Gli incubi di Dario Argento (1987)

Monday, 21 September 2020

Gli incubi di Dario Argento (The Nightmares of Dario Argento) was a segment featured on the Italian television series Giallo on Rai 2 which was broadcast from October 1987 to January 1988. The series, which naturally focussed on murder mysteries, was conceived and hosted by Italian television host Enzo Tortora and was a mixture of current affairs and fictional content. Tortora (renowned for his unjust incarceration in a trial involving the Camorra) handled the current affairs segment of the show, which included segments on unsolved crimes and historical accounts of murder cases, whilst Argento was in charge of the show’s more creative, fictional aspects. As part of Argento's creative contribution to Giallo, he directed a series of vignettes which aimed to capture the nightmarish surreality of one's dreams born from his fertile imagination.

Argento often cites his childhood nightmares as a major influence in his creative endeavours and of great importance to the horror genre at large. Gli incubi di Dario Argento was conceived by the director to explore this concept of the nightmare within the framework of a 3 minute short. The format lent itself  to the concept of capsulising a nightmare; allowing Argento to tell a short horror story in a few scenes representing the fragmented surreal nature of a dream. The shorts were often effects laden and a chance for Argento to experiment with visual effects and concepts without the constraints of a feature length film.

Gli incubi di Dario Argento consisted of nine 3 minute episodes directed, introduced and sometimes narrated by Dario Argento. Shot on 35mm, the 3 minute segments told a short horror story accompanied by music from Argento’s films alongside contemporary pop songs. Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, who starred in Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) the same year, featured in several of the introductory segments and could often be seen mugging behind Argento as he introduced his short in front of a bank of television screens from inside the Giallo studio in Milan. 

As a director, Argento often courted controversy and Gli incubi was no exception. The series attracted the ire of concerned and horrified television viewers who objected to the violent content of Argento's vignettes. One short in particular, Punk Nostalgia, was met with much indignation due to the graphic nature of the violence depicted. As a result, subsequent episodes of Gli incubi were reined in with Rai requesting that Argento moderated the violent content of his vignettes resulting in the latter half of the series feeling less ostentatiously gruesome than the first. 

After Gli incubi di Dario Argento completed its run, Argento produced another series of episodic horror for Giallo with Turno di notte - a successor to Gli incubi di Dario Argento. The series conceived by Argento, compromised of fifteen episodes directed by frequent Argento collaborators Lamberto Bava and Luigi Cozzi with Bava directing the first six episodes and Cozzi directing the remaining nine. The series revolved around the mysterious goings on at a Roman taxi company firm at night and incorporated many key motifs present in Argento's work and Italian horror and thriller cinema at large. 

Argento's final contribution to the Giallo series was a series of films surrounding the making of key scenes in Argento's oeuvre. The films, carried out in a rudimentary documentary styled fashion, explained how various scenes and effects in his films were constructed. For example, the crane shot in Opera, the transformation scene in Demons 2 and sound effects and design in Suspiria and Opera. Behind the scenes footage of how the vignettes for Gli incubi were made also featured. Some of the footage shot for the feature later appeared in Luigi Cozzi's Dario Argento: Master of Horror feature length documentary in 1991.  

Whilst, the vignettes are naturally brief and without much to comment on in a detailed manner, I'll outline the individual episodes for those interested in a quick summation and the odd bit of commentary.

Episode 1: La finestra sul cortile (Rear Window)

Gli incubi di Dario Argento's opening vignette is a homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a fitting choice for a director like Argento who frequently courted comparison to the master of suspense throughout his career. In La finestra sul cortile, a young man named Massimo watches Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window one evening. As he watches the film, Massimo ponders the rear window in his own flat and inspired by the film, grabs a pair of binoculars and looks out onto his courtyard, witnessing a fight taking place between a couple. The man stabs the woman which prompts Massimo to act, grabbing a rope and knife abseiling down to the courtyard. However, the rope snaps and Massimo lands on his knife. Incapacitated, a man with a stocking over his head brandishing a knife gleefully laughs at Massimo as he wrestles with a series of snakes he's unwittingly disturbed. The police arrive assuming that Massimo is the culprit and as he's taken away he hysterically laughs at how events have unfolded. 

Perhaps hindered by the restricted running length, La finestra sul cortile feels like a window into a  longer climatic sequence. Competently executed, the short succinctly captures a nightmarish atmosphere characterised by a series of bizarre misfortunes and the bleed of fiction into reality. Simon Boswell's Sleepwalking from Phenomena (1985) plays in the background which heightens the mood of the piece.

Episode 2: Riti notturni (Night Rituals)

A young couple employ a Haitian maid to clean their home unaware that she is part of a cannibalistic voodoo sect. The maid conducts voodoo rituals in the flat in the couple's absence and on their return, the home is infiltrated by members of the sect who slaughter and devour the couple before filling the fridge with their remaining body parts. In Art of Darkness, Roberto Curti suggests the idea for Riti notturni was born from a film concept in development by Argento about urban voodoo.

Episode 3: Il verme (The Worm)

Arguably, the most successful episode of Gli incubi, Il verme is the story of a young woman named Bettina who sits alone one night with her pet cat reading an issue of Dylan Dog. A report on the television about an infectious disease carried by cats that causes worms to propagate in the body prompts Bettina to inspect her own, terrified that she's harbouring the disease. There’s an eroticised feel to the vignette with Bettina stripping down to her underwear in front of a mirror examining her nubile body with a magnifying glass. This eroticised scene promptly shifts to one of horror as Bettina discovers a worm burying itself into her eyeball. Suitably horrified, she attempts to remove the parasitic worm before plunging a knife into her eyeball. 

The special effects in Il verme are suitably crawling with some wonderfully orchestrated, wince inducing eye effects that immediately draw comparison to the work of Lucio Fulci. There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing in the vignette as Bettina casts her magnifying glass over a snake tattoo on her body that resembles the wriggling form of a worm. It's a simple but atmospheric short cast in gorgeous bluish tones and strikingly lit encapsulating a nightmarish, unsettling feel.

Episode 4: Amare e morire (Loving and Dying)

Amare e morire is a short inspired by rape revenge cinema. A hooded man breaks into a woman named Gloria's home and beats and rapes her. After the ordeal, she defiantly vows to kill the man who has savagely violated her. Suspecting the perpetrator is one of the three men who live next door, she invites the men round for a nighttime soirĂ©e to deduce who the suspect is using a novel method - she will sleep with each man in order to unveil the rapist who possesses a specific detail that she will instantly recognise. Once unmasked, Glora enacts her revenge on her assailant in typically bloodied Argento fashion. 

There's an intriguing idea in Amare e morire that would have perhaps lent itself to a more fleshed out, extended treatment. Argento later returned to the idea of rape revenge cinema in his complex 1996 thriller, The Stendhal Syndrome. Competently shot with distinctive hues of red and orange, the vignette is one of the more visually pleasing entries of Gli incubiOne of the most surprising aspects of Amare e morire is the use of Michael Jackson’s Bad on the soundtrack during Gloria's unconventional detective work. 

Episode 5: Nostalgia Punk

Nostalgia Punk is the most controversial episode of Gli incubi di Dario Argento, receiving numerous complaints upon its broadcast resulting in the tempering down of horror content in later episodes of the series. The short consists of a young woman having her fortune read by a fortune teller. Unhappy with her reading, the woman casts the fortune teller out of her home. In response, the fortune teller casts a curse on the woman’s glass of water turning it into a poisonous liquid. On drinking the concoction, the woman begins to vomit blood and other liquids; the gruesome display climaxing when she rips open her chest and pulls her guts from her body - an idea replicated in the opening of Argento's Mother of Tears (2007). Nostalgia Punk, and Gli incubi at large, demonstrate Argento's ability to push the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable for televisual broadcast. Alongside, Riti notturni, Nostalgia Punk is one of the shorts missing from online edits of the series but footage from the vignette can be seen in the making of the series.

Episode 6: La strega (The Witch)

La strega takes place at the rather ominous setting of a children’s birthday party. The birthday girl, Cinzia, celebrates with her friends as her father watches on. He suggests the children play a game called 'The Witch" down in the basement which involves the children guessing what objects are by touch, shrouded in darkness. The first objects are fairly innocuous - a hair clip and a shoe but the next objects are shown, to the audience, to be a foot and a head. As the children pass the body parts to one another, a child notes the head is wet and is horrified to discover that it's the decapitated head of Cinzia. Cinzi's father maniacally laughs brandishing a bloody blade. 

Purportedly based on Ray Bradbury's infamous horror short story, The October Game, La strega is a simple yet effective horror short playing on familiar horror tropes. As the children partake in the game, Morricone's score for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) ominously plays in the background, the childlike singing heightening the macabre scene. 

Episode 7: Addormentarsi (Falling Asleep)

A man lies on his bed, accompanied by his pet dog, restless and unable to sleep. He becomes transfixed by a series of strange shapes cast across his bedroom window - one resembling a devil's face. A malevolent apparition appears at the window as the man's dog furiously barks seemingly aware of an otherworldly presence. The outlined shadow at the window draws a blade and rushes towards the window pane, stabbing the man in the neck in a scene that resembles Helena Markos' death scene in Suspiria (1977). A flash of golden light appears and the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK begins to play as the man comes back to life possessed. His jaw dislocates and grows larger, turning into a grotesque gaping maw, and he eats the dog in a scene reminiscent of the The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

Addormentarsi captures that strange lucid feeling of being between waking and sleeping combining typical Argento like imagery with grotesque caricature B-movie like special effects. The man in the short is none other than Lino Salemme who played Ripper in Demons (Bava, 1985), Inspector Corsi in Delirium (Bava, 1987) and Turi in Demonia (Fulci, 1990)

Episode 8: Sammy

Set on Christmas Eve, denoted by the use of with Band Aid's Do They Know Its Christmas and festive decorations. A girl named Sammy is left alone at home whilst her parents attend a Christmas party. Hearing a noise, Sammy is curious and decides to investigate its source descending the stairs into the family living room. She sees movement at the front door and runs up the stairs watching from a distance as a figure enters the house and begins to climb the stairs. Entering her room, Sammy is relieved to see that the intruder is a jolly looking Santa. He questions who she thought he was to which she replies 'a monster'. Sammy's relief is short lived when in response, Santa rips off his face revealing a hideous lizard alien monster underneath. 

A Christmas themed outing, albeit strikingly different to Argento's last foray into Christmas set horror with Profondo Rosso (1975), Sammy plays out like a tongue in cheek, child friendly horror short. Father Christmas' true appearance is a surprising yet humorous reveal. Lively behind the scenes footage from the vignette can be seen later on in the Giallo series. 

Episode 9: L’incubo di chi voleva interpretare l’incubo di Dario Argento (The Nightmares of the One who Wished to Explain Dario Argento’s Nightmares)

The final short in the series of Gli incubi di Dario Argento is a gloriously silly meta take on the previous eight episodes. A young man has been given the opportunity to be involved with Gli incubi and arrives at Argento's offices (a poster for Opera can be seen in the corridor) excited to meet the director. Argento, harangued by his staff, asks the young man to return the next day when he's less busy. The young man is sent to a nearby hostel where he's harassed by his roommates who steal his money and documents. Frustrated, the man reports the harassment to the desk clerk and makes a telephone call to Argento Productions explaining his predicament. On returning to the room, the other men chastise him for blabbing and hold him down brandishing a knife. Dario Argento appears flanked by his crew revealing that the scenario was an elaborate set-up as part of the programme. 

The final episode of the Gli incubi series feels like a fitting end to Argento's series of nightmarish shorts. L’incubo di chi voleva interpretare l’incubo di Dario Argento is Argento playfully poking fun at himself as well as his audience by playing with established preconceptions of Argento the director and his work in the horror genre. The short also briefly examines preconceptions in the racism depicted, exhibited by the young man towards his roommates at the hostel. The series, which sought to capture the surreal horror of Argento's nightmares fittingly ends with a nightmare within a nightmare blurring the lines between imagination and reality. 

A follow up post on Turno di notte will follow shortly.

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