A colleague recently remarked that there’s plenty to admire in Dario Argento’s movies; you just need to look past the acting, writing and incomprehensibility. That compli-sult has actually been a mantra for the Italian horror legend’s fans, who’ve admired the maestro’s singular gift for stylistic Grand Guignol even when everything else descended into camp. They’ve held on to the hope that the man behind such genius giallos as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) might suddenly reappear. Their patience has paid off, sort of. This over-the-top thriller offers extended flashes, if not a full-blown homecoming, of the artist his long-suffering devotees know and love. For the rest of us, this is simply tasty supernatural goulash served with a side of Fangoria pictorials.
The filmmaker immediately dives in and goes for baroque: After workers unearth a mystical urn, deafening chants fill the soundtrack and an archaeologist is graphically strangled by demons with her own intestines. The victim’s coworker (Asia Argento) is spotted by an evil monkey—damn you, Satan’s li’l simian!—and the chase is on. Meanwhile, a demonatrix (Atias) and some witches fresh out of the coven turn Rome into Hell’s Disneyland.
Argento conjures up such hyperventilating, high-pitched delirium that it’s tempting to forgive the dialogue (“Hey, dere’s sumpin’ down dere!”) and the fact that all the performers besides Dario’s daughter can’t act their way out of a sack with a map. But this is the man who gave us the classic Suspiria, and to treat this as anything other than the director’s return to watchability is disingenuous. That old Argento black magic, literally and figuratively, is still AWOL.