UK Blu-Ray Review: Dario Argento’s ‘Tenebrae’

Tenebrae (1982)
Distributor: Arrow
Blu-Ray/DVD Release Date: 27th June 2011
Directed by: Dario Argento
Starring: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario
Review by: Nia Edwards-Behi

It’s possible for Dario Argento’s body of work to be considered as being markedly in decline, post-Tenebrae. Despite some solid films – Phenomena, Terror at the Opera, Sleepless – and some not-so-solid that are still watchable – The Stendhal Syndrome, Trauma – the 1982 giallo perhaps marks Argento’s last truly great film.

Tenebrae sees Argento return to the genre that made him famous after a pair of supernatural horror films, and sees him transplant just a smidge of the gothic sensibility gained on Suspiria and Inferno into the hyper-clinical world of a semi-futuristic Rome. American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in Italy to promote his latest best-seller, the titular Tenebrae. He is soon contacted by the local police, after the body of beautiful young woman is found brutally murdered, and with pages from the novel stuffed into her mouth. This is the first of a series of murders that closely resemble those featured in Neal’s novel. When Neal begins to receive death threats, he decides to take the investigation into his own hands, and slowly unravels a haunting and twisted mystery.

I’ve never been wholly convinced of Argento’s claim that he intended for Tenebrae to be set in a future version of Rome, but his representation of the city is certainly a bleak and desolate one, making the best use of its rationalist architecture and steering completely clear of all its ancient landmarks. People die in this city, and passers-by barely bat an eyelid. This clinical backdrop is lensed by Suspiria’s cinematographer Lucio Tovoli, but gone are the dark shadows and garish colours of the earlier film; instead concrete and whitewash are starkly and brightly lit.

Tenebrae is a film wholly concerned with doubles, as has previously been written about (see Maitlind McDonagh’s excellent book ‘Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds’). The film itself serves a double purpose, as both tense thriller and subtle parody. The over the top sexism, the gratuitous nudity, the sometimes cartoonish violence all highlight and exaggerate unfair criticisms aimed at Argento’s (and his peers’) films. Within the film, the murders in Neal’s book are replicated by the real life killer, the victims figured as deviant or non-deviant by killer and author respectively. Characters mirror each other too: Anne and Detective Altieri, Anne and Jane, Gianni and Maria, Gianni and Bullmer, Neal and Detective Germani, Neal and Christiano Berti…characters reflect each other, both in their similarities and their differences. Even scenes a viewer expects to see are replaced with their opposite: where one might expect a sex scene, violence takes its place: when Anne and Neal spend the night together, Argento shows us not their coupling, but a flashback to a vicious stabbing of a beautiful woman from the killer’s past. It’s in the body of this woman that this sense of doubling reaches its peak: Eva Robins, the actress who plays the formative woman, was born a man.

There’s a certain sense of doubling or mirroring in the very fabric of the film: if the film seems fake or overly-choreographed, it’s because that’s precisely the purpose. The shoplifter Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) perhaps puts it best when she tries to defend her theft by exclaiming ‘it was only a paperback, for Christ’s sake!’ Tenebrae is a giallo both as a film and as a book within the film, and if the giallo is anything, it is violent, it’s sub-literature, it’s trash cinema. The killer in the film takes photos of his victims, and this idea of staged, faked violence is shown at its best in the most bravura and celebrated sequence of the film: the death of journalist Hilde and her lover, featuring a lengthy, apparently pointless and utterly brilliant crane shot around the outside of their apartment building. The murder of the two women importantly ends on the image of a camera’s viewfinder, at once drawing attention to the staged nature of the murders, as well as the position of the killer as an artist who has composed his photos with definite detail. This returns to the idea of the film as a parody: as Argento himself describes it as a sort of ‘joke’ – if critics equate his on-screen violence with actual violence, then here he is, proclaiming the murderer as artist.

Tenebrae’s artistry is beautifully rendered in Arrow’s new HD transfer. Its set pieces, such as the Louma crane shot and the red high-heels flashback look utterly glorious in a clear and stark version of the film. At times, the sound can be a bit problematic, with the soundtrack coming out a lot more loudly than much of the dialogue, but this is really just a small concern. I had feared that the special features on the disc were starting to get repetitive, but my fears were unfounded. The interviews with Claudio Simonetti, Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi are as insightful as ever. It delights me every time to listen to Nicolodi talk about her work, as she is so frank and so affectionate about it. She describes Argento as a prima donna with a devilish giggle, and it’s a truly lovely moment. A great extra feature included on this set is recording from the partially-reformed Goblin’s live show at the Glasgow arches in February of this year. Playing both Tenebrae and Phenomena, there’s some great band banter in between.

Arrow have possibly out-done themselves with this Blu-Ray set. If Tenebrae marks a downturn in Argento’s own filmmaking canon, I very much doubt the same will apply to a truly great label for genre fans.

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