Tenebrae (1982)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Giuliano Gemma, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario

Written by: Dario Argento

Running Time: 110 mins

Original Cert: 18

Original UK Release: 19th May 1983

If Mario Bava is the granddaddy of giallo, then Dario Argento is the master. That mix of pulp fiction thriller with melodramatic graphic violence has been popular since the 1960s, when Bava made the hugely influential The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Argento took the torch in the 70s with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage  and has run with it ever since. While Suspiria is still the director’s finest hour, Tenebrae has to be one of his most accomplished and his most controversial.

American writer Peter Neal comes to Italy to promote his newest novel, a violent thriller called Tenebrae. As soon as he arrives, a crime is committed and clues to the brutal murder are sent to Neal, using his book as a template. As more murders occur, Neal is interviewed by an obsessive TV presenter who has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the writer, that the police immediately find suspicious. Could he be the murderer? Or is there someone else with a much darker past?

The delight of this rather gruesome thriller is the whodunit aspect. While the crimes occur, so do the twists and turns of the plot, leading a very neat and bloody finale where the killer is revealed. Until we reach the end, we have plenty of other delights (if you can call them that).

Argento is a filmmaker who is willing to experiment. Like one of his influences, Brian de Palma, Argento’s use of camerawork is excellent. It could be quite easy to shot the film without any tricks and it would still be good but Argento makes it the more interesting by adding shots from the point of view of the killer (helping with the buildup of tension) as well as a two-and-a-half minute tracking single shot which leads up to the second (and third murders) as the camera bounces around the outside of a lesbian journalist’s home going from one window in the house to the other, where her lover is. This works perfect for the terror that is about to occur.

Other tricks include a shot of the journalist from inside the hole made by the killer on her white top that she looks out of before her ultimate demise. A brilliantly stage “surprise” shot near the end and the inclusion of several flashbacks that, at the time, seem inconsequential and somewhat disjointed, involving a young woman in red shoes, firstly being sexually humiliated on a beach and then being murdered. You are never sure whose memories these are or why they are so important. They do get answered near the end, which is why Tenebrae works so well on a repeat viewing.

This isn’t a perfect horror thriller by no means. The sometimes “dubbed” dialogue comes across as ludicrous and the performances, especially from the women, are outlandishly over-the-top to the point of being awful. American actor Anthony Franciosa is perfect in the role of Neal, although Christopher Walken was the actor that Argento wanted, and the director has since commented that he found Franciosa difficult to work with.

It has also been accused of being sexually depraved and a hatred towards women (in the same way that DePalma’s Dressed To Kill was criticised, a film that this seems very similar in style to).

The soundtrack also seems sometimes intrusive. Not taking the usual “horror” route of creepy, more a synthesized Europop beat, it is, like in all Argento films, loud and, in places, unnecessary and can dampen the tension that the director has skillfully built up.

These are really minor things and cannot take away what Argento can do with a horror film. He places layer upon layer of tension for each murder, which are graphic in their details and don’t hold back on the blood, a glorious bright red colour and an important part of Argento’s visual flair.

If you are a fan of the giallo genre (and for those who don’t know what that means, in Italian it means “yellow” and stems from the yellow covers that early cheap paperback thrillers had. In cinema, it’s blood-soaked horror thrillers from Italy), this is the perfect example of how to do it right. Gripping, tense and sometimes shocking, it wrongly got caught up in the Video Nasties of the 80s and was banned for years. On it’s initial release, it was cut but now can be enjoyed in it’s full original glory, this is an imperfect thriller that has to be admired for it’s style and one of Argento’s finest hours.


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