the dramatic effect of the background music by adding a goofy song over the closing credits, “Kiss Me, Dracula.” which borders on the embarrassing.
Also, there are a few nice old-fashioned effects – simple jump-cuts and dissolves, used to depict Dracula’s appearances and disappearances – mixed in with more modern computer-generated imagery that turns the count into an owl, a wolf, and an insect (but never a bat, strangely enough – guess that was too old hat). The computerized effects are variable, at times bad. Probably the best use of the digital process is that it allows Argento to fool around with the visual palette in a way we haven’t seen since the post-production Technicolor trickery of SUSPIRIA. On this level only – creating a surreal dreamscape of wooded forests worthy of an adult fairy tale – can Argento’s DRACULA be reckoned a success.
Argento’s career has been hit and miss since the mid 1980s (starting with PHENOMENON). After the dreary low-point of the 1990s, he at least somewhat returned to form in the new millennium, with SLEEPLESS (2001), THE CARD PLAYER (2004), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007). If we can take any solace from this erratic trajectory, it is that a sharp downswing need not be permanent. If Argento could recover from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, then perhaps he can recover from DRACULA.
[rating=1] On the CFQ scale of zero to five stars: a strong recommendation to avoid.
For those interested, here are some bloody bits that Argento’s DRACULA culls from other Dracula movies – not from Stoker’s text:
Dracula wears an outfit that suggests NOSFERATU (1922).
Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula not to wrap up a real estate transaction but to catalog the Count’s library. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
Jonathan Harker is bitten by Dracula in Transylvania. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA. Something similar happens in DRACULA (1931), but it is Renfield rather than Harker who travels to Castle Dracula.
Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire who is destroyed by Van Helsing. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA and in the 1974 telefilm DRACULA with Jack Palance.
Count Dracula has only one vampire bride instead of three. Taken from HORROR OF DRACULA.
Count Dracula is seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. This happened in the Jack Palance telefilm and in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). The concept had previously been used in DARK SHADOWS and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. Its origin goes back to THE MUMMY (1932), a sort of unofficial remake of DRACULA, starring Boris Karloff.
The action never moves to England, instead remaining in Europe. Again, from HORROR OF DRACULA.
This is not entirely a joke. In my interview with Argento regarding MOTHER OF TEARS, he summed up his goal as a filmmaker by saying, “This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.” As if his goal were simply to take what was in his mind and put it on the screen.
DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (a.k.a., ARGENTO’S DRACULA, DRACULA 3D, 2012). U.S. Release theatrical release in October 2013, home video release on January 28, 2014; distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori; based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by Claudio Simonetti. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Cast: Thomas Krestschmann as Dracula; Marta Gastini as Mina Harker; Asia Argento as Lucy Kisslinger; Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker; Miriam Giovanelli as Tanya; Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. 150 minutes. Not rated. In 3D.
According to The Hollywood Reporter , Adrien Brody (KING KONG) has won an injunction against the producers of Dario Argento’s GIALLO, essentially barring the film from being sold, marketed or distributed in the United States.
After discovering the filmmakers were short of funds and had not placed his salary in escrow during filming, the actor consented to stay on the production, signing a legal agreement to defer his payment. This was done with the condition granted that he had the “absolute right to withhold consent to the use of his likeness in the Picture” until and unless he was paid in full.
This means the filmmakers can not use his face in advertising, and technically any scenes that showed him in the film—which would make distributing GIALLO next to impossible, barring massive and unlikely re-shoots. The film was released in other parts of the world in 2009.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, a lawsuit brought by star Adrien Brody may prevent Dario Argento’s horror-thriller GIALLO from being released on DVD.
The reason: the actor alleges he was never paid the $640,000 he was due for his work on the film. He claims he signed an agreement with the producers to stay on the film after he discovered they had failed to pay his salary into an escrow account. This allegedly gave him full control over the use of his likeness in the film — which would prevent its release without his consent.
He’s suing for his salary and $2 Million in damages.
For those not familiar with the term, Giallo is Italian for yellow, and it refers to a popular genre of crime thrillers that often feature elements of horror, torture and some sexual content, often all mixed together.
The covers of the best known publications all featured a trademark yellow cover scheme, originally called The Yellow Library ( I Libri Gialli) by Italian publisher Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.
Many of these were translations of American pulp thrillers and murder mysteries, though British writer Edgar Wallace, whose novels’ film adaptions launched the German “Krimi” genre was also featured. Even sedate authors such as Agatha Christie and Earl Stanely Gardner (Perry Mason) were published in the yellow paperbacks.
It’s a ’70s flashback weekend on the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast, as Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski gaze in wonder at the Technicolor extravagance of SUSPIRIA (1977), Dario Argento’s pulse-pounding cult classic of supernatural horror, starring Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, and Alida Valli. How does Argento’s extremely stylized vision of violence and terror hold up decades later, and which version should you watch: the American cut available on Netflix Instant View or the original, unexpurgated version on DVD? These answers and other secrets lie behind door with three irises – just turn the blue one…
Marked by unpleasant violence and quesitonable humor, Argento’s latest thriller sees the director following his own dark muse, regardless of whether the audience tags along.
Dario Argento’s films have always divided critical and audience opinions. To his supporters, he’s one of the cinema’s supreme visual stylists, his work further marked by a constant willingness to experiment with new technologies and techniques. To his detractors, there’s little substance to his films, which are also commonly accused of being badly written and acted and marred by gratuitous violence. Since around the time of PHENOMENA (1985) the detractors have assumed the upper hand, with even many of the director’s avowed fans asserting that his work just isn’t what it used to be.
They are right, but whether this represents an actual decline or the continuing creative evolution of Argento’s filmmaking is another matter. Much of the reason Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1995), The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and The Card Player (2004) do not appeal to fans weaned on the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) is that they do not conform to the expectations established by these early works. Take The Card Player: Amongst other things, it is deliberately, even excessively, restrained. The violent set piece, a main stock in trade of the director, is avoided to concentrate our attentions on the consequences of violence instead. GIALLO (2009) is not going to settle these debates one way or the other. It does, however, fit with their general pattern – the main exceptions being the latter day crowd-pleaser Sleepless (2001) and would-be crowd-pleaser The Third Mother (2007) – by seeing Argento take his own dark path without paying much heed whether an audience is following.
The first thing about the film that must be addressed is its title. As is well-known, Giallo means “yellow” in Italian and has come to refer generically to a particular kind of horror-thriller, of which Argento’s earliest films established him as the leading practitioner. Given this and the highly self-referential approach taken by later works like Tenebre (1982), Opera (1987) and Do You Like Hitchcock (2005), we might expect GIALLO to offer more in the way of comment on the form than it does, perhaps even being prefaced by an explanatory definition of what giallo is in the manner of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Instead, GIALLO is the nickname of the obligatory maniac. The name derives from his disfiguring skin condition, one that has left him fuelled with a hatred for beautiful young women. His modus operandi is to abduct them in his taxi, take them to his lair, and slowly mutilate them to death.
The other key dramatis personae are Celine (Elsa Pataky), Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody). Celine is Yellow’s latest victim, Linda her sister. Avolfi is the enigmatic Manhunter-type figure assigned the case on a kind of ‘it takes one to know one’ or ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ basis; the Thomas Harris reference seems appropriate given that the production company behind GIALLO is Hannibal [as in Lektor] Film. GIALLO’s key traits are violence and unpleasantness (arguably bordering upon the ‘torture porn’ variety), and humour. It is a rather uneasy combination, especially since it is not always particularly well signalled whether we are supposed to be laughing. In general, I feel that we are, that the film is intended as something of a self-parody. But even if this is the case, it is clear that Argento’s failure to make this crystal clear is detrimental to GIALLO’s overall effectiveness.
Two points of comparison come immediately to mind. The first is the aforementioned Phantom of the Opera, notable for Julian Sands’ mask-less, “rock star” Phantom and the general hostility it invoked among fans and non-fans alike. The second, suggested by Seigner’s presence, is Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992) – another of those “Is it intentionally ‘bad’, or just bad?” films.
There is some evidence for the ‘in-quotes’ position, though the fact that we have to look for it again points to the more fundamental problem. In particular, Brody’s ‘bad’ work has to be considered in the light of his Oscar-winning performance on Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), as a strong indication that he is one of the more capable actors Argento has collaborated with. And collaboration is the operative term here. Amongst Brody’s other roles was that of Executive Producer on GIALLO. As such, he and Argento had to have agreed upon the seemingly paradoxical over-the-top yet dead-pan way he was going to play things, for better or worse.
If a returning-the-favour reference to Juno is a throwaway, those to Japanese culture (a pre-Celine tourist victim; the hentai-type manga used by Yellow to fuel his perverse imaginings, and the more up-market volume of Araki art-or-porn photography purchased by Avolfi) may point to Argento’s growing interest here, as previously seen in the J-Horror, Gothic Lolita witch of The Three Mothers (2008). Or these references may be a way of trying to ensure distribution for GIALLO in Japan, traditionally an important marketplace for the director. Again, it’s up to the viewer to interpret, positively or negatively.
Visually, the film is middling Argento, more imaginative and stylish than most directors but hardly comparable to a Suspiria, Inferno (1980) or Opera. Aurally, it is less distinguished, with Marco Werba’s score lacking the memorable qualities of Ennio Morricone, Goblin or Claudio Simonetti’s work.
In sum, GIALLO is very much of a piece with the majority of Argento’s films of the later 1980s, 1990s and 2000s in its personal, take-it-or-leave-it nature. I took to it, but you may not. Whatever the case, hopefully you are at least in a position to make a better informed decision than a few hundred words ago.
It seems as though George A Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MARTIN) is letting the dead rest in pieces, at least for a short while. Variety are reporting that he’s set to remake Dario Argento’s (SUSPIRIA, TENEBRAE) 1975 Italian horror film, DEEP RED. The film is also, drum roll please, set to be shot in 3D.
The original DEEP RED is a classic in the giallo horror sub-genre, about a pianist (of all people) who is investigating a serial killer, only to find that the maniac is seemingly one step ahead of his every move. This will of course not be the first time Argento and Romero have been connected: Argento helped produce Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978), and each of htem wrote and directed one episode of the two-part horror anthology TWO EVIL EYES. Argento’s brother, Claudio, is currently writing the script.
Romero’s decision to temporarily ditch his walking dead friends is no surprise as he usually takes a few years out of each ‘OF THE DEAD’ entry to focus on other projects. Hopefully the change of tact will reinvigorate the director as his last two films, DIARY OF THE DEAD and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD were woefully bad, and he’ll do justice to the original film.
Romero is said to be deep into negotiations to direct the remake, with a plan to start shooting in Canada later this year.
Alan Jones – one time London correspondent for Cinefantastique – revealed on his Twitter account today that Italian filmmaker Dario Argento is planning to remake DRACULA in 3D. Filming, which will retain the original novel’s period setting, is supposed to start in January.
So, is this good news or bad news? After a dull patch in the ’90s, Argento has been doing reasonably good work in the new millennium, even if it’s not up to his glory days of the ’70s and early ’80s. Personally, I found SLEEPLESS, THE CARD PLAYER, DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK, and MOTHER OF TEARS all to be entertaining, especially the latter (which was vilified by Argento’s fan-base for not hewing close enough to its predecessors, SUSPIRIA and INFERNO).
However, I am leery of seeing Argento take on Bram Stoker’s immortal Count Dracula. The last time Argento got his hands on a classic movie monster, he made what could arguably be the worst movie of his career, 1998’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which is a poorly considered mish-mash of Goth, gore, and goofy ideas (including a handsome Phantom played by Julian Sands and a ridiculous rat-catching vehicle that looks like a 50-cent ride you’d see in front of a supermarket).
Argento has done wonderful work in his chosen field, the violent Italian mystery-horror films known as giallos. And he managed the supernatural elements in the Three Mothers trilogy with style. But traditional Gothic Horror -and in 3D, no less? I imagine he will have some over-the-top fun with the visuals, but it will take more bloody stakes and vampire fangs comin’ at ya from the screen to justify another remake of this oft told story.
Trade paper Hollywood Reporter has posted a review of GIALLO, which recently screened at a festival in Edinburg. Their assessment is that the film, directed by Dario Argento and starring Adrien Brody, is a “clunky by-the-numbers Euro-thriller” that “wastes the talents of its star and veteran director.”
This unlikely-on-paper, underwhelming-in-execution collaboration between Oscar winner Brody and legendary horror-suspense director Dario Argento doesn’t rank anywhere near the finest work by either man. And though “Giallo,” like Argento’s 2007 “Mother of Tears,” has been picked up for North American distribution by the Weinstein Co., it will be lucky to obtain even the most fleeting of big-screen releases before heading to ancillary afterlife.
“Mother of Tears” had a kind of gruesome, berserk brio that if nothing else commanded attention. But in “Giallo,” flashes of inspiration are few and far between. It’s no surprise that this is the first time in his long career that Argento has served as director-for-hire on a screenplay devised by others. The director reportedly has distanced himself from the project and was conspicuous by his absence at Edinburgh.
In combination with Seigner’s involvement, the film thus emerges as something akin to Argento’s version of Polanski’s Bitter Moon, as something to be both taken seriously at times and as a self-parody at others in its commentary on past glories.
How less sympathetic audiences will get the joke is another matter entirely…
The fan of ’70s & ’80s Italian horror-thrillers scripted an homage, little knowing that the reigning king of the form would choose to direct.
Giallo (plural – gialli) is Italian for ‘yellow’ and the term comes from the lividly coloured covers of pulpy crime thriller paperbacks popular in Italy throughout the fifties and sixties. Giallo films were famed for their highly stylish and breathtaking combination of sex and violence and were rife in cinemas throughout Italy during the seventies and eighties. An exclusively Italian phenomenon, their legacy and immense influence can still be seen in the horror genre today, particularly in the latest slasher revival.
Mario Bava directed what is widely regarded as the very first giallo film: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). This film would boast characteristics that would become commonplace in the subgenre: long periods of exposition, artfully shot scenes punctuated by extreme and sudden violence, flashbacks seemingly spliced into the narrative at random, Freudian undertones, a killer with psycho-sexual hang-ups and usually clad in dark raincoat, fedora and black leather gloves, an abundance of red-herrings and the misinterpretation of a vital clue by the typical ‘outsider’ protagonist.
The giallo really came to prominence with the release of Dario Argento’s debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970. Argento took the blueprint laid down by Bava and added his own unique vision and idiosyncrasies to the mix in order to create a startlingly beautiful, hypnotically violent and heady cinematic cocktail. A slew of imitations ensued and soon Italian cinemas were overflowing with darkly sexy and deliriously violent films sporting all manner of bizarre and cryptic titles such as Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and The House with the Laughing Windows (1976). Argento himself would set the prescience for these lurid thrillers and continued to trail-blaze and trend-set with elaborately stylised giallo films such as Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and what many consider to be the definite giallo movie: Deep Red (1975). The genre became even more popular in Italian culture when Argento’s series Door into Darkness (1973) was broadcast on prime time television. As with most cycles in genre cinema however, the giallo would inevitably run out of steam and give way to the next craze.
The currently popular ‘torture porn’ and splashy sadism evident in the likes of Hostel (2005) and Hostel II (2007), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Captivity (2007) and the Saw series (2004-2008) has bled into a resurgence of ‘grind-house’ styled films and remakes of old seventies gore-fest exploitation flicks such as The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Last House on the Left (2009) and Friday the 13th (2009). Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007) also went some way to spark an interest and re-appreciation of niche exploitation films from yesteryear. Countless remakes of Asian horror films such as The Uninvited (2009) and One Missed Call (2008) have also been extremely popular of late, though these Westernised re-imaginings are becoming increasingly tired and less effective.
This is precisely what inspired screenwriters Sean Keller and Jim Agnew as they set about writing what has become Dario Argento’s new film, GIALLO. Tired of seeing the same old stuff, they believed they knew exactly how to inject some much needed style and substance back into the jugular of the horror genre. And who better to reignite interest and perhaps introduce a whole new generation of film goers to the subgenre he helped create and has become synonymous with, than the Maestro himself – Dario Argento.
The forthcoming GIALLO follows the sordid tale of a woman who hires an eccentric detective to track down her sister who has been kidnapped by a serial killer calling himself Yellow. The film stars Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner and promises much of the typical stylistic flourishes and opulent grandeur Argento is famed for. As well as gallons of the red stuff. And I don’t mean Merlot…
When I caught up with writer Sean Keller recently, he explained what the genesis for GIALLO was. ‘Jim and I were trying to come up with the next good idea’, Keller reveals. ‘We were tired of little girls with wet hair and ghost stories. We both loved the gialli of the sixties and seventies and thought that a super-stylistic homage to the work of Argento, Bava and (Sergio) Martino etc, would be a refreshing change to the horror scene. We wrote a script that was a kitchen-sink giallo. It had everything: opera, cats, black-gloved killers, flashbacks, red herrings, jazz, beautiful women dying horribly… And we called it ‘Yellow’.
It was only when they began peddling the script around Hollywood that they were reminded of just how exclusively ‘Italian’ the giallo film was. ‘
No one in Hollywood understood it’, Keller muses. ‘They had no concept of what we were trying to do until Jim gave the script to a European producer he knew and things took off. We got the script to Dario and he agreed to direct it right away.’
Already a great admirer of Argento’s blood-soaked and elegantly perverse oeuvre, Sean Keller explains why the director’s nightmarish visions have captivated him in the past.
‘Argento’s films balance the grisly and the beautiful in a way that knocks you off centre. The violence is always repellent and attractive at the same time, which causes a level of discomfort that heightens the horror. Tenebrae (1982) is my favourite because it is so completely other-worldly. Every scene is over-lit; there is no place to hide in this film. And the dog that climbs fences freaks me out!’
Keller explains that he was equally as enthralled as he was stunned when Argento became involved with the project; and working with one of his favourite filmmakers proved a fruitful and rewarding experience. ‘It was a dream come true!’ exclaims the upcoming writer.
‘Dario’s films formed my love for horror as a kid, and to have a man I respect and admire actually say that I have talent is tremendously rewarding. We wrote the film as an homage to Dario. We never dreamed he would read it, let alone like it enough to direct it. There are clear differences between this film and his past work, but I can’t say what without spoiling the fun. We collaborated very closely. Dario had lots of ideas and we shaped the script to suit his take on the material.’
As the writer of several other genre films such as Gryphon (2007) and Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep (2006), it would seem Keller is attracted to dark and subversive subject matter. Explaining what draws him to horror, Keller states:
‘No matter how you live your life, be it ascetic or indulgent, it ends the same. Life itself is a death sentence which has always fascinated me. When I started writing screenplays, I had sort of forgotten what a big horror fan I was when I was younger – I thought I had outgrown the subject matter. But when trying to find my voice as a writer I starting thinking about the human condition and death always kept popping up in my head. It is a universal theme. The more I wrote about it, the more I remembered my joy and horror watching the late-night ‘creature-feature’ in my bedroom as a child. Now I can’t get enough of it. Horror and science fiction allow us to tackle complex philosophical ideas in a way that is palatable and appealing to a mass audience.’
As a writer, Sean Keller has been influenced by an array of dark luminaries of disturbing fiction.
‘Poe made me love reading’, Keller reminisces, while shedding a little light on what literature has inspired him. ‘I started reading Poe when I was eleven years old and it instilled my love of language and of course, my obsession with the macabre. There is no other literary figure that even comes close in my eyes. I also adore Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, Eddie Bunker, Jim Thompson, and a young writer named Michael Louis Calvillo has really impressed me with his first two novels, I Will Rise and As Fate Would Have It – he has the goods and is an exciting new voice in horror literature.’
As a writer, there are certain subjects and concerns that Keller is compelled to return to again and again. Addressing fundamental issues and primal fears in a provocative and stimulating manner is something the horror genre has allowed writers and filmmakers to do since cinema began. As he explains:
‘The subject of our screenplays is never really quite as important to me as the subtext. I love being able to present a specific and subversive point-of-view wrapped in the candy-coating of horror. Horror is the sugar that helps our medicine go down. Giallo brings up questions about masculinity and misogyny with a very pointed opinion. We’ve tackled religion and faith, karma, self-determination, existential angst, the high price of revenge, delusions of entitlement and the illusion of justice. These are the things that matter to us as writers and filmmakers. The fact that we weave these themes into a genre often maligned as idiotic or childish makes the process doubly pleasing.’
Before he was involved in screenwriting, Sean Keller began his eclectic career as a singer-songwriter.
‘I actually had a song-writing/publishing deal when I was a teen’, the writer reveals. ‘I was sure I would be the next big rock star… That didn’t happen. So, after a few years of bartending, a friend asked me to act in her student film. I loved it and started pursuing acting. I landed the role of Roger in the first National Tour of Rent and later played Buddy Holly in several productions (including the National Tour) of the musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.’
That was soon to change though as Keller reveals. ‘Acting gigs were few and far between and I was starting a family, so I wanted to find a job that I could do from home. I started writing screenplays and, after many poorly written early tries, it simply felt right.’
‘The writing process for me is still a mystery, and I want to keep it that way,’ Keller claims. ‘My writing partner Jim Agnew is the genius who usually comes up with just the right concept at just the right time and we simply dive in. We like to find our situation and a couple of twists and then create characters that we really like and simply let the characters react to the situations we thrust them into. We never outline and we try not to over think anything. That’s reserved for the rewrite process. During our first draft we want to write as fast as possible and remain completely open to organic changes and happy accidents. It’s about establishing tone quickly and succinctly conveying emotion in a visceral manner.’
GIALLO was co-written by Sean Keller’s regular writing partner Jim Agnew. When I asked Keller about the elusive Mr Agnew, he replied ‘Jim likes to remain mysterious. I can tell you that he likes very sweet coffee and he bathes in the blood of the innocents.’
A kindred spirit, then.
Not content to limit himself to writing for the screen, Sean Keller occupies his time pursuing other creative outlets and ways to explore and hone his craft. ‘I write as much as I can in as many varied formats as possible’, he explains. ‘I am trying to publish a volume of creepy kids’ poems called Underneath the Bed, and I’m writing comic book scripts too. I have also published a couple of short stories and I’m writing songs for an upcoming album. While I write I like to listen to ambient music like John Carpenter’s film scores. Radiohead’s Kid A is always in heavy rotation, as well as Explosions in the Sky’s The World is Not a Cold, Dead Place.’
Keller, strangely enough, is also an ordained Minister with the Universal Life Church, and as such has performed no less than five weddings and a funeral. Eat your heart out, Hugh Grant.
On the challenges and subsequent rewards of writing for the screen, Keller explains that determination and hard graft is essential, as well as self belief and motivation.
‘Most things we write never find an audience. Every time we write, we risk making asses of ourselves, which is true of any artist. You have to be willing to be ridiculed in order to create anything of value. When it misses it is painful, but when it hits – the feeling is wonderful.’
Up next for Keller is his Cronenberg-esque body horror, Teratoma – set to be produced by the filmmakers who brought us Feast (2005). Keller and Agnew have also collaborated with John Carpenter on a couple of projects recently, and the writer reveals that the pair has also completed a new screenplay that they have high hopes for.
‘We have a visceral, tough-guy crime drama about to start pre-production called The Tokarev. This may be the best thing we’ve yet written, but I can’t say who is directing… The ink hasn’t dried on the deal.’
GIALLO is to be released later this year and will be sure to provide audiences who are less familiar with the titular subgenre, or indeed the work of Dario Argento, with a few pleasant surprises. The idiosyncratic traits of the giallo film are all present and correct here, as the blood-dark tale of murder and revenge entwines rhapsodic violence with twisted beauty, art house flair with grind-house shocks.