By Nicole Veneto
Rather than a triumphant return to form from one of horror’s greatest visionaries, Dark Glasses plays like a faded Xerox copy of director Dario Argento’s past hits.
Note: To accompany the release of this film, Nicole Veneto also wanted to salute two giallo classics that are turning 50 this year, All the Colors of the Dark and The Case of the Bloody Iris — Editor Bill Marx
Dark Glasses, directed by Dario Argento. Streaming on Shudder.
When someone tells you their favorite horror director is Dario Argento, it’s with the unspoken understanding that he hasn’t made a good movie in two decades. It’s generally agreed upon that the Suspiria director’s films took a nosedive in quality around the turn of the millennium, starting with his critically reviled take on The Phantom of the Opera in 1998. Others argue this decline began once Argento started regularly casting his daughter — #MeToo crusader turned industry pariah Asia Argento — in leading roles beginning with 1993’s Trauma (not a bad film, but watching a then teenage Asia take her top off and make-out with a nearly thirty year-old Christopher Rydell is ickier than Jennifer Connelly swimming in a maggot and corpse-infested pool).
Dario’s last feature, a 3D adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula starring the late Rutger Hauer, marked a new and depressing low for the director once crowned the Italian Hitchcock. Whether Argento’s lost his directorial eye in old age or just failed to carry his vision into the 21st century is up for debate, but based on his negative reaction to Luca Guadagnino’s masterful and fully realized take on Suspiria in 2018 (Arts Fuse review), it’s fair to say both are equally plausible. (Perhaps this is sacrilegious of me to say, but I think Guadagnino’s version of Suspiria is better than Argento’s magnum opus. That’s a conversation for another day though.)
2022 finds Argento returning to the industry with a starring turn in Gaspar Noé’s emotionally eviscerating dementia-drama Vortex (which I still need to see) as well as his first film in ten years. Premiering at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Dark Glasses (Occhiali Neri) sees Argento going back to black-gloved basics. A return to his giallo roots, this film is a definite improvement over Dracula 3D, but that’s hardly saying much. Rather than a triumphant return to form from one of horror’s greatest visionaries, Dark Glasses plays like a faded Xerox copy of Argento’s past hits. At best, it’s a mediocre slasher that occasionally hints at the director’s former brilliance. At worst, it’s an uninspired attempt to recapture what made movies like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, and Tenebre such formidable exercises in visceral yet aesthetically seductive terror.
The film opens promisingly enough on a crowd of park-goers admiring a solar eclipse, some murmuring about ancient superstitions and omens while others note that “neither the sun nor death can be stared at.” It’s a salient (if a bit on the nose) visual motif that’s unfortunately never given any narrative significance beyond signaling the turn of fate that befalls the heroine ten minutes in. Italian actress Ilenia Pastorelli plays Diana, a high-end sex worker whose life is upended when she’s blinded in a car accident caused by a modern day Jack the Ripper hunting working girls in Rome. Aside from comically flailing around every so often to imitate blindness, Pastorelli does an adequate job in a role clearly intended for Argento’s daughter a decade or so ago. Instead, an almost unrecognizable Asia plays a dumpy life counselor named Rita who helps Diana adjust to life in total darkness. Rounding out the cast is newcomer Xinyu “Andrea” Zhang as Chin, a ten year-old Chinese boy whose parents were killed in the crash that took Diana’s sight.
Though the wreck was caused by the killer chasing Diana in his white sex-pest van, it was technically Diana’s car that killed Chin’s parents. Ridden with guilt over the collateral damage, Diana eventually takes Chin in as her new pair of eyes despite a) already having a guide dog, Nerea the German Shepherd, and b) still being the target of a razor-wire wielding psycho killer itching to finish the job on her. Argento’s never been a stickler for narrative logic — most of his movies can be described as “weird things just happen.” Still, Dark Glasses operates on such a puerile level of common sense that pairing a little Chinese kid up with a sightless prostitute functions more like a punchline than it does the emotional core of a movie.
Case in point, the most baffling scene in the film sees Diana visiting Chin at a Catholic foster home in the hopes of making amends for accidentally killing his mom and dad in the crash. Now this could be an emotionally stirring moment between two vastly different individuals forced to come together under extraordinarily gruesome circumstances. But this is late-period Argento we’re talking about, so instead Diana gives Chin a Dollar Store version of the Nintendo Switch to recompense his dead family. Again, nominally weirder things have happened in an Argento movie (Donald Pleasence’s chimpanzee in Phenomena anyone?), but if this scene accomplishes anything whatsoever, it’s strictly comedic in nature. I actually had to pause the movie because my sides hurt from laughing so much.
And then there’s the fact that much of Dark Glasses resembles an Argento fan film aping off some of his greatest hits. The climax is basically just the seeing eye dog attack scene in Suspiria without any of the interesting camerawork. On that note, Matteo Cocco’s competently shot yet lackluster cinematography dulls whatever visual flourish Argento might have envisioned in his head. The production design also falls agonizingly short compared to the barocco heights achieved in something like Deep Red or Inferno. Not even the occasional use of neon or chiaroscuro lighting saves Dark Glasses from looking like a cheapo B-movie dumped on Netflix. What Argento desperately needs is a skilled director of photography who understands how essential over the top cinematography is to a good giallo. If Marcell Rév isn’t too busy working on the next (and hopefully miles better) season of Euphoria then Argento should really consider hitting him up. Rév already paid skillful homage to Tenebre’s famous crane shot with the single-take break-in scene in Assassination Nation — which coincidentally opens with Ennio Morricone’s theme for Plumage. I’m sure plenty of wonderful cinematographers would trip over themselves for the chance to shoot an Argento movie; the director deserves one who won’t reduce his vision to a teflon-esque facsimile of itself.
To be fair, Dark Glasses isn’t all that bad. The kills are a bloody delight of practical makeup effects recalling Tom Savini’s work on Trauma, and BPM composer Arnaud Rebotini’s score channels John Carpenter trapped in a ’90s European discotheque. If there’s anything to be learned from Dark Glasses it’s that the Master of Italian Horror hasn’t completely lost his touch. The vision is still there, even if it’s gradually faded with time.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.