‘Tenebrae’ (1982): Sterile, brightly-lit tale of slick, cold violence – one of Argento’s best

Just in time for Halloween terror: an icy, strange Italian giallo—that also works as dreamy parody—from the master.

By Paul Mavis

A few years back Synapse Films released on Blu-ray a definitive “director’s cut” of Tenebrae, the 1982 Italian “spaghetti thriller” from writer/director Dario Argento, starring Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliano Gemma, Mirella D’Angelo, John Steiner, Veronica Lario, Christian Borromeo, Lara Wendel, Ania Pieroni, Mirella Banti, Carola Stagnaro, and Eva Robin’s. A return to the “classical” psychological giallo Argento helped invent (after the commercial and critical failure of his supernatural-themed Inferno), Tenebrae only did okay with reviewers and ticket buyers in Italy, while it badly flopped here in America when it was chopped up and released as Unsane in 1984.

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Now accepted by many critics as one of Argento’s best outings, Tenebrae adopts a sterile, modern, brightly-lit vibe to tell its sick, lurid—and self-reflexive—story of beautiful women getting hacked to death…while tricking its viewers left and right about what they’re really seeing. Along with the smashing restored and color-corrected Blu transfer, Synapse has added a terrific documentary on the history of gialli, a full-length commentary track, original Italian and English dub sound options, English sequence insert shots (which can be viewed seamlessly in this director’s cut), alternate opening and end credit sequences, and original trailers.

On his first publicity trip to Rome, best-selling thriller author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) finds uninvited guests in his hotel room: Detective Captain Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and his assistant, Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro). The Italian flatfeet want to know why a beautiful young shoplifter, Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni), was found in her apartment earlier that day, brutally slashed to death with a straight razor, her mouth stuffed with pages from Neal’s book—the book which she had previously boosted from a department store.

They also want to know why the killer sent Neal a cryptic letter, letting him know that Neal’s books have inspired him or her to murder. Neal doesn’t have any answers, and frankly neither do the cops—Detective Giermani readily admits he never can solve the giallo mysteries he reads—but soon the bodies start piling up, including Neal family friend/journalist Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo) and her stacked lover, Marion (Mirella Banti), as well as pretty Maria Alboretto (Lara Wendel), who fatally stumbles onto the killer’s lair.

Suspects abound, including TV interviewer Christiano Berti (John Steiner), Neal’s agent, Bullmer (John Saxon), Neal’s crazy ex-wife, Jane McKerrow (Veronica Lario), or even perhaps good girl Anne (Daria Nicolodi), Bullmer’s assistant, or nice kid Gianni (Christian Borromeo), Bullmer’s intern. However, when the killer is finally thought to be killed…how can the murders still continue?

Trying not to reveal Tenebrae’s plot twists and turns makes it a lot more difficult to write about, so if you haven’t seen it yet…you’ve been warned about spoilers. Actually, despite film critic Maitland McDonagh’s assertion (on this disc’s commentary track) that most giallo fans and Argento followers already know something about Tenebrae’s secrets, I certainly hadn’t. It was all new to me, despite being a fan of Argento’s better-known titles like The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’Nine Tales, Deep Red, and Suspiria.

And not unlike the Detective Captain Giermani character, I’m no Columbo when it comes to figuring out whodunits and murder mysteries…but I was surprised at how insistent McDonagh and a few other critics were on the impenetrability of Argento’s plotline here, as well as the supposed complicated layers of commentary inherent in the construction. There’s no doubt Argento has fashioned a clever bit of switcheroo when it comes to having not one but two killers working independent of each other, but as Argento indulges in relentless doubling of images, sets, and particularly actors, it’s not terribly difficult to figure out who’s going to be doing what to whom (Steiner’s overdrawn wacko TV journalist is hardly a red herring when first introduced—we know instantly he’s a killer—while Argento’s tricky placement of a Tony Franciosa double watching luscious Pieroni shoplift right before she’s hacked to death reminds us later on that although he couldn’t have committed the first few murders, Franciosa could be one at some point). There’s enough enjoyable trickery in Tenebrae’s foreshadowing-through-manipulation to warrant repeat viewings…but not to finally figure out who killed whom.

But then…that’s what happens when some “film critics” get a hold of a movie like Tenebrae: the need to over-analyze and minutely parse and dissect takes over, sometimes blurring the lines between what the director legitimately intended (or the occasional “happy accident”), and what someone wishes to see on the screen (to be fair, that can go both ways: if Argento truly intended Tenebrae to be science-fiction set in a severely depopulated near-future, as he stated in later interviews…I didn’t see that element come through at all, as others have also complained). It’s a fun game, admittedly, but it can be beside the real point of the piece.

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This need to read larger sociological and psychological layers into his work has personally plagued Argento for years; specifically, the calls by some writers and critics that he’s a misogynist who revels in showing beautiful women tortured and killed (a claim bolstered, some believe, by Argento’s habit of portraying his own “black gloved killers” in his insert shots). It’s difficult not to see Tenebrae as a sick, vibrant (and pretty funny) answer to that charge, with its compromising shifts of viewpoint, implicating the viewer in the crimes, as well as its overripe burlesquing of the giallo conventions; in other words: murder on screen ain’t nothing like real murder, folks.

Still…no matter what defending critics (or Argento himself) say, you can’t totally separate the artist from his own wallowing in the genre’s extremes, just because he’s cleverly twisting those conventions. Being ironic and standing back, commenting on the mayhem, doesn’t absolve him from participation in glorifying the acts. It’s an old defense for accomplished purveyors of exploitation movies, one that never fails to crumple under simple common sense and logic.

Of course the bigger mistake is trying to excuse Argento’s excesses in the first place. Someone like McDonagh can’t just admit she finds Argento’s cinematic depictions of sadism and violent misogyny attractive on some level, or intriguing, or “beautiful” in their own right, so she has to intellectually explain them away. Why? As Argento has often stated, he shapes his movies in the form of dreams…and what demands less logic, less qualification, less explanation, less excuses, than our dreams? That’s what’s so dreary and fascistic about “socially relevant film criticism” today: frankly, who cares if Argento himself really hates women or not? All that should concern us is how do we experience his movies, in cinematic terms, as unsettling dreams made “real” on the two-dimensional screen. You want to limit and confine me, the individual in pursuit of art, according to your “acceptable” guidelines of art? Go f*ck yourselves.

Tenebrae’s slick, cold violence is at once perverted and hilarious, like some awful cartoon a friend dares you not to laugh at (how can you not laugh as you watch Argento’s black-gloved hands scrabbling for pages of a book, cramming them into Pieroni’s mouth at cartoony double speed?). Argento’s gory kills here pop all the more when contrasted against the flat, brightly lit, modernized world he’s deliberately created (the backgrounds are so muted and antiseptic, their excessive, screwed-down restraint is just another form of being over-the-top). These moments of ratcheted mayhem are strung together with a minimum of logic or story connection (as events in our dreams flow puzzlingly from moment to moment), while the set pieces themselves are models of carefully controlled subconscious meanderings and fears, filled with long stretches of unsettled quiet before inexplicable violence punctures them.

For most critics, the extended, crawling—and totally pointless—crane shot outside of D’Angelo and Banti’s apartment building appears to be their favorite stylistic moment in Tenebrae, but I was far more impressed with Wendel’s uncomfortably prolonged attack by dog and finally, the killer. Beginning in a creepily-deserted nighttime suburban crossroads, Argento has Wendel’s “nice kid” character unaccountably torment a vicious fenced-in dog, only to be chased through the streets by it, bitten several times, as well, before she eventually finds (momentarily) refuge in the killer’s house. It’s an exceedingly odd, strange sequence; its choppy editing and hazy, running-in-place pace remarkably mirror a nightmare. Equally impressive is Argento’s twist on Hitchcock’s North by Northwest crop-duster sequence, amplifying that scene’s sense of isolation by killing off Saxon in a sparsely-populated pedestrian mall, bathed in brilliant, hot sunshine, right in front of a few disinterested spectators.Tenebrae certainly isn’t perfect. Little details can nag if they in some way clash with the vague, dreamlike progression of the story, such as Franciosa’s silly bike ride to the airport, or dropping his bag in front of that mystery woman as a deliberate temptation. A much bigger problem is the Franciosa flashbacks. The humiliation of his character by a sexually aggressive woman—the very key to his future actions—is passed off without any conviction at all (it’s almost as if someone else directed that beach scene…and even though everyone wets their pants over that shoe heel rape, its effect is ludicrous).

However, those are relatively small points, particularly when so much of Tenebrae is so weirdly effective, from its sudden humorous asides (the funniest line is either Franciosa asking Steiner—and the audience— “You really want us to get that heavy?” or Lario making out with Saxon, exclaiming, “I feel so…sleazy!”), to its outlandishly gory kills (Lario’s geyser of blood from her chopped off arm is of course anatomically impossible…and impossibly, wonderfully grotesque). By the time Tenebrae wraps up, giving us switches and double backs and tricks that De Palma in the early 1980s could only dream about (and then steal), we feel like we’ve watched one of our own incomprehensible nightmares, with its shadows and intimations still vaguely unclear, but with their power to unsettle still lingering throughout the day.

Just a quick note about the disc’s extras. As usual for Synapse releases of important exploitation titles, the Blu Tenebrae extras are smart and plentiful. First, there’s the commentary track from critic Maitland McDonagh. I’ve no doubt McDonagh is an expert on Argento, but too few of her comments really explored Argento and his methods in depth, while too much of the commentary involved pointless asides and generalizations. Luckily, a vastly-superior feature-length documentary, Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo (89:19) follows. Critics, historians, and even directors like Umberto Lenzi and Argento himself, contribute to this fascinating rundown of the giallo genre, with some varied insights into how they evolved, and died off. Lots of cool original poster art breaking up the talking heads is a big plus. Next, you can view an alternate opening credit sequence, the U.S. end credits for Unsane, as well as seamlessly branch in the English insert shots (such as the opening shot of Neal’s book being read). An international trailer (3:15) and a Japanese trailer (2:11) round out the extras.


Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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