Horror cinema thrives on the authorial stamp of the especially skilled filmmakers who work within the genre; from the independently-produced shockers of the 1970s, to the video rental boom of the 1980s, to the genre revival in the late 1990s, the names of certain directors have served to guarantee a high level of quality to loyal audiences, and also to critically legitimise films that would otherwise not be taken seriously within the cultural mainstream. It may seem strange that the Italian director Dario Argento has struggled to succeed in the American market as his name arguably carries as much clout in genre circles as those of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and George A Romero. Aside from his lack of familiarity with the workings of the studio system, or the commercial requirements of independent financiers specialising in horror fare, Argento’s apparent inability to cross over to the American market is partially due to the distinct differences between the interrelated genres of the giallo and the slasher film. The giallo, as exemplified by Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), is the cinematic extension of Italian literary thrillers and, as such, places an emphasis on mystery, keeping the identity of the killer hidden until the final reel, while the violence is heavily stylised and vividly realised. The slasher film, which came to commercial prominence with Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), is comparatively realistic, tapping into fears of physical violation as victims are dismembered in a crudely calculated manner by a masked maniac with a backstory that is briskly established before the mayhem begins. These differences aside, Argento has also had the misfortune of working with American production partners who have simply wanted to cash in on his name value rather than to act as ambassadors for his undeniable artistry.
Although his films had received attention outside of Italy and often featured American or English actors as a means of enhancing their international appeal, Argento’s first conscious effort to court the American market came with Phenomena (1985); Jennifer Connelly was cast as Jennifer, a student at a Swiss boarding school that is being terrorised by a serial killer. After discovering that she has special powers that enable her to control insects, Jennifer tries to uncover the identity of the murderer with assistance from a wheelchair-bound entomologist (Donald Pleasance), eventually summoning a swarm of flies to defend herself against the killer. When Phenomena received an American release through New Line Cinema, it was re-titled Creepers and 30 minutes of footage was cut, notably a scene in which Connelly’s character talks about being abandoned by her mother on Christmas Day, a reference to Argento’s childhood. To add insult to injury, the home video edition of Creepers was marketed with cover art that depicted Connelly’s heroine as a one-eyed zombie, an image that had no relevance to the content of the film. Argento’s version was well-regarded in European territories and remains one of his most popular titles at the Italian box office, but the American cut was treated as an exploitation item and was granted a drive-in, rather than art-house, release before making a swift trip to video stores.
Following the fairly successful Two Evil Eyes (1990) – the portmanteau collaboration between Argento and George A Romero that was financed by Argento’s company ADC but filmed in Romero’s home town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – Argento would return to the United States to shoot Trauma (1993), a $7 million co-production between ADC and the US-based Overseas Film Group. Argento’s production partners had dabbled in the horror genre with the unpleasant possession shocker Retribution (1987) and the unnecessary franchise entry Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993), but had yet to work with a filmmaker of significant stature. Although the screenplay for Trauma was written by regular Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini and Gianni Romoli, it would be re-written at the insistence of Overseas Film Group by the horror novelist ED Klein, who has yet to achieve another screenwriting credit. The plot is pure giallo, with anorexic teenager Aura (Asia Argento) going on the run after witnessing a serial killer decapitate her parents with a portable guillotine; she becomes romantically involved with sympathetic television news sketch artist David (Christopher Rydell) who links the murder of her parents to other killings and tries to warn those who may also be on the killer’s list. The protagonists of other Argento films have been afflicted by a variety of ‘conditions’, but Aura’s anorexia has little relevance to the plot and is explained in awkward passages of expository dialogue delivered by one of David’s co-workers. Trauma was shot in Minneapolis, a location that could best be described as nondescript, meaning that many scenes have a televisual look despite Argento’s trademark roving camera. Argento’s operatic tendencies are largely reined in, with the exception of a séance that comes complete with thunder, lightning, and a tree that crashes through a window, although this sequence is rendered unintentionally hilarious by the hammy performances of Frederick Forrest and Piper Laurie. Although Trauma was conceived with the American market in mind, it would only emerge as a straight-to-video release in April 1994, more than one year after its successful theatrical run in Italy.
Argento would return to Italy to alternate between projects with international appeal, such as his surprisingly faithful version of The Phantom of the Opera (1998), and thrillers for his domestic following, such as The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and Sleepless (2001), even taking a detour into television with Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), but remaining wary of involvement with American financiers. However, his curiosity was piqued by the screenplay for Giallo (2009), which concerns a Turin-based serial killer who uses an unlicensed taxi cab to abduct beautiful women; when a model falls into his trap, her sister Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) teams up with Italian-American detective Enzo Avolfi (Adrian Brody) in order to locate the killer’s lair before her sibling becomes his latest victim. As the title suggests, Giallo was conceived as a tribute to the Italian thrillers of the 1970s, but its narrative machinations, and the style that they force the director to adopt, suggest that American screenwriters Jim Agnew and Sean Keller merely have an awareness of the genre, rather than an actual understanding of it. There is little sense of mystery as the identity of the killer is revealed relatively early on and the killer’s modus operandi (mutilating his victims before murdering them) forces Argento to go slumming in the realms of torture porn, thereby entailing that Giallo has more in common with the gratuitous gore of Saw (2004) than it does with the vibrant violence of Deep Red (1975). Argento walked away from the $14 million project following post-production arguments with American backer Hannibal Pictures and has subsequently disowned the producer’s cut.
Argento has expressed mixed feelings about working on American productions; he has praised the work of the cast and crew of both Trauma and Giallo, finding them to be very professional and receptive to his methods, but has expressed contempt towards the producers who have denied him final cut. Despite the director’s efforts to maintain control over the material, post-production interference ultimately forces Trauma and Giallo to conform to the American realist model in which any sense of the bizarre or the unexplained is jettisoned in favour of a perfunctory narrative and death scenes that have been trimmed within an inch of their cinematic life to secure the all-important ‘R’ rating. The essence of Argento’s work is his visual style, his emphasis on atmosphere, sets, locations, décor and the extravagant manner in which the victims in his films (often entirely innocent, as opposed to the sex equals death principle of the American slasher) meet their demise; Trauma and Giallo are diluted to the point that play like imitations of Argento, lacking sufficient visual flair to compensate for their frequent lapses in logic. While the presence of Dario Argento’s name above the title usually promises something special, in terms of his American misadventures, it is merely a case of false advertising.