Tenebrae Blu-ray Review
An abundance of bloody murders. Sharp implements cunningly wielded by black-gloved assassins. More suspects than there are nutters in Arkham Asylum. A pounding and eternally catchy prog-rock score that even an axe to the noggin couldn't dislodge. Americans thrust into a deadly web of Roman intrigue and depravity, the noose slowly tightening around their necks. Astonishing camerawork that both hypnotises and exhausts. And lovely women menaced by unseen murderers and getting despatched in the most stylish set-piece mayhem you can imagine.
It can mean only one thing. Prime-time Dario Argento.
There is no denying Tenebrae's classic status as one of the best films that Argento has ever unleashed. Suspiria will always be tops for me, with Deep Red coming next, but Tenebrae is possibly the most immediately accessible and enjoyable of his blood-spattered canon. Despite its once ferocious reputation, it is not all that disturbing, and its whodunnit style is the very epitome of what makes the giallo film so irresistible. Although I'm sure she would turn in her grave at the thought, the influence of Agatha Christie still shimmers at the heart of Argento's murder mystery far more than, say, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who gets quoted here, albeit with the wrong book name-checked.
A terrific cast help propel a ludicrously deranged but hugely gripping plot in which titillation or atrocity are only ever a few minutes away.
Arrow's BD release comes niftily suited and booted, but there are the usual bugbears with their AV transfer that may well put a few people off. Errors and letdowns in the extras department also infuriate. But this is still a package that I was very much looking forward to and, in the main, I am happy that it trounces the previous home video incarnation of Tenebrae with ease.
After a few recent errors, there is a lot riding on Arrow's transfer of Tenebrae. But, to be honest, this is not much of an improvement over what's come before. The blurb tells us that this is a brand new HD restoration taken from the film's original 1.85:1 camera negative. The print looks fine, if a touch wobbly, and there is no damage to speak of, but the AVC encode is inconsistent. The grain is just plain wrong and riddled with noise and smears that often clump-up or swirl around like digital clouds. It has that frozen, shiny patina that mired City Of The Living Dead and Deep Red. There is talk of this being something to do with the image having been DNR'd and then artificial grain being applied. I honestly don't know what the cause of it is … but I do know that I don't like it and that it does not look right. The film's colour scheme is skewed towards whites and magnolias, and against these backgrounds, this digitised grain is really enhanced. We have frequent shimmering on details during those immaculate tracking and panning shots as well, but I am pleased to say that there is no annoying edge enhancement and only a couple of instances of slight aliasing.
The colours do not appear to have been boosted from previous versions that I have seen. Although a futuristic sheen is what Argento delivered, the film is still pretty colourful when it wants to be. Obviously, the reds are accentuated – the blood, lipstick, the pivotal shoes and the close-up eye for the pre-and post flashbacks – but blues and greens also come over as being well-pronounced. Peter Neal's blue tracksuit near the start, the greens of the foliage around what becomes a house of death and of some of the carpets in the apartments, for example. There is no smearing or banding taking place. Skin tones are very good too, with lots of variety. Johnny is ridiculously pale, as is Nicolodi's Anne, whilst Neal and many others are happily tanned. I think the transfer gets all of this right. Contrast is tested too, because of the intensely bright and clinical nature of Tovoli's photography. For the most part, I think the disc handles this very well, but there are one or two moments when white surfaces bloom a little too much, plus the lightning that illuminates Johnny as he loiters outside the wall of that house of death again, creates a white-out that looks wrong to me. But the black levels remain pretty much steadfast throughout, adding some deep shadows and a fine balance to the mostly bright proceedings.
Well, with the processing that has taken place, you would think that detail would have been severely compromised, but I don't believe that is the case. There is plenty on offer in this image, from good, revealing close-ups (crags, stray whiskers, cuts etc, and the real bomb-blast scar on Guiliano Gemma, for instance) and reasonably well delineated background objectivity like cars, fences, buildings and people. The foliage in that massive garden that characters seem to love creeping through is pretty lively.
Basically, I'm not going to lambast this release because, weird grain and all, this is still better than any version that I've already got. Or seen. I have no doubt that when Blue Underground get around to releasing their own version, it will be better again. They have offered consistent improvements over the UK discs almost every time. But, this said, there is more than enough extra detail on offer here to please fans.
I think in the case of Tenebrae, some attempt at creating a surround mix would have been welcome. We had one from Anchor Bay in the past. But, as it stands, Arrow play it safe with two LPCM 2.0 mono tracks, one in English and the other in Italian.
Thus, without any bogus whistles and bells to mess things up, you would think that this would be a successful audio transfer. Sadly, this is not the case. Whilst a long way from being a nightmare, the uncompressed mono mix is almost as inconsistent as the video transfer. There are several occasions when the sound becomes obviously dislocated in terms of volume and positioning. For example, listen to the scene after Peter Neal has just left the press conference after his arrival in Rome and is walking away with John Saxon's literary agent, Bulmer. Their voices suddenly chunk! into a different range very clearly and abruptly. Although dubbed tracks, as we all know, present an array of interesting audible anomalies, this seems accentuated beyond the original source. There are plenty of the more normal type of dubbing traits but, on the whole, the dialogue comes through fine. It is never submerged and never less than clearly discernible – even down to the crafty killer's creepy rasp of a voice.
The tendency to want to play an Argento movie loud is always too tempting to refuse, but this isn't necessarily a good idea with this edition of Tenebrae. At louder levels, the track clearly distorts and crackles. The sound of thunder rumbling overhead as Johnny makes his doomed discovery back at the mansion does not come over all that well, the shrieking of Mrs. Berlusconi as she redecorates her apartment with gore sounds awfully molested and, of course, the incessant screaming from Nicolodi at the end, which should be a synapse-shredding highlight and does, indeed, seem fine until just after the credits begin to roll, is then also affected. This is a modest mix that shouldn't be stretched – it really isn't up to the task and the strain is all too evident at times.
But there are still instances when the track shines. Quite naturally this occurs mostly with the score from Simonetti, Pignatelli and Morante, and with the frequent sound of objects shattering. The breaking of glass – the object d'art hurled through one window, the axe crashing through another – is something that is actually brilliantly rendered. I don't care if these things have been mixed a little too loudly in the overall design, they sound absolutely fabulous to me. Really crunching. Really sudden. Really sharp. And coupled with a decent bass quotient, these elements stand out with murderous power and intent. Equally, the thudding impact of that impalement is well grounded with keen weight and severity.
Overall, I'm surprised that we didn't get the option of a surround track. Purists be damned, it may have been much smoother and far less constrained than this supposedly more faithful audio transfer sounds.
Well, Arrow certainly know how to put together what looks like a great package for the fans. Their customary reversible sleeves are uniformly cool. Alan Jones supplies a decent little booklet of trivia and critique for the film. We get a double-sided mini-poster – no-one ever puts this on a wall or in an album, though, do they? They just stay in the pack. Still like them, though.
I should point out that although the main feature is region-free, and you can certainly hear the two commentary tracks okay, the featurettes will not play on a US PS3.
The couplet of chat-tracks offer splendid material to enjoy. Well, one of them does, anyway. With Alan Jones, film critic and Argento expert, writer and friend, and Kim Newman, author, critic and renowned wit, you simply cannot go wrong. The two men are very good friends and they know their stuff inside-out. Both provide a comprehensive, funny, intriguing and highly entertaining commentary that covers lots of ground and delves deeply into the fun and the trivia that went into the creation and the appreciation of Tenebrae. They laugh at the ludicrous bits – as we all do – and they discuss, very engagingly, the cast, the production, the violence, the plotting and the technical panache of the film. Jones can offer lots of personal insight being as he was on-set for much of the shooting and, far from being a show-off (although sometimes you can feel a sense of self-aggrandisement), he delivers some vital bits and bobs that only someone who was close to Argento could know. They pick up on the mistakes – the quoting of Conan Doyle, for instance – and they take delight in pointing out various references and themes. Some doubts are expressed about how Dario Argento is going to cope with his new project of Dracula 3D – something that even die-hard fans are surely dreading too. But this is a fine and engaging conversation between two old buddies who clearly share our passion for the once illustrious Maestro of the Macabre. I really enjoyed their commentary and look forward to hearing more from them. I wish they would reunite Kim Newman with Stephen Jones again, though!
At the start of his commentary track, Argento expert Thomas Rostock says that he hopes his spiel will not be too boring or academic … but I'm afraid that this is exactly how comes across. Like his commentary over Arrow's Deep Red, this is patently scripted, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but cannot help but sound rehearsed, dry and sermon-like. His voice, too, is an insomniac's dream (pardon the pun). Personally, I couldn't stand much of this, which is a real shame because he definitely has a lot of very interesting points to raise about Argento's thematic and visual symmetry, and his painfully studied passion for the material is genuinely noteworthy and appealing. He's just so boring, though. For instance, his never-ending description of the Louma crane-shot totally destroys the mythical grandeur of the sequence. Maybe he should be paired-up with someone else to allow him to be more spontaneous. As it stands, this is possibly better as a commentary that can be dipped-into for little sound-bites, rather than as a full-on endurance test.
Arrow supply another rather redundant Introduction to the film, this time by Daria Nicolodi. These things are cute, but really, what purpose does a rushed twenty seconds or so of platitudes add to the experience?
We meet Nicolodi yet again, after many sessions with her over the course of several previous Argento releases from Arrow, in Screaming Queen! Daria Nicolodi Remembers Tenebrae, another High Rising production with film-related animated titles. This would be fine if it wasn't for that fact that the interview, which revolves around the actress's reminiscences of making the film, the elaborate photography and colour scheme and the censor trouble that it ran into, had Nicolodi's voice emanating from all the speakers at once, despite the track being DTS-HD MA mono. It is disconcerting to say the least, and I'm positive that Arrow have botched-up similar interview featurettes in the past as well. Mind you, you could always turn the sound down and just read the subtitles!This goes on for 16 minutes.
The Unsane World of Tenebrae: An Interview with Dario Argento lasts for 15 minutes and has better sound, but several of these minutes are wasted in a mumbling response to the allegations about his being a misogynist and a criminal in the eyes of the moral guardians and the censors – stuff that no Argento-fan needs to hear all over again. What is good to hear, though, is Argento describing the fan-stalking that he received in LA, and formed the catalyst that inspired him to write Tenebrae. The only other things of interest that he has to tell us are about his initial conjectures for the settings of both Tenebrae and Phenomena. That Tenebrae is set around 15 years after an atomic bomb has gone off and decimated the population! Yeah, that comes across in the film, Dario. And that Phenomena is set in some alternate reality in which the Germans had won World War II! Erm … okay, mate. To be perfectly frank, Argento is pretty much a waste of time when it comes to interviews … or at least the ones that have been presented to us via High Rising. They are formless, aimless rambles that really deliver very, very little.
The always personable Claudio Simonetti muses on what he and two of his Goblin chums composed for Tenebrae in the 10-minute A Composition for Carnage, however if you can stick with the alarmingly poor sound on this featurette – DTS-HD MA stereo again, but growled out from all channels – you've got more patience than me. Have I got a faulty disc or something? Just what is going on with Arrow? This isn't good enough, I'm afraid.
But what is definitely cool and worth the effort is the footage of the band performing tracks from Tenebrae and Phenomena Live from the Glasgow Arches on Feb 25th 2011. With Claudio introducing the band members, including two relative newcomers and providing a brilliant cueing-in of the title theme to Tenebrae – and trying to get the audience to sing along with him – this is a great 16 minutes or so that shows these old prog-rockers delivering the goods for their first ever gig in Scotland. Honestly, I wish that this could have gone on for longer. I would have loved to have heard them perform the epic Sighs from Suspiria.
To round off this mixed bag of extras, we get the film's theatrical trailer.
One great commentary and one iffy one. A couple of interesting(ish) featurettes, but dogged with bad sound. Fab concert footage … but over too quickly.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £21.99
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