Odds are if you know anything about Italian horror, you’ve heard of Dario Argento. The iconoclastic filmmaker gave cinema some of the most bombastic and gruesomely beautiful murder set pieces of all time. From his 1971 debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, through his fittingly sweeping epic Opera in 1987, he effectively had nothing but hits. And then he just started not to make good movies. From 1990 forward, Argento’s output was on the low end, peppered by a few decent-to-good outings on occasion.
This alone would have made an interesting focus of a documentary. So would his time as one of the most photographed people in Italy during his celebrity director era. His complicated and troubled family history also would have made for a compelling watch. Unfortunately, Simone Scafidi’s documentary Dario Argento Panico doesn’t pick any one of these, but attempts to touch on all of them. In under 100 minutes, Scafidi’s focus feels a bit scattered, as we see talking head interviews with family, collaborators, celebrity fans, and even the man himself.
In 2019, Scafidi made a seemingly similar documentary on Lucio Fulci called Fulci for Fake with the interesting conceit of painting the Zombie and The Beyond director as an unknowable enigma, unable to pin down. Whether or not Fulci was as strange as the film portrayed is less important than having the clear and defined point of view while taking the audience on a guided tour of his life and career.
Dario Argento Panico, perhaps by centering so much on the very much still-alive Argento and his interview, feels like it’s pulling punches, afraid to get too deep into any of the possibly less savory aspects of his life. Rare exceptions include actor Cristina Marsillach, the lead of Opera who famously had a rough go with Argento during filming. She says his curtness with her led to a better performance. Later, when asked to describe Argento as a person, she breaks down saying she doesn’t know him at all. This felt so out of place, I wasn’t sure whether it was scripted for some added drama or if it was genuine.
The usual suspects of people in Argento’s orbit also appear. These include his daughters Fiore and Asia, the latter, a controversial figure in her own right. Asia gives the movie its lone discourse about how Dario treated her mother, Daria Nicolodi, as well as her own fraught working relationship with him. It was absolutely weird and creepy that he cast her in roles that required nudity and torment. Other than mentioning this, we never get a ton of justification from Dario nor any real condemnation.
Acolytes Luigi Cozzi, Lamberto Bava, and Michele Soavi—all of whom owe their own directing careers to Argento to varying degrees—provide little beyond specific filming anecdotes, while opposing viewpoints from writers and producers are all-too brief. Directors Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Gaspar Noe pop up to discuss Argento’s filmmaking prowess in his heyday, and while I found this stuff interesting the way I always find filmmakers talking about influences interesting, these bits feel out of a different film.
So, here’s the rub. Dario Argento Panico is not a bad documentary. It’s well-made, has plenty of interviews and clips, and will give viewers a passable potted history of his life and best films. At 98 minutes, however, the material is little more than an overview. I knew most of this stuff from just years of watching his movies and listening to audio commentaries, so I don’t find much here to call it “definitive.” As the movie will debut on Shudder, it’s reasonable to assume horror buffs will be the ones watching it. Really, it’s much better suited to newcomers.
It’s worth a watch for the Argento family interviews, but don’t expect a deep analysis of either the man’s life, mind, or work.
Dario Argento Panico hits Shudder February 2, 2024.