With its name taken from the Latin for shadows and darkness and with characters who specifically address the enduring hold the Catholic Church maintains over the country in which the majority of the film is set, Dario Argento’s eighth film as director maintains a conscious eye on the traditions of Italy and his own cinematic history, a return to the giallo subgenre of his early films after the supernatural elements of the immediately preceding Suspiria and Inferno, the two films which form the first part of his Three Mothers trilogy. Yet for all the provocative violence and copious blood which delayed the American release and led to it being banned as a “video nasty” in Britain, Tenebrae is not at all what it seems.
Now available on Blu-ray for the first time with a flawless remastered high definition transfer and still proudly boasting an 18 certificate, Argento himself explains in the accompanying interview that the inspiration for the film came from the period when he was working on Los Angeles and received a series of increasingly hostile and threatening phone calls which drove him to return to his homeland where the incident was channelled into the script for his next film.
The story of American novelist Peter Neal’s trip to Rome to publicise his new horror novel, he is greeted by a journalist who accuses him of misogyny. “Why do you despise women so much? Women as victims, ciphers, the male heroes with their hairy macho bullshit?” Neal tries to brush the incident off, but arriving at his hotel, he is greeted by Captain Giermani of the Rome Homicide Squad, investigating the murder of a young woman immediately before Neal’s touchdown, the pages of his hit novel stuffed into the victim’s throat.
Using characters to channel the accusations made at him in his career, Argento delights in the tweaking the noses of his critics; yes, Neal has left a scorned and bitter woman in his wake, yes, the detective is accompanied by a colleague whom he criticises for her inability to run as fast as a man, the female victims paraded for the camera, sometimes clutching only a towel, whereas the few male victims are summarily despatched without the need for camera to linger.
This fetishism is not reserved for the victims, however: black leather gloves, red high heeled shoes, voyeurism, lesbianism, dismemberment, impalement, stabbing, strangulation, animal attacks, and trophy taking; Argento is liberal in his interests, though always he returns to the blood. In the interview, titled The Unsane World of Tenebrae, Argento is open that the intention of the film was to be outrageous, yet the establishment misunderstood and perhaps predictably reacted with outrage instead.
Film critic Maitland McDonagh, an expert on Argento and the author of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, also speaks at length in the special features, insisting that he “doesn’t hate women, he reflects the world,” and perhaps not too jokingly point out that some of the architecture in the film is uglier than the killings.
Crucially, she draws attention to the fact that the film is a cold façade, “a film about surfaces… what is beneath is never shown,” using the example of one of the killings which is revealed to have been staged using a prop razor which squirts fake blood. Everything in the film is about appearance and effect, and should not be taken as an endorsement, Argento himself laughing at the things that have been said about him: “I’m nice, I like animals. I’ve been vegetarian all my life.”
Undeniably, the film confounds expectations, with Giermani frequently led in the investigation by Neal who quotes Conan Doyle’sHound of the Baskervilles which he was reading on the plane, Giermani’s competence further questioned by the moment when he unfolds a poison pen letter from the killer with tweasers so as not to taint the evidence with fingerprints while holding the bottom of the letter in his ungloved hand.
Other curious elements of staging include an apparently open plan mortuary and the revelation of the space where the killer plans the attacks and hangs photos of the victims, a room with direct access to the garden via an unlocked door and plate glass windows, allowing “murder basement” to be seen from outside the house.
Having assisted in the international distribution of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead four years previously on which he also served as composer, his brother Claudio acting as one of the producers, Argento had a keen eye on the American market when constructing Tenebrae. Casting established Hollywood stars Tony Franciosa as author Peter Neal and John Saxon as his literary agent Bullmer, much of the dialogue is in English despite the setting though some of the performers are dubbed, inevitably resulting in a jarring discontinuity.
Her ability in English deemed insufficient, one of those so affected was Daria Nicolodi who played Neal’s long-suffering assistant Anne. Interviewed separately in Screaming Queen, she displays her enduring affection for Argento whom she worked with on six films between 1975‘s Deep Red and 1987‘s Terror at the Opera then again when he completed the Three Mothers trilogy in 2007 with Mother of Tears, referring to him as a maestro as she discusses his enduring popularity. Speaking of giallo, she says “It’s an excellent genre, just like the westerns of Leone or those of Ford.”
Speaking of Tenebrae, Nicoldi recalls that Anne was not her favourite part, “a little role with no character,” preferring the depth offered by Deep Red and Inferno, but speaks warmly of Franciosa with whom she shared a stage background, he being a graduate of the Actors Studio while she performed on the Italian stage.
Recalling that she found him very easy to work with and a great gentleman, his relationship with Argento was not so smooth: “Dario gets annoyed and bored with actors,” preferring to concentrate on the technical aspects of the process while his performers prepare their characters without coaching, a view which is also held by McDonagh: “Argento is not really a terrific director of actors. He’s good at staging.”
Certainly that is evident in an extended scene where the theme of voyeurism is most specifically conveyed as a crane mounted camera peers through the different windows of the disturbingly cubist concrete apartment block occupied by the feminist journalist and her girlfriend, shot in a single take which took three days to prepare.
Following Suspiria in 1977, this was the second time cinematographer Luciano Tovoli would work with Argento, and Nicolodi praises his work, the “bright whites and the very red reds,” and certainly the vivid colours are well displayed in this edition. Tovoli collaborated again with Argento on his most recent film, Dracula 3D, which premiered at Cannes in May 2012, starring Rutger Hauer, Thomas Kretschmann whom he previously worked with on The Stendhal Syndrome and his daughter by Nicolodi, Asia Argento, their fifth collaboration since 1993’s Trauma.
That Tovoli was called on to showcase much of that red in Tenabrae cannot be denied, the final scenes descending into a bloodbath which starts with the death of actress Veronica Lario, later the wife of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and concluding with the killer’s own death when he is pinned to a wall by a sculpture.
“Murder can be an art,” Nicolodi muses, reflecting on both the film and Argento’s career, “In cinema it is.”
Additional features include two separate commentary tracks, a brief interview with composer Claudio Simonetti, keyboard player for Argento’s frequent soundtrack collaborators Goblin, unfortunately plagued by poor sound, a brief excerpt of Goblin playing live at the Glasgow Arches in 2011 and a booklet with contributions by Tovoli, horror expert Alan Jones and Peter Strickland, director of the excellent Berberian Sound Studio, the tale of a foley artist engaged on the production of the giallo tinged film The Equestrian Vortex.
Tenebrae is released on DVD, Blu-ray and limited edition steelbook Blu-ray on Monday 16th December