Being Film #11 in Hail Horror 4. This review is part of Kevin J. Olsen's Italian Horror Blog-a-thon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes a Movie.
Although he's made several in the years since, TENEBRAE (or TENEBRE) marks the last of Dario Argento's run of truly great giallo films, arguably starting with his debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1970. Filled with Argento's common themes of sexual confusion, identity and vision, lushly and luridly photographed, and boasting a stellar soundtrack by 3/4 of the members of Goblin, who scored Argento's last two films (DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA) as well as George A. Romero's classic DAWN OF THE DEAD, TENEBRAE is a grisly but stylish film, serving as a great introduction to all of Argento's strengths as a filmmaker.
Peter Neal is a murder/mystery writer on his way to Rome to promote his latest book Tenebrae. Within two hours of his arrival a young woman, caught shoplifting his novel earlier, is found savagely murdered in her apartment, her body slashed and pages from the novel shoved in her mouth. It's a shocking scene, brightly lit and pulsing with the prog-rock theme by Goblin. Only the killer's hands are seen, a calling card of Argento's films:
Seems like the film at this point is going to be pretty cut and dried - the author, under suspicion of murder has to clear his own name by finding the serial killer using his books as a template. Ah, but you see, this is a Dario Argento film, and soon after the authorities (in another great quirk, Argento's investigators are a man and woman beautiful and suave, who bicker like they've seen one too many Tracy and Hepburn films) question Peter and have a brief chase when he receives a threatening call from the suspected killer, we get treated to a crazy sequence that begins with crazed screaming, shadows on a wall, and another Argento calling card: an extreme close-up of an object, this time a series of pills and a glass of water, followed by a scene seemingly cut from a different movie altogether.
A young woman teases a bunch of young, sexually inexperienced boys boys at the beach. The music is dreamlike, and the fact that everyone's in white tells you something's amiss. This is classic Argento, playing with youth and sexuality in a way the emphasizes confusion and ambiguity. We see the woman, watch her eyes hungry as she pulls her shirt down and tempts the boys, but we never see the boy's faces - they're either shot from behind or cut off at the neck. The dream quality is shattered when one of the boys slaps the woman in the face, and pays for his crime when he is held down as she savagely kicks him and then forces him to eat her shiny candy-apple red heel:
Back in the present the violence begins to erupt again: After a series of beautifully long tracking shots the killer strikes again, murdering a young journalist and her lesbian lover. Mysterious letters are appearing under Peter's door, which may or may not be connected to the murders. As Peter and his assistant Anne (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi) deal with the killer, he's also dealing with the press, all whom have varying negative views on Neal's work. Argento uses these moments to pose questions on the nature of deviancy what we identify as "normal" - for a film that takes a wicked glee in its murder set-pieces, there's a lot of subtexts running through TENEBRAE.
In the end, though, it isn't the themes and subtexts that keep TENEBRAE so fresh over 25 years alter - it's the sheer style and inventiveness on display. There are some beautiful shots, as when one young victim being chased my a mad dog wanders by a pool, her reflection captured in the water. Or the slow, pulsing tracking shots, whether it's following a victim or giving us the killer's POV. Or the extreme close-ups: one of a razor cracking a lightbulb, another of the same razor being run under running water, the blood slowly washing from it. Or even the composition of an empty room, a light bulb, and an open door:
The action ramps up as discoveries are made, even as more and more people wind up dead, including Peter's agent played wonderfully by John Saxon, who has a wacky scene early in the film concerning his love for his new hat. Argento keeps the pace tense, and although there are a few clues to give away what's actually happening, TENEBRAE manages to keep you guessing with enough twists and turns to make this a great thriller as well as a straight-up horror. The color red is used time and again, in the heels of the dream woman, the wrapping of a mysterious package sent to Peter's ex-wife, in Rome for reasons of her own. Vision plays a huge role in the film: eyes are constantly being filmed close up, the killer takes pictures of his victims, and an important clue is obscured by the trauma one man suffers after witnessing one of the brutal murders (this one an axe to the head).
When we get to the end almost everyone is dead, the meaning of the dream images comes clear, and nothing is what we thought it was going to be. While not my favorite of his giallo films (that would go to DEEP RED), TENEBRAE is an excellent companion piece to that film, and a great modern thriller.
All in a day's work for Mr. Dario Argento.