For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, Giuliano Gemma, John Saxon
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Although the Italian giallo genre had started to peter out by the time the American slasher boom began in earnest, you can’t keep a good killer down. This deep into the 1980’s, the genre still had a thing or two to say, and the man to say it was Dario Argento, Italy’s premiere purveyor of beautiful murder and inscrutable nonsense. His 1982 offering was Tenebrae (also known as Tenebre for no discernible reason other than the fact that it’s required by law for Italian movies to have a half dozen alternate titles), which more or less automatically became the most interesting movie of the year by virtue of his stylish, idiosyncratic nature.
And his eagerness to expose breasts in ways no human has ever done before.
In Tenebrae, American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in Rome with his agent Bullmer (John Saxon of A Nightmare on Elm Street) and his personal assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi, frequent Argento collaborator and his wife at the time; she also co-wrote Suspiria), to promote his new murder mystery novel, also titled Tenebrae. More or less immediately he is swept up in a real-life murder mystery as various vixens around town begin to be murdered with a straight razor, just like the victims in his book. Can the author solve his own mystery before the killer turns their sights on him?
And how young counts as TOO young for a sexy victim?
Tenebrae is the most typical giallo I’ve seen from Argento. Although he brings his usual flair to the murder setpieces, he indulges in altogether too many tropes of the dormant genre, including the black-gloved killer and a literal giallo novel actually incorporated into the plot. That’s not necessarily a problem. I dig the giallo clichés, but it just feels like his personal style is a little bit muffled here, at least in the way the plot and the basic imagery play out.
However, the same can’t be said for many other aspects of Tenebrae, especially the score, which is an electrical cacophony of beautifully catchy synthwork provided by the reliably frenetic band Goblin. It rivals the Suspiria score for pure operatic lunacy, though at least it’s performed in what are recognizable as “keys and “octaves.”
Argento also lets himself loose in the murder sequences, which find the director settled comfortable into his manic, off-kilter editing patterns. There’s a jagged beauty to his kills, which are executed with clockwork precision and a calculated flair. What is perhaps the most memorable kill scene (a double bill with a lesbian couple being murdered) is prefaced by a gorgeous tracking shot from outside a window, traveling over the roof of the apartment and down the other side. It’s a gloriously pointless shot, but it’s such a triumph of technical execution and sublime stylization that it almost doesn’t matter.
Except it does matter, at least a little bit. Argento’s nasty habit of halting a film dead in its tracks for an unrelated, dishwater dull sequence right when the tension is due to ramp up hits an all-time high here, clogging up multiple key moments with useless interludes.
The man does like to keep us on our toes.
Unfortunately, outside of the gonzo death scenes, the murder mystery plot is pretty rote. Argento falls back on his usual theme of exploring the fluidity of memory by having a character struggle to recall a vital detail of a scene he witnessed. Although this is cinematically interesting, it prevents us from getting a key clue toward the identity of the killer, and a murder mystery you can’t solve yourself isn’t worth the celluloid it’s printed on.
There are only two non-murder sequences that are remotely thrilling, and they both immediately precede a killing. The first is a slick reversal, where a dangerous hobo who is menacing a girl accidentally becomes a witness to her murder at the hands of someone else. The second depicts John Saxon waiting for a friend in a busy plaza. It’s a quiet moment, lazily watching the goings-on about town until increasingly bizarre shots of incredibly mundane tasks ratchet up the tension. These scenes are great, but Tenebrae is hardly scarier than your average stilted giallo.
Probably the most exciting aspect to Tenebrae is how chillingly self-aware it is. Peter Neal is so clearly a stand-in for Argento that he might as well have been played by a mirror. An author skilled a writing murder, Neal faces criticism of misogyny in his work. [SPOILERS The fact that he himself is driven to murder is both a thrilling twist and a bizarre case of cognitive dissonance on the part of Argento, whose life and work is full of these odd little conundrums.]
Overall, I’m glad I sat down with Tenebrae. It is a work of horror art. It just doesn’t show Argento challenging himself, and he’s at his best when he’s his weirdest.
Killer: [Christiano Berti (John Steiner) and Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa)]
Final Girl: This isn’t really applicable, but Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnero)
Best Kill: It can’t possibly be described. You just have to watch.
Sign of the Times: A woman shoplifts a book, because people actually read in 1982.
Scariest Moment: That hobo thing. We’ve already discussed it.
Weirdest Moment: In a flashback, a beautiful woman presses the back of her head against three guys’ crotches on a beach. A fourth guy slaps her and the others pin him down so she can stick her red heel in his mouth.
Champion Dialogue: “So passes the glory of lesbos.”
Body Count: 12
- Shoplifter is choked with paper and has her throat slit.
- Lesbian #1 is stabbed with a razor.
- Lesbian #2 has her throat slit.
- Maria is axed in the stomach.
- Christiano is axed in the head.
- Heels Lady is stabbed to death in flashback.
- Bullmer is stabbed in the gut.
- Gianni is garroted.
- Jane has her arm chopped off and is axed to death.
- Anne is axed in the back of the head.
- Detective Germani is axed in the back.
- Peter Neal is impaled on a statue.
TL;DR: Tenebrae is a typically stunning giallo from Argento, even if it's a little too generic in its plotting.
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