Dario Argento's Door into Darkness
Door into Darkness was a short-lived television series consisting of four one-hour episodes developed and produced by Italian giallo king Dario Argento between the releases of his second and third films, The Cat O'Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The experience clearly did not go down too well with him, as he seems to have since lost interest in producing for television. Nevertheless, despite constant battles with idiotic censorship at the hands of the RAI (essentially Italy's version of the BBC), Argento and his croneys managed to create a flawed but genuinely intriguing set of films. Basing the framework around the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, each of the four episode is introduced by Argento, and each tells a stand-alone story in its own right. Argento wrote and directed two of the four episodes (although his director's credit is replaced by a pseudonym each time), leaving the other two to his collaborator and frequent assistant director Luigi Cozzi, and RAI veteran Mario Foglietti, respectively.
The first episode on offer is the Luigi Cozzi-helmed Il Vicino Di Casa ("The Neighbour"), a decidely Hitchcockian entry in which a young couple and their baby move into an isolated apartment, unaware that the man upstairs has just murdered his wife. Shades of Rear Window, anybody? Despite this, however, Cozzi manages to create a decent plot and a considerable amount of tension. The open-ended conclusion is also a very nice (and oddly satisfying) touch. That said, the young couple have got to be two of the most idiotic protagonists of all time. One hilarious scene involves them not wanting to go back into the house, despite the fact that their precious baby, over whom they have just spend the last half-hour doting, is still inside. (Never mind the fact that these MENSA candidates left the baby alone in the same building as a lunatic murderer in the first place.)
Next up is Dario Argento's Il Tram ("The Tram"). Directing under the moniker of Sirio Bernadotte, Argento springs an intriguing, if somewhat slow-paced web of mystery, asking viewers to ponder the question of how a woman could have been murdered on a crowded tram and not noticed by anyone. This time, the list of suspects is ridiculously large, and although Argento does his best to give each one of them enough screen time to establish their potential motives as believable, at the end of the day an hour is just not enough time for this sort of story. The episode is well-shot, however, and includes enough little comic touches to make it worthwhile: a favourite of mine is the detective who insists on constantly clicking his fingers.
What follows is Argento's second and final film of the series, Testimone Oculare ("Eyewitness"). Originally directed by (and credited to) Roberto Pariante from a script by Argento and Cozzi, Argento ended up reshooting the entire film after he was dissatisfied with the results. This is quite possibly the most gripping and enjoyable of the four stories, although the female protagonist bears a somewhat unsettling resemblance to Michael Jackson! In many respects, fragments of 1996's The Stendhal Syndrome (one of Argento's most complex and, in my opinion, most masterful films) can be glimpsed, nearly 30 years ahead of its time. The film deals with a young woman who, driving home late at night, nearly runs into the dead body of a woman. Discovering that the woman has been shot, our heroine rushes away and reports the incident to the police. However, the body is nowhere to be seen, and everyone, including the police and the heroine's husband, believe her to be mad. Eventually, she begins to question her own sanity. Despite only ever having two possible suspects, this episode succeeds in being extremely engaging, and is definitely the best of the four films in terms of character study.
Finally in the lineup is La Bambola ("The Doll"), a rather boring and straightforward affair directed by Mario Foglietti, with some assistance by Luigi Cozzi. An unknown mental patient escapes from an insane asylum and begins stalking innocent women. Who is he? Yawn. This is comfortably the weakest of the four, with every plot twist telegraphed to the extent that you can see it coming a mile away. Most unsatisfying.
The obviously low budget of the series is not its biggest problem. In fact, the grainy, uneven footage gives is a strange believability and also adds to the tension. Likewise, the jazzy and somewhat simplistic score by Giorgio Gaslini (who also did the initial compositions for Profondo Rosso) is very effective when it comes to building tension. The main downfall is a result of the strict censorship of the RAI, who stipulated, among other things, that a knife was too phallic an object to be used as a weapon, and that "good family values" must be conveyed at all times (in a series about brutal murders, no less). This can be glimpsed through the fact that, by and large, the protagonists are all young, married and stalwart upholders of the law. These young lovebirds barely seem to touch each other, let alone kiss or have sex. The result is that with Door into Darkness Argento had much less freedom of expression than he did with his films, so at the end of the day the series struggles to even come close to the level of innovation and quality that he was able to reach even with some of his less revered efforts.
By the way, Fulvio Mingozzi, a regular face in Argento's early films, shows up as a detective in Il Tram. (He is best known as the cab driver in Suspiria.)
All the episodes are presented non-anamorphically in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. I'm sure Dragon did the best they could with the source material they used, but in all honesty, the transfer is pretty horrific. Detail is essentially non-existant, and print damage is very heavy. The image has a diffuse, distant look, with a lot of artefacting. Colours are muted to some extent, and in actual fact the show is meant to be viewed in black and white (as per Luigi Cozzi's introduction to the series). The reason for the problems is obvious: quite apart from being a low budget TV show from the 1970s, shot on 16mm film, these DVD transfers come from a VHS tape. On a number of occasions video-tape damage is apparent in the form of lines running down the screen. The framing also seems off on a number of occasions, with many of the credits partially cropped off on the left hand side of the screen. Once agian, I must stress that I honestly don't believe Dragon skimped on this release in any way: I'm sure they got the best source materials on offer, and did what they could with them, but it's truly a shame that better materials do not exist.
The audio track provided is the original mono Italian audio, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The sound is serviceable, but undeniably weak. Dialogue is muffled and the overall effect is not particularly satisfying.
Subtitles are provided in English and German, but annoyingly they seem the run very slightly behind the video. While certainly not unwatchable, it's a little irritating because, by nature, you don't really want to be reading subtitles behind the film but in front of it.
The menu is static, with artwork that mirrors the motif of the packaging. Music from the series plays in the background.
The two DVDs come housed in a digipack inside an attractive cardboard slip case, featuring some very nice artwork. Also included is a 16-page colour booklet, featuring an introduction by Luigi Cozzi (although sadly in German only).
Each episode is preceded by a lengthy and informative introduction by Luigi Cozzi. Despite the rather silly idea of halfing the frame rate and tinting the entire screen brown (to the extent that it looks like a terrible RealVideo stream), these are extremely interesting inclusions. Cozzi discusses everything from the origins of the series to censorship problems to the reasons for Argento directing under an alias (he felt that to be known as a TV director would damage his career).
Also included is an interview with Cozzi that gives an overview of the series as a whole. In all, around 40 minutes of interview footage is featured.
Cozzi speaks in Italian, and English and German subtitles are included. Unfortunately, the subtitles seem to miss out about a third of what Cozzi is saying. This is infuriating, but plenty of information is conveyed regardless.
Despite the appalling (although forgivable, given the source material) image quality, no Argento fan will want to be without this set, which showcases a rarely-seen era of the filmmaker's career. Although the series as a whole is flawed, mainly due to the censorial demands placed on Argento by the RAI, these films actually have enough curiosity value to negate this, and besides, only one of the four episodes is a complete disaster. Provided you can track down a copy of this (numbers were strictly limited), this release should be a delight for any Argentophile.