Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Ilenia Pastorelli, Asia Argento, Andrea Zhang
There’s a fair if damning consensus that Dario Argento’s status as a horror master – built around his hugely influential ’70s and early ’80s work – has been stymied by the lesser films of his late career. As the appetite for lurid giallo films slackened, Argento found himself working with smaller budgets and increasingly oddball material. For every Suspiria or Inferno there’s a Mother of Tears. This marked decline reached a comic nadir with his 2012 offering Dracula 3D, the last film to bare his name as director.
Until now, that is. Spurred, perhaps, by his creative collaboration with Gaspar Noé on Vortex, or purely by coincidence, Argento now offers us Dark Glasses; an intriguing return to his stalk-and-slash roots, or so it appears. But regardless of the paucity of new material in last decade, is there anything to get excited about? Has the former-master recaptured any of the old magic?
The answer is… sort of. While the budgetary restraints remain occasionally self-evident, Dark Glasses is a valiant attempt to reengage with the kind of material that made his name in the first place. Set in his ways, this means little has been done to update or correct penchants that haven’t stood the test of time. Argento’s misogynistic tendencies still get the better of him. His lead character, a sex worker named Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), is often configured on screen for optimal carnality.
For all that the camera lusts for Pastorelli, her Diana is pleasingly capable and a far cry from the childlike dolls that populated some of his most applauded works. She can handle herself in a car chase and will mace aggressive clients without hesitation. Still, a road accident out of nowhere leaves her blind and therefore significantly hampered. In the film’s opening she wears sunglasses to protect her eyes during an eclipse; in her life going forward they will become a prop, shield and barrier demarking her from the world at large.
With state-appointed assistance from Rita (Asia Argento), Diana does her best to get on with her life, resuming her profession to the delight of those with specialist kinks, and befriending and stealing the young boy (Andrea Chang) she inadvertently orphaned. But the cause of her accident isn’t quite done with her yet. A white van is stalking her; it’s hidden occupant(s) not averse to running down detectives in the street…
What’s perhaps most remarkable – and laudable – about Dark Glasses is its leanness. Where many late-period Argento flicks tended to wander down blind alleys (pardon the term), here the director streamlines to the most direct route between points. Such a clipped nature might make it seem like something of a slight return, but this at least evidences learning from criticism, while paying homage to some of the stripped-down slashers that Argento famously inspired. Dark Glasses has more kinship with Carpenter’s Halloween than it does Argento’s own The Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Deep Red.
Vulnerability is piqued via his disabled lead and her young ward. Lost out in the wilds of nature with a stalker on their tail in the film’s rapidly encountered third act, a palpable atmosphere of hostility emerges, even as Diana’s swampy misadventures call to mind the campier fare of so many Syfy channel also-rans.
If Argento has another legacy, its in his choice of collaborators. Here the most striking addition to his roster is Arnaud Rebotini, who underscores many of the more pulse-racing sequences in the film with suitably propulsive dance music, often employing a 4/4 beat like a sonic sledgehammer. It’s a sparing audio/visual relationship that – at it’s most effective – recalls the neon brutality of Nicolas Winding Refn in tandem with Cliff Martinez.
The film’s finale whittles down further still, with tilts to some of the grimiest highs of exploitation cinema. This ‘celebration’ of modes past feels a little like an attempt at closing a loop. Now in his 8th decade, Argento must be feeling the keenness of mortality (Vortex can’t have helped any!) and the subject of legacy will be among his thoughts. With only this one film completed in the past ten years, one might reasonably gamble on Dark Glasses becoming his last. And while it departs from the giallo template that he often favoured, it’s a gutsier and more fitting swansong than his ill-fated last.
Even more remarkable – after all those disappointments and at this late hour – it makes one hungry again for just a little more of that profondo rosso…