Back on the giallo brick road….
This review contains spoilers.
Tenebrae marked Dario Argento’s return to the giallo genre after a detour into supernatural horror for Suspiria and Inferno, and it remains one of his best, most fascinatingly multi-layered thrillers. I first watched it in slightly censored form on VHS at the turn of the century, when Nouveaux Pictures unearthed it from unavailability ever since it was blacklisted as a video nasty back in the early eighties. Note the above UK quad poster, where a red ribbon was superimposed over the original artwork’s slashed neck. It’s since been released totally uncut, and that’s really the only way to truly appreciate this blood-soaked classic.
Despite the title (it means ‘darkness’ in Italian), it’s actually one of Argento’s most brightly lit, starkly shot movies, and in one scene, we’re shown that even hanging out in a public spot in broad daylight is no guarantee of safety. The horror genre had come a long way since Argento’s last giallo – 1975’s Deep Red – and Tenebrae does more than enough to ensure that Argento was not going to be dismissed as out of touch. The gore is bang-up-to-date in line with the expectations of an audience brought up on the grisly likes of Halloween II, The Burning, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dawn of the Dead and the Friday the 13th series, the music is the most electronic of any Argento film to date and the plot so outrageous that even hardened giallo fans would have had difficulty second-guessing it. Oh, and there’s an arcade cabinet in one scene – hello, 1982!!! There’s also far more sexual undertones than in any Argento film to date – I’m not talking about actual sex, although some characters do have it offscreen, but more the seamy, sleazy essence of it in the air, and the darker side of its consequences. The film itself is not sleazy though, this ain’t Fulci’s New York Ripper!
The plot is bound to confound on first viewing, so it’s best just to enjoy the ride. For what it’s worth, it involves American bestseller Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arriving in Rome only to be questioned by police over the recent murder of a woman who had pages of his recent paperback hit Tenebrae stuffed in her mouth. It turns out that the murderer is an ultra-prudish psychopath who wishes to cleanse the world of its filthy sinners, and Neal maybe the intended final victim, so in true Argento fashion, he decides to play amateur sleuth, with (in even truer Argento fashion) very unpredictable results. There’s an assortment of characters, and only one with them will make it to the end credits, including Neal’s devoted secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi), his hat-loving agent Bulmer (John Saxon), Bulmer’s wide-eyed junior assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), detectives Germani (Guilano Gemma) and Alteri (Carola Stagnaro), journalists Tilde (Mirelle D’Angelo) and Christiano (John Steiner), friendly neighbour Maria (Lara Wendel) and Neal’s estranged wife Jane (Veronica Lario). Who’s the killer? Who’s going to die in the most grotesque way? Such fun awaits….
The opening scene is a belter – a fire crackles and burns as an unidentified figure wearing black glove (no, really?) turns the pages of a book – Tenebrae by Peter Neal – and a voiceover narrates the text. A voiceover begins that sounds an awful lot like David Warner, even though he’s not credited. It’s got to be him though, right? The words are an incredibly foreboding and frighteningly vivid depiction of the twisted allure of murder. Really, it makes me think Tenebrae should have been a real-life novel. It could have been a best seller. The book is then thrown onto the fire and then the music kicks in and everything is all well and good in Argentoland. The score is by Goblin in all but name – almost all the band members worked on the film and the results are tremendous – the opening theme replaces the band’s flirtations with prog and updates it with an electro-disco vibe that’s brilliantly catchy.
Apparently set a few years in the future, Tenebrae has no supernatural leanings, but plenty of surrealism. The set-design is clinically neat, full of white (all the better to contrast with the blood), brutalist architecture and (I didn’t notice this until it was brought up) lacking in any obvious signs that this is set in Rome. Really, this film could have been set anywhere, and as such, gives the action a weirdly universal setting. It’s a far cry from Suspiria and Inferno – the whole experience is to be honest, especially given that everybody expected Argento to wrap up his Three Mothers trilogy at this point (especially since the name of the film recalls Mater Tenebrarum, the antagonist in Inferno).
Style is in abundance in Tenebrae. The editing is excellent, especially the cutaways to the whirring camera whenever the killer is documenting their handiwork. The jump scares are great – you know they’re coming, but they still get you. Then there are the times when you don’t know they’re coming. For example, there’s a remarkable shot at the end when a character moves out of frame to reveal the killer standing directly behind them – he was there all that time but perfectly obscured by the man in front of him. Brian de Palma borrowed this trick for the closing shot of Raising Cain, and there it scared the living fuck out of me, especially because it ended the film on such an unexpected and WTF shock, perfect to cut to black from and leave the audience flabbergasted. I watched Raising Cain a long time before I saw Tenebrae though, so when I did experience this killer visual jolt once more, it was just as susprising and breathtaking. Saying that, the beauty of this precise kind of shock is that there’s absolutely no way you can see it coming, not unless you remain on edge during every single minute of every single thriller for the rest of your life. No thanks.
Above all else though, we have the film’s most admired set-piece, and one of the most delightfully unnecessary examples of sheer cinematic flair ever executed. Peter’s friend Tilde comes back to her house, annoyed that her girlfriend has gone off with some beefcake for the night and while she throws a strop in her room, we cut to the outside of the house, where the camera, that we initially assume is representing the POV of the killer, decides to go off on an aerial wander of its own. Soon it becomes obvious – there’s no way this could be the killer – no one could be this graceful. No, the camera is Argento, the camera is YOU, the camera is ME and we’re just getting off on the views. The main Tenebrae theme accompanies this segment, and it’s one of the most delightful cinema-for-cinema’s sake scenes ever. Once we’re done with the scenic route, we cut back to the inside of the house, and in an extra neat touch, it’s revealed that Tilde’s girlfriend is the one playing the Tenebrae theme on her stereo, and naturally it’s too loud. ‘TURN IT DOWN!’. She then attempts to change clothes, but whilst she’s caught up inside her top, the killer (now in the house) has realised that this is the perfect opportunity for a beautifully framed shot, one for the posters, the ads, the trailers – he slashes a hole in her top so that we see Tilde’s shocked face inside the space. There’s a moment to savour the elegance, and then the bloody aftermath.
Oh yes, the violence. It’s utterly full-on – no holding back here. Of all the films of his to feature violence against women, Tenebrae probably has the most of it, despite, or maybe even because of the fact that the script itself calls to attention this very accusation of the director’s output, with Neal essentially an Argento surrogate for the scenes when he’s under fire. This could have been a dreary act of finger-pointing to his critics, but Argento keeps points short and sweet, and often pretty witty. I must say that of all of Argento’s films, Tenebrae does boast some of his liveliest, most allusive and clever dialogue. The bright script clearly bled into the performances, given the weird glee with which our detectives tread towards the dark side, calling to mind the seemingly at-odds enthusiasm of Argento’s previous giallo sleuths. Take the character of Gianni, Bulmer’s young apprentice, who seems to be loving all of this whodunnit lark. Even after he’s found out that Maria is dead (he seemed to like her; you think he’d have been shaken up by her murder), he’s still going about all of this with a perverse enthusiasm. Of course, like most of Argento’s overly keen sleuths, he ultimately sees too much and ends up pretty messed up because of it, but only in a film like this could he have maintained that much sanity so long into such a blood-drenched narrative.
Of course, being an Argento film, there’s that unmistakable humorous vibe that may or may not be intentional – the performances are ever-so-slightly broad, slightly soapy, yet very entertaining. Sometimes the comic beats are a little off, but compared to other, later Argento films, it’s a masterclass in timing. Anthony Franciosa is one of Argento’s best leads – engaging, fun and charming, which makes it all the more shocking when Neal turns out to be an absolute psycho. Daria Nicolodi wasn’t too impressed with the character of Anne – indeed, it’s the most functional of all the characters she played in an Argento film and she admits she would have preferred to play Jane – and yet she gives a fine, warm performance and of course gets to scream her head off in the final scene, so much indeed that her voice bleeds over into the end credits after the fade to black. Supporting performances are fun too – there’s a fine roster of actors here who are enjoying the ride up until the point they get brutally murdered.
Argento has gone on record saying that he’d much rather watch a beautiful woman being murdered on screen, and in that dubious respect, Tenebrae succeeds, with a cast of gorgeous actors who look great and make for glamourous victims too. God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Yet Argento has always staged his murder scenes like art installations, and their look is absolutely vital, and there’s always been a digusting beauty to his killings, with the juxtaposition of beautiful victim and horrendous act indeed making for powerful cinema. Besdies, men often get the bad end of it too in Argento’s films – in fact, the second most spectacular death in this film is indeed inflicted upon a man. The big one though, the one that got the BBFC in a flutter, is the death of Jane, Neal’s wife, who has humiliated him by having an affair with Bulmer. When she gets her hand chopped off by an axe, the ensuing spray of blood resembles an artist throwing paint on the canvas. It’s absolutely spectacular, horrendous and troublingly beautiful. You can see why the British censors got worried about it (though they were overreacting to everything with a vengeance around this time), because it looks too damn good. Yet to be honest, this is what divorces the violence in this film reality – it’s so artfully staged that even the messy stuff has a kind of intentional, staged look to it. Real violence wouldn’t look this good.
That scene is just one of many acts of violence in an ending which amounts to a total bloodbath, real Grand Guignol stuff – indeed, it this ever had been performed on stage, the first ten rows at least would have been drenched in claret. Pretty much all of the cast are dead by the end, and the lone survivor is clearly going to need therapy for years to come. Inferno more or less killed its cast by the end too, but whereas the deaths of those characters were arguably void of any real emotional impact (barring the two of the earliest victims), by the end of Tenebrae the cumulative effect of all this murder is pretty damn chilling. I’m not saying that the film is a masterclass in three-dimensional characterisation, but Argento does seem more invested in the fate of these characters and their inevitable demises. Whereas I couldn’t really give two hoots about the deaths of Kazanian, the maid, the butler, Varelli, etc. in Inferno (they were all dicks anyway), the brutal dispatching of the nice guys in Tenebrae remains shocking, and even the deaths of the less sympathetic characters chill to the bone. This is definitely Argento at his cruellest and most harsh. And yet, like the enthusiastic response of the characters, it’s difficult not to get swept up in all of the gory chaos. After all, it’s just a film, and when everything comes together in such bloodily spectacular fashion by the end, it’s difficult not to walk away from the film as satisfied as you would be after a great meal.
Of all of Argento’s films, this is probably the most self-reflexive, and raises a hell of a lot of questions. Does art inspire its viewers to commit crimes? Does the content reflect the views of the artist? In the opening press conference, Tilde, despite being good friends with Neal, uses this opportunity to critique him about the content of his novels, specifically the problematic instances of ‘women as victims, ciphers, the men with their hairy macho bullshit’, to which Neal insists that his novels are not sexist, and what’s more, he supports women’s rights. Tilde retorts with ‘okay, so explain the books’, a question which sadly is never answered because she’s murdered before the planned follow-up interview. This does however bring up the question of an artist’s responsibility when it comes to their content – having evil or sexist characters in a book doesn’t necessarily mean the author is evil or sexist, but if the general tone is sexist, then it’s only to fair to assume that the author is too, unless, as Tilde suggests, Neal is writing to a pattern and knows fully well that this ‘kind of sexism sells’, which in theory makes him just as bad as the authors who do believe this stuff. The message is still the same. Incidentally, Argento himself was stalked by an obsessive fan before starting work on this film, so it’s easy to understand why the subject matter would be so close to the director’s heart, which is maybe why he concentrated on this rather than follow-up on Inferno.
At the same time, Argento is showing up the mechanics of the horror and exploitation film. Brian de Palma was doing a similar thing near this time with Body Double – check the end credits scene and its ‘film-within-a-film’ gag, where what normally would be a half-convincing scene involving a vampire biting a woman’s neck (causing her blood to seep down onto her breasts) is exposed, thanks to editing, to reveal that the woman having her neck bitten and the woman whose breasts are covered in blood are not the same person. It’s a body double! Tenebrae does a similar thing, if not so blatantly-meta, where Neal slices his own throat with a razor only for us to discover moments later that it was a staged death – the razor is a dummy which spurts fake blood whenever a button is pushed. It’s a neat trick, and it makes one realise that all the horrific gore that we’ve witnessed so far is also fake. Axe in the head? Fake. Strangulation? Fake. This is a bold move, because it potentially takes you out of the film, but Argento’s almost always been one for disrupting narratives and pulling the rug out from underneath us. This may be why Suspiria remains his most popular movie, because it’s arguably the one that plays the least amount of tricks with us, opting for an unrelenting, uninterrupted nightmare.
Essentially, Argento is saying it’s just a movie, just like Peter Neal’s Tenebrae is just a book. It’s a safe outlet for our fears, and yes, our latent, voyeuristic and even sadistic desires, as well as those of the artist. Hey, I have these desires too, but, I must add, only in the context of movies! I know this is just a film, I know this isn’t real, and yet I do allow myself to suspend disbelief so that I can indulge my desires for a powerful, effective cinematic experience. Horror films wouldn’t be much fun if I kept saying it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie… I want to be scared, I want to be (safely) disturbed, I want to lose myself, I want to experience this illicit (and I must repeat, fictional) danger. In the end, it is just a movie.
Yet, we also have a bit at the end where Neal is killed with a work of art (a rather pointy sculpture), and some critics have taken this to be Argento’s way of saying that art is dangerous. He definitely believes that art has the power to affect us intensely, as his later thriller The Stendhal Syndrome would prove. Indeed, the novel Tenebrae is the trigger for Berti’s murder spree, if not the root cause. To quote Scream, ‘movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative’. In fact, it’s suggested that organised religion may be a key factor, both killers admit to being brought up as Catholics during their interview together. Yet Berti is no stereotype – he says he believes in abortion and divorce, for example. Berti’s disgust with his victims – and it’s telling that they’re all women, while Neal is definitely an equal ops murderer – is rooted by some kind of sexual repulsion towards the female sex, which may or may not be rooted in his religious upbringing. He pretty much suggests this himself during his interview with Neal. He thinks homosexuality is ‘deviant’, something incidentally, that Neal disagrees with. According to Neal, the killer in his novel doesn’t have a sensible moral outlook because he or she ‘is insane’. Odd that this line is spoken by someone who turns out to be totally insane himself!
This is where the logic of Tenebrae becomes confusing – Neal seems perfectly normal for the first two thirds of the movie. The reason the final twist is so shocking is because no one could have seen it coming. When we find out that not only is Neal the second murderer, but that he also killed decades earlier, it makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve just seen. Watching Tenebrae again knowing the facts, it’s interesting to observe Neal as he goes about his business. There’s nothing here that suggests he’s insane, even latently so – some mild frustration with Jane over the phone at the airport, that instant, curt brushing away of the photo of the shoplifter’s body when shown to him by the police, that’s about it.
Let’s consider the flashbacks. Seen from the point-of-view of the killer, we witness a woman (Eva Robins) seducing a group of young men on the beach, an act which clearly disgusts Neal (for that’s who ‘we’ are here) as he slaps her face. This leads to the woman sending the men after a fleeing Neal, who pounce on and pin him down as she forces her blood-red stiletto into his mouth, a bizarre act, but one loaded with sexual, violent connotations. Many have commented that this is an act of rape upon Neal, which humiliates him to such an extent that he later kills the woman and steals her shoes for good measure, thereby regaining his masculine control. He later anonymously gives the shoes to Jane as a present (she thinks they’re from Bulmer), possibly to anticipate the inevitable renactment of his earlier killing. When watching Tenebrae for the first time, we assume (retrospectively, from his confession onwards) that the flashback scenes are from the mind of Berti, but they turn out to be Neal’s. This is good wrong-footing, as we instantly assume these tormented flashbacks to be those of the killer – never mind that they belong to another killer, it’s still a good twist, even if the character of Berti ends up being a loose end. I mean, what made him the way he is? Argento literally takes an axe to that plot thread. Never mind. Anyway, now that we know that the flashbacks belong to him and not Berti, it’s clear that even from the start of the film, Neal is clearly disturbed, and yet it’s difficult to reconcile the later Neal and the agonised silhouette suffering from memories of past crimes with the cheery, happy-go-lucky amateur sleuth whose company we so enjoyed the first time around. Maybe he’s just too good at supressing this dark side of his nature for the most part, but it would have been nice if Argento had given Neal some characteristics that would have made it all come together on repeat viewings, but then I suppose it wouldn’t have been as shocking a twist, and Argento does love a rug-pull, even if it is at the expense of common sense.
Tenebrae continued Argento’s golden run in spectacular fashion, but there are some who would argue that this is where it ended for him, with Phenomena and Opera considerable steps down, which is a fair assessment, as they are both flawed films, but they’re also too damned brilliant to be regarded as anything less than prime Argento. Nevertheless, this is super-prime Argento, a giallo classic, a thrilling ride and infinitely rewatchable. After all, there is only one answer to the fury that tortures you when you’re struggling to think of a classic thriller to watch. Well, there’s actually more than one answer, but one of them is definitely Tenebrae.
Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including: