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.

Special Features

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.


Wes said…
Fantastic review James, I'm sure people will be putting aside some time to revist the film after reading your piece. I'll be seeing it soon enough as part of my blog series on the DPP 39, the film will be a welcome relief from the likes of Gestapo's Last Orgy and Mardi Gras Massacre !

I think I first picked up on the point about the film's quasi-futuristic setting in the Broken Mirrors Broken Minds book - I dunno if it was Maitland Mcdonagh or Argento himself who said the film was supposed to be set 5 years in the future, but it's a concept that's always intruiged me. In a strange way, Tenebrae with its clean and modern art direction shares a kinship with Michael Mann's Heat, another film which had a subliminal futuristic feel when it came out in 1995...

Finally it's a piece of trivia everyone knows but worth repeating anyway for sheer weirdness - Daria Nicolodi's character in the film was dubbed into English by Theresa Russell !
James Gracey said…
Wes, I'll look forward to checking out your DPP 39 series! And you're absolutely right: Argento did say that he wanted this to feel slightly futuristic - it is indeed supposed to be set 5 or so years in the future. Interestingly, in the interview with him on the Arrow Video Blu-Ray, he reveals that he envisioned it being a sort of post-nuclear war movie - that's why it feels so sparse and unpopulated! And in the interview with Daria Nicolodi, she discusses her feelings on being dubbed - not specifically by Theresa Russell, just in general. Where possible she always tried to do her own dubbing.

AND! It is funny you should mention Michael Mann: last night I watched Miami Vice, and thought to myself that Mann's work shares the same slick, clean and modernised look as Tenebrae... Spooky, eh?!
The blu ray looks nice, but the starkness of the photography makes the image look really processed. I can imagine this could be exacerbated on some tvs where the pictures can look very processed anyway. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining the film looks way better than I'd ever seen it before and it was great to revisit it.
Liam Underwood said…
I definitely need to pick this up! I first caught Tenebrae a while ago, and remember being quite impressed. It's definitely a film I've been meaning to rewatch, and this release seems like the perfect opportunity.

Arrow do seem to be releasing some fantastic stuff. They're making my Amazon wishlist grow out of control.
Is TENEBRAE really regarded as one of Argento's finest films? I've always felt this film was average at best, but has been made to look a lot better by the crap that followed it. This is the point at which the self-referential began to take over his films, a particular fetish he still hasn't moved on from if GIALLO is anything to go by. It is entertaining though, and I was very pleased with Arrow's Blu Ray. A great review as ever James.
deadlydolls said…
I'm not the biggest Tenebrae fan, but that Blu Ray treatment sounds amazing. HOWEVER, It'd be better if John Saxon did a video tutorial on how to spin hats.
James Gracey said…
Cheers Shaun. Yes, the Arrow Video treatment has once again really delivered in spades! I find myself looking forward to their release of Cat O'Nine Tails, which I haven't seen since researching my book. Also great to hear that Shameless are releasing Four Flies on Gray Velvet - which I can't wait to check out again! My copy is of such bad quality.

And yes, Tenebrae is usually held in pretty high esteem. Just casting one's eye over various reviews and articles online and otherwise should highlight this.

Personally, I think it is one of Argento's best films - which I rank as being The Animal Trilogy, and everything from Deep Red to Opera. I recently re-watched Phenomena (Arrow Video strikes again!) and reaffirmed my love for it. A most misunderstood and underrated film! Seriously!! ;)
You best void reading my review of PHENOMENA then! I'm looking forward to CAT and FLIES as well. Seeing the latter in a half decent print will make a change for me. I thought Shameless did well with their NEW YORK RIPPER disc, but no doubt the perfectionists still grumbled. I've actually stopped reading Amazon reviews for Arrow products now, there seems to be an agenda against them.
James Gracey said…
Yes! I really dug their New York Ripper disc. I don't know why anyone would have an agenda against them - surely they're doing good work?! While I'm not always a fan of Rick Melton's artwork, I can't say anything negative about the piles of extra features they include on their titles.

And dude, I totally understand why many don't include Phenomena on their list of favourite Argento films. I enjoy it though - I like the meshing of fantasy, horror and quasi-giallo traits. It is bonkers and quite ludicrous, but I think Argento is sincere enough to pull it all off. Plus, the new Arrow Video transfer is lovely - really enhances all that moody blue lighting.
Great post! Somehow I did not notice the victims gazing into the camera, probably since I've only seen it once and was concentrating on the plot. Guess I need to watch it again.
I do like Tenebrae a lot; it's not my favorite Argento film, that would be Profondo Rosso, but it's up there. I especially like the dog attack scene, as it feels like it was put in to move the plot along (okay, how can we get the girl in the killer's house...I know, a dog jumps a fence and chases her) but it ends up being one of the most tense parts of the entire movie.
James Gracey said…
It sure does! That it is so illogical and random just adds to the warped tone. And, like you said - it all adds up to a really tense scene!
My favourite Argento film - I picked up the French Blu-ray release from fnac - it trumps the Arrow release as regards the transfer (my main concern), however, the French subs are forced over the English audio track, not that it really bothered my though. Essential! Great review, cheers, Jeremy
Thought you might like to check out my latest Tenebre designs, thanks:
James Gracey said…
Thanks for the link! Beautiful design work, my friend. :)

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