Some of this is owed to … well … let’s call it laziness. It’s easier for some to simply lump an entire sub-genre of pictures under a single heading than it is to create what might be yet one more sub-genre requiring definition. Still, accepting that all it takes to literally be considered a Giallo flick is to be (A) stylish, (B) violent, and (C) made in Italy might be too broad a construct for purists to accept; and this has caused few to argue that there should be some critical differences between a ‘Giallo-Horror’ versus the more conventional ‘Giallo-Thriller.’ (i.e. If it has monsters, ghosts, or zombies, let’s call it ‘Giallo-Horror’ versus just the plain Jane heading of ‘Giallo.’) Well, so far as I’m concerned, a Giallo is a Giallo; while I’m perfectly ok with discussing the merits and deficiencies of each production on their own, I understand and accept that this might make my opinion less informed than others. I’m sorry, but I’ve not taken in enough of the genre to see or evaluate it with any greater delineation or specificity. Such – as they say – is life.
Stemming from the mind of writer/director Dario Argento, 1982’s Tenebrae does flirt with a bit more than the standard conventions of the traditional Giallo-Thriller, loosely dabbling in Horror only in so much as any other slasher picture might attempt. By doing so, Argento definitely heightens the tension here, delivering a film many have stated is one of his very best. His camera occasionally bobs, weaves, and caresses what it captures; and – in an almost voyeuristic fashion – he allows a great deal of the action and intrigue to unfold about as organically as possible. As he’s often compared aesthetically to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, and David Cronenberg, one thing is certain: his is a cinematic voice worth discovering and re-discovering, and Tenebrae might look, feel, and sound as close to his Western contemporaries or counterparts than anything else he’s done.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“An American writer in Rome is stalked and harassed by a serial killer who is murdering everyone associated with his work on his latest book.”
Suffice it to say, this is an idea that audiences have seen before … but they haven’t seen it when Argento put his particular spin on the concept (and, rest assured, there is a late-breaking spin, indeed!). This isn’t to suggest that Tenebrae is perfect in any measure, but it might be as near-perfect a Giallo as has ever been attempted. Giallos do use art in its various forms as a backdrop; Neal’s ‘Tenebrae’ never quite gets the exposure I wanted – the novel within the film is never given a fair summation, and the script only uses bits and pieces of its story to loosely parallel the cinematized reality. It’s a shame that we were never afforded more of it, as I would imagine that the linkage may’ve proved genius in this director’s hands. But the world of publishing and those who populate it appears to be made up of its respective eccentrics, thus keeping the plot moving along with a reasonable number of suspects.
Sadly, Neal’s investigative efforts never amount to much of anything in the completed film. In fact, it’s those who join him in this curious quest – Gianni (Christian Borromeo) and Anne (Daria Nicolodi) – that actually get closer to the truth of the whole affair; and it’s only a last-minute contortion of Argento’s script that ultimately gives Anne the opportunity to truly ‘play the sleuth.’ I won’t spoil it, but – suffice it to say – there’s a twist that feels a bit too artificial for my tastes but it still serves to say something about the risks of the world that storytellers inhabit.
What works without measure in Tenebrae is Argento’s use of visuals to tell this story the way he has. Much like De Palma used the camera to almost be human eyes with which an audience gets to experience a film, Argento goes to incredible lengths to pan and zoom and move-in and pull-out in ways that weave a tapestry. Though I could be wrong, it always felt to me as if the camera were somehow in motion; while not every action was swift or grand – many of them are very minor – the end result is that the viewer might feel he or she were there, up close and personal, watching this thing unfold as if next to the players, perhaps even intruding upon these characters’ privacy in a way that might feel a bit ‘naughty.’
There’s also some trickery that the director employs that I thought wasn’t as successful as it could’ve been. In fact, it may have been more distracting than it supported the plot. Argento breaks up the main action by what appears to be either dream sequences or flashbacks to other acts of crime involving an amorous young woman in signature red high heels. Initially, I thought that these might be scenes illustrating Neal’s novel, and they were meant to demonstrate parallels between the pages and the author’s life. Well … my deduction ended up being as right as it was wrong; they’re relevant but only so much as in they kinda/sorta conceal what Argento ultimately divulges about a life lived and the effects past trauma may have on the present. Leaving them a bit too ambiguous saddles the viewers with trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube with the colorful tabs torn off; it only makes sense one way, and they likely had little chance to deduce the guilty party before the final fade to black.
Franciosa does a pretty solid job as the author-turned-detective. He certainly looks the part of the leading man, so there’s a degree of comfort any time he’s on the screen that serves the picture well. Genre veteran John Saxon does a nice turn as Neal’s publisher / publicist in Italy; the actor had an effortlessness about stepping into these secondary characters, so much so that it’s a shame we didn’t get to see a bit more of him here. The fetching Mirella D’Angelo steals a few scenes as lesbian journalist who’s willing to set aside her friendship with Neal in order to push her agenda in the press. And Ania Pieroni plays a hotel maid who gets caught up not only in the action but also spends her last evening on the worst but most eventful walk home imaginable.
Tenebrae (1982) was produced by Sigma Cinematografica. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the fine folks at Synapse Films. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds looks nothing short of spectacular from start-to-finish, and it has been billed as an all-new 4K restoration from the original camera negative.
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? This is an INSANE collection, one that will likely be the standard bearer for this film for quite some time. On top of some ‘limited edition’ artwork and collector’s booklet (I’ve not been provided copies of these so I can’t speak to their efficacy), the disc boasts three audio commentaries; a feature-length documentary; archival interviews; previously produced featurettes; alternate opening and closing sequences; a newly re-edited US version (with multiple audio tracks); the theatrical trailer; image galleries; and more. Clearly, this is an incredible investment for fans of Gaillo, Argento, and anything even remotely related to this production. You couldn’t ask for more.
Though I struggle with appreciating the full scope of Giallo thrillers (some feel just right while others are a bit half-cocked), I’d still suggest that Argento’s Tenebrae is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen if not one of the better ones ever made. (Again, keep in mind I’ve likely only seen a fraction of what’s available, but I’m still entitled to evaluate their merits as I go.) In fact, I’ve read that many consider it one of the high points of the director’s library. The plot dips and weaves at times –there’s a rather obvious change of true villainy come the big finish that some might find a bit contrived, along with too much reliance on gore here and there – but the feature oozes a dark, murderous atmosphere all revolving around a nifty whodunnit that never resorts to cheap thrills though could’ve used a bit of restraint in key sequences.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Synapse Films provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray of Tenebrae by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.