Endless Night: “Dark Glasses” and the Remnants of Dario Argento’s Mad Poetry of Terror

By Christoph Huber

“I feel a great affinity with Poe; I understand his pain.”

—Dario Argento, interviewed by Maitland McDonagh

The first shot is a panoramic view of Rome on a bright summer day. It seems unusually quiet as we swerve along mostly depopulated streets looking through the windscreen of a car. The gliding movements produce a slightly otherworldly feel, enhanced by the floating sounds of Arnaud Rebotini’s electronic music. A shot looking up at houses, sky, and treetops warps our perception with a split-screen effect, and part of the image shows views from an alternate angle, as if two images coming from different directions had aligned themselves magically on the same pane of glass. Counter-shots show the person whose point of view we are sharing: a female driver (Ilenia Pastorelli) looking out, and looking at other people looking.

Everybody is staring into the sky, wearing special glasses or holding up black strips to protect their eyes. She stops at a park, joining a small group of people, putting on her sunglasses. Dogs bark as the light dims—they are awaiting a solar eclipse. “Not just dogs, every animal is afraid,” a man explains to his kid. “Even our ancestors, a long time ago, feared the eclipse.” His wife adds, “They thought the disappearance of the sun meant the end of the world.” As the world is momentarily plunged into darkness, the woman reaches for her eyes. Soon, we will learn her ancient Roman (and pagan) name, Diana, whose meaning is both “heavenly” and “demonic,” translating more broadly as “which has the light,” but also “which belongs to the void.” Finally, the opening shot reappears, but the city is now completely engulfed by black shade, announcing the endless night awaiting the protagonist. The drive of Rebotini’s music picks up, its register now reminiscent of John Carpenter’s classic minimalist scores, and the credits come in.

The effectively eerie five-minute opening of Dark Glasses heralds Dario Argento’s return to movie-directing after a ten-year hiatus—partly for health reasons, partly because projects fell through. Elegantly shot and privileging atmosphere over content, this portentous intro is a restrained reminder of the qualities that have made the octogenarian Argento one of the most influential genre directors alive, despite the fact that after his breakthrough success in the ’70s his films have curried little favour with critics upon their initial release. Already in the ’80s, Argento films now considered classics were mostly dismissed, and since the ’90s even the faithful horror fanbase has reacted with increasing skepticism, although Argento’s filmography is arguably all of one piece, for better or worse. Thus his comeback, premiered as a Berlinale Special Gala, would seem reason to rejoice, but current culture has little respect for small gifts of this kind, regardless of their relative merits. Like Carpenter’s The Ward (2010) and Brian De Palma’s Domino (2019), Dark Glasses heralds the unexpected resurfacing of a master’s touch in a minor key, and under problematic conditions—yet some day, these late works may come to be rediscovered as last hurrahs for a certain kind of auteurist cinephilia, contemporary equivalents to something like Fritz Lang’s The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).

After his little-liked Dracula 3D (2012), Argento busied himself with directing operas (including Verdi’s Macbeth—the failure of an earlier attempt had given Argento ample inspiration for his 1987 stylistic summit Opera) as well as publishing a collection of horror stories, before delivering a surprising lead acting debut in Gaspar Noé’s Vortex last year. His touching performance as a frail film critic contributed considerably to Noé’s meditation on mortality, which pursued a decidedly different angle than Argento’s filmic nightmares in confronting audiences and characters alike with the spectre of impending death and the fear of being left alone. 

Yet Dark Glasses couldn’t be more classical in its adherence to the tenets of giallo, whose glory years were inaugurated by the unexpected success of Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). This is brought home immediately after the credits with an assaultive moment of violence that’s become an Argento trademark. At night, an escort leaves the hotel where she habitually serves customers, her client having resorted to an idiom—“I lose my head when I’m with you”—that is almost made literal in a succession of quick shots: gloved hands stretch a wire rope, pull her into the bushes as she passes by, and she’s garroted apace. (The proudly analogue special effects are served up with reliable old-school aplomb by Sergio Stivaletti, Argento’s stalwart collaborator since the mid-’80s.) Blood spurting from her mouth and the gashing wound of her throat, she stumbles out and collapses after a few steps, dying as shocked onlookers gather to stare at her like people previously gaped at the eclipse.

“Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily,” another client (Diana’s) says in the next scene, quoting “some French writer” (actually it’s from the Maxims of Francois de La Rochefoucauld) when she explains that she will leave her glasses on during sex, because “my eyes got hurt looking at the eclipse.” It’s a poetic conflation typical of Argento, whose love of classical literature exceeds even his ardent cinephilia: seeing and death have been the cornerstones of his cinema, and La Rochefoucauld’s phrasing—elsewhere translated as “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye,” which would seem a better fit for the abundance of memorable ocular close-ups that are one of the leitmotifs in Argento’s career—is like a warning of the never-ending darkness that awaits Diana.

Nothing if not front-loaded, Dark Glasses proceeds through another rapid succession of charged sequences, rushing towards its next terrible climax. Diana proves her resilience and strength when confronting two more clients: an ostentatiously well-off customer even becomes violent in his luxurious hotel suite when she is disgusted by his demands. Overpowering him with pepper spray applied straight into the camera (a characteristically Argento shot that equates the viewer directly with either the attacker or the victim), Diana manages to escape, with her car pursued by the killer’s van. The ensuing mayhem is again handled with swift, strong strokes, condensing the abstract threat of Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) into a few bursts of terror: impactful impressions of one vehicle attacking the other, culminating in an impressively staged accident as Diana’s car is hurtled onto a crossroads and into another vehicle, wiping out the Chinese family inside. Only their little son, Chin (Xinyu Zhang), survives the impact, staring incredulously as the next crowd assembles to gape at the carnage.

Eighteen minutes into the movie a white sliver in a field of black announces a shift of gears, as a permanently blinded Diana awakes in the hospital and Dark Glasses seemingly switches into a different mode, as Argento lovingly traces her attempts to build a new life with the help of Rita (played by Dario’s daughter, Asia), an instructor for the blind, who helps Diana orient herself with the help of a cane and, most importantly, a service canine named Nera, as she traverses sandy boardwalks on the outskirts of the city. When Diana tries to reconcile with a reluctant Chin, he secretly follows her home rather than endure more taunts from racist kids in the care centre. Despite working with actors of limited talent, Argento’s display of loving warmth toward his main characters—counting the dog, they form a trifecta of potential victims taking over the initiative—makes the second act, centring on mutual help as Diana readjusts to her new life, a different kind of Argento fairy tale: here, the heroine learns how to cross the street alone rather than running for her life to escape from a razor-wielding killer.

Of course, the murderer soon returns and the protagonists become trapped in characteristic nightmare tropes. A true obsessive like Argento can’t escape the ideas and images that have haunted his entire career, but it is interesting to see the director leave his comfort zone—which may actually be just the comfort zone of his fans and his critics, for, despite what they might consider topical detours both thematically and tonally, Dark Glasses is prime Argento material. Beneath their fantastic veneer, his films are stories about the experience of isolation and dejection. If the way Diana deals with her blindness expresses the fears of Argento’s protagonists in more realistic terms—per another La Rochefoucauld maxim, “To establish ourselves in the world we do everything to appear as if we were established”—she will, soon enough, find herself in the unreal circumstances characteristic of Argento’s filmic fairy tales. Could there be a more dreamlike occurrence than the scene in which Diana and Chin, fleeing the killer, take a bus into some urban no man’s land and, upon getting out, are awaited by street peddlers whose stalls seem to have appeared out of nowhere so Diana can get new glasses? The moment is cinched when she reaches in a wrong direction when handing over the money, as if one couldn’t hear the salesman because he’s a ghost.

For all its many moments of baroque cinematic excess and inventive mutilation, something almost innocent has survived at the heart of Argento’s work. He may have seemed predestined for a career in the movies—his father Salvatore Argento was a producer, his mother Elda Luxardo a photographer, renowned especially for her portraits of film stars—but the feelings in his films more often conjure the memory of a somewhat sickly child prone to nightmares, whose first obsession, developed while lying in bed, was literature. While the discovery of Edgar Allen Poe was his most feverish formative experience, the young Argento became infatuated not only with the macabre and the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, but also with all types of crime fiction, from Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich to Arthur Conan Doyle (revealing quote: “I like Sherlock Holmes very much. People think he’s all about rationality, but his methods aren’t rational at all. They’re like hyper-realism in paintings…beyond rationality, almost magic. The story with Moriarty, “The Final Problem,”is beautiful because it’s insane”). Add up these influences, and you have a perfect equation for giallo.

Having started out as a film critic while still in high school, Argento began writing scripts in the mid-’60s. Although the exact nature of his contribution is unclear, his story credit (shared with Bernardo Bertolucci) for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is habitually mentioned, even as he wrote for other films that contain ideas he would expound upon later, notably the elaborate surveillance setups (the camera even peeks through an eye-shaped hole in the ceiling) in Armando Crispino’s war film Commandos (1968) and the modernist play with unveiling secrets in Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s pretentious and ambitious art-erotica Love Circle (1969). Another spaghetti Western, Don Taylor’s The Five Man Army (1969), which unsubstantiated sources sometimes partially ascribe to Argento, culminates in a heist scene presaging the long, mostly wordless set pieces that became his directorial specialty. Argento bonded with Leone over the goal to “think in images”—the post-dubbed world of Italy’s production system allowed them to privilege storytelling through the camera and make especially remarkable use of music, choreographing scenes to soundtracks that had been composed before or concurrent to shooting the film. (Ennio Morricone’s essential contributions also graced Argento’s first movies, and he returned briefly for some underrated ’90s work.)

Like Leone with the Western, Argento associated himself with a filone as a fertile playground for his visionary approach. The giallo all’italiana combined various influences to fashion a transgressive mixture of mystery, thriller, horror, and eroticism which proved an ideal vessel for mirroring society’s hopes and fears after the dashed rebellion of 1968, much like film noir served as a barometer for the postwar US. Argento provided its signature work with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,a comparably cool but formally astonishing work whose feverishly fetishized images proved pioneering: the black leather gloves and flashing razors became the embodiment of the giallo sub-genre, the close-ups of eyes its nexus, the vertiginous arrangements of murder scenes its notorious driving force. When, briefly after the opening, the protagonist—an artist, as so often with Argento, in this case a writer named after Chandler’s lesser-known detective Dalmas (Tony Musante)—finds himself trapped between glass doors as he has to watch a near-murderous assault on a woman in an art gallery, it’s as if Argento is presenting the blueprint for his body of work and slicing right to the core of the horror genre. The thrill of watching and the terror of having to watch collapse into one, creating both anxiety and lust.

This seminal scene also pivots around an architectural aspect (adapted into stylish ’60s deco) and evinces a plastic power that harks back to the director’s first cinematic love: German Expressionism, especially the work of F.W. Murnau and, even more so, Fritz Lang. No less decisive is the film’s modernist tendency, fuelled by Argento’s ardent admiration for Michelangelo Antonioni: elaborating on the central conceit of Blow-Up (1966), Dalmas, like so many later Argento leads, is haunted by the certainty that although he has witnessed a crime, a crucial clue has escaped him. Uncertainty is at the core of Argento’s cinema, and completing his “animal trilogy” in 1971 with The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet,he began to add (or merely emphasize) further elements that would form the unmistakable backbone of the nightmarish Argento universe, its ingredients as well as its language. Deep Red (1975), for which the director nabbed Blow-Up star David Hemmings, fused the trilogy’s achievements into a super-stylized chef d’oeuvre of uncommon power, not least because of the power-rock heights scaled by Italian band Goblin. They returned for what is indisputably Argento’s Gesamtkunstwerk, Suspiria (1977), which fully embraced the supernatural, bathing its eccentric witches’ sabbath in hellishly resplendent three-strip Technicolor.

With these twin peaks (and his subsequent involvement in George A. Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead), Argento was fêted as a master of horror, although also attacked by much mainstream criticism for his over-the-top-violence (ironically, he is now often chided for the opposite). A curious side effect emerged in which no subsequent Argento work was ever fully embraced when it came out (though censorship played a role in this), even as, in retrospect, the series of Inferno (1980), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985)—the latter allegedly Argento’s most personal and, fittingly, still his most divisive work—and Opera would seem like a home run. Maybe it just takes time, for by now Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), and Sleepless (2001) seem ripe for re-evaluation. (Though I’m not holding my breath for Argento’s eternally misunderstood 1998 version of The Phantom of the Opera, which, together with his 1997 production of the Stivaletti-directed Wax Mask and the bluntly sexualized Dracula 3D, belongs to a strand in his work fully subscribing to an unfashionable Romantic tradition that springs from a love for Hammer horror, combined with Eurotrash compromise.) 

Whether hewing closer to the giallo or the supernatural, Argento has always worked in an intensely personal register whose distinctive elements, in regards to both content and style, mark him as one of cinema’s authentic surrealists. Yet since that mantle has been bestowed upon David Lynch by academia and critics alike, the Italian never fully got the due he deserved—although he surely can’t complain, given the love of fans and the filmmakers everywhere who have followed and are following in his footsteps.

One could try to make a list of Argento hallmarks big and small, but it would exceed the limits of this article, since they range from the broadest areas to the most detailed specifics—even certain shots that are obsessively repeated with minuscule variations. How does one square the influence on Argento of painters (directly celebrated in The Stendhal Syndrome) ranging from the classics to Surrealists like Magritte and Delvaux to, naturally, Hieronymus Bosch, with what I like to call “Argento science”—those theoretically fascinating but often harebrained concepts like, for example, the optography solution in Four Flies on Grey Velvet?Or consider such diverse recurring elements as people afflicted by handicaps of all kinds (Dark Glasses is a variation of the creepy yet heartfelt relationship between blind crossword writer Karl Malden and a little girl in Cat o’ Nine Tails), the crucial appearances of insects and animals, or the repeated use of torrential downpours, and, more generally, all kinds of water (as well as fire). In Argento you can be sure that a cab ride is a ride to hell, and I know of no other director who has so consistently and successfully transformed hidden rooms and empty spaces into sources of fear.

A few brief examples of the latter may give an idea of how Argento applies his uniquely surrealist sensibility to his scripts, which replicate the disorienting effects of illogical nightmares. In Four Flies on Grey Velvet,he takes an idea from Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943)—a woman waits in an idyllic park, after a while finding herself unexpectedly alone in the dark and the park already closed, ultimately falls prey to an unseen threat—and makes it entirely his own by restaging similar “traps” in wide-open public spaces, orchestrating a mini-symphony of paranoia, isolation, and fear.In Suspiria he stages a scene in which a blind man (and his dog) are afflicted as if by a curse while alone at night; when he devises a similar fate for John Saxon five years later in Tenebrae it happens in broad daylight on a populated square, where it comes off as even more inescapable thanks to its unlikeliness. (One could consider almost the entire last third of Dark Glasses an extrapolation of this setup.) Similarly, one could set up a whole array of formal predilections, from Argento’s unique way with point-of-view shots that can be confounding (just consider the virtuoso but “impossible” tracking shot near the beginning of Opera) or insistently invite identification, often with even more disturbing results.

It’s probably this mastery of technique that has led to the repeated comparison of Argento to Hitchcock, and admittedly Argento is a rabid admirer of the Master of Suspense. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage sees Reggie Nalder, who played the assassin in Hitch’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in retrospect, a film of many proto-Argentoesque set pieces) assault the protagonist, then get away with a gag worthy of Sir Alfred, while the sweet television film Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), apart from being chock-full of tributes, serves to demonstrate how Argento’s brand of cinephilia is completely alien to the postmodern-reference culture that rules today, especially in the horror genre (pace the unfortunate Scream legacy). But while Hitchcock is obsessed with tidy narrative construction, Argento is the opposite: his early gialli abound with loose plotting and useless red herrings, and some of his best work is structured like a series of inexplicable, overlapping (and mostly very bad) dreams. In fact, he has compared his screenplay production to the Surrealists’ automatic writing, and claims that he only understands what he was getting at when he sees the finished film.

In other words, Argento’s filmmaking is best understood as a type of crazy poetry rather than storytelling—as John Carpenter put it, “Dario can influence and has influenced people with his absolute courage of what he can do on the screen.” While Carpenter has understandably often been grouped with Argento due to their shared love for the fantastic and an unmistakable (audio-)visual approach toward their material (even as Carpenter is more into classical storytelling), a better match for Argento may be found in another American auteur who is only four days younger than the Italian master: Brian De Palma, who is also often misunderstood as a technically brilliant yet hopelessly uneven Hitchcock disciple. (When Argento choreographed a Trussardi fashion show in the ’80s, crowding the catwalk with signature touches from murder to a rainstorm, he memorably used Pino Donaggio’s theme from De Palma’s Body Double [1984]—and soon hired Donaggio himself). In the cases of both filmmakers, the Hitchcock angle has led to overlooking many other strands that coalesce in their work. Most importantly, De Palma shares with Argento a (slightly more submerged) surrealist streak; if their overbearingly strong stylistic signatures weren’t pointing in the opposite direction, one should rather think of them as heirs to Buñuel.

A case in point is Argento’s most neglected film and only comedy, The Five Days of Milan (1973), whose box-office disappointment (and lack of exportability) convinced the director to remain in the realm of the fantastic. As the film follows a petty criminal (Adriano Celentano) through the upheaval after the anti-Austrian revolt of 1848, the lowbrow fun of opportunistic survival dissipates steadily, replaced by the satirical bitterness characteristic of the best commedia all’italiana, until only an absurd feeling of powerlessness remains. A showstopping set piece—one of Argento’s best—exemplifies the betrayal of the common people by the ruling class (regardless of their affiliation): hiding under a table at a banquet, Celentano sees only the shoes of the rich and hears their haughty, self-satisfied comments, a sequence that plays almost like animation, as if the shoes were personalities, with the dubbing (often a liability in Argento) brilliantly luxuriating in disdain. The Five Days of Milan is also Argento’s only outspokenly political film, although traces of his leftist-anarchic leanings occasionally appear around the edges of his “serious” work. (I always think of a television show in which Argento was asked to empty his pockets, and what he pulls out is like a key to his work: some trinkets, John Donne’s poem “Broken Heart,” cinema tickets for The Last Tycoon [1976] and  Monsieur Verdoux [1947], and a quote from the latter that Argento transcribed: “Desperation is a narcotic that creates indifference in the population.”)

The Five Days of Milan is usually brushed aside as proof that Argento can’t do comedy—and frankly, it’s the funny bits in Deep Red that are really terrible, and humour only works intermittently in his films overall. (In Dark Glasses,however, there is an exception: searching for a euphemism to describe her work to Chin, Diana settles for “public relations and psychology sessions.”) One could just as easily pick bad examples of dubbing, acting, plot construction, characterization, et cetera to point to the essentially uneven nature of Argento’s work: his poetry of terror holds together (or not) like a dream, and the only two films of his I’d consider outright failures—The Card Player (2004) and Giallo (2009)—are so precisely because they lack the conviction of a nightmare, thus ending up feeling like rote thrillers that could have been made by anybody, give or take a few trademark moments. 

Say what you will about the rest of Argento’s much-contested output in the new millennium, but it doesn’t skimp on personal commitment, even as he has to make do with the limitations of contemporary cinema. There is no point in bemoaning that the colours of Suspiria and Inferno are gone forever; after all, the cream-and-white look of their direct successor Tenebrae was already a clear expression of terrible ’80s futurism. When Mother of Tears (2007) belatedly and defiantly capped the trilogy begun by those two earlier films, it bore the look of a new era but surely did not skimp on genuine surrealist lunacy: the mass-panic scenes are ridiculously underpopulated and it’s visibly a puppet that is the victim of a shocking infanticide, yet the heartfelt presentation makes it irresistible. Even Dracula 3D’sterrible CGI couldn’t hide the fact that it was made by someone who understood the nature of 3D: along with Joe Dante’s The Hole (2009) and Pete Travis’ Dredd (2012), it’s one of the few sensible recent applications of stereography outside of the work of Paul W.S. Anderson. Dark Glasses shows a similar visual assurance in its pared-down late style and relative brevity (at 85 minutes, it’s the director’s shortest feature); in Langian terms, this makes it something of a 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse to Dracula’s garish The Indian Tomb (1959). 

The script of Dark Glasses was written two decades ago and was only recently rediscovered by Argento’s daughter Asia, placing the origins of this project squarely within Argento’s embattled attempts to reboot the giallo template for a new millennium. Like Sleepless it gambles on a particularly strong opening, but unlike The Card Player and Giallo it has no interest in the detection process. In fact, the plot of Dark Glasses is so slim that it might have been one of the nightmares Argento presented in 1987 as the three-minute vignettes (partly recounted by him, partly adapted into mini-films) that constituted the “Gli incubi di Dario Argento”segment in the TV show Giallo, which is a good thing. When the killer is finally revealed, there is little surprise involved: he is toxic masculinity distilled into murderous impulse, and as such a reminder that the violence in the original gialli bore witness to the spectacle of traditional masculinity and machismo feeling threatened in the wake of social changes, sexual revolution, and women’s liberation. (The killer is also the dark twin of the late Meat Loaf’s possessed furrier in Pelts,one of the two hugely enjoyable conte cruel black comedies Argento made for the Masters of Horror series in the mid-2000s, which are also mini-marvels of comic-book stylization.)

The police prove useless, as almost always in Argento (in one of those Hitchcock traits he cheerfully picked up), but they contribute to the re-emergence of the absurd, Argento-style—he cherishes these moments when, as in dreams, something nonsensical is made to seem perfectly normal. Thus, an inspector hands the blind Diana a card with her phone number, in case she wants to call. Later, Chin will in fact call and cause danger, in one of the many twin motives that anchor the film’s nightmare logic much better than its narrative: two strangulations with wire and two cut throats (not the same), two car accidents and two crime scenes (with crowds gathering to watch), two times that Diana approaches the camera in a particular way in two meetings with the same client (who the second time around says to the now-blind Diana that he is excited by this as he considers himself “a monster”—a moment that underlines Argento’s alliance with the old horror cinema in which you identified with the monster), two shower scenes and two dog kennels…even knockout spray is used twice, and so on. These doublings reach their apex in a magnificent moment in which Rita and the killer drive by each other and each one has their own flashback, which mirror each other as shot–counter-shot.

In other words, like all of Argento, Dark Glasses is about seeing and not seeing. In one late scene, Argento seems to evoke the popular ur-text on the subject, Wait Until Dark (1967), but it’s a misdirection, much like the water snakes or the brutal brawl with a group of hunters who for a moment appear as saviours and remind us of the beauty that springs from Argento’s mad poetry, even when he’s occasionally shackled. The prolonged climactic showdown, taking place in dark nature, pivots around Chin becoming Diana’s eyes. When he leaves her for a while—with an economical, unexplained split-second cut to black—she hesitantly feels her way through the dark woods, her face touched by leaves that seem to caress her, just as the rats caressed Julian Sands as Argento’s Phantom of the Opera. Even in Argento, the fear of being left alone has rarely found such pungent expression, and the final scene distills it with disarming simplicity. In the end, Diana—although in a crowded airport—is overcome by loneliness, and she kneels down to embrace her dog, saying, “You’re the only friend I have left.”

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