You’d be hard pressed to find a horror director as beloved in most circles as the iconoclastic, gore-loving Italian director Dario Argento. He completely shifted the burgeoning giallo movie filoni with his 1970 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He turned that genre on its head five years later with Deep Red. In 1977 he made the symphonic, technicolor nightmare Suspiria, then spent much of the ’80s making hyper violent, hyper stylish giallo-slasher hybrids to mostly excellent results. And then a switch flipped. His output in the ’90s was spotty, and after 2001, you couldn’t find even a decent movie much less a good one. His newest, the long-awaited Dark Glasses, played at Fantasia Fest this weekend and is easily his best in 20 years.
That is certainly not a ringing endorsement. Six of Argento’s last eight movies were, in my opinion, quite bad. Even if we were charitable and say 1998’s The Phantom of the Opera and 2012’s Dracula 3D (his two worst by a country mile) were noble swings for the fences, how do you explain things like the tepid The Card Player or the truly disappointing Giallo (the most on-the-nose of titles)? Dark Glasses had been a script Argento tried to make for quite a long time. He’s 80 years old, and hasn’t made a movie in a decade. The deck was surely stacked against him, and though the movie itself is a mild success, in the scheme of his recent career, it’s an unbridled triumph.
The story gives you a hint at how long the script has been knocking around. Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), a sex worker in Rome, crosses paths with a murderer going around killing sex workers. While trying to drive away from him, she collides head on with a family sedan. The parents in the car die leaving a 10-year-old son orphaned, while Diana loses her sight. As more of her friends, and even some police officers, fall victim to the murderer, Diana teams up with the now-orphaned son Chin (Andrea Zhang) and a Very Good Dog to take him down.
From a plot and character perspective, Dark Glasses feels right at home with gialli of the early ’70s. In fact, it bears more than a little resemblance to Argento’s own The Cat o’ Nine Tails from 1971. It’s a little ridiculous, but certainly much less ridiculous than many other of Argento’s own films. It’s got sex, it’s got violence; I don’t know if you remember, but it has a dog. Not only that, but it has a Goblin-esque score from Arnaud Rebotini and effects from frequent collaborator Sergio Stivaletti. This is what you want from an Argento movie… to a point.
What feels sorely lacking here are the directorial flourishes that made Argento the legend he is. Dark Glasses is 86 minutes, far shorter than most of the director’s best work. Those movies relish in the murder set pieces, luxuriate in artifice of cinematic carnage. This one does not. It’s bare bones, right to the point, and allows the characters to move the story. It’s not a bad thing, by any means, but for those expecting or hoping for a return to form, a giallo to rival his heyday, it might be a bit of a disappointment.
Argento’s last truly good film in my opinion was 2001’s Sleepless. That’s 21 years for people counting. He hasn’t made a passable movie since 2007. With the bar that low, Dark Glasses more than surpasses it. Truly I’m just relieved the director made a decent movie again. I’ll gladly take a modest Argento outing at this point. At least we know he’s still got the spark.