Skintaster’s Guide to Foreign Horror Film. Part 1 – Dario Argento.

I’m a horror fan. As someone that’s sought out films of that genre since I was a kid in the 1970’s, I definitely have strong opinions about what I enjoy and what I don’t. Like many horror fans, I consider the period of time from the late 60’s to the mid 80’s to be a golden age for Horror films, and I have tried to track down as many of them from that time period as I possibly can – always on the lookout for some obscure rarity, or a movie that I had never known about.

This has become much easier over the last few years, as it seems that almost everything has become available one way or another. That was not always the case though. In the years before the Internet, most horror fans like myself were limited to the films that were shown at the local movie theater, or made it onto cable or the shelves of mom and pop video rental stores.

Those early video stores were both a blessing and a curse for horror fans like myself. The video rental industry had created a demand for films on VHS, and there were only so many major American releases out there. Horror films were always popular, and to feed the demand for home viewing, films were released in the US from all over the world. Europe, in particular, was a vast resource for films that got released on VHS in America. 

In the case of films from Great Britain, the transition was usually an easy one. Cultural differences aside, the fact that those films were shot in English meant that they wouldn’t need to be altered to make sense to a typical American. Movies coming from parts of Europe where English wasn’t the native language usually got a dicier treatment before being widely distributed in the US. A lot of the time those films suffered from being badly edited, usually of graphic sex or violence Then they were dubbed, sometimes very clumsily, rendering the version that made it into the US almost unwatchable or incomprehensible. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of those weird dubbed foreign horror films were marketed in ways that tried to trick us into thinking that the film was made in the US, with the director and actors billed under American-sounding pseudonyms. Only when popping the film into the VCR would it become obvious you were duped – minimalist early synth soundtracks and lots of suspiciously Italian or Spanish looking surnames in the credits were usually a good tell. 

In any case, after being burned a few times – renting what promised to be an entertaining zombie film or something, only to realize that it was a fairly awful Italian low-budget film that had been hacked to pieces, I tended to stay clear of most foreign horror films for many years. There were exceptions of course – I knew Dario Argento was usually a good bet for an interesting film, and knew that Lucio Fulci had made at least a couple of films that while maybe not “great” were at least entertaining, but outside of a handful of foreign directors like those guys, I generally avoided foreign horror for quite some time.

Sadly, I missed out on a lot of good stuff as a result, and have only recently began to explore, and in some cases reacquaint myself with certain films and directors that came from non-English speaking countries. I say “reacquaint” because in quite a few cases, I’d take a chance on some of these films way back in the mom and pop video store days and take it home to discover that I’d rented another low budget, dubbed, and terrible Italian horror film.  So for years, I just generally avoided them, and learned how to tell it was a foreign film before being fooled by Americanized names or an impressively lurid box cover. 

It only took being burned by a handful of Jesus Franco films to avoid films like “Oasis of the Zombies” for decades.

But now? What can I say? Perhaps in the spirit of trying to expand my horizons, or just out of stubbornness and boredom with mainstream horror, I recently began to revisit some of those foreign films and also began to explore deeper into the previously obscure material that’s become more easily available I recent years. This has been very satisfying, because while it’s true that I’ve stumbled across quite a few real turds on this quest, I’ve also discovered a whole world of horror and exploitation films that I never knew existed.

I had discovered the better known films of Dario Argento over 25 years ago. When it comes to Italian horror filmmakers, Argento is definitely one of the most revered, and that is deserved. At his best, the man’s films are among the best horror movies ever made. His 1977 masterpiece “Suspiria” is often cited for it’s influence, and regularly makes it into countdown lists of the best horror movies. It’s easy to see his remarkable visual style influenced other great horror films like John Carpenter’s “Halloween,”
 and for most of the 1970’s and much of the 80’s, Argento made many unforgettably visual and engaging films. His best work has a dreamlike quality, and while the plots are often simple, or don’t always make a lot of sense, he masterfully creates stories that are both full of unease and horror, but are also beautiful to watch. Argento got his start making Giallos, which were a uniquely Italian genre of violent thrillers that often featured brutal set pieces and supernatural themes. The Giallo films were a large movement involving many Italian directors in the 60’s and 70’s, and largely influenced the American slasher films kickstarted by the success of “Halloween.” Any horror fan not familiar with Dario Argento’s work should rectify that as soon as possible, as his films are some of the more easily accessible
Italian horror films, and also hugely entertaining and influential. Some suggestions to get started would include:

Profondo Rosso – one of his finest early films,and one that has all of Argento’s stylistic traits and visual flair, Profondo Rosso, or “Deep Red” as it was known here in the US, combined the Giallo style of thriller with Argento’s attraction to the supernatural, and it’s one of his finest films. It’s finally been released in this country in a fairly complete and unedited form.

Suspiria – considered his masterpiece, and with good reason, Suspiria is the film that put Argento on the map outside of Italy, and is probably his most visually striking film. It is like watching a nightmare unfold, and is among my favorite horror films of all time. The soundtrack by the progressive/experimental rock band Goblin is almost a character itself, and helps set the mood of the film.

Inferno – a sequel to Suspiria, Inferno is like watching a fairy tale on film. Much more visually oriented than sensical, it’s a unique film.

And of course there are many others worth tracking down. Argento’s earlier Giallos are still stylish thrillers, and while different in tone than his later work, they are some of the best the genre has to offer.Image
Next up – More on Argento, and other Italian masters of horror.

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