Monday, 12 August 2013

Review - Tenebrae (1982 - Dir. Dario Argento)

Film three in our season of all things Argento is Tenebrae, a return to the giallo genre after his dalliance with the supernatural in Suspiria (review coming soon). When I had my first Dario obsession in the early nineties, I was more enamoured by his fantasy supernatural offerings. But now I tend to lean more toward his gialli.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a popular crime writer whose most recent novel Tenebrae inspires a killer to go and do killings. Neal gets together a Scooby gang consisting of his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and plucky golf jumper wearing freak Gianni (Christian Borromeo) to help him solve the case. The police become involved when Neal begins to gets threatening letters from the killer. Black leather murdering gloves, a knife, a razor and an axe all feature prominently from there on in. Excellent.

At some point in the not too distant past, I had a minor rant about nobody being interested in finding out who the killer is in a giallo, and that the mystery is only there to provide some lovely murders. Which is fine by me. But here, the identity of the killer is pretty intriguing. There are some blatant red-herrings, but the possible list of candidates is high. Until they all get slaughtered. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen it, but there is a moment in the final third when something a little on the unbelievable side happens, and the old spidey-sense is definitely tingling. Although on watching the film a second time, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious due to some recurring themes and images, one of which is directly linked to the killer. It's cleverly done though and rewards repeat viewings.

Along with a nifty mystery there are some (obviously stylish) gruesome murders that build in intensity. The first half seems pretty tame by today's standards but things soon get going and the red stuff flows. Or sprays. Everywhere. There are a fair few iconic images in Tenebrae but surely the most well known is of a lady being slashed as the camera looks through a large hole in her shirt. Logic goes out of the window to enable this legendary shot. The lady in question is rather nervous - there is a killer on the loose after all - and she senses that someone is lurking about in her house. So she changes her top. If ever someone breaks into my house in the middle of the night and starts stalking me with a slashing razor, I'm going to try that tactic. It works on the basis that the murderer won't want to get blood on your freshly washed and ironed shirt. This may work if the killer was my mum, but apart from that...

Tenebrae has a look that you don't get now. The film stock used produces a rich feel to the colour, even when the colours are pale and muted. You may expect that the cinematography would involve lots of shadow and dark recesses, it is a giallo after all. But no. The electricity meter must have run out numerous times during the making of this. Even exterior night scenes are brightly lit. There is nowhere to hide. It all adds up to a gorgeous looking film.

North by Northwest may have sprung to mind, a thriller where the hero is chased in broad daylight. And this isn't the only link between that film and Tenebrae. Neal's agent, Bulmer (John Saxon) is waiting for a meeting out in a public square. The scene plays out, without dialogue, as Bulmer watches the people's lives around him. It is shot in a Hitchcock style: the character looks at something, we see that something, then we see the character's reaction to it. But in a twist on the cornfield scene from North by Northwest, people surround Bulmer. Eventually, he turns out to be just as alone as Roger Thornhill. A great scene.

Dario wrote this film to goad his critics who thought that if he can make these horrific films then he must be a sadistic misogynist murdering paedo. The character of Peter Neal could easily be substituted for Dario himself. Although initially Argento's great plan doesn't seem to have worked - the killer goes for attractive ladies after all - but as the plot develops, his dastardly plan is revealed. As a viewer, I'm not sure why I enjoy horror films, (something discussed in Karl Kaefer's Danse Macabre post) but it's something that I should ponder on. I just know that I'm not a murderer. And I doubt Dario is either. 

Is Tenebrae as good as Deep Red then? Not quite. But that is down to personal taste. IDeep RedI love the dark sequences in the old house, where David Hemmings chips away at the plaster. The cinematography in Tenebrae actually works against it and comes across as cold. Which fits the tone but not my need for atmosphere. Still, it's a great film that improves like a fine wine. Or, if beer is your preferred beverage, a fine bottle of Timothy Taylor's. Now I've finished writing this lovely review, let me just go and shut the dungeon door before a passerby hears that scream.

If you like this you could also try:
Deep Red, Don't Torture a Duckling, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage


  1. I love the main theme by Goblin. The twist surprised me big time, and as you say, will be a different viewing experience when I rewatch.

    The scenes with a crazy dog were horrifying and for me tap into a universal fear of being chased by a vicious animal.

    Definitely raises questions if artists have a moral responsibility when they represent violence, and yes, the character of Peter Neal could easily be substituted for Dario himself.

    1. Spoiler alert! When you watch it again look out for things being doubled (hinting at a dual identity) and the way that water is linked to Peter Neal.

      That was another moment where logic was thrown out. A killer dog chases one of the characters into a house... that just so happens to belong to the murderer. I still love the shot of the dog scaling the fence though.

      I love a fair few of the video nasties but I don't like films that has a nasty side to them. Zombie 108, with it's depiction of women left an unpleasant taste in the mouth. I suppose though that I'll watch Zombie Flesh Eaters many more times, whereas Zombie 108...