Thursday, 15 September 2011

Video Nasty #37 - Tenebrae

Is there anything left to say about Tenebrae ? First and foremost, it's Dario Argento's last great masterpiece - after an extraordinary 13-year run of films starting in 1969 with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, the diminishing returns began with Phenomena and Opera (two otherwise excellent films I might add) and then took a sharp downward trajectory with later duds like Trauma and Phantom of the Opera. But enough of that, Tenebrae is a celebration of Argento's glory days, and in terms of the Video Nasties, it remains the greatest film on the list (thought not my favourite!). Shame on the DPP for not recognising the film's sense of style and artistry, the film forever rubbing shoulders with mediocre slashers like Bloody Moon and Madhouse

Argento liked to tell one particular story about the genesis of Tenebrae. The director had been contacted by someone impressed with Suspiria, but this initial enthusiasm soon gave way to obsession, the communications became so hostile that Argento felt his life might be in jeopardy. Such lurking danger inspired Argento to write Tenebrae. The story sounds a little fanciful, the truth was altogether less dramatic. Argento was wrestling with a third installment of the projected Three Mothers trilogy, but the director had cooled on the idea following the lukewarm reaction towards Inferno. Argento wanted a hit and put aside the hallucinatory weirdness of his two previous films, returning to the familiar killing grounds that made him a household name in the early 70's.

In the rush to swoon over the film's techno splatter and that incredible crane shot, much of Tenebrae's playful humour has been missed. Argento had been criticised for making exceedingly violent films and here he pokes fun at himself and his critics by making the central character of his film a Catholic writer who has managed to suppress his murderous impulses by exorcising them through his violent fiction. Argento takes a sly wink at his audience too, confounding expectations by calling the film Tenebrae (the nominal third entry of the Mothers trilogy) and opening the film with the shot of a book burning on a fire, a nice little tip of the hat to the blazing finales of Suspiria and Inferno. The title of Tenebrae (meaning "shadows") is even more ironic still as Luciano Tovoli's visuals are almost always bright and well lit, the darkness seemingly chased away by the glare of streetlamps, headlights and white hot light bulbs. The film was shot in Rome but not that you would know it - Argento avoids familiar landmarks and the film seems as disconnected from the city as Playtime is from Paris.

Cast wise, Tenebrae features one of the best ensembles in an Argento film. Anthony Franciosa may well be the director's finest leading man, and there's excellent support from an impossibly stylish John Saxon, Italian Western superstar Giuliano Gemma as the detective slow to solve mysteries, the always great John Steiner and Daria Nicolodi (whose sexiness is accentuated further by Theresa Russell's sultry tones on the English language dub), and look out for Christian Borromeo who appeared as the much abused Tom in House on the Edge of the Park. A bone of contention with commentators of the film not attuned to Argento's peculiar indifference to storytelling is Tenebrae's wayward plotting which admittedly is loose - that the teenage Maria would wind up at the killer's home is frankly ridiculous, and Argento's subterfuge to hide the killer's identity smacks of cheating. But the film's sense of style is so utterly persuasive none of this really matters. Tenebrae is something of a fetishist's dream as well - the famous tracking shot voyeruristically surveying the house about to become a crime scene, and Argento imparts the most mundane objects with a strange sensual power - the sexualized red stilettos, the deadly smooth surface of the metal spike sculpture seen in the climax, and the extraordinary shot of a straight razor smashing the light bulb.

Argento's back catalogue has been emerging on Blu-Ray with generally excellent results but Arrow's Blu has been met with disappointment, the 1.85 transfer apparently suffering from an intrusive level of grain. Soundwise, the Italian and English audio tracks fare better, with Claudio Simonetti's brilliant score sounding vibrant and both tracks feature good ambient effects. As with previous Arrow releases, this one contains some good extras - 3 featurettes and two audio commentaries, plus the usual excellent Arrow packaging. There's also a French Blu of Tenebrae, reportedly containing a better transfer but with forced subtitles. My advice would be to hold out for the forthcoming Blue Underground Blu-Ray.


  1. This movie is simply amazing and your review gives me the urge to watch it again!

  2. Excellent stuff Wes, as you say there is little left to say about it really but I enjoyed your take here. The Arrow blu ray looks grainier due to the contrast levels being artificially boosted way too high, a stupid decision considering the high contrast photography. Fingers crossed for the BU release, I only rented the Arrow.

  3. Thanks guys, apologies for the late reply... Yep, this one was a pleasure to watch again. When I was ticking off the cast I failed to mention that fabulous doberman who chases Maria - he's a great bit of stuff !

  4. Another excellent review, Wes. Looking forward to your review of 'Inferno' as well.

  5. I haven't yet seen this one - but I'd watch Franciosa and Saxon read the phone book - and putting them in an Argento movie? Fuhgeddaboudit!

  6. Ah, to see Tenebrae for the first time ! I envy you !