Following their indispensable collections of films by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mario Bava, the people at Anchor Bay have turned their attention to another maverick director, Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. While the 5 Films by Dario Argento set lacks the comprehensiveness of the Jodorowsky and Bava releases (several of Argento’s best films, such as Suspiria and Deep Red, are absent from the package), it does provide fans with a nice blend of the noteworthy and the obscure, with an abundance of supplementary features.
The collection begins with Tenebre (1982), an inventive mystery about a writer whose work inspires a serial killer. Shot by Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC — who also shot the sumptuous and somewhat dark Suspiria — Tenebre is a murder story told in bright light. Whereas Suspiria consisted of a bold palette and dynamic lighting effects, Tenebre is more muted, realistic and colder, a feeling enhanced by the white marble architecture that dominates the production design. The white, bright images go against the grain of traditional suspense films but are surprisingly effective. What Tovoli has referred to as a “hyperilluminated” visual style (an approach he applies even to the night exteriors) makes it clear that the victims have no means of visible escape from the killer.
Tovoli discusses his technique in “Voices of the Unsane,” an excellent 17-minute featurette that includes interviews with Argento, co-composer Claudio Simonetti, assistant director Lamberto Bava, and stars Eva Robins and Daria Nicolodi. Argento, Simonetti and journalist Louis Curci provide an engaging running commentary track as well. The disc also contains two vintage shorts: the five-minute “The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento,” in which the director explains his philosophy of visual storytelling, and “Creating the Sounds of Terror,” a two-minute demonstration of the foley and sound effects recording on Tenebre. A theatrical trailer, Argento bio and alternate end credits music used for the American release (without Argento and Simonetti’s approval) round out the supplementary section of this disc.
Argento reunited with his Inferno cinematographer Romano Albani, AIC, for Phenomena (1985), a truly offbeat horror film that contains some of Argento’s most striking imagery. In the film, Jennifer Connelly plays a teenager whose unusual psychic connection with insects and primates allows her to solve a mystery with the help of scientist Donald Pleasence. Argento and Albani adopt an unusual visual style to tell their story, combining surprisingly lyrical set pieces (such as a scene in which Connelly traverses the Italian countryside in an effort to find a body) with gross-out moments involving maggots and decapitations. The DVD contains another fine commentary track featuring Argento, Simonetti and Curci, who are joined this time by special-effects makeup artist Sergio Stivaletti. Additional supplements include “A Dark Fairy Tale,” a 17-minute making-of documentary in which Albani explains how he achieved one of Phenomena’s most stunning effects; a five-minute featurette on Luigi Cozzi’s visual effects; and a hilarious vintage interview with Argento on “The Joe Franklin Show.” A trailer and pair of music videos complete the DVD.
Trauma (1993) is the first collaboration between Argento and his daughter Asia, who plays the anorexic daughter of a couple beheaded by a vicious murderer; when an earnest young journalist falls in love with her, he tries to help the young woman with both her eating disorder and with solving the mystery of her parents’ deaths. The story is an odd blend of elements that don’t really come together (the anorexia issue is more or less dropped about halfway through the film and coexists uneasily with the serial killer plot), but it’s well worth watching for the stylish CinemaScope photography by Raffaele Mertes, AIC. Mertes adopts an austere film noir look in which characters are illuminated by shafts of smoky light and where important details emerge from pools of darkness. Like the other movies in this collection, Trauma offers plenty of juicy making-of material for Argento fans, including special effects maestro Tom Savini’s home video footage from the set and an 18-minute interview with Argento himself. There are also four-and-a-half minutes of deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. But the best supplement on the disc is a commentary track by film scholar Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento and an inexhaustible source of Argento anecdotes and insights.
Jones contributes an equally thorough commentary to The Card Player (2004), a thriller about a serial killer who forces cops to play video poker with the lives of innocent people as the stakes. Argento wanted a more realistic, direct lighting style for this police procedural, so he called on innovative Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debie (Irreversible), who shot the majority of the film in natural light. In addition to Jones’ audio narration, The Card Player’s extras consist of a 13-minute interview with Argento, a slightly longer conversation with Simonetti, and 14 minutes of promotional content and behind-the-scenes material (a theatrical trailer is included as well).
The TV movie Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) is one of Argento’s most underrated and entertaining films, a playful thriller in which a young film student becomes convinced that his sexy neighbor has committed murder using a method adopted from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. For this wry love letter to his favorite suspense movies (De Palma and Nosferatu, among many others, are referenced along with Hitchcock), Argento borrowed his daughter Asia’s DP, Frederic Fasano, AIC (Fasano shot the younger Argento’s directorial debut, Scarlet Diva). Fasano skillfully merges the fantasy world of old movies in which the protagonist immerses himself with the physical reality of urban life in Torino, introducing stylized splashes of color and expressionistic lighting into naturalistic settings to ratchet up the intensity. The only extra feature on this disc, the final one in the set, is “Do You Like Hitchcock?: Backstage,” a six-minute featurette comprised of on-set footage.
The transfers of the films vary in quality; the later films are solid, but Tenebre and Phenomena (ironically, the two movies in the set that have been newly remastered) are occasionally marred by compression artifacts and scratches in the original source elements. Overall, however, the tonal range and subtle lighting effects of all five cinematographers are nicely preserved. With the exception of the standard stereo mix on Do You Like Hitchcock?, all the discs are mastered in Dolby 5.1, and the surround mixes are uniformly clear and powerful, allowing the listener to enjoy both the atmospheric sound design of Argento’s work and his eclectic taste in music (everyone from De Palma favorite Pino Donaggio to heavy metal legends Iron Maiden and Motörhead contribute tracks to the films). In the end, the only serious complaint one can level at the Argento box set is that there ought to be more of it — hopefully Anchor Bay will add a second volume (as they did with the Bava collections) to include some of the director’s other cult classics.