Tenebrae occupies an interesting place in Dario Argento’s body of work. There’s nothing quite as outrageously strange or visually stunning as you’d find in his more fantastical films, such as Suspiria or Inferno. On the other hand, those who prefer the director’s giallo movies would typically cite Profondo Rosso as his best work. The sleazy, self-aware Tenebrae isn’t Argento’s best film, but it’s certainly one of them.
American crime fiction writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) travels to Rome to promote his new book Tenebrae only to be linked to a series of brutal killings. His violent, gruesome novels have apparently inspired a serial killer to take a page out of the main character’s book. As the bodies begin piling up, Neal tries to use his own detective skills to identify the murderer.
Tenebrae might not be as impossibly, illogically labyrinthine as some of Argento’s gialli but it’s arguably the most straightforwardly thrilling. There’s a wicked sense of humour at work here, not just in the way in which Neal is constantly questioned about the morality of his writing, but in the protracted and nightmarish chase sequences that feel like an elastic band being pulled until it snaps.
Both the set-piece involving the shop-lifter and the poor young girl abandoned near the killer’s home allow us to just think that we catch our breath before grabbing us by the throat again. This is the work of a director who is expertly playing with his audience. It’s brutally violent (which led to the film being cut for a very long time), it’s thrilling, and it gave us some of the most iconic moments and images in Argento’s career.
This is also the film in which Argento addresses the long-standing accusations of misogyny. A young female journalist asks Neal why he hates women, while an avowed fan (and self-declared strict Catholic) asks him to agree on a definition of aberrant behaviour. One of Tenebrae’s most accomplished sequences is the murder of that journalist (revealed to be gay) and her bisexual roommate. It’s leering, yes, but it’s from the perspective of the killer and, as Neal tells his eager fan, the killer is insane.
Argento will always be problematic in this regard but Tenebrae shows the director playfully addressing these accusations with the simplest of retorts: Why are you identifying with a figure who murders women? It’s hardly a conclusive end to the argument given that the brutal murders of beautiful women from the perspective of the killer are practically the director’s trademark but, within the context of this film, it’s a sly rebuttal. The conversations between Neal and Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) as they debate possible suspects demonstrate his knowledge of the genre, and are a confident reassertion of his status of the king of Gialli. For those of us who suffered through the catastrophic Giallo, revisiting Tenebrae is a real pleasure.
Beyond these thorny issues and the self-aware wit, Tenebrae remains a thrilling giallo from a director at the top of his game. The music from Simonetti, Morante and Pignatelli is electrifying and the sheer confidence of the camera-work in the film’s set-pieces is a reminder of just how dazzling Argento’s direction can be. There’s the occasional pacing issue but with a supporting turn from the peerless John Saxon as Neal’s agent, one of the best severed arm gags of all time and an ending that never fails to shock no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you’ve got one of the very best films from a master of the genre.
Arrow’s Blu-ray restoration is fantastic, as you’d expect. The film looks absolutely beautiful in high definition (and that arm gag…) and there are some good extras to be found on the disc. Kim Newman and Alan Jones collaborate on one commentary, while Thomas Rostock takes the other, filling the disc with more Argento expertise than should fit on one disc. A brief but fun interview with Argento reveals how the story came about and allows him to address those aforementioned accusations (“I’m a nice guy! I love animals!”), Claudio Simonetti talks about creating the score, and Maitland McDonagh provides an insightful critical opinion on the film and Argento.
The best extras to be found are an interview with Argento’s ex-wife and collaborator Daria Nicolodi, who is wonderfully frank about her motivation for that ear-splitting scream in the film and how she feels about being dubbed, and footage of Goblin performing the themes from Tenebrae and Phenomena live at the Glasgow Arches. There’s something really quite sweet about seeing an auto-tuned Simonetti coaching the crowd when to chant “PAURA!”