Tenebrae

Italy. Directed by Dario Argento, 1982. Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Niccolodi, John Saxon. 100 minutes.

American novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), known for writing graphically violent crime thrillers, arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae. Within hours of his arrival, the police approach him: a young woman was found murdered in her home, her throat cut with a straight-razor, pages from a copy of Neal’s book stuffed in the corpse’s mouth. A message, apparently from the killer, finds its way to Neal shortly thereafter.

The killer strikes again, and again, communicating with Neal after each murder, and getting closer to him with each victim. Some connection between the writer and the murderer exists, and Neal needs to discover it in order to save his own life, and the lives of those around him.

That’s the basic premise of Dario Argento’s early-’80s giallo Tenebrae. The basic setup may seem a bit familiar, and no wonder: an apparent innocent wandering, seemly by chance, into a murder mystery–which he must unravel himself if he expects to save his own skin–is a fixture of the giallo formula. Argento used similar setups twice before, in his 1970 feature début The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and his 1975 masterwork Deep Red.

That may not exactly sound like a compliment, but formula can be a tricky thing. Yes, sometimes it’s a crutch for lazy and unimaginative storytelling or filmmaking, but other times it can serve as a fascinating framework for artistic expression. Blues music can be just as “formulaic” as a horror film, but you might be surprised at how much you can do with three simple guitar chords. The same goes for a leather-gloved hand holding a straight razor.

I’ve actually enjoyed Argento’s gialli more than his supernatural horror, primarily because my chief interests in narrative are plotting and storytelling. Plot is almost never the strongest point of any Argento film, but at least in his gialli his plots cohere a little bit better than in his supernatural work (admittedly, this seems to be deliberate).

While I don’t think Tenebrae‘s plot is as solidly constructed as those of Argento’s earlier thrillers, it’s hard not to be impressed by the cleverness of its construction. His favored tropes are present and correct (for example, a witness to a crime fails to comprehend what he experiences, and thus doesn’t realize he holds the key to the entire mystery), but he deploys them in unfamiliar ways to keep the audience guessing.

One of Argento’s strengths has been in the creation of cinematic environments. Tenebrae’s predecessors Deep RedSuspiria, and Inferno rely on bold, almost aggressive use of primary colors to make a room ooze with sinister menace, while exterior scenes set at night are shot and lit in such a way to make city centers seem like deserted wastelands. Tenebrae goes in a different direction: many scenes feature not just bright but harsh lighting, and sets are dressed in shades of white and gray. The effect is not unlike an optimistic, gleaming pre-Star Wars science fiction effort (those familiar with Doctor Who circa 1978 and 1979 may get my meaning).

Argento’s camera work remains as fluid and inventive as ever–the keystone of the production being a two-and-a-half-minute-long tracking shot that reportedly took three days to film. Even in his early work, Argento has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and gore, but Tenebrae takes it one step further than his previous gialli did, particularly during the intense final sequences.

Acting and characterization are a bit stronger than they were in previous efforts, but like plot these never seemed to be particularly important to Argento. The four English-speaking actors–Franciosa, plus the legendary John Saxon as Peter Neal’s agent, Giuliano Gemma as a police detective, and John Steiner as a talk show host–are all excellent, with Saxon’s occasional comic-relief antics being a particular highlight.

The rest of the ensemble consists of Italian actors dubbed in post, and while the performances of the voice artists are a tad better than other foreign-produced ventures of this vintage, there’s still some negative impact. (The relationship between Neal and his P.A. Anne is supposed to be flirtatious to some degree, but whatever chemistry Franciosa might have with actress Daria Nicolodi is blunted by the dubbed voice.) I probably should be used to this sort of thing by now, but I can’t deny it hampered my enjoyment of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Goblin, the band who supplied the scores for Deep Red and Suspiria (and were brought to Dawn of the Dead via Argento’s involvement with it), had broken up by 1982, but three former members led by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, supplied the score to Tenebrae. It’s a bit hit-or-miss: the title theme, with its disco drum machine and vocoded vocals, is a terrific piece of work but other cues seem like tired retreads of earlier work mildly updated for the early ’80s. Argento and Simonetti even recycle two comparatively pieces from the European cut of Dawn that never made it to the American version.

Overall, Tenebrae is an enjoyable psychological mystery-thriller, very effective although with a few flaws. It does try to break the mold somewhat but its essential Argento-ness shines through, for better and for worse.

Tenebrae poster

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