Occhiali Neri has been hailed as Argento’s great comeback movie – but is it too little, too late from a director whose artistic visions seem long exhausted?
There’s an argument to be made that creative talent, at least in some cases, is finite. When artists simply call a halt to their careers after one or two novels or recordings, there is the tendency to mourn a lost genius, wondering what great works we will never see because they have decided, for reasons unknown, to pack it all in. But no one ever seems to stop and think that maybe they simply don’t have any other ideas, that their one moment of greatness is all they had and, realising that, they have decided not to go down the route of pumping out inferior works for the rest of their lives. Alongside packing it in when it no longer seems fun, stopping once the well of creativity has dried up seems an admirable idea.
It’s certainly preferable to seeing someone you once admired producing increasingly worthless and disposable work that dilutes their legacy and makes you question if you were perhaps wrong about them in the first place. We can see this with artists who work alone or even with bands where there is one songwriter and leading figure (or perhaps where everyone else has left or died and the last man standing insists on flogging a dead horse); it seems less likely with directors, if only because filmmaking is a more collaborative art form and unless a director only ever works from their own screenplays and as their own producer, then surely the blame for anything awful should be shared. Yet it certainly happens, when you can draw a very clear line in the sand between the point when a filmmaker was inspired and brilliant and when everything they touched was dismal. Sometimes, it’s just a shift to the mainstream where indie roots and ideals are abandoned in favour of the big bucks. Sometimes, it’s that point where a creative becomes exhausted by the dreadfulness of the industry and gives up even trying. But sometimes there is no obvious logic behind it and the decline of Dario Argento is very much a case in point. How Argento fell from being the talented innovator behind some of the best horror films of the 1970s – and your writer’s favourite director – to becoming a blundering hack whose name is synonymous with terrible cinema has long seemed incomprehensible to me.
Until now. I think I might have realised what it is while watching his latest ham-fisted effort, Black Glasses (Occhiali Neri), the film widely described as a comeback for the director after – to paraphrase a certain sporting song – forty years of hurt. But just like the England football team, Argento might seem on reinvigorated form with this film but then falls at the last hurdle. Fans will nevertheless take what they get because – if I can mangle my sporting analogies for a moment – after years of crushing disappointment, reaching the final is better than falling at the first hurdle, even if you ultimately still fail to deliver what people want.
What’s wrong with the movie? Well, a lot, frankly – and we’ll get into that – but the central issue, the one that finally drove home what the problem has been all this time, is this: Argento is hamstrung by his own reputation. Black Glasses feels like an Argento tribute that is so determined to reproduce his style that it has even hired him as the director.
That’s probably not far from the truth. More than any other film (even Trauma) this is a movie put together by devoted fans who have on the one hand imposed certain restrictions – slightly better production values than we’ve seen in years, an insistence on the film being shot in Italian and released internationally with subtitles rather than dubbed, a more modern horror movie synth score by Arnaud Rebotini that references Goblin (I guess all those horror movie synth scores do really) without copying them – but then lets him run wild with every bad decision that has marred his work for decades. This includes some terrible performances – notably from main star Ilenia Pastorelli who is quite numbingly bad – alongside ham-fisted dialogue (it turns out that the dubbing wasn’t the problem) and some awful pacing that allows the film to grind to a complete halt for much of the middle section. It feels oddly old-fashioned, because of course it is (being based on a screenplay from 2002 that clearly hasn’t been updated much), somewhat skewering the whole idea of Argento entering the modern age of horror cinema. But more than anything, this feels like an ‘Argento Greatest Hits’ collection – though it’s rather like one of those compilations that tell us in small print that these are new recordings by ‘the original artists’. So we get half-hearted retreads of moments from The Cat O’Nine Tails, Suspiria, Tenebre and others, all of which just remind us of how much better those films were.
Like all such desperate pastiches, the film tries too hard and constantly misses the point. It sets itself up as a classic giallo – right down to the title – and then throws any sense of mystery away because it can’t wait to pointlessly reveal who the uninteresting killer is; it also seems to riff on Friday 13th-era horrors by making him seemingly indestructible for no good reason. For long chunks of the narrative, it seems as though the film has forgotten that it is a horror movie at all, wallowing in half-baked sentimentality, and the final scene is a tacked-on ‘feel good’ ending that goes on forever without adding anything to the plot. There are many reasons why we might criticise producer interference in a director’s vision but here it feels the exact opposite – surely someone from Wild Bunch or the other multitude of production companies involved could’ve at least suggested tightening things up and losing the coda. Then again, the film as it stands is only 86 minutes long – essentially a short by modern cinema standards – so editing it further might have been impossible.
In the preparation for this piece, it was pointed out to me that most of the big names from the horror scene that emerged in the 1970s lost their way somewhat during the 1980s. That’s true – though I’d exempt David Cronenberg from that list simply because he increasingly went his own way and remained consistently great during that decade with The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers showing that he adapted to a more mainstream acceptance with some style before moving admirably into impressive arthouse cinema. But many of the other big names of the era were wildly inconsistent to begin with – Wes Craven and Lucio Fulci‘s films were all over the place from the start, for instance, so it’s hard to really say they declined (especially Craven, who had his biggest commercial and critical successes in the 1980s and 1990s). It’s true that Tobe Hooper and George Romero struggled in different ways during the 1980s and both may, like Argento, have shot their creative wads during the previous decade and were now struggling to seem relevant in the brave new world. But no one seemed to become quite as consistently awful, seemingly overnight, as Argento – the closest was Romero, another director who I suspect became too caught up in his own image and began to make films that were weighed down with critical expectations (in his case, the symbolism that was once subtle became increasingly heavy-handed and misanthropic), but even he managed to make movies like The Dark Half that were not awful. Argento, who often seemed to have more creative control over his work than many of his rivals, seemed more bogged down by expectations that he would somehow top the visual style of his earlier work. Maybe he just felt exhausted by it all but had to keep going in a genre that he was no longer even interested in, constantly forced to copy his own work because that’s what the fans expected.
If Black Glasses is a revival, then we need to put that in context. It’s his best movie in years – decades, for that matter. It’s perhaps the film that will allow apologists for some of his more ‘recent’ (given that his last movie, the lamentably bad Dracula, was a decade ago, ‘recent’ is relative but you know what I mean) work to finally admit that it was awful, much as Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan allowed Trekkies to finally admit that Star Trek – The Motion Picture was a dismal letdown and not the masterpiece that they had claimed until that point. None of this means that Black Glasses is actually good, at least not by the standards of even the more average 1970s Argento films – but it is oddly watchable and that in itself is a major step forward.
In the end, fans, casual viewers, critics and everyone else have no right to tell someone when to stop. We are not forced to watch their movies and I’m not going to criticise anyone who wants to keep going because they still believe that they have a creative spark in them, however much I might disagree with them. Artists are often aware of their own legacy – I assume that even Argento didn’t want Dracula to be his final cinematic statement and this film at least ensures that his career isn’t an unbroken downward spiral. It may well be that the more hardened fans will love it, at least for what it represents rather than what it actually is. Whether anyone else takes notice is another question, though having Sky and Canal+ on board the lengthy list of production companies should at least ensure that it gets a wider release than some of his other post-1980s work. If the film exists to redeem his reputation, then it’s probably a job half done, and that might be as good as we can expect at this point. At 81, it seems unlikely – though not impossible – that Argento will be directing again, so this is probably as good as we’ll get.
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