Through the Past, Darkly

A beautiful woman, wearing scarlet from her lips to her toes, drives alone through the city. She’s relaxed, but distracted, as though she’s looking for something, frequently taking her eyes off the road to notice people gathering on balconies overlooking the street–people wearing dark glasses. Languidly, the camera and the car wind through eerie, kaleidoscopic views of the afternoon sky and trees until the woman finally arrives at a crowded public park. There, oddly pensive, she dons her own pair of dark glasses and gazes up to a rapidly darkening sky. It’s a solar eclipse in a Dario Argento movie, and things are about to get weird.

Maybe not weird enough though.

In Dark Glasses, Ilenia Pastorelli stars as Diana, a high-class escort who becomes the latest target of a vicious serial killer. That’s probably enough for a movie right there, but Dario Argento, writer and director of such giallo arabesques as Suspiria, Inferno, Opera, and Deep Red, has never Kept It Simple, Stupid. And we love him for it. True to form, this movie doesn’t really get going until the killer pursues Diana through the city center in a high-speed chase. Diana crashes into another car, managing to escape the killer, but losing her sight in the accident. Pretty dramatic, but wait–this is an Argento movie. It gets better: it gets worse. 

An immigrant family from China was in the car Diana hit, giving the killer a couple incidental extra victims and the movie another big character with another big chunk of complications to go with. It turns out that the accident kills the father, the car’s driver, instantly; the mother is in critical condition. While their young son Chin (Xinyu Zhang) survives physically unscathed, he finds himself isolated and traumatized in the not-so-friendly environs of an Italian orphanage. After a penitent Diana visits, giving both her and the audience a glimpse of how Chin is bullied by the other kids and sniffed at by a prejudiced nun, he runs away, finds Diana, and begs to stay with her instead. When she demurs, he quickly offers to help as she learns to live as a blind woman. Diana relents, less because she needs the help–although she does need the help–and more because she’s fundamentally kind. And that’s exactly why Chin wants to be with her, a woman you would not blame him for despising on principle, even though the crash was an accident. She is the only person he’s met in Italy that he feels safe with, including the people for whom his care is ostensibly their only business. And he’s a good judge of character. Diana is kind and good, not just the hooker with a heart of gold stereotype, but–as Argento shows us twice in altercations with would-be clients–a woman with a spine of steel. For some people, cruel people, kindness is a weakness. A character like Diana argues kindness is much more about resilience. And so she does the kind thing, if not the safe thing, and keeps Chin with her.

So a newly-blinded escort (yes, lol, she keeps working) and her runaway helper/secret ward are simultaneously hunted by a serial killer and the Italian police trying to recover Chin. It’s A Lot. But no one does A Lot like Dario Argento. To be honest, I would be happy if he heaped even more on because what will doom this film’s reviews to “not Argento’s best” blandishments is that it’s so grounded, so deliberately not operatic and over-the-top, that the most Argento-ey flourishes–escaping into a random nest of water snakes, an entire city transfixed by watching an eclipse, set pieces that look like pulp paperback covers–war with the slower paced character work of Diana’s recovery and her growing friendship with Chin. By beginning the film with the eclipse, Argento seems to be saying that the dark glasses Diana wears later in the film represent something important about the way she survives and the way she ultimately unveils the killer. Thematically, it’s important. Tonally, it’s jarring.

The character work is what really shines in this film though, even if the way characters come together in the first place is typically outlandish and bizarre, and it’s a good reminder that so much of Argento’s early 70s work, before he went all-in on surreal horror and the supernatural (and we love him for it), features nonjudgmental (if sometimes dated, particularly with LGBTQ characters), slice of life protagonists, be they cops or criminals, with humor and…well, kindness. Aside from directing jump scares, he’s actually really good at writing people, too. In Dark Glasses, we get this not just with Diana and Chin’s relationship, but Asia Argento, Dario’s daughter and frequent lead actress, is kind of impressive in not being all that impressive, playing Rita, the rehabilitation expert who teaches Diana practical techniques for living as a blind woman. She’s direct, down-to-earth, helpful, a life raft in the form of a social worker. The way Rita guides Diana reminds me a little of how Donald Pleasance’s entomologist kindly instructs Jennifer Connolly’s character in Argento’s Phenomena (1985), aka Creepers, particularly as these mentor characters are so unconcerned with the world outside, the world of police and moral scolds, that might threaten or misunderstand or simply ignore their protagonists. I could happily watch a drama that is just about these characters and their lives. It doesn’t particularly need the serial killer stuff to keep my interest. …Except for the fact that it’s an Argento movie.

If Argento is for many the inarguable master of Italian horror in the 1970s and 80s, then he has also largely disappointed those same fans since at least the late 90s, when his version of Phantom of the Opera (1998), starring Julian Sands as the Phantom opposite Asia Argento as Christine, utterly bombed. Dark Glasses is Argento’s first directorial effort since Dracula 3D (2012), a film that further dimmed the once-great master’s fading reputation, and sad to say, it is probably not the film to return his crown. And that is all the more disappointing because Dark Glasses, to me at least, reads as a deliberate attempt to reclaim what once worked so uniquely well for him, getting back to giallo fundamentals: a seedy, yet virtuous protagonist, judicious gore, a plot like a chain of bear traps. The sensational, blood-spraying garroting death of the killer’s first victim alone is a statement of intent. It’s also more than a little suggestive that Diana and Chin’s relationship echoes The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), in which Karl Malden plays a blind man whose own Chin-like helper, his niece Lori, is abducted by a serial killer. I really enjoy it, but like Dark Glasses, Cat o’ Nine Tails is also A Lot and probably about 15 minutes too long to boot; Argento has named it as his least favorite of his films more than once. Perhaps Dark Glasses can be favorably seen as a way of revisiting some of the elements of Cat o’ Nine Tails with contemporary mores and more of an eye for character work rather than the involutions of plot, facilitated by a smaller scope and a smaller cast. In Cat o’ Nine Tails, it took both Karl Malden and James Franciscus to move as much plot as Ilenia Pastorelli carries, forgive me, blindfolded.

Something about this movie makes me think of Crimes of the Future (2022), which ended an extended directorial drought for another horror master of Argento’s generation, David Cronenberg. Cronenberg’s reputation has never lost its sheen as Argento’s has, and Crimes of the Future is an easier film to take seriously than Dark Glasses, even if it’s also not its auteur’s best. Crimes of the Future is beautiful and weird, and if the plot is a little thin, if the characters are chilly and sometimes seem to do things because the movie needs them to, it’s an easy price to pay for all that weirdness, all that beauty. Unlike Cronenberg and Crimes of the Future though, Argento doesn’t fully commit to the audacity and weirdness that elevates his greatest work, which might be the sum total difference between Dark Glasses and his greatest work. I love Diana. I love Chin. I love so many of the visuals in the film, whether they are these gorgeous night scenes or the comparatively cheap, made-for-TV-looking (although that’s not altogether a bad association) daylight sequences. It does still need something, and that something is probably…Dario Argento. As I noted in my best of list in January, I think Crimes of the Future works as a primer on David Cronenberg’s favorite themes and techniques, a kind of Cronenberg on Cronenberg. I think Dark Glasses does something of the same for its director. Not his best, but it does recall his best, through the past darkly. 


Angela would like to give a shout-out to Nerea, the goodest girl and the best dog in a horror movie since The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

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