With a harrowing performance in Gaspar Noe’s “Vortex” as an aging writer caring for his wife in even more precarious cognitive health, Italian horror legend Dario Argento recently flaunted his virtuous acting capabilities. But back behind the camera for his first directorial outing in a decade, “Dark Glasses,” the veteran operates within the comfort of the giallo tropes he pioneered decades ago, although to less memorable effect.
Argento first introduces Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), a sex worker in Rome, as she drives around the city minutes before an eclipse occurs. Noticing that everyone points at the sky with anticipation, she stops to join them in admiring the astral dance between the sun and the moon that for a few moments provides a unique filter on how we perceive the world. The momentary tinting of our reality serves as cleverly ominous forewarning of what’s to come.
The opening, however, remains the most exciting storytelling moment in Argento’s latest, as well as cinematographer Matteo Cocco’s most notable opportunity to showcase his craft. Jumping right into the carnage, as expected, the next scene culminates with a close-up of a victim’s slashed throat gushing copious amounts of blood as onlookers outside a luxury hotel stare in horror. The only clue to the perpetrator’s identity is a large van, first black and later painted white, seen rushing away from the location of the crime.
Later, when the mysterious killer goes after Diana, authorities reveal he is targeting sex workers. One night, the white van gives chases, causing her to crash into another vehicle, carrying a Chinese family. The young son, Chin (Andrea Zhang), survives, while Diana loses her eyesight permanently. She now must readjust to her new condition with the help of Rita (the director’s daughter Asia Argento), who works with the visually impaired, and a loyal guard dog.
Pastorelli’s rendition of the disoriented physicality pertinent to someone reacquainting herself with her surroundings, now that she can’t see them, oscillates between believable behavior and dramatic exaggeration. Still, the lack of nuance that defines her fiery reactions, before and after her life-altering ordeal, feels at home in the heightened tone Argento procures through Arnaud Rebotini’s musical cues and the gruesome imagery.
Other performances respond to the same impulse for theatricality (sometimes bordering on the ridiculous), including one of the detectives (played by Gennaro Iaccarino) who knocks on Diana’s door searching for Chin after she secretly takes the boy in, as well as one of her prospective clients, Matteo (Andrea Gherpelli), whose fragile ego she bruises with a comment about his smell. Based on how some of the characters in Diana’s periphery act, the clues to decipher the identity of the murderer come from blatantly obvious red flags.
That Diana and Chin go from strangers tied by tragedy to allies in escaping each other’s greatest fears — he doesn’t want to go to an orphanage and she knows the slasher still out there — seems to imply Argento wishes to dig for poignancy in the multiple layers that comprise Diana as a person. But even though her guilt over what happened to Chin’s parents in the car accident fuels her throughout the picture, our understanding of her conflicted psychology remains skin-deep.
Likewise, that Diana is blind only meaningfully affects the narrative when she is faced with the need to fire a gun and in how her guard dog plays a key role in the film’s resolution. Rather than utilizing her lost sense as an avenue for stylistic innovation in the visual language, it seems as if her blindness had been written solely as a means to reach a particular ending.
Examples of the outrageous touches that positively stand out for their unexpectedness are a hilarious (intentionally or not) sequence involving vicious water snakes as well as a perplexing moment of mutual recognition between two characters that reveals the absurd ingenuity of the master of the macabre in tandem with editor Flora Volpelière.
Late in the film, Rita tries to save Diana from imminent danger after a quick flashback refreshes her mind. She has seen the white van that follows her before. At the same time, from the perspective of the van, still before we see the victimizer’s face, we immediately see another quick shot of the recent past that informs us whoever is driving also remembers seeing Rita hanging out with Diana at a different point in the story. The plot needs these glimpses of memory to provide clarity as to how they know about each other, but it’s how Argento goes about inserting them that adds an offbeat charm.
The biggest sin “Dark Glasses” commits, however, is being a movie told in half measures because it fails to anchor itself in one’s memory. It’s neither successfully terrifying, nor shockingly grotesque, or even campy enough for one to revel in over-the-top derangement. And while it’s not entirely without its silly pleasures, indifference is the foremost sentiment it elicits. More than a return to form for Argento, “Dark Glasses” may better serve him as an exercise to reconnect with his creative impulses after all the years away from them. If considered in relation to the classics that populate his history, this is a mere minor entry.
“Dark Glasses” opens in New York and Los Angeles Oct. 7 and premieres on Shudder Oct. 13.