Reviewed by: Jeff Allard
Rating: Movie: 9 out of 10 / DVD: 7.5 out of 10
Movie Details: View here
Anthony Franciosa as Peter Neal
Christian Borromeo as Gianni
Mirella D'Angelo as Tilde
Veronica Lario as Jane McKerrow
Ania Pieroni as Elsa Manni
Directed by Dario Argento
Many filmmakers have tried their hand at murder over the years with a select few showing more of an aptitude for annihilation than others. Debuting with 1970's seminal giallo thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Italian writer/director Dario Argento has been one of the few to make murder his personal calling card, his signature. And in an age of films like Hostel and Saw, it's important to note that what Argento does is not just splatter or torture porn – when blood spills in an Argento film, it's like a sacramental gesture.
After venturing into supernatural fare with the first two chapters of his ‘Three Mothers' trilogy – Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) – and finding a new worldwide audience for his daring, stylized approach to horror, rather than immediately finish off the 'Three Mothers' trilogy (a task he only just recently returned to complete almost thirty years later with his latest film, Mother of Tears), Argento heeded the demands of his Italian fanbase who yearned to see him return to the giallo sub-genre that made him famous as “The Italian Hitchcock”. The film born of this return to his roots was Tenebre (1982) and it stands today as arguably Argento's giallo masterpiece – and one of the last Argento films that his fans universally recognize as being a classic.
From the start, Tenebre is a galvanizing piece of work that takes every opportunity to grab the viewer by the throat. Its inventive, influential imagery (both Raising Cain and Gothika specifically quote a memorable shot seen late in Tenebre), its dramatic electronic rock soundtrack (by ex-Goblin members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante), its technical prowess (the lengthy Louma crane shot here that sees Argento sending his camera up and around the exterior of a home is one of the most cited moments in Argento's entire catalog), its whiplash plot turns (Tenebre makes The Usual Suspects look as prosaic as an episode of Murder, She Wrote), and finally the gallons of blood that literally are sprayed across the screen – all of it represents Argento at the peak of his artistic power.
Tenebre opens with one of Argento's familiar black-gloved figures in front of a roaring fireplace reading from "Tenebre," the latest novel from mystery author Peter Neal. The dramatic passage being read includes these words: "Every humiliation that stood in his way could be swept aside by this simple act of annihilation: murder." The unknown figure then throws the book onto the fire as throbbing beats of Tenebre's score slam onto the soundtrack.
After this book-burning opening, we meet the novel's author (played by Anthony Franciosa) as he boards a plane in America to head to Rome as part of his promotional book tour. Prior to the landing of his plane in Rome, a pretty young shoplifter caught trying to steal a copy of "Tenebre" from a bookstore is accosted in her home by a black gloved killer who brutally shoves torn pages from "Tenebre" into the woman's mouth before slicing her throat with a straight razor.
Naturally, given the connection between his book and the killing, once Peter Neal steps foot in Rome, the police are approaching him for questioning. Impossible to consider as a suspect due to the fact that he was still in the air at the time of the murder, the police are instead more interested in what possible inspiration Neal's latest work may have had in prompting this maniac. The question of what effect Neal's violent writing may have on one unstable fan becomes more pertinent as the killer continues to rack up a body count and through anonymous letters and phone calls shows a personal interest in Neal himself (as chilling real-life inspiration, Argento had once been targeted by a series of threatening phone calls while staying in Los Angeles).
With these murders hitting so close to home, Neal – along with his loyal secretary Anna (played by Argento's ex-girlfrend and frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi) and a young gopher assigned to him in Rome named Gianni (Christian Borromeo) – start to speculate about possible suspects and begin their own independent sleuthing. But will their amateur investigation leave them vulnerable to the killer?
As a fan favorite for over two decades, Tenebre's narrative twists are generally well-known, but to discuss the plot further within the space of this review wouldn't be fair to the many viewers who may be coming to this film for the first time (and for anyone new to the film, don't watch any of this disc's extras prior to watching the movie). But it can be said that Argento's complicated plot (arguably his most robust screenwriting effort) yields several surprises before Tenebre's end credits roll.
Watching Anchor Bay's new Special Edition release of Tenebre was my first look at this revered film in many years and coming back to it, I found that its weak points were still hard to miss. It's a film that strains credibility, coincidence and – when the occasion calls for it – even the laws of physical reality. However, for Argento the bottom line is the cumulative effect that his film will achieve and glossing over his screenplay's improbabilities is an acceptable means to that end.
Helping to make Tenebre's wild storyline play as real as possible is Argento's well-chosen cast. In contrast to the deliberately cold look of the film, Tenebre features arguably the warmest set of characters in any of his movies. Anthony Franciosa is instantly ingratiating as Peter Neal. He has an effortless charm that never comes off as smarmy and once he begins to initiate his own investigation into the murders, it seems motivated by a genuine urge to put his own wits to the test, rather than out of any ghoulishness or grandstanding.
Well paired with Franciosa is Daria Nicolodi as Anna. Even though the part itself isn't especially deep (as Nicolodi herself notes in this disc's special features), Nicolodi is able to imbue her Girl Friday with an innate likeability. Once the two are joined by the affable young Christian Borromeo as Gianni (who becomes an eager Watson to Neal's Holmes), the three make for an appealing band of amateur detectives. And while he has relatively little screen time, genre vet John Saxon as Peter's agent also makes a lasting impression.
By having his film's killer inspired by Neal's novels, Argento uses Tenebre as a means to address the question of how much violent art precipitates real violence and how much an artist's work might unknowingly fuel a maniac waiting for inspiration. Just as Argento himself has been grilled over the years by interviewers about the violent, and what some perceive as misogynist, content of his films, Neal too is asked to account for his book's attitudes – a position he often seems baffled to be in (as he defensively asks a police investigator "If someone is killed with a Smith & Wesson revolver, do you interview the president of Smith & Wesson?"). Argento doesn't follow his film's underlying themes to much of a pay-off but yet the role that an abstract metal sculpture plays in Tenebre's final moments serves as an appropriate closing wink to the suggestion that all art – whether it be a book, a movie, a painting, a song, or a sculpture – can be potentially lethal.
The resolution of Tenebre's mystery is satisfying but ultimately secondary to the spectacular way the story is told. In collaboration with cinematographer Luciano Tivoli (who also gave Suspiria its unforgettable look), Argento portrays the world of Tenebre with a perpetually harsh, overlit glare that never dissipates, even at night. Translated into Italian, 'Tenebre' means 'darkness' but the film saves its darkness to place in the hearts of its characters (as Argento has previously remarked in relation to Tenebre – "To kill for nothing – that is the horror of today."). Nothing is hidden, everything is bathed in revealing light, and yet though we see everything we see nothing at all. This is a film that demolishes rationality. In the process of unraveling the mystery, Neal quotes Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: "When you have eliminated everything else as impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." But what he really should've been saying is "whatever remains, no matter how utterly bat-shit, must be the truth."
Currently set to return to the genre that made his name as a horror auteur with the upcoming thriller Giallo, Argento will once again have his latest film judged against the earlier masterpieces of murder that made him a revered icon. And in that regard, Tenebre continues to be the high water mark.
Commentary: In a commentary imported from Anchor Bay's previous Tenebre releases (dating back to their original laserdisc release), Argento and co-soundtrack composer Claudio Simonetti are joined by journalist Loirs Curci for an informative talk.
Voices of the Unsane: As the only extra entirely new to this disc, this approx. 17-minute featurette includes separately recorded interviews with some of the key figures behind the creation of Tenebre – including Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Eva Robins (a real-life transsexual who played the briefly seen 'Girl on the Beach'), Simonetti, and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. For his part, Argento talks about how painstaking his approach to writing this screenplay was and the meticulous design of the film but Nicolodi is this featurette's most candid and engaging speaker.
She expresses her disappointment that Argento had decided to step back to the giallo genre rather than continue on with the "Three Mothers" trilogy (of which Nicolodi was a key contributor to) and Nicolodi also describes her role as Anna as being "stiff", the type of character who exists only to serve the plot rather than be interesting in their own right.
The look of Tenebre is its primary claim to fame and cinematographer Tovoli discusses what he and Argento were trying to achieve with this film – essentially the opposite of the moody, color-saturated world of Suspiria in favor of something that would be "hyper-illuminated". He also talks about the attention Argento insisted on giving to his insert shots ("We considered it as important as an actor's close-up.").
While the interviews contained here are all fine and will be welcomed by fans, given Tenebre's classic status it's hard not to wish a lengthier documentary had been complied.
The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento: This brief snippet from a vintage documentary comments on Argento's style (and the clip's narrator refers to Tenebre by its alternate US title of Unsane). This is a negligible 4-minute extra whose only attraction is the somewhat jarring sight of a youthful Argento discussing the way he decides to use the camera in each film.
Creating the Sounds of Terror: Again, this is just a brief excerpt from a vintage documentary and again, very little information is contained. However, some fans may enjoy seeing various meats and fruits hacked and stabbed to create the accompanying sound FX for Tenebre's murder scenes.
Alternate End Credit Music: At the start of this extra, an on-screen text explains that during the recording of their audio commentary, Argento and co-composer Simonetti commented on a pop song that had been added to the end credits of the film without their knowledge (the song was subsequently removed and replaced with the proper music from the Italian version of the film). This extra plays the end credits with the song that Argento and Simonetti heard and it reveals the kind of careless damage that can be done to a film without the express supervision of its makers.
Rounding out this Special Edition's extras are a Tenebre trailer and a Dario Argento bio.
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