“Tenebrae is about human perversion and its effects on society.”
Putting the (legitimate) criticisms that your own work has received into the mouth of a shrill lesbian caricature, then brutally slaughtering her in pretty much the next scene, then having it turn out that your author-surrogate character does, in fact, have a psychosexual problem with women is… a decision, certainly.
According to a booklet that accompanied a previous release of the film, Dario Argento’s Tenebre was essentially him working through a series of real-life incidents in which an obsessed fan stalked the director via telephone, telling him that his work had “damaging psychological effects,” culminating in death threats directed toward Argento himself. As such, Tenebre may be Argento’s most overtly metatextual work, and has been widely viewed as a direct reaction to criticisms of his own oeuvre.
What it says about those criticisms that, in Tenebre, they turn out to be fundamentally accurate is something that has likely seen considerable ink spilled over it, and most assuredly will again. Argento’s analogue in the film is Peter Neal, an American novelist (played by Anthony Franciosa) visiting Rome as part of a publicity push for his latest book, also called Tenebrae.
For those who have never seen this 40-year-old thriller, Tenebre’s delightfully hammy resolution is that there are actually two killers. One is a puritanical fan who slays in ways that emulate Neal’s books, the other is Neal himself. Once he learns about the first killer, Neal uses his rampage as both excuse and cover to act out his own violent fantasies by taking revenge on some of those closest to him – all emerging from a psychosexual humiliation he received as a young man, and the bloody comeuppance he exacted.
Neal’s critics challenge him with the same observations that have been leveled against Argento specifically and giallo more broadly since time immemorial. “Tenebrae is sexist,” the aforementioned lesbian caricature accuses. “Why do you despise women so much?” And yet, Argento then posits that Neal’s books are the way they are because he, himself, has a problem with women that is the result of a deep-seated neurosis. What does this suggest about Argento?
That’s probably a question for something more robust than the review of a new 4K release of Tenebre. Leaving aside what it says about its director, Tenebre occupies an interesting spot in his filmography. It was his return to “straight” gialli after delving into the supernatural with both Suspiria and Inferno, and it comes near the end of his classic early run, though we don’t get into the generally-reviled later Argento until the ‘90s.
According to the back of this new Synapse release, Tenebre is a return to form that “elevates the giallo genre to new heights,” and that many consider to be one of Argento’s “finest works.” I’m not among those many. It’s certainly in the “good Argento” category, but it’s near the bottom of that particular barrel for me.
Which is not to say that all of the trappings aren’t here. There’s a black-gloved killer (or two) who slays with a straight razor and (later on) an axe. There’s ominous wind and driving rain and a pounding synth score composed by Claudio Simonetti and two other former members of Goblin. There’s a largely pointless but “meaninglessly brilliant” (as Kim Newman and Alan Jones say on the commentary) crane shot in which Argento’s camera crawls the outside of a house for more than two full minutes – a sequence that is as indicative of both early Argento’s brilliance and this type of film’s idiosyncrasies as anything you can select.
That house-crawling scene is also a pretty good litmus test of whether or not you will vibe with this kind of movie. Do you find it boring and pointless? You probably may as well go home. Do you find it absolutely entrancing? Congrats, you’re likely here for the long haul.
As is often the case with Italian horror films of this era, Tenebre has experienced a complex – and sometimes confusing – release history. Hence, among other things, the two different spellings of the title. This new 4K release from Synapse is only the latest in a long string of home video outings for the film, and it’s as features-packed as you might expect.
These kinds of flicks are carried along as much by atmosphere as by narrative – propelled by their synth scores, their prowling cameras, and their strangely-lit nights. There are a few other categories of film that are more ripe for this kind of loving restoration. At the same time, there are few other categories of film that have experienced so many different home video releases, making it difficult, at times, to know which one to buy.
Is this the definitive version of Tenebre? I haven’t watched this particular film in enough different formats to know that for sure. But it’s an attractive one that will be right at home in any Argento fan’s collection, and if you like Tenebre, you won’t go far wrong in picking it up.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.