In its early narrative, Simone Scafidi’s Dario Argento Panico introduces its eponymous subject, now in his 80s, as a sort of mythologized figure — a maestro, immersed in the process of creating what may be his final work. Leaning into the idea of the double, explored in several of Argento’s films, Scafidi reveals the famed Italian director as both an architect of fear and a man with open vulnerabilities and anxieties. Argento’s arrival at a country hotel, where he will stay while he finishes his latest screenplay — an important ritual from his past, we are informed via title card — is staged in a way to emulate his distinctive filmmaking style.
The prospect of observing the creative process of a master director is tantalizing, but it never really materializes in Dario Argento Panico. Instead, Scafidi, who previously examined the work of Lucio Fulci in Fulci for Fake (2019), mainly opts for a talking heads approach for the remainder of the documentary, interspersing archival footage and film clips with interviews with the director, his family and associates, and other filmmakers including Guillermo de Toro, Gaspar Noé, and Nicholas Winding Refn.
While perhaps not breaking new ground, these conversations do generate plenty of interesting tidbits about the progression of Argento’s career. An early scene, in which the director describes being brought on board Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, alongside Bernardo Bertolucci, is especially engaging. Argento implies he was afforded this great opportunity as a young man, in place of the more famous older screenwriters Leone had previously worked with, due to the protagonist of the film being female. In Argento’s telling, Leone believed that “screenwriters of a certain age… didn’t know how to describe women” (given these circumstances, it seems like Leone maybe should have hired a woman as a screenwriter… ).
This anecdote is rather in keeping with Argento’s fascination and identification with the female form and face, something that is emphasized on multiple occasions in Panico — first in the director’s explanation of how visiting his mother Elda Luxardo’s photography studio as a child influenced him: “Women, girls, are very important in my movies because I remember how my mother depicted them, how she elevated them”; and, perhaps most notably, in his daughter Asia Argento’s summation of the experience of starring in his films: “I mean, I’m my father in those movies.” For a director who has at times been criticized for the extremity evinced in his repeated depictions of violence against women, the discussion is thoughtful, almost tender.
Asia Argento emerges as a central figure in Dario Argento Panico, but various other members of Argento’s family have doubled as his key collaborators throughout his career. The documentary acknowledges that Argento’s first film as a director, the 1970 giallo film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was made possible through the work of his producer-father Salvatore Argento. The prevalence of Argento’s loved ones dually functioning as his creative partners makes Scafidi’s access to the director’s personal sphere, which also includes his sister Floriana Argento, daughter Fiore Argento, and ex-wife Marisa Casale, feel essential, and some of the personal reflections that arise from these interviews are quite touching. Both Argento’s children speak highly of him as a loving and involved parent; there’s a sweet moment where Fiore compliments her father for his resolve to always treat her and her sister with fairness: “There’s absolute equality with both daughters… which I don’t see much in other families.”
On the other hand, there is also a degree of emotional fallout that is quietly addressed. Casale is particularly gracious in her recollections of noticing an “incredible resemblance” between herself and the emotionally disturbed female killer in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) — a reflection that is further amplified by Argento admitting that he cast Michael Brandon to play the protagonist of that film due to his resemblance to himself. Similarly, Asia Argento discusses her conflicted feelings around her character in Trauma (1993) being inspired by her late sister Anna Ceroli’s experiences with anorexia. Additionally, she speaks to the difficulty of filming the sexually explicit scenes in The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) and The Phantom of the Opera (1998): “At the time, I didn’t have the courage to tell my father but why do we have to do these scenes?” The willingness to here approach these sometimes unsettling personal conversations is commendable and provides deeper context to the legacy of Argento and his films.
Dario Argento Panico does, however, fumble somewhat in its approach to acknowledging the authorship of the late Daria Nicolodi — Argento’s former partner and perhaps most significant creative collaborator. Having starred in the incredibly evocative and stylish Deep Red (1975), Nicolodi co-wrote Suspiria (1977), Argento’s most internationally recognized and arguably greatest film. Argento speaks fondly of Nicolodi in the documentary — “She was a woman with a very strong character… she was a very cultured person… she inspired me in many things” — but does not address her contributions as a writer. As Nicolodi’s daughter, Asia Argento thoughtfully advocates for her: “Suspiria is a bit the elephant in the room for my family and for my life because my mother used to tell one story about it and my father another… I recognize a lot of my mother in this story.” In this sequence, Scafidi makes a choice that strikes one as a bit odd in cutting back and forward between this discourse and composer Claudio Simonetti discussing progressive rock band Goblin’s avant-garde score for the film (“Still today when I listen to it, we were way ahead!”). These two worthwhile avenues of discussion are so tonally mismatched that it ends up feeling like they’re being rushed through. The unfortunate effect is further compounded when Scafidi then cuts to Winding Refn, who describes Suspiria as “the ultimate cocaine movie” — an observation that would be grating at the best of times.
Though impressively thorough in its methodical working over of much of Argento’s life and career, Dario Argento Panico glosses over the director’s late career films. Nearing its end, the documentary suggests a split in Argento’s work, with the films released after Opera (1987) failing to live up to the ones that came before. “That fury, the one that was in Argento until Opera, has faded a bit and changed. What do you think happened?” director Michele Soavi is asked from off screen. Soavi responds thoughtfully, but the question itself remains vaguely troubling. While it’s quite reasonable that Dario Argento Panico gives greatest attention to the filmmaker’s most successful period, it unfortunately does read as a little patronizing when this career overview — which so memorably begins with a present-day Argento preparing to write his latest screenplay — reveals that it seemingly perceives the past three decades of the director’s career as an afterthought. Argento is, undeniably, a genius of the medium, and deserves to be examined not just in pieces, but as a whole.
DIRECTOR: Simone Scafidi; DISTRIBUTOR: Shudder; IN THEATERS: January 31; STREAMING: February 2; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.