Hollywood Gothique
Film Reviews

Review: Tenebre (1982)

Italian maestro of horror Dario Argento reaches his peak with this modern thriller about a mystery author whose latest book is serving as inspiration for a series of brutal murders that take place while he is on a promotional tour in Rome. The film synthesizes all the familiar Argento motifs (psycho killers, bloody violence, convoluted plot twists, pulse pounding music) into an almost perfect symphony of fear that overcomes many of his traditional shortcomings (credibility and characterization). The truly impressive achievement of this movie is that it is not just a collection of outrageous set pieces, tied together by an off-the-wall plot; it is a compact, tightly structured unit that attacks the viewer’s comfort zone with all the precision of a deftly wielded scalpel.

The film begins with a brief pre-credits prologue of a black-gloved figure reading from Peter Neal’s novel (titled, with intentional self-reference, “Tenebre”) – a disturbing passage describing a maniac’s joy at realizing he can sweep away the obstacles in his life through the simple act of murder. The story then follows Neal, who embarks on a plane trip to Italy. In the airport we see him stalked by a beautiful woman, and when he arrives, he finds his luggage has been vandalized. Meanwhile, a seductive kleptomaniac is stalked and killed in Rome, the pages of “Tenebre” stuffed into her mouth. During interviews about his book, Neal is surprised to find himself under attack from a former student, now a journalist, who accuses him of writing macho, misogynistic bullshit that exploits women as victims of violence; the journalist and her lesbian lover are later brutally murdered. Neal then finds himself on the end of a disturbing series of messages from the killer, who claims he wants to eliminate “deviants” from society. The police make little headway, prompting Neal – in the great tradition of amateur detectives – to match wits with them. His prime suspect is a fussy interviewer whose questions sounded suspiciously similar to the killer’s statements, but that theory seems to die a bloody death when the interviewer is dispatched by a hatchet to the head. Afraid he may be the next victim, Neal decides to leave Rome, but the murders continue; the victims include Neal’s ex-fiancé Jane (the beautiful woman who trashed his luggage at the airport) and his agent (John Saxon), who have been having an affair behind his back.

Tenebre (1982) Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) is about to get a nasty surpriseSPOILER Police Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) finally figures out the truth: the interviewer was the murderer, but Neal killed him and took his place, killing his agent and his former fiancé, so that the deaths would be blamed on the serial killer. Confronted by Germani, Neal slices his own throat, but moments later, his body is gone, and Germani realizes he has been fooled by a fake razor blade. The realization comes too late to save his life: Neal axes him to death from behind. Neal then waits for his next victim, Ann (Dario Nicolodi), who has been waiting outside for Germani, but when she opens the door, she knocks over an abstract heavy metal sculpture, a sharp cone piercing Neal’s chest and pinning him to the wall, where he struggles like a pinned bug, his bloody hands trying to pull himself free but slipping uselessly on the smooth metallic surface, until he expires. Shocked to stupefaction by the bloody horror surrounding her, Ann raises her head and screams as the film fades to black… END SPOILER

This synopsis probably does a poor job of conveying the film’s greatness. The relatively strong plot (at least by Argento’s standards) is at first deceptively traditional; then it bends, twists, and ultimately breaks, undermining audience expectations in a disarming way. With its mystery author trying to solve an actual murder, the story is deliberately working within the mold of a classic who-done-it, in which amateur detectives inevitably outwit their professional competition (think of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or the television series MURDER, SHE WROTE). The message of this kind of fiction is that the world makes sense in a rational way. No matter how strange the crime, no matter how mysterious the murder, it will all make sense when the detective brings his acumen to bear upon the evidence, piecing the puzzle together until it leads him inevitably to the truth.

The script for TENEBRAE deliberately invokes this comparison by quoting Sherlock Holmes’ most famous dictum: “When you have eliminated everything else as impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” But having evoked the spirit of the great sleuth and all he stands for, the film then proceeds to demolish the logical worldview with a series of extravagant set pieces that deliberately undermine our rational understanding of what’s happening.

The first is a long, almost gratuitous sequence in which a girl who works at the hotel where Peter is staying is left stranded during a date, then chased by an angry Doberman, and forced to take refuge in a house – which turns out to belong to the killer. She is not his usual kind of target, but he must kill her anyway to preserve his secret. In other words, even his rigid, psychotic pattern of behavior is undermined by the chaos and coincidence of the world at large.

This idea is complimented by a series of flashbacks that purport to reveal some insight into the murderer’s motives: We see four young men, their faces concealed, pursuing a seductive woman on the beach. Three of them find favor in her eyes, but she turns thumbs down on the fourth – who, in a fit of sexual frustration, slaps her face. In revenge, the other three boys pin the fourth one to the ground while the young woman forces her red stiletto heel into his mouth and down his throat. This excellently constructed sequence (filmed entirely without dialogue) conveys a sense of submerged seething rage that explodes past all rational boundaries. It doesn’t literally “explain” the subsequent murders, but it does make us feel the madness lurking within the murderer. Inevitably, we realize that when someone is working on his level, the chaos of the world has become internalized, and trying to sort it out logically may be a hopeless exercise in futility.

This proves to be the case for the police. Rational motives like robbery don’t apply to either of the film’s two killers. Neal may seem to be acting out of revenge, but his revenge makes little sense (he’s already split with Jane so why should he care if she’s having an affair?) – unless one realizes that he is really acting out his anger toward the young seductress seen in flashbacks (a fact underlined when Jane receives a pair of red high-heeled shoes shortly before she is targeted for death – the same red shoes that the nameless seductress used to force her heel down Neal’s throat).

Always a master of the visual flourish, Argento serves up the murders with a gusto that will make your skin crawl. The imagery is justifiably renowned; at times, it’s almost insane in its brilliance, as when the police inspector bends down to pick up a piece of evidence and the killer is revealed standing directly behind him — where he could not possibly be, in any logical scheme of things. (The nightmarish effectiveness of this shot was copped by Brian DePalma, to less effect, for the end of RAISING CAIN.) Equally brilliant is the film’s famous Louma crane shot, which conveys the menacing presence of the unseen killer by prowling up one side of a building, across the roof, and down the other side, accompanied to nerve-wracking music by Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante. (As part of the rock group Goblin, they had scored Argento’s DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA. Here, they provide one of their most effective, pulse-pounding soundtracks – sinister, demented, and exciting.)

Jane paints a bloody pictureEven more excessive is the death of Jane, whose severed arm sprays a vibrant slash of red against the white wall of her kitchen – a sick visual joke the deliberately evokes the splattery artistic effect of paintings by Jackson Pollack. It’s Argento’s way of insisting that his violent films are artistically valid in their own shocking way. (In an audio commentary recorded for the old Anchor Bay laserdisc release, Argento comments, “She’s painting. But no one ever says, ‘Dario, is art.’ They say, ‘Dario, is too bloody — you must cut.’”)

Despite these eruptions of Grand Guignol bloodshed, Argento shows he is a master of more than just gore. His handling of the exposition scenes is deft, and he stages the brief bits of police action like a sharply handled episode of MIAMIC VICE. One of the film’s highlights is actually a clever homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, a long static sequence in which Peter Neal’s agent (deftly played by John Saxon) sits on a bench in a public square, waiting to meet Jane.

The film has clued us in to expect a murderous attack, and Argento strings us along for as long as humanly possible, milking suspense out of practically no on-screen action at all. Saxon sits and stares, his gaze shifting to people around him as he eavesdrops on their lives from a distance (as Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound character did in the Hitchcock film). Every new angle, every reaction shot, leaves us peering into the corner of the frame, looking for something dreadful. By the end of the sequence, simple actions like turning to watch a child retrieving his ball, or bumping into a passerby, are fraught with menace – all based on our anticipation that the killer will strike at any second.

What makes this scene even more remarkable is that it is set in the least likely place for a horror sequence: a brightly lit, wide-open plaza, seemingly devoid of menace. But that’s all part of Argento’s plan to overturn conventions and startle us with the unexpected. This is probably the greatest horror film ever made with the lights on, so to speak; it’s a perfect companion piece and contrast to DEEP RED, abandoning the shadowy historical architecture and night-time settings of the earlier film, in exchange for a bright, modernistic approach filled with gleaming buildings of concrete and steel. Although both films are set in Rome, TENEBRAE has not a single shot of a historical monument: the horrors here do not hide in the shadows of decaying mansions; they stride boldly in the daylight.

More importantly, the film is genuinely unsettling (in a way that his much more popular SUSPIRIA never was). It’s true target is not the on-screen victims but the viewers themselves, who are told in no uncertain terms that their worst fears about the horror genre are all true: the people who create it and those who enjoy it are equally crazy partners in a homicidal ballet. In one of the film’s sick jokes, we’re made to resent a woman reporter who questions the misogynistic content of the genre–who is then killed off by a crazed fan, her violent death thus (inadvertently) proving the point she was trying to make.

Anthony Franciosa as the author whose novel inspires a serial killer

Lastly, star Anthony Franciosa deserves special mention for his performance as mystery writer Peter Neal. It is no newsflash to state that viewers traditionally do not go to Dario Argento films expecting great characterization and performances; however, Franciosa delivers a strong performance that anchors the film, giving it a level of credibility sometimes lacking in Argento’s other work. The script does not give the character enough depth and shading to compete with genre icons like Norman Bates, but Franciosa (as Max Von Sydow would later do in SLEEPLESS) works with the material, making Neal believable and sympathetic, while also managing a few nice touches of comic relief (e.g., his startled reaction when his traumatized assistant runs a red light without even noticing). Thanks to Franciosa, what could have been just an arbitrary, mechanical twist at the end of the story, turns instead into a startling dramatic development.


That's a man, baby!
That’s a man, baby!

Eva Robbins, who plays the seductive woman on the dunes seen in flashbacks, is actually a man.

The dialogue misattributes Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum (“When you have eliminated everything else as impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”) to the novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The famous sleuth first made a variation of this remark in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Holmes novel “The Sign of the Four.” He expressed similar sentiments in subsequent short stories, but not in “Hound of the Baskervilles.”

After the international success of SUPSPIRIA, Dario Argento followed up with the excellent INFERNO, the second of his uncompleted “Three Mothers Trilogy” (about three ancient beings, each sequestered in a different old mansion around the world). However, the sequel never got the wide release it deserved from 20th Century Fox (which had made a ton of money on the first film, under a subsidiary label). Consequently, Argento abandoned plans trilogy of supernatural terror and returned to the giallo format with this, probably his greatest film. Perhaps not coincidentally, Aria Pieroni (who appeared briefly as the “Third Mother” in INFERNO) is killed off early in TENEBRAE, presumably signaling Argento’s intent to kill of the Three Mothers trilogy before it was completed.

A female victim killed in daylight instead of darkness
A female victim killed in daylight instead of darkness

TENEBRE is part of a long tradition of “giallo” thrillers in Italy. The word, which literally means “yellow,” refers to the color of the cheap pulp paper on which mystery thriller novels were printed. Usually inspired by Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, most Italian giallo thrillers deal with masked madmen stalking and killing beautiful women, often employing a visual style inspired by film noir, using lots of darkness and shadows. Some Italian film critics have objected to this noir style, on the grounds that Italy is a Mediterranean country noted for its sunshine. To a large extent, TENEBRAE is an ironic joke on this criticism; despite the title’s literal meaning (“darkness”), the film has few shadows, takes place largely in daylight, and features brightly lit modern architecture even when the setting is night.

The word “Tenebrae” also refers to a ceremony in the Catholic Church, wherein the lights are extinguished.

Although an Italian film, TENEBRE was shot in English to increase its export value, then dubbed into Italian for domestic constumption.

For English-language prints, the voice of Ann (Daria Nicolodi) was dubbed by actress Therese Russell.

In the U.S., the screenplay is credited as a collaboration between Dario Argento and George Kemp, but some sources credit the screenplay solely to Argento, suggesting that Kemp is a pseudonym created by the American distributor to make the film sound less Italian.

When the film was originally released in the U.S. (direct to video), the title was changed to UNSANE, and several minutes were cut out, including much of the violence and the famous Louma crane shot.


Click to purchase
Click to purchase

Anchor Bay’s 1999 DVD of TENEBRAE recreates the features of their previous laserdisc release: a trailer, an audio commentary, and a version of the closing credits with alternate music (a bad pop song, instead of the main title theme by Morante-Simonetti-Pignatelli). The DVD also added two behind-the-scenes segements. Although billed as “uncut,” the film is actually missing a few insignificant shots; due to print damage, an absolutely complete version was not available. In 2001, this DVD was combined with Argento’s previous giallo effort DEEP RED on a double-bill DVD; both 1999 and 2001 DVDs are out of print, but TENEBRE was reissued by Starz/Anchor Bay in 2008 as a single disc, in conjunction with the Dario Argento Box Set.

The audio commentary, which features director Dario Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti, and journalist Loirs Curci, is mostly entertaining and informative, but it is marred by Curci’s attempts to get Argento to explain every detail of the film – even plot points that should be obvious to anyone watching the film. For example, he asks the director to explain why he uses repeated close-ups of the red shoes worn by the killer’s first victim (seen in flashback), when the reason should be obvious: those are the same shoes the woman used to humiliate the killer in an earlier flashback, forcing her stiletto heel down his throat, so of course the killer would be obsessed with them. To be fair, one cannot really blame Curci for prompting Argento for details: the director seems a bit unwilling to talk at length about the movie, and the audio commentary frequently drops out entirely, in spite of Simonetti’s lively attempts to fill us in on details of the soundtrack.

Tenebre (a.k.a. “Tenebrae,” 1982). Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento & George Kemp. Cast: Anthony Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, John Saxon, Christian Borromeo, Veronica Lario, Eva Robbins, John Steiner, Guilliano Gemma.