Warning: This review contains a number of spoilers, some of them major, which I have felt the need to include in order to properly discuss the movie critically. For this review, I am assuming that you have already seen the film or at least do not mind having the identity of the killer revealed. Proceed at your own risk.
American murder mystery novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in Rome to promote his new book, entitled Tenebrae (an Anglicization of the film’s proper title), only to discover that an unknown madman is dispatching seemingly innocent victims using the methods described in Tenebrae as a blueprint. Initially, Neal is a prime suspect, but after he begins receiving notes threatening him personally he is let off the hook, and begins to do a little amateur investigating of his own. He soon finds himself faced with a mile-long list of potential suspects and a murderer whose outlook seems to be that his victims are morally corrupt people who must be killed.
Tenebre is perhaps Dario Argento’s most complex thriller. It features an unusually large cast of characters, the hypocrisy of a killer whose goal is to punish those who are immoral, continual links to the past in a film set in the future, and an ending that culminates in one of the most spectacular bloodbaths in European cinema. It may also be his most self-reflexive work to date. While a number of his films have elements that can be interpreted as him putting himself on to celluloid (horror director Marco in, Opera, for instance, is viewed by many as a thinly veiled surrogate for Argento), Tenebre is probably the only film where he deals head-on with the public and critical reception of his films.
The film, according to Argento, takes place in the near future, where the world is inhabited by a smaller number of people who generally keep to themselves. People have become so familiar with violence that it is almost an accepted part of culture. Of course, any film set in the future is automatically going to date quicker than an contemporary movie, so it is unsurprising that, to a present day audience, Tenebre tends to look more like an extreme exaggeration of the early 1980s rather than a vision of the future. The film is set in Rome, but as in Profondo Rosso, Argento purposefully avoids showing any of the usual tourist spots like the Coliseum and the Pantheon. This certainly adds to the feeling of unfamiliarity and the sense that the story takes place in a world and time other than our own.
The various discussions Peter Neal has with people who see his work as immoral, sexist or depraved are quite fascinating. These are all criticisms that have been leveled against both Argento’s film and the man himself, and the discussions depicted in the film can be interpreted as a way of Argento attempting to defend himself against certain critics and moral campaigners. Of particular interest is the feminist reporter, Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo), who viciously attacks Neal’s books but chats to him as an old friend of several years as soon as the interview ends. I took this to be Argento pointing out that just because he depicts certain actions does not mean he endorses them. Another intriguing character is Christiano Berti (John Steiner), a Christian fundamentalist TV presenter who sees Tenebrae as a book about “human perversion and its effects on society”, but in fact turns out to be the film’s initial murderer. By far the most interesting twist, though, is that Neal ends up murdering Berti and then continuing the killing spree where he left off.
Tenebrae prepares for a burning.
Argento has explored the concept of culpability in a number of his films, most notably L’Uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo and La Sindrome di Stendhal, but it is most pronounced in Tenebre. Human beings have a tendency to look for easy answers and assign blame to a single person or group of people, since it gives them a scapegoat: someone who stands out as “different” from “normal” people. In his analysis of Tenebre (featured on the UK DVD), Xavier Mendik points to the film’s refusal to have a single antagonist as an example of Argento circumventing the audience’s security and pointing to society’s obsession with creating “bogeyman” figures. The fact that the hero kills the villain and then himself becomes the villain says a lot about our primitive desire to class “good” and “evil” as black and white concepts. This can be further seen in the way that characters frequently escape from one assailant only to become victims at the hands of another, be it Elsa escaping from a violent homeless man only to be attacked in her apartment by the killer, Maria hiding in a nearby basement from a vicious dog only to discover that she is in the home of the killer, or indeed the bloody climax where Peter Neal manages to kill the police inspector, only to be accidentally skewered by an bizarre metal ornament.
In a Dario Argento film it seems almost pointless to attempt to critique aspects such as dialogue, acting and casting. Anthony Franciosa acquits himself well as Peter Neal, and B-movie legend John Saxon makes a welcome addition as his agent, Bullmer. The rest of the cast range from acceptable to awful, although it is admittedly quite hard to critique the actors’ performances, since most of them were dubbed with voices other than their own. It certainly doesn’t help that the dubbing in Tenebre is some of the worst ever to be used in an Argento film, with some incredibly stilted voice-overs, poor imitations of Italian accents (especially on Detective Germani) coupled with just about every combination of English and American accents imaginable, as well as some bizarre non-sequiturs, such as the obviously Italian local boy Gianni being given an English accent and called “Johnny”. One particularly interesting piece of casting, however, is that of the woman with red shoes seen in various dreamlike flashbacks, who is shown being slapped by an unknown man (later revealed to be a young Peter Neal). It is a stroke of genius on Argento’s part that she was in fact played by a man who had undergone a sex change, and I interpret this as him poking fun at the people who (wrongly) accuse him of being a misogynist whose main goal is murdering women as violently as possible.
The gore in Tenebre is relatively (note the emphasis on “relatively”) understated until the final showdown and unmasking of the killer, when everything goes haywire, and Argento throws down some of the most violent and excessively bloody imagery he has ever been responsible for. The most famous of these is the arm-chopping scene, censored in a number of earlier releases but presented here in full. It involves a character losing their arm and spraying a veritable geyser of blood all over a spotless white wall. It is at times like this that one can see why many people claim that Argento makes violence beautiful: one one hand, it is a shocking, vomit-inducing image, but on the other, the spraying of blood on the wall is very similar to slapping paint on to a canvas.
The aftermath of a visit from the murderer...
The look of the film is interesting but not particularly appealing. The cinematographer is Luciano Tovoli, the same man who was responsible for the mesmerizing photography and eye-popping colours of Suspiria, but it would be impossible to tell by just comparing the two films. Whereas Suspiria was all about shadow and vivid washes of primary colours, Tenebre looks bleached and desaturated. Even during the night sequences, the film looks very bright, as if everything is being lit up with giant floodlights. By all accounts Argento was attempting to emulate the look of 1970s American cop shows, and the result is that the film comes off looking cheap. It seems inconceivable that Argento, fresh from the mesmerizing look of Suspiria and Inferno, would create a look as unappealing as this by accident, so we can only assume that Tenebre was intended to look as cold and flat as possible. This would appear to be in keeping with the film’s unfriendly, futuristic motif, and I know that some people rave about these visuals, but I personally find them detrimental rather than beneficial to my enjoyment of the film.
The music score, by Goblin (credited here as Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli), fares somewhat better. It is very much a product of the early 80s, with a beat-oriented synthesizer sound, but there are a number of excellent, memorable tracks in here, especially the title music, and a bizarre, unsettling lullaby (used in the various flashback and dream sequences) that sounds a lot like a child’s music box or a carnival. The score sounds admittedly cheesy at times, and I feel that a more orchestrated score would have been more appropriate. The music Ennio Morricone provided for Argento’s earlier films, for example, was suitably off-beat and tension-inducing, without feeling forced or tacky.
Although Tenebre is a highly accomplished movie and one that is often considered by fans to be Argento’s greatest work, I cannot claim to be so fond of it. The photography and colour scheme do not appeal to me, and I consider there to be far too many characters, most of them unlikable, who appear to serve no purpose other than to add confusion to the narrative. As far as I am concerned, L’Uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo, Profondo Rosso and Opera are vastly more enjoyable giallos than Tenebre. I realize that this is an overly personal viewpoint, but it is difficult to review Argento’s films in any other way. Tenebre is a film that everyone with an interest in Italian cinema should see, but I do not consider it to be the classic that others see it as. It should be noted, though, that the vast majority of Argento’s films seem to improve the more you see them, so it is not inconceivable that I will one day look upon Tenebre the same amount of appreciation that a large number of his other fans do.
Addendum: I feel that I should clear up the dispute concerning the correct name of the film. The fact that the cover of the book shown in the film is displayed as “Tenebrae” has led a number of people to conclude that this is the title of the film as well, and in fact the English language prints carry this title. However, the correct title, and the one used for the Italian prints and the cover of the US DVD, is Tenebre, which is Italian for “darkness”. Tenebrae, which is Latin for “darkness”, is just one of many alternate titles that exist for this film, including Unsane, used for the original butchered US release, and Under the Eyes of the Assassin.
Maria (Lara Wendel) runs through the unusually brightly lit night.
This and a number of other DVD releases of this film are presented in an aspect ratio of 1.90:1, slightly wider than the standard 1.85:1, so I suspect that this is the intended ratio. Unfortunately, the US release is non-anamorphic.
The vast majority of transfers of Tenebre are sourced from the Roan Group Laserdisc, which has limited the available level of detail on all releases. Out of the versions I have had a chance to view, the US release seems to be the sharpest.
The look of the film is intentionally very bright, even during the night scenes, but even so this transfer seems too bright, to the point that some of the lighter tones are completely washed out. There are not many real blacks in display, just a lot of dark greys. By contrast, the recent Italian DVD, despite seemingly coming from the same original source, is very rich in terms of colour levels and contrast.
The whole thing is crammed on to a single layer disc, so as you can probably imagine there are a few compression artifacts here and there.
The UK transfer:
The UK transfer appears to be a poor NTSC to PAL conversion using the US disc as a source. Although it has been correctly altered to the slightly faster PAL speed (hence the higher pitch and shorter running time), the individual frames are often doubled. The reason for this seems to be that the different fields have been wrongly encoded, resulting in an interlaced transfer. While not noticeable on a normal TV screen, it looks terrible on progressive scan equipment, and results in a lot of compression artifacts. Despite being anamorphic, it actually shows less detail than its US counterpart. Furthermore, it has been cropped down to 1.85:1, resulting in less information horizontally.
You can view screenshots comparing the two releases at my web site, here.
Conservative TV critic Christiano Berti (John Steiner) lays into Tenebrae.
Three audio tracks are included: English Dolby Digital 5.1 at 384 Kbps, English Dolby Surround 2.0 at 192 Kbps, and Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 at 128 Kbps. Both English tracks sound very similar, although I would in fact give the lead to the 2.0 mix, because the dialogue is occasionally overpowered by the music in the 5.1 version. Either way, both sound quite weak. Although the score is reasonably well represented, the quality of the dialogue is very variable: usually scratchy and muffled but reasonably easy to understand, although at times an inferior recording has clearly been used, since on those occasions the qualitu breaks down to the extent that it is hard to hear what is being said.
The Italian track, despite being mono, sounds a good deal better than either of the two English tracks, not just because its quality is more consistent but also because it sounds a great deal less silly. As a point of interest, the narration at the beginning is by none other than Dario Argento himself (a practice he frequently employs in movies with voiceovers).
The UK audio:
The UK disc fares even worse in terms of audio, dropping the Italian track and at the same time creating synchronization problems on the English 5.1 track. While not immediately apparent, the audio drifts slightly out of alignment with the picture around half-way into the film, and is not resolved until the final few minutes. This, combined with the image quality issues, makes the UK disc an extremely unappealing purchase.
Unfortunately, with this being an Anchor Bay release, no subtitles of any kind are provided.
Bullmer (John Saxon) gets a nasty surprise.
The menu on the US disc has dated quite badly, but it is perfectly serviceable. The UK menu, though, is in a league of its own, with an extremely artistic look that conveys the sense of voyeurism, violence and photography whilst still managing to be easy to navigate. A nice touch (on the UK menu) is that you can select your preferred audio track from the main menu rather than having to go into an audio sub-menu.
The future of home decoration.
Both the US and UK releases have very similar packaging, featuring the stylish painted theatrical poster artwork, which depicts one of the killer’s victims. In the UK, earlier releases had the cut on the victim’s neck covered with a scarf, something which angered Argento a great deal, but thankfully the correct artwork has been used for this release.
Anne (Daria Nicolodi), Peter (Anthony Franciosa) and Gianni (Christian Borromeo) ponder the murderer’s latest dastardly deeds.
The US release has a healthy number of special features, including:
Trailer - A reasonably lengthy and gory trailer.
Commentary - Tenebre was one of two films for which Argento agreed to participate in an audio commentary (the other being Phenomena), and while on one hand it is a shame that he declined to record any more, the commentary is at times hard to follow due to his rather weak English. He is joined by composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci, who acts as a moderator. The final 15 to 20 minutes of the commentary are virtually silent, although Simonetti does point out a discrepancy regarding the music used for the end credits (more on this later). While some interesting information is conveyed, overall I got the feeling that the whole thing would have been far more worthwhile if it had been in Italian with English subtitles. After all, all three participants are native Italian speakers, so it seems quite bizarre for them to be talking to each other in English.
Talent bios - Bios are provided for director Dario Argento, producer Claudio Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti, and actors Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliano Gemma and Eva Robins.
Behind-the-scenes featurette - Two separate clips are included, one covering the Luma camera equipment used for the infamous lengthy pan around the house of two of the murderer’s victims, and another discussing the production of sound effects. Both clips are quite short and are irritatingly overdubbed with an American voice-over.
Alternative end credits - When Tenebre was released in the US (as “Unsane”), the closing credits music was replaced with a song called “Take Me Tonight” performed by Kim Wilde. Whilst recording the audio commentary, Argento and Simonetti noticed this and were, to put it lightly, more than a little displeased. The original music was reinstated, but you can still experience “Take Me Tonight” in all its “splendour” with this option.
The UK extras:
The UK disc includes all of the above, plus the following:
Dario Argento interview - This interview with Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi was clearly conducted shortly after the UK release of Tenebre, and it runs for an impressive 37 minutes. The interviewer spends more time talking than either Argento or Nicolodi, but at least Nicolodi has a better grasp of English than Argento and is therefore able to help him out when he gets stuck. Quite interesting if only to see Argento and Nicolodi’s mutual (and completely genuine) bafflement when the interviewer suggests that these films are not intended for children.
Film analysis by Xavier Mendik - In this 11-minute featurette, cult film expert Xavier Mendik basically talks to the camera, reading excerpts from his excellent analysis of Tenebre, which can be found online in its entirety here.
These two additional extras are quite interesting, but I don’t consider either of them to be enough to make the purchase of the otherwise inferior UK release worthwhile. This is especially true of the Mendik analysis, which is available in full for free on the internet.
Scream and scream again!
Tenebre is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of Argento’s second tier efforts. While it is certainly not lacking in flamboyance, subtext or intelligence, the film is stylistically very much locked in the 80s, despite its efforts to appear futuristic. It is possible that, in an attempt to portray a cold and distant society, Argento ended up detaching the audience. The result is that the film works better as a subject of analysis than as a piece of entertainment... at least for me. I must stress once again that Argento’s films provoke vastly varying reactions in people, and while I might not be so enamoured to Tenebre, others consider it his greatest work. There’s no simple solution other than to see it for yourself and make up your own mind.
The DVD presentation is below the standards of Anchor Bay’s more recent offerings, which is unsurprising since this was one of their earliest releases. The definitive release of this film has yet to appear, but Anchor Bay’s US DVD is adequate provided you don’t expect the next Criterion.