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Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento

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Review: Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento

In winning over new converts, champions of Dario Argento’s horror films have to fight a nose-bleed-inducing uphill battle. First off, his kinky, surreal chillers have been consigned to that special circle of exploitation purgatory reserved for Euro-schlock, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as Argento has always half-boasted and half-lamented, most of his films have been censored and subsequently released in multiple cuts (he’s pretty much the Terrence Malick of Italian sleaze).

This has made the man and his acolytes extra-defensive, as is evinced in Maitland McDonagh’s interview at the back of the new edition of her Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. By the end of their Q&A, he seems exhausted (“Why don’t you just make up a reason for me,” he retorts, as if he were ready to limply dangle a white flag above his head). And this is after McDonagh, a dogged defender of the man’s work, playfully teases him with a non-question like, “Do you lie on the beach thinking of disgusting ways to kill people?”

Innocuously silly as that question may be, for Argento’s detractors, it’s one that his supporters inevitably must think of rhetorically at some point or another. As McDonagh diligently argues throughout Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, an expanded form of her 1986 master’s thesis at Columbia, Argento’s movies fixate on highly elusive and surprisingly intricate, though usually never fully developed, crisscrossing images, clashing aesthetics, and implausible plots. They operate on dream logic and therefore, viewed as they often have been sans pivotal contextual scenes thanks to horrified censors, it’s pretty easy to be turned off by Argento’s movies. As self-contained texts, his films are already hard enough to get into, so excising whole chunks of their framework makes watching some of them a real chore, even if they are always fascinating in their own lurid kind of way.

It also doesn’t help that a key part of appreciating the dream logic that Argento’s movies rely so heavily on comes from accepting his flaws as a narrative storyteller. As with the better works of notable contemporaries like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino, atmosphere was and is everything when you discuss Argento’s films, and character development, acting, and strong pacing are always fairly immaterial. While fetishizing sex and death is nothing new for the horror genre, these filmmakers, especially Argento, make a point of turning murder into a psychotic bit of role-playing, so it’s fitting that they’re most remembered for isolated oneiric images of gored eyes, impaled mammaries, and slit gullets.

McDonagh goes to town pointing out the many ways that one can appreciate and even find meaning in Argento’s fragmented images. And in that sense, she indulges Argento’s excesses by extrapolating at great length on how sophisticated they are. Still, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds never really seems like anything more than a highly intelligent but mostly pointless tribute to Argento’s misunderstood genius.

McDonagh’s qualitative judgments are often maddening in what she chooses to emphasize and what she leaves unexamined. Why the concept of language as a killer signifier is explored in her examination of Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet and not in Tenebre, where the theme is a central image that Argento exhaustively employs, is understandably a matter of personal preference. But stray observations, like her remark about how David Cronenberg’s adaptations of Naked Lunch and Madame Butterfly, are “…for all their surface peculiarities…fundamentally mainstream motion pictures,” betray an arbitrary nature to McDonagh’s focus and judgments, one that runs throughout the text.

As with Argento’s films, context is not the book’s strong suit, like in the way that McDonagh quickly glosses over Argento’s recent films in the book’s new introduction, which is this edition’s only significant new material. McDonagh wears her bias on her sleeve and it makes Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds a lumpy, if fascinating, read. But it’s not likely to convince anyone that isn’t already attracted to Argento’s bloody nightmares.

Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento was re-released on March 22 by University of Minnesota Press. To purchase click here.