Dir. Dario Argento
Generally regarded as one of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's finest films (and rightly so), Tenebrae marked the director's return to the giallo genre which he implicitly popularised, after his detour into supernatural gothic horror with Suspiria and Inferno. Based on the filmmaker’s own experiences of an unhinged fanatic obsessed with his work, Tenebrae follows the story of American mystery-thriller novelist Peter Neal, whose arrival in Rome to promote his latest title coincides with a series of violent murders – the perpetrator of which claims to have been inspired by Neal’s latest book. When the author himself begins to receive death threats from the killer he must use his literary know-how to snare the slasher before he becomes the next victim.
Tenebrae was added to the Video Nasty list and banned on video in the UK until 1999, when it was released with severe cuts. The film was finally passed uncut and uncensored in 2002. Now, this definitive version of Tenebrae comes to DVD and (for the first time in the UK) Blu-ray, courtesy of Arrow Video, and boasts a brand new HD restoration which perfectly showcases Argento’s inimitable style and sado-chic. Despite its title (which is Latin for ‘darkness/shadows’), Tenebrae is a bright, stark and strikingly lit film (cinematographer Luciano Tovoli also lensed Argento’s candy-coloured Suspiria and forthcoming Dracula 3D) – and the new HD restoration really helps it pop off the screen like you’ve never seen before.
Unfolding as a cunningly reflexive critique of the Italian giallo, as well as Dario Argento’s own distinct body of work, Tenebrae directly addresses the accusations of misogyny often hurled at the director throughout his opulent and bloodily-hewn career. Containing some of his most iconic imagery and providing a commentary on the nature of violence in cinema and literature, Tenebrae also sees Argento actively examining some of his most reoccurring themes and preoccupations with a savage precision, as well as namedropping some of his literary influences such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Freudian psychology, sexual deviancy, repressed trauma, voyeurism/spectatorship and the sexualisation/fetishisation of violence and death are all on bold display throughout this twisted story which is also pierced with a slew of heavily stylised murder set-pieces, the likes of which are usually associated with the director’s cinema.
Further highlighting Argento’s stylish and reflexive approach to depicting violence, a number of carefully orchestrated moments work to lift us out of the narrative to objectively consider what is happening on screen. Not only are the audience placed firmly in the role of ‘voyeur’, but we’re also made to consider this very notion and our role as active spectators. Argento works to purposefully detach us from the story with several technically impressive camera shots – including one where the camera scales a victim’s house in one seamless take, navigating walls and floating over the roof, peering in through windows. As dazzling as it is, the shot doesn’t further the narrative, nor does it represent anyone’s POV; it exists simply to remove us from the ‘reality’ of the film and because Argento enjoys showcasing his technical prowess. At other times, his more usual approach of utilising the camera to show us events from the murderer’s point of view are in full effect. The result is a dizzying malaise of artistically framed shots which alternate between disrupting the narrative and thrusting us deep into the very midst of the ensuing onscreen mayhem. It’s also no coincidence that many of the victims gaze, almost longingly, into the camera and directly at us, not only implying our involvement in their violent deaths, but also serving as a reminder that they’re happening for our entertainment.
Despite all the slyly subversive reflexivity, Tenebrae also functions as an engrossing murder mystery. Typical of the genre, it boasts shoals of red herrings with various motives, a psychologically fractured killer sporting black leather gloves and a penchant for hacking up sexually liberated women, and the story twists and turns delivering a slew of shocking revelations that enhance the mystery and thicken the plot as Argento toys with audience/character perception and perspective. As mentioned, the look of the film is really rather striking and the Rome depicted in it is not the Rome usually portrayed in cinema; no landmarks or typical baroque architecture are on display - instead it is presented as an anonymous, nearly futuristic city, devoid of character and full of eerie, well-lit and sparsely peopled streets and squares which adds to the unusual, coldly detached tone of proceedings; as does the bombastic electronic score by ex-Goblin members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli and Elsa Morante.
Arrow Video has really delivered the goods with their release of Tenebrae. Not only are fans treated to a stunning brand new HD restoration of the film, but they also get an introduction by Daria Nicolodi; audio commentary with Argento experts, journalists and writers Kim Newman and Alan Jones and a second audio commentary track with Argento expert Thomas Rostock.
Jones and Newman’s track is bursting with all sorts of exclusive insights as the two have an engaging and lively chat – Jones providing behind the scenes anecdotes and facts, and Newman providing an accessible critique. Rostock’s commentary unfolds as an entirely different beast: a hardcore dissection of the film and a highly detailed and academic analysis. For anyone who takes their Argento films seriously, the abundance of information, readings and thoughts on the subtextuality shimmering beneath the surface of Argento’s masterful and cosmopolitan giallo, this track really is a must!
Elsewhere, Screaming Queen! Daria Nicolodi remembers Tenebrae boasts an interview with the ever-candid and revealing Daria Nicolodi – Argento’s former partner and muse. Reflecting on her role in Tenebrae – which she describes as ‘bland’ – Nicolodi reminisces on working with the other cast and crew and the problems the film had with censors upon its release. She also discusses some of the more memorable technical aspects of the film, such as how its unique look was obtained and its special effects realised. Never one to not speak her mind, the relaxed and informative actress also reflects upon Argento’s former ‘rock star’ status in Italy and how she was ‘coerced’ into playing such a small role in this collaboration.
The Unsane World of Tenebrae – an interview with Dario Argento features the director discussing the origins of the film and how it was received in Italy when released back in the early 80s. He freely discusses how he’d deliberately moved away from the giallo into fantasy horror when the cinemas became saturated with gialli after his trailblazing debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Argento appears in fine form and even makes a few jokes while reflecting on his work and the allegations of misogyny it was usually greeted with.
A Composition for Carnage – Claudio Simonetti on Tenebrae features the composer discussing his work throughout the years with Argento and the influence of dance and electronic music on the score for Tenebrae. He also chats about censorship and violence in cinema and culture.
If all of that isn’t enough, the disc also includes footage of a Goblin concert in Glasgow (in which they perform tracks from Tenebrae and Phenomena), an exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on Tenebrae by Alan Jones, author of “Profondo Argento”; four sleeve art options with original and newly commissioned artwork; double-sided fold-out poster; original trailer; English and Italian mono audio options; optional English subtitles.