TENEBRAE Review - Dario Argento's Giallo classic is Grisly and Darkly Humorous
Ten Backe celebrates Dario Argento's stylish Giallo masterpiece Tenebrae's 40 years of thrilling terror.
Giallo master Dario Argento returned to the genre with the stylish and gruesome Tenebrae (1982). Upon release, the film was considered excessively violent and sexual. With multiple versions of the film cutting away the gore and nudity, some variations were thought to be incomprehensible. With time, Tenebrae has transcended into a cult favorite and is often referred to as the end of the Giallo era. After 40 years, it’s considered one of Argento’s best films.
The film follows a successful American murder mystery novelist, Peter Neal (Anthony Fanciosa), who arrives in Italy to promote his latest novel. Terrorized by his controlling ex-fiancee Jane (Veronica Lario), Peter finds support in his friend and lover Anne (Daria Nicolodi). After arriving in Rome, he becomes involved in the search for a serial killer said to have been inspired by his books. The murderer seems convinced they are protecting the world from human perverts and sexual deviants by eliminating Queer individuals and sex workers. Pages of his novel, Tenebrae, are stuffed into the mouths of each victim, and Peter receives mysterious letters after every murder.
In typical Giallo fashion, Peter and his assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo) attempt to solve the case without the help of detectives Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and Alteri (Carola Stagnaro). At the film’s halfway point, the narrative changes. Argento hits the audience with several unexpected twists leading into Tenebrae’s thrilling final act.
Tenebrae succeeds at many things, but possibly what it does best is its stunning visuals. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (Suspiria, 1977) works with Argento to create gorgeous angles, lighting, and other alluring shots. One shot of particular note is during a murder scene. The two-and-a-half-minute uncut shot encircles a home showing the roof, the walls, and even traveling into windows. Known as “The Crane Shot,” a Louma crane was used and imported specifically for the film from France. What is now considered one of the most memorable moments in cinema was almost removed when the distributor begged Argento to remove the shot, claiming it was "meaningless." Thankfully, Argento didn’t give in!
With themes ranging from sexual morality to repressed trauma, Argento has a lot to say in Tenebrae. One theme that stands out is the commentary on sexism. Every man in the film says or does something sexist at least once. At one point, the audience is introduced to feminist writer Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo), who confronts Peter Neal about his sexist writing. He denies the accusation, and his manager Bullmer (John Saxon), refers to her with a queer slur, implying that she wishes she was a man.
While in another scene, Detective Giermani talks down to his partner Altieri, saying he needs a "tough male assistant to run fast," and she remarks back, "Then you’d have nothing to bitch about." These dialogue exchanges are constant throughout the film and are often intended to make women seem smarter or stronger than men. Argento plays with the meta here as his films have frequently received contempt for depicting violence towards women.
The film also has a lot to say about the influence of art on an audience. The murderer in Tenebrae claims to be inspired by the fictional murders in Peter’s novels. It’s prevalent for real-life violence to be blamed on works of fiction. Everything is on the chopping block, from music to books to film, when conservatives need a scapegoat. Argento’s films are no exception. In Tenebrae, he plays devil's advocate with this idea, revealing Peter to be the murderer all along. In the end, the irony sets in, as a piece of a sculpture ultimately kills him. Art really can be dangerous!
Tenebrae is a violent and gory mystery with countless unexpected twists and turns. The film is delightfully stylish and beautiful, holding down multiple themes without being too forthright or subtle—the performances are incredible. It truly is an astonishing work of art by one of horror's most iconic filmmakers, and I will watch it again.
Tenebrae is now streaming on Shudder and a new 40th Anniversary 4K UHD Limited Edition Blu-Ray and DVD set arrives from Synapse Films in the United States on July 26, 2022. Arrow Films will also release the set with the same features and different artwork.