Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Giallo July: Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

I've been meaning to get back to Italy and the giallo properly on the blog for over six months now. During that time I've had the pleasure of discovering countless gems I'd previously never seen and sometimes never heard of... and during the process I accumulated a shit ton of notes. In fact, it got to the point where it was hard to know where to start in terms of writing it all up. As a result, I decided (probably against my better judgement) to have a bit of an impromptu giallo blogathon this month. Now, this won't be a daily thing or anything but the intention is to cover as many gialli as time and circumstances allow before July is through. 

To kick off, I could think of no movie more appropriate to talk about than the first giallo (if we don't count Suspiria and other titles from the supernatural giallo sub-genre) I ever saw, which is Tenebre (or Tenebrae as it was released over here).

Generally regarded as one of Argento's greatest films, it arguably rivals Deep Red as the director's finest giallo. Both represent high watermarks as far as the genre goes but personally, if forced to choose between the two, I'd take Tenebre any day of the week. I'm not sure which I'd say is superior (or if such an argument could even be made either way without resorting to hair splitting) but there's just something about the atmosphere of an early '80s Argento film that makes Tenebre overtake its older brother for me. But I am admittedly biased by nostalgia, this being such a formative giallo for me and all...

A quick synopsis for the uninitiated: popular American mystery writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) visits Rome to promote his latest book (also called Tenebre) but soon ends up playing detective when a murderer, inspired by his work, starts wreaking bloody havoc across the city.... and that's really all you need to know. 

The set-up outlined above is deceptively simple and acts as a springboard for what arguably became the most acutely self-aware and deliciously subversive thriller of Argento's career. What I mean by the former should be obvious enough, even to those who haven't seen the film and have only heard about it, but regarding the latter I can only say so much without giving the game away. For now, let's just say this is pretty far removed from the routine as far as gialli go...

Aside from inverting and playing with the conventions of his early '70s gialli, Tenebre is also a dramatic departure from his two previous films Suspiria and Inferno, which were both supernaturally based, shot in sumptuous, psychedelic colour schemes, generally set at night and overflowing with an atmosphere reminiscent of your trippiest nightmares. This film, by comparison is set in the "real world" (though Argento claims it was meant to be the near future) and is, for the most part, filled with light. If memory serves, this was supposedly done to contrast against the internal darkness (or shadows, to translate the film's title) festering within the film's characters. 

This difference of aesthetic was probably the main thing that stopped me from loving this film earlier than I did, being as enamoured as I was of the Technicolour delights of Suspiria... but over time I've certainly come to appreciate Tenebre's look for what it is. While not as obviously ravishing to the retinas as those earlier films, it's still a pretty stunning affair visually. Working again with Suspiria's cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Argento employs a much more restrained colour palette this time around, which while lacking the more immediately apparent dazzle of their earlier work, still provides the backdrop for some astonishing set-pieces... and perhaps none more so than a climactic scene where red meets white in spectacular fashion.

Like probably all of Argento's earlier films, there's also some serious technical showboating on display for all to enjoy, the case in point scene obviously being the few minute long crane shot that climbs up, over and back down a house, all to the groovy strains of Goblin (credited here as Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli... I'm guessing they'd all fallen out by this point). Now one could accuse this as being a completely gratuitous piece of directorial show-offerery (i.e. "Look at my fancy new toy!")... and you'd have a point... but this would also arguably miss the point... Argento being one of those visually dynamic directors who is enamoured with the possibilities presented by the camera for exploring the worlds of his films.

About the cast: Anthony Franciosa is decent enough as protagonist Peter Neal and plays him in a way that makes him walk on a razor's edge between likeable and unlikeable for me... though let's face it, almost all male giallo protagonists can be guilty of acting like dicks on occasion. Daria Nicolodi appears as Neal's assistant Anne and is a joy to watch as always, though of course one wishes she were given more screen time. Also reappearing from Inferno is the otherworldly Ania Pieroni, who proves she really is the Mother of Tears when she kicks a oversexed wino in the nuts. And she's another lovely lady who is underused in this, her being the film's first victim and all... sorry, belated spoiler alert! Also of note to genre fans are the two Johns... Saxon and Steiner. The former I'm sure needs no introduction to anyone reading this, but the latter is probably only familiar to Italian horror junkies. He appears, funnily enough, with Daria Nicolodi, in Mario Bava's superb, underrated possession movie Shock and Ruggero Deodato's cheesetastic summer camp slasher Body Count. And last but not least is someone I'm not familiar with but whose performance in this I very much enjoy... Giuliano Gemma, who plays Detective Germani. The actor was apparently a veteran of many Italian films (especially westerns it seems) and plays one of my favourite giallo policemen here... it's hard to pin down exactly what it is, but I find the guy to be very likeable. 

One last cast related caveat: I'm not sure if this is true or not, but according to IMDb's trivia page, Christopher Walken was considered for this, presumably for the starring role. Now while I'd certainly love to see that version, I think it perhaps worked out for the best that he wasn't in it... for reasons that will probably be obvious to anyone who has seen the film... 

As far as behind the scenes goes, we already mentioned the top drawer cinematography by Tovoli and the Goblin score, which is undoubtedly one of their catchiest... but two other names also leapt out at me as the credits were rolling... Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi, who were the 1st and 2nd assistant directors respectively.... and anyone who has seen any of their movies can probably detect some shared DNA between those and Tenebre. Both men would go on to make some excellent Italian horror films themselves, with Soavi especially being the seeming new hope for the next generation of Italian horror, until the industry died and the director also had to start spending more time caring for his sick son. 

For anyone who hasn't seen it and is generally uninitiated as far as Italian horror and the giallo goes, I think Tenebre is a damn fine place to start. Audacious, entertaining and of course, jaw droppingly gory, it's arguably never dull and should even grip the attention of those unacclimatised to foreign genre films of this vintage. And to everyone else I'd say go and re-watch it if you haven't in a while... you know you won't be sorry... in fact you'll be sorry if you don't as Argento will have to don his black gloves and come over and kill your ass! Y'all have been warned...


  1. Great write up! Tenebre, such an important giallo and a clutch film in Argento's filmography. Where, may I ask, did you get the screen shots from?

    1. Why thank you sir! I got the screenshots by doing a Google image search for "Tenebre Blu-Ray" and therefore by proxy probably from another blog or website (so kudos to whoever captured them!)... they look damn sharp don't you think? If this is at all representative of how the improved second edition Arrow Blu-Ray looks then I need this immediately...

  2. Absolutely you do. They look great. Come on Synapse!