You knew that this was coming, reader. You knew it in your bones. I knew it in my bones, too. It’s been ten years since the release of Dracula 3D, and I think it’s safe to say we all assumed that this was a retirement, despite the sporadic vehement statements/threats that Sandman (not that one) really was going to come out some day, just you wait and see. It’s also been nearly seven years since I completed my review of the (at the time) entire Dario Argento canon. Now, in the year 2022 C.E., the master has returned, as he’s brought his daughter with him!
And he’s still up to his old tricks, as his latest film Occhiali neri (Dark Glasses) starts with—you guessed it—the murder of a sex worker! Some time later, Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), a different young call girl, is attacked by the same serial killer one night after leaving a client’s home. She manages to get into her car and escape, but he pursues her, ultimately forcing Diana into a tragic collision with another vehicle. Diana is rendered blind while the driver of the other vehicle dies instantly and the other adult passenger, the driver’s wife, is rendered comatose. Only their elementary aged son Chin (Andrea Zhang) walks away without injury, and is placed into a Catholic orphanage for the time being, although he slips away and finds his way to Diana, who takes him in. As Diana slowly adjusts to her new life with the help of Rita (Asia Argento), a teacher who specializes in training the recently blinded to adapt to their new situation, as well as her faithful seeing eye dog Nerea, she gets the feeling that the man who forced her off the road and took her sight is still stalking her. And she’s right!
Dark Glasses is fine. It’s certainly not the exciting return to form that one would expect when they hear that Argento is back, although that also doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in all the Argentoisms you’ve come to know and perhaps even to love. You’ve got your decapitations just like in Profondo rosso and over half a dozen others, you’ve got your totemic animals just like in Phenomena and Pelts, and you’ve even got my personal favorite, the intergenerational investigative duo, as in the aforementioned Phenomena as well as Non ho sonno, and this one even returns to the “child helps a blind person investigate” set-up from all the way back in l gatto a nove code. Were you wondering if there would be a plot cul-de-sac? Not to worry, there is, and it involves snakes nesting in a river! Ironically, one of the Argento conceits it doesn’t have is eye trauma; we are told explicitly that Diana’s blindness is caused by swelling in her brain from the accident, not any physical damage to her actual eyes. This movie even synthesizes the dog attack from Suspiria with the end-of-movie saved-by-a-service-animal twist of Phenomena into something fun and gruesome, even if it fails to be exciting and memorable. That having been said, it takes more than just a remix/medley of those old ideas to make a great movie, and this movie isn’t “great.” But then again, if you’re a real Argento fan, you know that this is true for his entire body of work, especially since 2001 (and that’s being charitable mostly because I rank Non ho sonno higher than most); for every Suspiria, Tenebrae, and L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, there’s a Do You Like Hitchcock?, a Giallo, and an Il cartaio. I’m not trying to be a grumpy goose here, but when I read this vitriolic reviews for a movie that’s a perfectly fine little slasher that wouldn’t be out of place among the director’s nineties output (and would have been the best of them in that era), it’s like, don’t come crying to me unless you’ve actually managed to make it all the way through Le cinque giornate, ok?
The strangest thing that’s happening here is that there’s a real cognitive dissonance to watching an Argento movie in which everyone has smartphones. I remarked on the podcast recently about how the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading is very much an unintentional period piece, with the way that it treats online dating, obsessive Blackberry use, and the Russian threat, and how strange it is to see media made during the era in which the arbiters of narrative were still trying to grapple with omnipresent mobile device usage (think Elaine on Seinfeld—rightfully, in my opinion—explaining that it’s rude to engage in a long phone call while on public transportation). Argento’s body of work skips all of that pretty much completely, since Il cartaio is the last film of his to engage with technology in a meaningful way, coming from the era of horror movies with the plot element of “live broadcast of murders” that was so prevalent in the mid-aughts, and then his next films either ignored technology or Victorian period pieces. Here, suddenly, mobile devices are omnipresent, but they do very little to change the narrative. Likewise, Diana at one point purchases Chin a (device which is similar to but legally distinct from a) Nintendo Switch, which is relevant to that scene and that scene alone, before it is never mentioned in the narrative again.
I’ve been watching a lot of Murder, She Wrote this year (R.I.P. Angela and Ron) and it’s fun to watch as the series progresses how the writers on that program used the rapidly changing technology of the era in their mysteries, as Jessica Fletcher starts out with a typewriter before getting a word processor and finally a desktop computer to do her writing on, despite pushing back against the march of tech progress every step of the way. Sometimes the usage of the technology of the week is accurate, sometimes it’s inaccurate in a way that makes it clear the writer felt that using new tech gave them carte blanche to make the machinery do whatever the narrative called for, and sometimes I have no idea if what they’re saying modems and Telexes are capable of was accurate at the time or not. It encapsulates the three ways that an aging creative demographic can incorporate and understand (or misunderstand) how technology works and what it can contribute to this story. Here, we get a scene in which Rita teaches Diana how to use her new smart phone, which is programmed with specific accessibility features that are meant to accomodate people without sight. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a PSA in the middle of your movie about that sort of thing, but when we’re talking about a mystery thriller, the audience is primed to expect that this will come back into the narrative at some point, but it never does. Things that are foreshadowed are elements that could be in a film set any time in the past fifty years or more: Diana’s seeing eye dog being trained to defend her, or her joking to Chin that there’s no point in having a gun to protect her since she can’t aim it only for her to end up having to use one later.
I guess that what I’m saying is that this film didn’t need to be set in the present. There’s not really anything in it that pegs it to 2022; even the CCTV footage that the police watch after one of the other murders doesn’t reveal anything more than you might see when people review security tapes on Diagnosis Murder or even some episodes of Columbo. This is meant as a term of awe and not mockery: Dario Argento is an old man. Yes, Clint Eastwood just directed Cry Macho last year at 91 and yes, Manoel de Oliveira was 104 when he directed O Gebo e a Sombra, but we can’t expect the Italian Maestro to start putting out a movie every 28 months like he did when he was a young man. If he’s only got a few films , or even one film, left in him then I would honestly much rather see him do some more period pieces, but this time, set them during the era in which he was most active as a director. If Dark Glasses had been set in 1978 of 1983 instead of 2022, it would automatically be much more interesting, and would have an unmistakable feeling of invoking the creator in his prime, not just in the audience but perhaps in the man himself. It’s not too late.
All of that aside, Dark Glasses is as unpretentious as it is unremarkable, which means that like most movies which fail to either be massive Marvel moneymakers or Cats-level career crashes, will fall through the cracks, despite being a long-awaited return from an undisputed master of the genre. If you’re not in a film-loving market like I am in Austin, it probably never even screened near you and went straight to Shudder, where the user comments and ratings trend negative and a little redpill-y. But if you, like a lot of horror fans, love a tight 75-90 minute slasher flick, then Dark Glasses has your Friday evening covered.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
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