It’s been a rough couple of decades for Dario Argento. Once hailed as the “Master of Horror” for films like Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), and Inferno (1980), around the mid-to-late ‘90s that reputation plummeted, as Argento’s films increasingly failed to leave much impression at all, with a 3D adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula arguably marking his lowest point. Following that flop, Argento took a decade-long hiatus – one which comes to an end with the release of Dark Glasses.
For a large swath of the audience, expectations for Dark Glasses will likely be modest. Most would agree that Argento hasn’t made a masterpiece in quite some time, although it should be noted that the director’s post-’80s output has managed to touch on some provocative themes and demonstrate an enduring gift for image-making. Argento’s 21st-century films, in particular, often seem preoccupied with navigating the disorienting terrain of our digital world – his characteristically oneiric film language becoming not only a means to rework evergreen thematic obsessions (consider the aptly named Giallo, which is very much concerned with analyzing a personal cinematic legacy), but also a way of recontextualizing a broader horror history. The latter is true of Argento’s take on Stoker’s seminal tome, certainly – and the same could be said of the way that Dark Glasses transplants a set of fine-tuned aesthetic instincts to a present where such artistic vision is rare.
Early on in Dark Glasses, Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli), a high-class escort, finds herself targeted by a vicious serial killer. During a car chase with the misogynistic assailant, Diana crashes, resulting in injuries that leave her blind – and also killing the mother and father of 10-year-old Chin (Andrea Zhang). To help her cope with the combined trauma of these circumstances, a social worker, Rita (Asia Argento), enters Diana’s life, providing both a service dog and a set of handy tips for navigating life as a blind woman. Chin, meanwhile, decides to run away from the orphanage into which he’s been placed and cohabitate with Diana, who’s at first reluctant toward the arrangement. Diana, Chin, and the service dog (who’s also a victim of trauma) eventually form a close bond – while the killer, lurking in a white van, continues to stalk Diana and wait for the opportunity to finish what he started.
Argento has always proved himself willing to embrace chaos and irreverence, regularly piling on brutal murders, out-of-nowhere animal attacks, and supernatural twists. In this way, and after spending a few decades in a kind of artistic limbo, Dark Glasses almost seems like a back-to-basics turn for the maestro del brivido. Given how badly Argento has fallen out of favor since the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s even tempting to interpret, say, a set of black leather gloves, or some snake-filled waters, or the ominous solar eclipse that opens this film as conscious efforts to retread the filmmaker’s glory days. But actually, Dark Glasses discovers a new focus: The survivors of the violent attacks in which Argento traditionally has taken so much pleasure staging. This makes for a more low-key way of approaching Argento’s signature style – neither the rich color palette of Suspiria, nor the sweeping camerawork of Opera make an appearance – and allows him to explore more tender feelings than he has before, perhaps as a reaction to the ordeals through which he’s put protagonists in the past.
Dark Glasses may be unexpectedly affectionate towards its characters, but Argento still loves reveling in straightforward horror nastiness – strangulations, slashed throats, and vicious dog maulings punctuate this slick, 90-minute giallo. And even as Argento softens, he still steers clear of the heavy-handed moralizing that’s become so ubiquitous in horror; he’s clearly most interested in doing what he has always loved doing, even though the world around him has become increasingly unable to cope with any media that isn’t completely sanitized and didactic. Following the world premiere of Dark Glasses at Berlinale, one critic noted “an uncomfortable erotic gaze during attack scenes” and called the film “out of step with the current mood,” which is not exactly meaningful criticism in a cultural landscape as dire as ours. They went on to praise Luca Guadagnino’s artless and thuddingly literal Suspiria remake – presumably because Guadagnino was so uninterested in making actual horror as to satisfy the pearl-clutchers who write about genre films these days.
If Argento’s best work is behind him, Dark Glasses is still a fantastic, and much-needed, reminder that in spite of the last 20-plus years, deep down, the Italian master is still the same twisted genius he’s always been. And who knows, he may even have another classic in him.
Writer: Fred Barrett
Incredible But True
Without the director’s name attached to the credits, and without Alain Chabat’s happily nonchalant presence gracing the screen, one might not recognize Incredible But True as part of the weird, wacky universe delicately fashioned by French DJ and filmmaker Quentin Dupieux. Indeed, its central conceit — a mysterious hole in a suburban basement violating certain laws of reality — has become commonplace in the indie circuit of late; the chasm has seen both literal and metaphorical deployments, and spawned both ingenious and inane interpretations of human fear and desire. In our case, a bit of both adjectives would just about summarize the mischief maestro’s style: Incredible But True finds middle-aged but perfectly functional couple Alain (Chabat) and Marie (Léa Drucker) moving into the suburbs together, into a house too big for two but affordable enough (with a mortgage, that is). The realtor shows them their basement and its hole, and divulges the latter’s mind-bending secrets. Suffice to say that, even without spoiling it just yet, the surprise is unraveled in classic Dupieux fashion; that is, matter-of-factly and with little formal or artistic restraint. Alain and Marie enter the hole, come out of it, and continue to live their lives with little more than slight intrigue.
Despite the many similarities shared with its predecessors (Deerskin featured a blade-wielding Jean Dujardin with a jacket obsession, and Mandibles a prehistoric-scaled fly), Incredible But True doesn’t quite retain the uninhibited exuberance reserved for those earlier films; instead, its mellow and contemplative designs make it one of Dupieux’s most melancholic outings in recent years. At its heart lies the question of finding joy and contentment amidst the onset of physical and emotional infirmity, as when the otherwise agreeable couple find themselves increasingly living apart under the same roof. Marie harbors some resentment over her lack of youth; Alain can hardly seem to care. Underscoring the pair’s woes are, naturally, those of another’s. Alain’s hot-headed boss, Gérard (Benoît Magimel), and his girlfriend (Anaïs Demoustier) happen to live two streets down from their latest residence, and, stopping by for dinner one night, they divulge Gérard’s latest gizmo to spice up their sex life and restore his virility: an “electronic penis” of Japanese origin, complete with size, shape, girth, tensile, and — curiously — “steering” functions.
Beyond mere comic relief, however, Gérard’s presence in Alain’s life undergirds the film’s satirical sensibilities more acutely, premising them on anxieties all too relatable even to present-day millennials. Where to draw the boundaries between boss and friend; what do you say to an increasingly withdrawn loved one; and how do you reconcile the safety of ordinary existence with both the pleasures and perils of extraordinary cures? At risk of some moral didacticism, Incredible But True concludes with a hasty, fast-forwarded montage of Alain and Marie’s spiritual descent (or ascent, depending on which way you look at it), but it’s a charge one may easily overlook considering just how high the bar for Dupieux really is (Rubber: sentient killer tires; Reality: a film devoted squarely to thematizing the ontological incompleteness of reality). Opening with a playfully synthetic rendition of Bach’s Badinerie (courtesy of Jon Santo from the 1970s), Incredible But True dignifies its titular materiality with a cool-headed sense of humor that, at first glance, may belie the sobriety and maturity within that far outweigh the lesser temptations of the modishly absurd. It’s Dupieux all right, except now it’s also uncomfortably close to home.
Writer: Morris Yang
All Jacked Up and Full of Worms
Whatever else it has going for it, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms very literally delivers exactly what it says on the tin. A goofy, sometimes nightmarish descent into drug-fueled insanity, All Jacked Up suggests just enough of a traditional narrative that viewers might be lulled into a false sense of security — certainly the filmmakers wouldn’t dare go there, you might think, before the filmmakers do indeed go right where you hoped they wouldn’t. It’s visceral and occasionally disturbing, but it’s never boring. Ostensibly the story of put-upon janitor Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), the film charts his increasingly desperate attempts to get high with his girlfriend Samantha (Betsey Brown), who has started sleeping with someone else. We’re also introduced to Benny (Trevor Dawkins), a schlubby heap of a man who is fixated on becoming a father. Believing it will bring some kind of meaning to his unremarkable life, Benny orders a sex doll that looks like a baby and proceeds to care for it as if it was alive, telling anyone within earshot that he’s now a proud daddy.
Cutting back and forth between these two hapless men, writer/director Alex Phillips seems at first to be charting some kind of millennial arrested development, a modern-day man-child tale, except consisting of a duo who are also mentally unstable and occasionally disgusting. Benny eventually finds himself with a sex worker, Henrietta (Eva Fellows), but rather than screwing her he instead beseeches her to become the mother of his “child.” She plays along, but only until the money runs out for their allotted time. Roscoe and Benny soon cross paths, and after being supplied hallucinogenic worms by Henrietta, the pair become addicted. Rampaging around a low-rent motel, the men consume copious amounts of the squirmy things while barging into rooms and getting high with strangers. Eventually, another couple enters the film, and things are turned up a notch. Biff (Mike Lopez) and his girlfriend are the dark inverse of Roscoe and Benny, aggressive and violent and totally unhinged. Taking a queue from these agents of chaos, the film proceeds to devolve into a miasma of kidnapping, torture, and murder.
This brief description makes the movie sound more traditional and linear than it actually is. But even the early goings purposefully unmoor the dramaturgy, unleashing a cacophony of incongruous sights and sounds. These people are always high, and the movie follows their lead, constantly blurring the line between what’s real and what’s imagined. Images emanating from television screens littered across every interior location begin to overwhelm the central diegesis of the movie, like an alternate film from another dimension trying to butt in and take over. Phillips inserts all manner of cut-aways, non-sequiturs, and grotesque surrealist flourishes. Like an exquisite-corpse game constructed out of slimy viscera or a Burroughs-esque cut-up, it’s not always entirely clear how one scene segues to another, or what anyone’s motivation is other than scoring more worms. No matter, as the film’s virtues have virtually nothing to do with any traditional standards of quality.
But for all the distressing imagery on screen, the actors are having so much fun that their vibe becomes infectious. The frequent handmade special effects are cheap, and all the more effective for it. By the time people’s heads are turning into orifices and spewing fluids while someone else is being reborn as some kind of worm-god (the end credits list a “worm baby,” a “worm eater,” and a “worm king,” so take your pick), you’ll either be throwing up or chuckling along with it. The movie is frequently very funny, a clear case of friends goofing around and trying to one-up each other, seemingly as inspired by sketch comedy, improv, and Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix as they are by Cronenberg (the director most referenced in other assessments of the film). If you squint, you can find some deeper anxieties about parenthood and urban displacement, as well as the allure of getting high to pass the time (not for nothing is this a Covid production). But any attempt to psychoanalyze the proceedings is met with a determined bit of inspired nonsense. All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is having a good time, and wants to take you along for the ride — if you’ve got the stomach for it.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Heaven: To the Land of Happiness
In Im Sang-soo’s Heaven: To the Land of Happiness, the money its pair of protagonists happen upon, no matter how welcome, has a rapidly depreciating value: Choi Min-sik’s character, identified only as Prisoner 203, five years into a sentence, has been given two weeks to live (the movie, in the end, grants him three days). “Every minute counts for me,” he tells his break-out partner Nam-sik (Park Hae-il), an orderly who is coincidentally a target of arrest at the exact same time in the exact same hospital due to his being caught on the facility’s newly upgraded security cameras, after months of routine success, pocketing SSRIs he needs but can’t afford. They escape in a hearse, naturally, which also happens to be the container for the cash: a mob-connected coffin is filled to the brim with high-denomination won notes.
What will they spend it on? Where will they go? Im, an oddly dedicated hack, writes all his own material, in this case transforming the premise of Thomas Jahn and Til Schweiger’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, the same film that inspired Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List, to the point where no credit to the source material was any longer required. And he regards the money with indifference. The same goes for Nam-sik’s “happiness,” which one might imagine would be occasioned by the title. Most of the film resembles an average network TV episode: long conversations in a blue-screened car interior, followed by brief bursts of perfunctory action. (The action mostly involves a change of vehicle, as the two transfer from the hearse to a produce-carrying flatbed, followed by a tractor and finally a scooter, from which Park delivers the film’s in medias res opening monologue, an unironic variation on, “Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got into this situation…”)
Im’s treatment of this material suggests a director trying to manage an apparent decline: at home in the lofty, manicured world of his Cannes debut The Housemaid, an ill-advised remake that, like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, awkwardly paid tribute to Kim Ki-young’s totalizing iconoclasm, in Heaven, with little prestige left to his name after that earlier film’s sequel, The Taste of Money, crashed and burned, he defaults to coverage and clock-in-clock-out anonymity.
When his protagonists find themselves in possession of that cool $2 million, they pocket it and make no plans for it. It’s as if they are unsatisfied: it’s not enough, or at least there’s no desire to measure up to the implications of the scenario. Given the chance to make a getaway with this windfall, they elect instead to conspicuously go home and face death while also facing the Pacific. This doesn’t come across as a rejection of financial allure or a wandering existentialism, but something closer to the inconclusive hyperactivity of a mid-life crisis.
Writer: Michael Scoular
Short films are particularly difficult to finesse into satisfying wholes. Often fashioned as simple calling cards, an attempt to show off technical specs or a gimmick, too many build to nothing but a punchline (this frequently happens in the V/H/S franchise, for instance). Like the difference between a short story and a novel, the short film is its own distinct form with its own specific strengths. Director/editor/composer Chris Osborn‘s new film Gussy expertly utilizes its brief, 18-minute runtime to craft a genuinely chilling exploration of childhood remembrance coupled with a good old-fashioned monster movie. It’s an impressive achievement, not just because of how much is packed into it, but how Osborn deftly implies a bounty of emotions through inference and suggestion: In lieu of a traditional narrative is copious amounts of mood.
Beginning with old, fuzzy VHS footage, two boys introduce themselves to the camera; they are Miles (Tyler Knowles) and Rocky (Christopher Riley), and they are searching the forest for a creature they call Gussy. The boys are laughing and having a blast until they spot a pair of glowing eyes deep in the treeline. They both scream, and we cut to two men, a grown-up Miles (now played as an adult by Cole Doman, familiar from Stephen Cone’s great Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party) and Rocky (Michael Patrick Nicholson). It’s the dead of night, and they are on a mission. Even though the men do not speak, their body language tells the story — reluctantly, for some unidentified reason, they are once again searching for Gussy. The men split up, slowly traversing the woods in near-total darkness. Cinematographer Ava Benjamin Shorr does remarkable work here, illuminating bits and pieces of bodies through a single primary light source while allowing everything else to sink into a kind of digital chiaroscuro. Rocky falls down a ravine, while Miles comes across a doorway in a clearing. It’s an ominous bit of surrealism, and he immediately flees as the door slowly opens and those familiar glowing eyes peer back from the darkness. The men have apparently accomplished their goal, but there is no peace to be found.
They part ways in a parking lot, a gentle caress and a lingering, soft kiss suddenly indicating an entire history between them, before the camera begins a strange odyssey through the interiors of a huge shopping mall. It’s an oblique sequence, the camera tracking and dollying down hallways peering into empty stores. It’s all liminal spaces, devoid of human presence, eerie like a haunted house. Is this a place the boys frequented as they were growing up? Does it hold secrets, fond memories of long-ago trysts? The somber mood and creeping, snaking camera would suggest something more sinister. Rocky retires to his home, slugging back a beer as something approaches from outside. There’s a cut back to the mysterious door in the middle of the forest, now wide open, as superimposed images play out over shots of a distressed Rocky. Piercing blue eyes emerge from the darkness. Gussy is here. What happens next is left entirely to our imagination as the film cuts to black. It’s a kind of crushing brevity, but Osborn seems to have mastered the art of leaving an audience wanting more. It’s a remarkable little film, small in the very best sense.
Writer: Daniel Gorman