The Film: 4/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
Italian horror great Dario Argento had helped put his country’s film industry with his violent and influential thrillers The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. After 1975’s Deep Red (Profundo Rosso) he ventured into more fantastical territory with the classic Suspiria and the somewhat inferior Inferno, the first two chapters of his Three Mothers trilogy (he would complete the trilogy in 2008 with the dire Mother of Tears). Throughout his career Argento has had to deal with more than his fair share of criticisms and accusations of misogyny and glorifying murder leveled at both himself and his popular - and profitable - body of work. Much like Brian DePalma would do two years later with Body Double, Argento decided to give his critics an answer to their incessant queries they would not soon forget in the form of Tenebrae, his bold return to the genre of giallo that made him a icon of world horror cinema. Jean-Luc Godard once said, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” Here, Argento was beating his detractors to the punch.
Tenebrae was one of Argento’s last truly great horror films and possibly his boldest artistic statement. Through his lead character Peter Neal (played by Actors’ Studio alum and TV tough guy Anthony Franciosa), an author of best-selling psycho-thrillers, the director forges a bold commentary about violence in popular culture and how its multiple interpretations often lead to it taking far more blame for the horrors of real life than any single logical cause. As the movie begins Neal has arrived in an unnamed Italian city to promote the release of his latest novel “Tenebrae”. He is barely able to greet his literary agent Bullmer (John Saxon) and longtime friend and assistant Anna (Daria Nicolodi, not playing either a victim or villain in an Argento film for once) and check into his hotel before he is approached by police detectives Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) with the news that a young woman has just been brutally murdered with a razor. The body was found with pages from “Tenebrae” stuffed into her mouth.
Neal is understandably unnerved by the news, but takes offense at the implication that he might be responsible in some way for the woman’s death simply because it was the events of his book that the killer appeared to be imitating. Needless to say the black-gloved madman will kill again and again before the story reaches its twisted conclusion, and every time they claim a life they send Neal personal messages and telephone calls boasting of their bloody accomplishments. The possible suspects are less than numerous. Could it be television interviewer Christiano Berti (John Steiner), who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with Peter’s novels? Perhaps the killer might be his disgruntled ex-wife Jane (Veronica Lario, the future spouse of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) since she apparently followed Neal from New York to Italy with an ulterior motive in mind. The author takes it upon himself to conduct an independent investigation into the gruesome murders. What he and his cohorts discover results in the most surprising twist ending in the catalog of Dario Argento, and yes friends there will be lots of blood.
We can debate the hidden meanings behind the films of Argento and how they reflect upon the director until the decapitated cows come home. Is he a pervert? Voyeur? Maniac? Misogynist? It matters little in the long run because there could never be a definitive answer based on the scant evidence on display. When the right elements were in place Argento could make a nasty, exciting, and occasionally witty thriller like few could. If he was the Italian Alfred Hitchcock then Tenebrae might be his Frenzy. Argento is clearly quite comfortable playing with the conventions of the thriller here as he defies expectations left and right, setting up characters well only to kill them off brutally mere minutes later and delivering a busy finale that compounds multiple plot twists into one fevered orgasm of death and black comedy. Tenebrae is absolutely merciless in its desire to take the most zealous of Argento fans on the ride of their life and deposit them at a destination they weren’t anticipating with no knowledge of how to get back home.
The bloodshed in Tenebrae is pretty restrained for the first two acts, though we do see a fair amount of the red stuff splash from open wounds and ruining fine paint jobs in the process as various sharp implements of killing cut into the flesh of frightened females and the bemused opposite sex. Argento doesn’t linger on the gushing plasma like his contemporary peers in Italian horror Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi. His films are grandiose stylistic exercises that place greater value on the build-up to each death scene, allowing their audiences to revel in the expectancy that something gleefully gross is about to transpire and they get to be the willing spectators at this cinematic Grand Guignol exhibition. The film’s bloody displays of carnage mesh astonishingly with the luxurious sets and locations - all filmed in Rome, with the exception of an opening sequence in New York - through the masterful cinematography of the great Luciano Tovoli, who had previously worked aesthetic marvels for Argento’s Suspiria and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and would go on to shoot Julie Taymor’s 1999 Shakespeare adaptation Titus and several features for Barbet Schroeder. After working with prog-rock icon Keith Emerson on Inferno Argento once again wanted to employ the services of his favored musical collaborators Goblin, a progressive rock outfit heavily influenced by musicians like Emerson. Since Suspiria Goblin had disbanded and reformed with a different line-up, leaving original members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante to score the film under their own names for a change. The result is one of the best film soundtracks ever composed by Goblin, an aggressive and intoxicating fusion of guitar-driven rock and sensuous disco that may seem inappropriate as a score for a film as horrific as Tenebrae but then quickly becomes an integral part of its lurid tapestry.
Anthony Franciosa makes for an excellent, morally ambiguous hero, bringing his years of acting experience to a thinly-sketched character and investing Neal with a charm and intelligence that makes his actions seem logical and helps us to understand why he has so many good people in his orbit. The same could be applied to another old pro, the great John Saxon, but his contributions to Tenebrae amount to some priceless humor, including a running gag involving a stylish hat he purchased that he can’t seem to resist showing off to anyone who will give him the time. I loved Daria Nicolodi as the film’s sole important female character as she brings out the warmth and sympathy in her scenes with Franciosa, and John Steiner of Mario Bava’s Shock and the infamous historical porn epic Caligula (a personal favorite of yours truly) is suitably creepy as the obsessive Berti. But the real star of Tenebrae is Dario Argento himself; just like the master Hitchcock, Argento enjoys playing his audience like a violin and his camerawork is some of the best ever seen in his brilliant early filmography. The highlight is a wonderfully fluid tracking shot that goes on for nearly three unbroken minutes as it prowls around the outside of the apartment of a potential victim. It’s a point of view shot that no human could ever achieve and the director has to know that his audience would realize that. But that never concerns Argento one bit. This is his world and welcome to it.
Even though I loved Tenebrae I felt great disappointment in knowing that the filmmaker would never be as great as he was with this film ever again. For the rest of the 1980’s he often came close to matching the heights he scaled with his amazing earlier giallos and fantasy horrors with Phenomena and Opera while nurturing the careers of aspiring Italian genre directors like Michele Soavi. But once the 90’s kicked in Argento would begin a sad descent into direct-to-video anonymity, attempting to live up to the great promise he showed back in his heyday but always failing miserably with such sorry titles as The Card Player, Mother of Tears, and most recently Dracula 3D. We may have lost the Dario Argento horror fans around the world fell in love with decades ago, but we still have the classics he left in his wake. Tenebrae can safely be counted among them.
When Arrow Video first release Tenebrae on Blu-ray in 2011 the disc was criticized for its video transfer hardly being up to snuff. Having never seen the movie before or viewed the previous BR prior to receiving this release I can say that whatever problems existed on the last transfer have been corrected, and the results are superb. Presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio in 1080p resolution and encoded in MPEG-4 AVC, Tovoli’s vivid and vibrant Technicolor cinematography truly shines like never before. The picture is very clean without having been subjected to excessive digital noise reduction. Flesh tones are very warm and appropriate, grain content is at a minimum, and the dynamic color palette looks its sharpest in years. From the cream-colored interiors of the houses and hotel rooms to the garish red blood, this movie is a treat for the eyes. Held over from the previous release are English and Italian LPCM mono audio tracks. Since the film was made in both languages the dual audio channels have the same advantages and few noticeable defects, though the dialogue on the Italian track is presented with improved clarity. An English subtitle option is offered for each audio track.
Most of the bonus features were held over from the previous release, and they begin with a pair of critical audio commentaries. The first unites British film journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman for a pleasant and active chat that delves into all aspects of the making of Tenebrae, their mutual love for the film, and the career of Dario Argento. The second brings in “Argento expert” Thomas Rostock for a solo discussion of the visual and audio aspects of the film. It’s informative, but it makes watching two flies fucking on drying paint a much more valuable use of your time.
From there we have a trio of contemporary interviews with Argento (15 minutes), Nicolodi (16 minutes), and composer Simonetti (10 minutes) that pack in plenty of wonderful stories and insight from the making of Tenebrae. A live performance of themes from Tenebrae and Phenomena by Goblin recorded at the Glasgow Arches (17 minutes) is a fun watch. New to this release is an interview with Maitland McDonough (12 minutes), the author of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, and McDonagh shares her interpretation of the film’s visual motifs and plot construction and how Tenebrae fits into Argento’s filmography. An international theatrical trailer (3 minutes) rounds out the disc-based extras.
The Blu-ray also gives us the option of watching the film with or without an 11-second introduction from Nicooldi. My advice: skip it.
The final release will include an illustrated collector’s booklet and a DVD copy with a standard-definition transfer of the film and the accompanying extras. A steelbook edition is also available.
The ultimate Dario Argento giallo and one of the finest Italian horror films ever made, Tenebrae is a handsome, twisting thriller that also contains some fascinating food for thought on our cultural obsessions with violence and how we use them to justify our most depraved desires. Arrow Video is to be commended for rectifying the lackluster video transfer on their previous Blu-ray with an outstanding high-definition upgrade and including the superlative supplements. This is a disc no fan of Pastaland terror should be without.