Dario Argento Museum of Horror

April 19, 2011 – We all bring baggage to Italy, and not just because we want to be able to change into clean underwear and socks on a regular basis. For some, the baggage is years of ancient history classes: the Roman Empire, New Testament Christianity, Nero and his banjo (I might’ve skipped a class or two). For others, it's art and literature so classic they're still a part of pop culture today: Raphael, Michelangelo, Dante. For still others, it’s certain, weighty expectations of the country’s cuisine: pasta, wine, pasta. However, my own personal baggage is courtesy of a horror movie director named Dario Argento.

Actually, there’s a whole cadre of Italian horror film directors that have filled my mental suitcase to the point that I had to honestly lie when I was asked at the Alitalia terminal, “Did you pack your own baggage?” I'm talking Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Umberto Lenzi, to name some of the more prominent. But atop the large and gory pile of comically bright red carnage that these filmmakers leave behind, the king of that sick mountain is undeniably Dario Argento, a director well known for his artistic, creative, and grisly murder scenes.

As a result, everywhere I went, it was to an internal Goblin soundtrack. Everybody I saw seemed to be wearing fashions from other decades. Every woman in a pair of gloves was a serial killer, and every piece of ancient architecture a portal for demons. And I swear everybody we met talked in badly dubbed English. However, finally, after a few days, I was eventually able to shake the Dario Argento filter from my Italy experience...but it took a visit to his museum.

One thing I've noticed in my travels, the word museum is often used with reckless abandon. And the Dario Argento Museum of Horror is certainly one of those cases. However, the attraction's direct and definite connection with a director whose work has long fascinated me made it a necessary stop, one that I absolutely had to fit in amidst all the competing “grandeur that was Rome.”

Named for one of Argento’s more famous films, Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) is a horror memorabilia store located at 260 Via dei Gracchi in Argento’s home city of Rome. Opened by Argento in 1989, it's a claustrophobically tiny shop, but it really makes use of its vertical space, being filled to the rafters with rubber masks, costumes, Halloween props, action figures, posters, and the rest of the gamut of genre collectibles. Most impressive, though, is its large and unprecedented-in-my-experience selection of horror cinema books…all in Italian, fortunately, else I would have been seriously questioned by customs upon my return to the States just based on their lurid covers.

Argento does appearances and interviews at his shop and that fact plus its contents made it interesting enough for me to allot a few minutes for it in between touring Italy’s world-class wonders. However, in the basement of Profondo Rosso is something that pushed the store up my itinerary to just under the word Itinerary. If you give the cashier three euro and he can understand your mangling of his language, he’ll lead you to a set of stairs beside the cash register under a cheap sign that declares, “Museo degli Orrori di Dario Argento.”

A friend and I did exactly that, and were directed to descend a twisting staircase into a blood-red painted room covered in Argento movie posters and what seemed to be repurposed Halloween decorations. It was the Dario Argento Museum of Horror.

According to this interview, Argento established the Profondo Rosso shop as a way to be more involved with the genre culture that he loved and that loved him back. He established the museum in its basement, though, because he hated seeing the amazing work of the special effects artists that he collaborated with on his movies get discarded or carelessly store-housed after the filming was over. In his own translated words, “All these creatures died at the end of their scene.”

As a small step toward remedying that neglect, Argento took advantage of the unique layout and look of Profondo Rosso’s basement to set up scenes from some of the movies he directed, wrote, or produced using the original special effects props created for them.

Extending from the red room where we found ourselves was a single dungeon-like corridor with stone walls and arched doorways. On either side of the corridor was a series of vaults, each one depicting a movie scene from Argento’s mostly 1980s resume behind a set of bars (actually repurposed gates from the 1989 Michele Soavi-directed flick The Church, which was written and produced by Argento).

The corridor was dark and atmospherically lit, and for a few moments we weren’t sure what to do, but soon a recorded tour in thickly accented English backdropped by a spooky soundtrack punctuated by screams and howls narrated us down the corridor. Of course, the dimness and the sounds and the accent all made it somewhat hard to be sure of everything we saw, and I’m sure we missed much of the details, but I’ll give as accurate an account as I can.

The first vault contained a scene from another movie that Argento produced and wrote, the 1985 Lamberto Bava film Demons, in which a bunch of horror movie watchers get trapped inside a movie theater and are then attacked by the titular creatures and are then turned into demons themselves. The main prop in the vault was a female dummy used in one of the transformation scenes, which during the film was mechanically operated in-situ. “Not bad,” summed up the narrator about the effect.

Next came Phenomena, Argento’s strange little serial killer tale, also from 1985, which involves a young girl (a slightly pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly) who could communicate with insects, a razor-wielding monkey, and a monster-faced child. The scene depicts the room of said monster-faced child, complete with the original pike weapon from the film.

Lamberto Bava’s 1986 Demons 2 also gets a vault, in which a corpse lies amidst rubble awaiting the blood that’ll resurrect it as a demon, as does the great crow attack scene in the Argento-directed Opera from 1987.

Actually, this latter was one of the stranger vaults. The avian attack occurs in the background, which is separated from the foreground by the red theater curtain. Populating that foreground is a range of seemingly irrelevant props and, even more jarring, irrelevant characters, including Freddy Krueger and Darth Vader, whose presence is unexplained by the narrator.

At the end of the corridor, beside a medieval torture chamber full of movie props and female mannequins, is the gorily detached torso of a naked female behind a partially built wall. It’s a scene from the 1990 film Two Evil Eyes, a double-feature-type movie featuring versions of two Edgar Allan Poe stories, one directed by Argento and one by George Romero

Argento tackles (and then bludgeons and murders) The Black Cat for his half of the movie. In his take on Poe’s tale, the murdered wife is accidentally walled in with a pregnant cat, which soon births a litter of kittens that are then raised on the flesh of the corpse. You’ll want to stick around for the reveal scene for that one.

And that’s pretty much all the exhibits in the Dario Argento Museum of Horror, give or take a few cases of murder weapons and masks that I could barely see in the darkness, as well as random ghoulish paintings and some other decorations. It’s less the classic “hand-on-chin” museum experience and more a “hand-over-mouth” one...yours or somebody else’s.

Overall, the museum had more of a haunted house quality, although nothing jumped out at us. And that's exactly how I explained it to the two young Italian girls we met on exiting the shop. They wanted to visit the museum but were afraid it was too scary, so they asked our opinion. That sounds like a boring anecdote to end with until you realize that other than the word "scary" they only spoke Italian and other than the word "Italian" I only spoke English, so I had to act out the phrase “nothing jumps out at you” on a relatively busy Roman street.

Also, there’s no Suspiria tableau, unfortunately. I know you were wondering that.