Tenebrae Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 26, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    Tenebrae Review

    The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear … but freedom. Any humiliation that stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder.”

    American crime novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is in Rome to promote his new book, a violent thriller called Tenebrae (meaning shadow, or darkness), but no sooner has he arrived than somebody starts to commit murders that seem to mimic those he has written about. One victim even has pages torn from the provocative bestseller stuffed into her mouth. The killer taunts Neal by slipping notes under the door of his apartment, notes that hint at what will follow, ultimately threatening the author, himself. With the authorities baffled and the death-toll rising, Neal decides to play detective and embarks on a crusade to unmask the mystery killer before it is too late, but every step he takes seems to prove deadly to those around him.

    Tenebrae is often regarded as cult Italian director Dario Argento's last great film. When you consider that it was released way back in 1982, and that he has made eleven movies since then, plus TV work, this is a pretty damning indictment regarding his abilities as a filmmaker. I, myself, have written extensively about his films, and although I would not hesitate in saying that there have been moments since his giddy and bravura first decade or so of unleashing highly stylish exercises in flamboyant horror – from The Bird With The Crystal Plumage through to Tenebrae – such as we saw in Opera in 1987 and in Non ho sonno from 2001, I feel inclined to agree with this assertion. An expert in that peculiarly Italian fixation of the giallo, Argento had gleefully taken the bloody baton from Mario Bava and forged his own insidious, hideously complex and corpse-strewn path through the genre, and created a twisted path that would become hugely influential and spawn considerable imitations. His first three thrillers – Crystal Plumage, The Cat O' Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet – were tremendously successful and brought him great acclaim around the world. But it would be Deep Red (Profundo Rosso) that would cement his name as the demigod of such warped psycho-chillers. Argento then tired of the black-gloved stalk 'n' slash trend and the deluge of anaemic copycats that he had opened the floodgates to, and moved into the realm of the supernatural with the classic Suspria and its sequel Inferno. Without a doubt he had become a tour de force of technical wizardry and his incredible talent for masterminding whirlwind assaults on the senses were now the stuff of legend.

    By now, people were expecting great things from him. And, returning to his roots, he crafted a quintessential giallo – but one that was ultra-modern, highly slick and deliriously unhinged. The slasher trend was still in full swing, although the best had already come and gone, so it seemed only fitting that the person who had done more to inform the genre than anyone else would snap its head back and put a blade to its throat once more.

    Folks, Tenebrae is a massive cult movie and is extremely well-known. To discuss it in any meaningful depth will obviously require a fair amount of plot spoiling. Whilst it would be great to properly discuss the “big reveal” in detail, I will naturally refrain from doing so. But if you have not seen the film then I suggest it would be prudent to skip to the technical aspects and the overall verdict if you don't want to know who gets offed and how, and then return to the full dissection after you've experienced Argento's sensational, neo-baroque chiller.

    The film's title was certainly a red herring, throwing fans a curve-ball by implying that this was to be the third entry in the celebrated Three Mothers trilogy. We had heard previously that one of the trio of vile witches was called Mater Tenebrarum, but what Argento was serving up here, as grim and spectacularly intense as it turned out to be, was anything but supernatural. Ironically, Ania Pieroni, who appeared briefly in Inferno as, ostensibly, the Mother of Tears, does feature during the extended initial murder sequence, as the sexy shoplifter who becomes something of a serial-victim – first getting caught by shop security, then pestered by a really horrible vagrant and then, ultimately, sliced and diced by the killer. Sadly, Argento did eventually deliver the third part of the Trilogy in the simply dreadful Mother Of Tears that splashed out to us like kaleidoscopic vomit in 2007, but the less said about that, the better.

    As is customary for gialli, we are going to be led down the garden path, right round the shed and back again. And knocked on the head a couple of times. The narrative isn't quite barking mad, until the denouement and the inevitable back-tracking that you will find yourself doing to fit all the pieces together. It shouldn't surprise anyone that those pieces don't actually fit very well at all, but then this isn't entirely the point of Argento's bludgeoning exercise in stylish atmosphere and visceral excess. Peter Neal is surrounded by veritable suspects. He even has the shady baggage of a hostile fiancée who could possibly have tailed him to Rome with deadly desires. We have the ubiquitous Daria Nicolodi, here playing the author's Roman secretary, Anne. Nicolodi is actually very good here, which is amazing considering the difficulties she had with both her leading man and her director-partner. For me, she had been the worst thing in the otherwise superb Deep Red, but this part is much more amenable and her performance far more natural. It is true that she is little more than an observer in the events that take place, but she is a credible associate for Neal, just the same, and doesn't hamper any scene that she is in. Plus, she gets to scream and scream again in one of the genre's best-loved Fay Wray impersonations, her endless frustrations finally finding a very convincing outlet during the film's jaw-dropping climax. Helpers and hangers-on circumnavigate Neal's increasingly vulnerable world and even if some of them seem thrust in merely to help cater for Argento's wacky and memorable set-pieces, they are acted well enough to pass muster. Marino Mase, as Johnny, Neal's assistant, looks like a cross between Cillian Murphy and a taller Peter Dinklage (who is absolutely my favourite actor at the moment given his outstanding performance as Tyrion Lannister in HBO's incredible Game Of Thrones) but becomes a support member that we actually care about. The sequence when he and Neal go investigating a suspect's luxury mansion and Johnny ends up witnessing another horrific murder is both daft and incredibly intense, but you really feel for him, his shock is so tangible as the killer hurls some object d'art through a window at him to scare him away.

    The plot is peppered with clues and false trails. Little lies here and there. The police, in the form of a male and female cop duo played by Spaghetti Western star Guiliano Gemma (A Pistol For Ringo, Arizona Colt and Die Now, Pay Later) and Carola Stagnaro, who would also appear in Opera, are typically superfluous to the investigation, yet still manage to convey strong intent and a fine team-like presence. Look at how Stagnaro, as Detective Altieri, adroitly handles the situation when Peter Neal gets a sinister phone-call from across the street, and smoothly swaps places in the window with Nicolodi to fool the observer and try to get a good look at him. This trick, of course, is recalled in a later scene of mistaken identity, with far more devastating results. They are not the bumbling fools that we usually find in these films. Gemma's Detective Germani is actually a fan of Neal's books, but he doesn't let this geekiness get in the way of his job. There is often a tendency to go all Columbo with these people (at the time of writing, I've just heard of actor Peter Falk's death – God rest his soul, he was an awesome character performer) but in most giallo thrillers they become tiresome handicaps whose immediate distrust of the central character is little more than a cloying convention. Argento sets up this cop duo as being proactive from the start, seizing each opportunity they get to literally chase down a clue.

    Reunited with DOP Luciano Tovoli, who had wowed us with his visual dexterity on Suspiria, Argento pulls no punches with this all-out triumph of neon-exposed splendour. If Suspira was horror's vibrant subversion of Disney's Three-strip Technicolor, then Tenebrae was its antithesis, the palette, whilst still colourful, far more clinical in its detail, heightened in contrast and positively gleaming. Most of the film, even the night-time scenes, are brightly illuminated and vivid. He had Tovoli use Kodak 300 ASA film-stock and sought to emulate the visual style of Andrzej Zulawski's unpleasant 1981 mutant-shocker, Possession (starring Sam Neil and Isabelle Adjani), a film that he was quite taken by. The Roman locations are sunlit and unusual, the film going well off the beaten track to show parts of the cosmopolitan city that most directors rarely visit. The interiors tend to be light and airy, even down in the killer's basement, the film visually opened-up and stark. The most fondly recalled moment comes when he has the camera, on a specially imported Louma crane, prowl around the house in which two soon-to-be victims are unwittingly going about their business. For a full two-and-a-half minutes we are led on a single-take, vertigo-inducing tour of the exterior of the building, having first seen one of the victims, the simply gorgeous Mirella D' Angelo, through a window, that has us scaling the walls, sliding over the roof and scuttling down the other side of the house to finally settle upon the sight of the killer breaking in. This is purely indulgent stuff, of course, but it is just this sort of stunning virtuosity that sets Argento apart from the crowd. Another wonderful tracking shot walks us, with the killer, to where they have hidden an axe in the cleft of a tree. There is an interesting shot around the half-way mark that pans left after a character has left a room to symbolically rest upon the gleaming metal spike of a piece of modern art, that was allegedly designed to be demarcation spot for the film's intermission – but, to me, this is more pertinently the moment at which the story changes tack and moves up a sinister gear, Argento and Tovoli visually embellishing the moody psychological transition with this prominent image. They shot 1.85:1, which is again, markedly different than Suspiria's sublime 2.35:1, though the film still feels alive and deep, our own movement through the story unencumbered by the fourth barrier in very much the same way that John Carpenter (who was influenced by Argento's earlier films and, in turn, I believe came to influence Argento, himself) was able to do.

    Anthony Franciosa is superb as Peter Neal. He has that unique American television charm (and I mean this in the best sense) that is immediately warm and accommodating. You can't help but like the guy, and feel reassured by him. Neal is a good character too. It may be a cliché to see the artist plagued by the demons that his own creations seem to inspire in himself, and by those severely influenced by him, but Franciosa makes the scenario seem fresh and powerful. His reactions to the scathing remarks that are about his work are patient, understanding and realistic. While Neal defends his style and approach without being patronising as a character, Franciosa does so without being patronising as an actor. In a genre as stuffed with harassed central protagonists as this is, he makes for one of the most compelling audience conduits. But savour the subtleties that he is able to call forth as the plot moves on. There are definite similarities between Franciosa and James Franciscus, who had appeared in The Cat O' Nine Tails a decade before. You can almost believe that Argento had done this on purpose but, initially, he had wanted Christopher Walken to play the tormented writer. Performances in The Dogs of War and The Deer Hunter proving what a luminous and haunted character-actor he could be. Franciosa is not in the same league, to be honest, but then he is the better man for this particular role. Although a prolific TV star, Franciosa had appeared in Antonio Margheriti's loopy but lame 1971 haunted house romp, Web Of The Spider, and The Cricket ten years later, for Alberto Lattuada, so he knew the Italian system and their way of doing things already. The one film of his I love the most besides Tenebrae, though, is Dan (Kolchak) Curtis' wonderfully creepy TV chiller Curse Of The Black Widow, which I haven't seen for donkey's years but still remember very, very vividly and would dearly love to get hold of on disc.

    And genre-fans can definitely feel spoiled with one marvellous casting coup.

    It is always great to see exploitation-god John Saxon in a movie. Here he chews the scenery with added relish as Neal's enthusiastic agent, Bulmer. Something about this guy, trained to a very high level in Kung-Fu by Bruce Lee, who he starred with in the awesome Enter The Dragon, provides any film with an immediately charismatic cornerstone. Although hardly even seen in Wes Craven's seminal A Nightmare On Elm Street, just the sight of him was like a rock that we could cling to. But what I noticed this time out was how incredibly similar he looks to Jack Black! Honestly, just look at those deranged eyebrows and his chopsy mugging – it is almost as though he is doing an impersonation of the comic actor twenty years before we even knew who he was. Saxon was no stranger to Italian Cinema, and to its spaghettied horrors in particular. Not only had he appeared in the notorious gore classic, Cannibal Apocalypse, directed with stomach-exploding flair by Antonio Margheriti, and been the best thing in the exceedingly poor and gore-free Scorpion With Two Tails from Sergio Martino, but he'd appeared for Mario Bava in what many consider to be the first bonafide giallo picture, The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963. Saxon's character ducks and dives through the plot, but his weaving is brought to an end during the film's audacious broad daylight murder in the middle of a busy shopping plaza. Noted for being Argento's most obvious reference to Hitchcock, this is a brilliant little set-piece that happily takes its time, but delivers a lingering aftertaste and a spellbinding resonance. We are used to the director going overboard with tricks and camera moves, such episodes becoming mini-movies in their own right, but this is simple, sedate and incredibly pleasant and calming … until the knife comes out, that is. We all love the opening double-murder from Suspiria, still one of the greatest cinematic set-pieces ever lensed, but this is like the other end of the spectrum, and no less effective for its sunlight and open-air, middle of the day normality. Argento was proving that there was a further maturity and confidence that even he could attain within such a framework, without resorting to fiendish locations, Satanic malevolence and senses-rattling soundtracks.

    I've commented in other reviews about the relative tameness of the gore effects in many of Argento's films – that, considering the notorious reputation of his canon, they just don't seem all that bad when you finally get to see them. Suspiria and Opera certainly have their claret-filled moments, of course, but Tenebrae is the one that everyone knows is when Argento really cut loose. Although it is just the one scene in which gorehounds are justifiably rewarded, it is one helluva nasty scene. That it is Mrs Slivio Berlusconi, Veronica Lario, who is the recipient of this horrific axe slaying only seems to make it all the more outrageous. The staging of the attack is wonderfully tense – she knows as well as we do that she is about to be targeted and, gun in hand, she is ready and waiting. A ferocious rainstorm hurls abuse at the big window she is sitting beside, providing both an audio and visual contrast to the sedate and clinical aesthetic of the white-walled kitchen. The obviousness of the fake-arm is easily forgiveable with the sheer brutality and amazingly artful splatter that is sprayed all over the place once it has been severed. Still trimmed from many Italian prints, at Mr. Berlusconi's insistence, this was one of the elements that ensured Tenebrae arrived proudly, though temporarily on the DPP's list of banned videos back in the 80's, despite the film having been shown theatrically (albeit with 4 seconds of cuts) and to much critical acclaim. Nowadays, this sort of thing would be achieved with CG, and the punishing power of the scene – we see her struggling in shock, blood still squirting from her ghastly stump, as the killer then advances upon her and gets to work with the axe again – is ramped-up considerably with the in-camera physicality of the effect.

    Elsewhere, the blood is astonishingly bright, cartoonic red as various people are stabbed, slashed and have their throats cut. One extremely brutal moment has an axe thudded into a victim's skull, the resulting scream this pulverising headache induces as they dislodge the blade (with a gruesomely chunky audible pop!) is what really makes the effect so startling. Argento's calling card of a woman's head smashing through glass is beguilingly shot in slow-motion, with wicked shards breaking free in cartwheeling abandon to rain down upon her face. Another trick he pulls is with the aforementioned Mirella D' Angelo, as the lesbian journalist Tilde, getting attacked whilst she is pulling a T-shirt over her head. The cut-throat razor slices through the material to leave her horrified face peering through the gaping hole as death closes-in. It is such an iconic image that it often found its way onto posters and marketing stills. Famously, the film's original poster was even censored in UK and the bloody slit in a girl's throat transformed into a red ribbon!

    I discussed how Argento seemed to strain for effect with his set-pieces in Inferno in my reviews for both its UK and US BD releases, and I have to say that he does it here, too. One protracted sequence, which I'll admit works at the same time as making you roll your eyes in stunned amazement at the ridiculousness of it all, is when a young woman from Neal's hotel gets ditched by a weirdly silent boyfriend (who is actually played by horror filmmaker Michele Soavi in one of two cameos he has in the film) at the wrong end of town, and has to make her way back on foot. Stupidly incurring the anger of an extremely vicious Doberman guard-dog, she is then pursued by the relentless hound from Hell, attacked several times by it and forced to escape into the domain of the killer. Locking herself in the basement whilst the incredibly acrobatic dog, who has scaled fences and walls to get at her, pads around outside, she discovers ghastly evidence of the slayings and, thus, brings down upon herself the wrath of a two-legged aggressor as well. It is a long sequence, and one that is wilfully self-indulgent and quite stupid, but it is also extremely well-choreographed and tense. However, since the dog is so terrifyingly psychotic in its own right, the arrival of the killer is actually quite an anticlimax by comparison. But you get the sense that Argento was struggling to come up with ideas that would satisfy his growing legion of fans and were designed specifically to top his previous longeurs. In his excellent chat-track with fellow critic and Argento-friend, Alan Jones, Kim Newman laughs at the girl throwing photos of the victims back at the pursuing killer … but I think that this is entirely plausible for someone who is desperate to rid themselves of such damning evidence in an attempt to placate the obvious murderer. And, carrying on from this, and this entire scene notwithstanding, I find Tenebrae to be refreshingly free of much of the idiocy that characters tend to perform in such situations, the film actually quite well structured in terms of actions and motivations and reactions.

    Strangely enough, Tenebrae is one of the director's most pertinent and most personal films. His theme of art inducing atrocity is not as literal as it would be in The Stendahl Syndrome, but it is certainly more realistically explored, and wholly relevant to the situation that Argento was finding himself in. Critics and detractors had often lobbied him for the violence against women that suffuses the majority of his films with. We all know his classic response to this by now – seeing women in jeopardy is frightening, whilst seeing men in jeopardy is not. And seeing beautiful women in jeopardy is better again. It's a primal, plausible and highly marketable point that the genre has borne out since Bram Stoker penned Dracula. Having agreed with all this, it is worth mentioning that plenty of blokes get done-in in his films too, and Argento is far less sleazy and exploitative in his methods than the vast majority of people churning out this sort of thing. But Tenebrae is a touch more unsettling, perhaps, because of its syncopation with real-life incidents of crazed stalking, star-obsession and creator-fixation. The blending of fiction and reality is brought home by the fact that Argento got the idea for the story after being the recipient of some unwanted attention from a potentially dangerous fan whilst in Los Angeles. And the apparent randomness of violence in modern society was also another key factor in Tenebrae's germination. During that same stay in the city of broken dreams, Argento's attention was drawn to the murder of a Japanese tourist in the lobby of the hotel in which the filmmaker was staying – a crime that appeared to have been committed entirely without motive. Another fatal shooting, this time a drive-by slaying outside a cinema, firmly entrenched this idea of a world in which killing for the sake of it, or rather for the insane enjoyment of it, was prevalent. In his films before this, all the murders, however elaborate or protracted, were linked to the central narrative. In Tenebrae, this is also true to a degree … but there are still occasions when the assassinations are far more extraneous to the main thrust of the plot.

    Italian prog-rockers, Goblin, were undergoing contractual problems at the time, so only three members of the band, who had previously scored Argento's Deep Red and Suspiria, came onboard to compose the bone-rattling murder-themes for Tenebrae. Far more contemporary and accessible than the “diabolical digeridoo” they concocted for Suspiria, their pounding motifs are extraordinarily well suited to this glitzy hi-tec nightmare. The title theme is excellent – catchy, insistent and powerful. Wonderfully, Argento allows this main theme to play out over that stunning Louma crane-shot but, in a delicious little conceit, he has one of the lesbian victims then turn off the record she has had blaring out … and the theme from Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli and Massimo Morante cuts out too. It is another breaking of the fourth barrier that works really well. The trio also come up with another haunting lullaby – so beloved by Argento – to signify the mysterious and dislocated flashbacks. The way they produce “stingers” too, is electrifying. That outstanding “killer-reveal” at the end (look closely at the right ear and you'll see it coming, though!) is a moment of the purest shock cinema – sound and picture marrying in one flamboyant cardiac-arrester. However, if you listen properly to it, you'll find it sounds almost exactly like a similar cue from John Carpenter's Halloween score. Sizzling, bravura and exciting, the score for Tenebrae is the perfect accompaniment to all the mayhem that unfolds.

    Another element is tentatively entertained as well. Argento has a fascination for different sexual practices. Many of his films feature gay characters or transvestites, who often appear almost arbitrarily in the proceedings. Here we have lesbianism, a male character who certainly acts gay although it is never made an issue of, and the ruthless beauty we see being adored by the mysterious gang on the beach in the provocative flashback is actually played by the transsexual Eva Robbins. Argento isn't actually saying anything about such activities from his own standpoint, though. He is simply making the statement that these things happen in society even if Italian society and the Catholic Church, in particular, were keen to suppress such activities. Argento's position was that it is there and should not be brushed under the carpet. Sexual freedom was an essential facet of the human condition. Just like random slaughter. Peter Neal is reproached in an interview for the supposed misogyny of his books, by the unbelievably attractive and verbally schizophrenic Tilde incidentally, and the fact that his fictitious killer is wiping out so called deviants, such as lesbians, is used as an attempt to label him with the same viewpoint. Argento, himself, has been the victim of many such accusations and it is tempting to think that he using the character of Peter Neal as a foil for his own experiences.

    Tenebrae is also a sort of culmination of the influences that had seeped into Argento – from Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, which is liberally referenced, and Powell's own Peeping Tom, to Hitchcock's Rear Window and Psycho. He also draws from other gialli, such as the ludicrously monikered What Are Those Strange Drops Of Blood On Jennifer's Body?, as well as from his own back-catalogue. Death by art is something that he cannot tear himself away from, whether it is filmic art, literature, paintings or sculpture, or just the power of obsession that goes along with either such dedication, or the infatuation with it. His own The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is deliberately quoted in visual terms, as it was in Suspiria. Thus, there is a sense that Tenebrae is a sort of salute to the genre and an attempt to put a bloody lid on it. In many ways, this is the defining statement on the form, taking into account of its long established tradition of cherished misdirection, cunning methodology, outlandish motives and escalating violence.

    It this was to have been his final word on the matter, though, he soon found something else to say. Sadly, not much of which was worth listening to, let alone watching. After the fantastical Phenomena (which leaned heavily on giallo staples as well), he would embark on deranged stalk 'n' slash all over again, with ever-decreasing rewards. The Card Player (2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) and the appropriately named Giallo (2009) being wretched imitations of his past glories.

    Having said all of this and despite its unmistakable excellence, Tenebrae isn't the best giallo film around - I mean nobody is going to be surprised to discover who the killer is - but it is one of the most consistently enjoyable. Everything that fans of the genre could ask for is here in abundance. We have the main character as a stranger in a strange land becoming embroiled in a deadly mystery. There's killings aplenty, and a couple of them are real nasty ones too. Hot ladies are menaced by an unseen murderer wielding a number of sharp implements in their black-gloved grasp. Red herrings, false clues and misplaced suspicions run rampant. There's a confusing flashback that we keep getting hypnotic glimpses of. A character struggles to recall a vital piece of evidence that they had barely glimpsed and overhead. The plot takes a considerable detour into the realm of the totally implausible, and there are heaps of good old Italian illogicality thrown into the mix as well. And all of this is capped-off with the typical Scooby-Doo explanation that is, in itself, a dark-hearted hoot. But the film is also a magnificent showcase for all the things that Argento, himself, was best known for. Glimmers of this exuberant and highly confident style would poke through in subsequent films, but Dario Argento's work would never again reach such levels of dazzling bravura and invention.

    Tenebrae remains a high-water mark for giallo cinema, and even if it is a film of immense style and violence, it is also tremendously good fun. For a movie with such a punishing reputation this is quite something. A great cast, fantastic music, uber-blood-letting, more twists and turns than an epileptic snake … and Dario Argento doing what he does best. What more could you ask for?


    The Rundown

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