Dario Argento needs little introduction to horror movie fans. The former movie critic got his start collaborating on screenplays like Sergio Leone’s towering Once Upon a Time in the West, before launching his career in the 1970s with a string of giallo hits like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Deep Red, then crafting such cult horror classics as 1977’s Suspiria — a supernatural one-of-a-kind that cemented Argento’s reputation and brought his avant garde soundtrack composers Goblin to enduring attention. In the years since Argento has followed his own particular path, working with George Romero on Dawn of the Dead, introducing the world to Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena, and directing daughter Asia, herself a writer-director, in many of his pictures. And while his critical fortunes may have waned, Argento continues to be a revered figure among cinephiles and horror fans alike. With his 3D take on Dracula currently in limited release, we spoke to Argento about his career, film criticism and his favorite movies — which, faced with the rather daunting challenge, he instead turned into a discussion of his favorite filmmakers.
For me it’s difficult to say five favorites, because I saw too many films. It’s better to say five directors, and why I love the films by these directors. Alfred Hitchcock, you know, most of his films were a great influence on my old films, also. Sorry it’s hard to pick individual films. It’s very, very difficult.
Ingmar Bergman, from the beginning, was one of the most interesting directors in the world for me.
Luis Buñuel. This was a great, fantastic, marvelous director. His fantasy and surrealist work was so great, but also the period that was very interesting was the period when he was in Mexico. He did marvelous films in Mexico, too.
Michelangelo Antonioni inspired me with lots of his films. He inspired many of my films, with the style and the philosophy of his movies. They were important to my films.
And also, I don’t want to forget Fritz Lang, one of my favorite directors. With Fritz Lang, there were lots of different periods, like when he was in Germany and the the was in the United States; they were very different periods, and very interesting. He was an Expressionist and then his films were very frightening when he was in the United States.
Next, Argento on why he made a Dracula movie, working with Goblin on Suspiria, and whether or not the critics understand his movies.
It’s curious that you’ve decided to do Dracula at this point in your career. What was your first experience of the character — was it the book, or seeing the films?
Dario Argento: Especially the films inspired me. The book was just the idea for the films. I liked the films and the character in the films, especially the ones from Hammer. Those were very important and really inspired me. Those were a very different style. But this film, I do this film so different. I explore the other way of the character. He’s more romantic. There’s lots of fury, but romantic. Also, it’s possible to change his personality to become some other creatures. Especially it was very important because of the 3D, this new technology. It gave me this possibility to do scenery — the deep distance from the camera. Especially in the forest, we see a tree, and another tree, and another tree and then a house, and you come back in the middle of the scene — without the easy effects of things coming through the screen at the audience; this was not important for me. It was important for me to see the depth.
Just going back to Hammer, your film shares some of that mixture where things are both very serious and at times campy. There’s definitely humor in your film.
This is certainly the first film I’ve ever since Dracula transform into a giant praying mantis. Where did the idea for these insect transformations come from?
Because I think with Dracula it’s possible to transform into a bat and a wolf and so on, so I think he has the possibility to transform into every creature — like a spider or bugs; every creature. The transformation, it’s natural.
Did you like working with 3D?
Yes, I liked it a lot.
Would you shoot another movie in that format?
I’m not sure. Because 3D needs lots of teams. Dracula was important for me. It’s a new technology to put the film in a new dimension. But I’m not sure if my next films are in 3D.
There’s been a trend with some directors going back to their old films and making them 3D. Would you ever considering doing that with one of your movies?
Yes. Maybe Suspiria. It’s a good experience to do in 3D.
Speaking of Suspiria, it must be very pleasing to see that film take on such a life all these years later, with Goblin performing sold-out shows of the score recently.
Yes, very much. Goblin doing the score is very great. They were very important to me. I think it was the best of the Goblin scores. The film was very much helped by the music, because the music put the film over the top — this kind of strange music, for the time, it was very unusual.
I enjoyed Claudio Simonetti’s score for Dracula, too. Has your relationship changed over the years? I know the band composed the music for Suspiria before they’d seen the film.
Usually we do the soundtrack before the film editing. During the shooting Claudio composes some music and then we see, because when the film is finished it’s too late. It’s better to do it during the shooting. During the shooting he comes and we work together on the film. At night he comes and finishes some music, and we speak about what’s good and what’s not and we might change something.
He’s certainly produced some great music over the years. I wanted to ask you — you, of course, started way back as a film critic — do you have an opinion on film criticism today? How it’s changed, where it’s going — is it something that you’re interested in?
Yes, I’m interested in it. Sometimes I write criticism for films. But now the criticism is too much just a description of the film and the story, and not so deep or profound. It’s not very important. Not culturally deep.
So you think the cultural analysis isn’t as deep?
Yes. The analysis is important. Some years ago it was better. Now it’s too light, too simple, the criticism. They write just the story, some words about the actors, and it’s finished. It doesn’t put the films in some movement. Films are many things inside, you know: the art and the color, and also the poetics and the ideas. Many things. But you don’t read this in the critics today.
Looking at your career over the past decade, the critics have had different responses to a lot of your films than they’ve had in the past — and yet, when you go back to look at some of your older films that weren’t well-reviewed at the time, they’ve gone on to be reappraised. Do you think critics have missed the point of any of your recent films?
I think some critics don’t understand my work and my films very well. But this is okay, because the audience response is much better for me. Critics sometimes don’t understand, or think that my films are too simple. It’s not too terrible for me. It’s okay. It’s what my life is.
Time changes things, Dario; there’s always that.
It does, yes. It does change things.
Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D is currently playing in limited release.