My Cultural Life: James Gracey

The Belfast author on schlocky horror, 'torture porn' and his new book on the Godfather of Gore film-maker Dario Argento

Tell us about yourself, James.

I grew up in Lurgan and developed a rabid interest in cinema when I worked in a video shop while studying for my A-levels. I eventually moved to Aberystwyth to study English and Film and from there I moved back to Belfast where I worked in a series of jobs completely unrelated to my degree while I figured out what to do with my life. I got accepted onto a CSV course in print journalism and radio broadcasting and this is pretty much when I realised that writing was what I wanted to be doing with my time.

When did you start writing?

I started to take writing seriously when I left university. I had a couple of articles published in Film Ireland and BBC NI online while I worked on the CSV course. After that and a couple of other jobs completely unrelated to writing, I eventually got a job with the Artslistings magazine and contributed regularly to the likes of AU.

Can you tell us a little about your writing regime?

It usually involves too much coffee and, up until December of last year, too many cigarettes. I usually begin by researching whatever subject I’m writing on and then take things from there. Much faffing around generally ensues too and my house usually becomes immaculately clean when deadlines are looming.

Your new book is about cult horror filmmaker Dario Argento. Why him?

I am interested in horror in general, though what I love about Dario Argento’s films is that they are so distinct and instantly recognisable. He imbues his work with a rich style and decadence that effortlessly meshes together elements of art-house and exploitation cinema. You could take a still from almost any one of his films and hang it in a gallery as a piece of art. In the grand tradition of Italian culture and history – it’s all about spectacle. In the case of Argento’s film work, it is specifically about the spectacle of violent and rhapsodic death.

Dario Argento has been called the ‘Godfather of Gore’ but how does he compare with modern torture-porn movies such as Saw and Hostel? Is he just as gory or does he bring something more subtle to the film-making table?

No, there is nothing subtle about Dario Argento’s films! Unlike so many of today’s ‘torture-porn’ movies, Argento’s work draws on an encyclopaedic array of art forms and is firmly grounded in literature, philosophy, art and indeed cinema itself. While his movies are extremely violent, they are also shot in the most strangely seductive manner. Much of Argento’s work belongs to the sub-genre of the Italian ‘giallo’. Giallo is Italian for yellow and the term comes from the coloured covers of pulp crime paperback books popular in Italy throughout the Sixties onwards. The cinematic equivalents of these books were stylish and chic thrillers that reached the height of their popularity in the Seventies. Titles such as Blood and Black Lace, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Five Dolls for an August Moon, A Lizard in Woman’s Skin and Short Night of Glass Dolls all featured exquisitely filmed scenes of fetishistic violence and dark psychological mayhem in the midst of wandering and convoluted narratives. They were so effective and unnerving because of their overtly stylish approach to the lurid subject matter. Argento still brings a level of artistry to his work that is rare in the horror genre – particularly in the current climate of Saw sequels and bland remakes.

Did you find out anything unexpected during your research?

Even though I knew Argento was a pioneering director, it was still interesting to uncover snippets of information such as the fact that he was the first director to ever employ the use of CGI in an Italian film production. And to this day he is also the only filmmaker ever to be granted permission to film inside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Do you write fiction as well as non-fiction? If so, what genre?

While I have dabbled in fiction, short stories mainly, I’ve never really pursued it with as much vigour or dedication as I have non-fiction writing.

Some people say that writing non-fiction is harder than fiction, others that it is the other way around. What’s your take on it?

Good question. Like I said though, I’ve never really made any serious attempts to write much fictional material. I can say that non-fiction is certainly not without its challenges and rewards either though!

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Sourcing some of the films was quite difficult, as a number of them weren’t widely available on DVD or VHS. I eventually tracked down the four episodes of Argento’s TV series Door Into Darkness on DVD, only to discover, to my horror and bemusement, it only had Greek subtitles. Luckily, dialogue isn’t really that important in some of Argento’s films…

Who will you be writing about next? Is there anything in the pipeline?

I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter to another book about Argento. This project is still pretty embryonic so I really don’t know too much about it. For the last few months I’ve also been reviewing films on Féile FM.

Which artists have most inspired you and why?

In terms of filmmakers, I admire individuals like David Lynch, Neil Jordan, Val Lewton, Mario Bava and Alfred Hitchcock – directors who have a distinct visual approach to their work and aren’t afraid to be daring and different in the films they make and the stories they tell.

If someone wanted to get into writing non-fiction what would your advice to them be?

Try to gain as much experience as you can. Contact as many publications and websites with ideas and proposals. As soon as you start to build up a body of published work it will help you when you submit proposals and ideas. It’s also good to practice writing and try to keep it up. Setting up a blog is generally a good way to do this. I think another thing people should be aware of is that it may take a long time before you can actually make a living from it – unless of course you are lucky enough to get a job on a paper or magazine. I still don’t get paid for a lot of what I write. The way I look at it is I’m still amassing experience and while I’m still young with no dependencies, I can afford to be broke for a while, if that makes sense.

Which of your own works are you most proud of and why?

Obviously I’m proud of the book. I’m also really proud to have had my writing published in the likes of Paracinema – an independent magazine based in New York. The guys who run that magazine are really dedicated to producing a publication that takes genre cinema seriously and they set it all up and run it themselves. In terms of really setting out to achieve dreams and goals, they are really inspirational and I’m proud to be associated with them.

Do you have a favourite book?

Generation X. Reading that was like reading someone else articulating my own thoughts, only much more eloquently than I ever could! My favourite book when I was young was Day of the Triffids. I love reading stuff by Douglas Coupland, AM Holmes, William Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe.

Favourite film?

I love old black and white horror movies, stuff like The Haunting, The Innocents and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. As much as I enjoy the excesses of Argento’s film work, I also love the ‘less is more’ approach to horror. When everything is ambiguous and left to the imagination it is much more effective than anything special effects could ever attempt to convey. I also have a major soft spot for schlocky horror and B-movies – particularly those old Roger Corman/Vincent Price films like Pit and the Pendulum. My favourite film though is probably The Shining.

Favourite music?

My mood usually informs the kind of music I listen to. I love artists like Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, Björk, Miles Davis, Philip Glass and Ennio Morricone. Reviewing albums for AU is great because I’m constantly introduced to new music, and at the moment I’m really enjoying Burning Codes, The Warlocks and Hopewell.

Dream book you’d love to write?

Something on old horror writers like Lovecraft, Blackwood and James. A book about the various film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work throughout the years would also be a joy to write.

If you were a character in one of Argento’s films how do you think you'd end up?

Dead. Very dead.

James Gracey is the author of Dario Argento by Kamera Books. It can be purchased from our online store.

Tammy Moore