For a man whose films revel in the outlandish and the fantastical, Dario Argento receives a rather mundane, but sincere, tribute in the guise of Simone Scafidi‘s Dario Argento Panico. Referencing a statement Argento made decades ago that he would rather inspire panic than terror as it’s a more insidious, longer-lasting sensation, Panico attempts something of a narrative framework but is otherwise a standard talking head documentary that offers a chronological perspective on this maestro’s career.

Known for completing the screenplays for his most acclaimed works isolated in a hotel room, Argento takes himself off to a luxury retreat to crack on with his new opus. He allows a film crew in to document his thoughts on his career, his creative process, and his various relationship (although how this ties in with his preference for solitary creativity isn’t clear). We also get admiring talking heads from super fans Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Gaspar Noé, and more considered and measured responses from children Asia and Fiore Argento, ex-wife Marisa Casale, and collaborators like Michele Soavi and Cristina Marsillach.

The celebrity fan tributes are fun, but it’s the people who knew him best that offer the most insight. It’s overall an affectionate tribute, but there are some juicier tidbits to be had, notably from Casale about their brief marriage, and especially daughter Asia. She gives the most in depth responses, and not always the most glowing. There’s evidence of her father exhibiting a controlling and volatile temperament. When she decided to direct The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things rather than appear in The Card Player she says her father didn’t speak to her for two years. She’s also candid about the strangeness of filming a sex scene for her dad. The unspoken void in the story is that of his long-term partner, muse, and collaborator, the late Daria Nicolodi. One could only imagine the tales she could have told.

Panico paradoxically functions as a primer for Argento’s career and assumes substantial knowledge of it. As such the likely audience for Scafidi’s doc is unlikely to be wider than his existing fanbase. This is a shame as it gives a rare insight into that rare thing: a celebrity horror director, mainstream famous in Italy in a way that not even John Carpenter and Wes Craven were in the US. Through the archive footage one can see how Argento plays the unlikely showman, his lank hair and cadaverous frame giving him a Lon Chaney-esque vibe. Now in his eighties he looks almost avuncular, far from the fiery ringmaster of Italian horror he was back in the day, so there is an unavoidable sense of elegy to the film. But if there is an acknowledgement of a dimming of the light here, this is a fine contextualisation of how brightly he burned within the genre. Candid and fascinating even as its limitations are clear, Dario Argento Panico is engrossing stuff for fans, and a treasure trove of detail for those with just a passive knowledge of the man and his work.

Available on Shudder from Fri 2 Feb 2023