Dario Argento: Panico (2023) Movie Review – A surface level look at a horror movie legend

A surface level look at a horror movie legend

Dario Argento’s movies are not for the faint of heart or anyone with an aversion to the colour red. Since his debut film in 1970, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, he has directed over 25 blood-soaked pictures that have thrilled audiences and made them squirm in their seats. 

Argento’s earlier works are undoubtedly his best, with such films as Suspiria, Tenebrae, and Inferno being recognized as classics within the horror genre. His later movies, including an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (bewilderingly filmed in 3D), haven’t fared quite so well with critics but there are still moments in his lesser films that showcase his mastery of his craft. 

Currently streaming on Shudder is Dario Argento: Panico, a biographical documentary from Simone Scafidi that takes a look at Argento’s life and career, with an interview with the director himself as well as contributions from family members, frequent collaborators, and the filmmakers who have been inspired by his works. 

Unfortunately, Scafidi only scratches the surface when trying to shed light on what makes Argento tick. Throughout the doc, the question “Who is Dario Argento?” is repeatedly raised but the answer to that question is frustratingly elusive.

“He is fear” says one actor, an answer that is as abstract as the director seems to be himself. “Dario is Dario Argento,” says another commenter, which doesn’t really tell us much of anything. Opera actress Cristina Marsillach breaks through her tears and says “I don’t know” when asked who Argento is, an answer that is indicative of the fact that people can’t seem to get a grasp on the famed director.

Of course, it’s very difficult to delve deeply into anybody, as we can never truly know somebody. Some of us struggle to even know ourselves. But I wish Scafidi had been able to provide a better insight into Argento as he had the opportunity to get beneath his skin while talking with him for the interview.

This isn’t to say we learn nothing at all. During the interview with Argento, we discover he had suicidal tendencies when he was younger, and that his fascination with beautiful women, those earthly goddesses who were either the protagonists of his films or the victims of his created serial killers, stemmed from the work of his mother, a photographer, whose subjects were some of Italy’s most attractive female celebrities. 

These tidbits of information are very interesting but they provide a general overview of Argento rather than something that (like the sharp blades in his films) cuts a little deeper. Also missing is an in-depth discussion of Argento’s most famous works. We are blessed with occasional extracts from his movies and behind-the-scenes footage but what’s absent is a proper analysis of the director’s thought processes when making these films and the reasons why he chose to tell such gruesome stories. 

Still, while the documentary will never become known as the definitive account of Argento and his celebrated film career, it does provide an account of his breakthrough into the Italian film industry and how moviemaking in that country was problematic due to its ties to television rather than cinema.  We also hear about those directors who influenced Argento, such as Alfred Hitchcock, whose camera work on the 1960 film Psycho thrilled and impressed him.

Argento is responsible for influencing his fellow auteurs too, including Gaspar Noé (who directed Argento in Vortex), Nicolas Winding Refn and Guillermo del Toro who talk about their appreciation for the director’s work. Admittedly, their comments are a little fanboyish at times, but their thoughts on Argento’s style of moviemaking are welcome all the same, even though they don’t get to the bottom of the man they so admire. 

More interesting are the comments from Dario’s daughter, Asia Argento, a celebrated filmmaker in her own right, who discusses her difficult relationship with her father and her role within some of his movies, including the sexually charged The Phantom of the Opera, which must have been an awkward collaboration for both of them. Her insights will be refreshingly new to diehard fans of the horror master, who may feel short-changed by the rest of the doc which incorporates information about the director they have probably heard before. 

Ultimately, Panico is more than a little disappointing. There are no great revelations about the director and beyond his earlier films, there isn’t enough discussion of his later works. It’s just about worth tuning into though, if only to see footage of Argento at work filming scenes that have now become a part of horror cinema history. 

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  • Verdict - 6/10

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