From among the Video Nasties

If you were to know only the title of the film Tenebrae, you might think- actually, you would probably have no clue. Before I saw it the first time, I think I had some vague sense that it might have something to do with the spinal column, because of -brae. Ironically, that's not even in the original Italian title, which is Tenebre, without the "a" (and just to make things fully annoying the title comes from a book within the movie that is shown several times onscreen, always as "Tenebrae" - with the "a").

But anyway, let's say you were to know the title was Tenebrae, and also that the film was director Dario Argento's next project after 1977's Suspiria and 1980's Inferno, and as a kicker, also that those two movies involved a triad of witches, one of them named Mater Tenebrarum. Do you suppose it is possible that you even might fail to guess that this film directly followed upon those two? Because it's much closer to being the absolute opposite of those. This is, if anything, Argento's "back to basics" effort after the cosmic dream-logic extravagance of the first two Three Mothers films, a reversion to the purity of giallo, the Italian murder-mystery film that Argento himself helped to codify with his 1970 debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. By 1982 standards, Tenebrae is an unabashed throwback, a positively old-fashioned exercise except inasmuch as Argento is up to some mischief that he'd never have tried a decade prior.

Here's the point where I acknowledge that Tenebrae is one of the films that gets cited all the damn time as one of the director's very best, before sadly admitting that I find it to be... definitely not that. It's fine, for sure, and much better than fine (it's also the only Argento film I've ever rewatched that was worse than I remember it, though definitely not by very much). Its very same deliberate simplicity makes me love it less than anything else he made in the 1980s, though. It is, if nothing else, the obvious misfit in the string of movies that includes the bombast of Suspiria and Inferno, the paranormal goofball lunacy of 1985's Phenomena, and the bloody delirium of 1987's Opera, and I confess to a sullen peevishness that after the first of those four movies especially, Argento would want to scale back to normal. It would be like if The Beatles had followed Abbey Road with a re-recorded version of Beatles for Sale.

Anyway, we're here to talk about Tenebrae, and in fairness, it is definitely a film that's doing a good hell of a lot of stuff. In the best classic giallo form, it starts with a man traveling to Rome from the United States: this is author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), who we are led to believe has been quite a successful creator of tense, violent murder mysteries, and the latest, Tenebrae, is the most successful yet. His first-ever trip to Italy to promote his work is spoiled by a particularly zealous fan: women who do something to somehow disrespect his work (shoplifting, criticising him of misogyny) are ending up dead, their throats slashed with a straight razor. And Peter is getting anonymous letters dropped under his hotel room door from the killer, merrily informing him that this all the fault of Peter's exceptionally vivid books, and the murders are going to continue.

No reason to hide the fact: this is overtly self-referential. Argento claims that the idea came to him when he received a number of increasingly disturbing phone calls from a viewer promising escalating violence to Argento's person, and even if we didn't know that, it's impossible not to see the first half of Tenebrae as Argento's own response to Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo), the lesbian feminist journalist who accuses director stand-in Peter of writing sick stories in which women have no personalities and are only there to be victims. That response, by the way, seems to be "...yes, that's correct", though the second half rather pointedly complicates things. I frankly don't know that this knowledge allows us to do anything with Tenebrae, but it does seem to have mattered a lot to Argento, so best to at least acknowledge it.

But back to the movie: it's pure giallo of a sort that simply did not exist in 1982, by which point the American slasher film had made its presence known. Consider, for example, The New York Ripper, another '82 film by another major director, Lucio Fulci: it is very fucking awful, which isn't the point, but it's also clearly borrowing from the bag of tricks that all those Friday the 13th knock-offs were rifling through, and this is the point, since this seems to be what most other Italian murder mysteries from the first few years of the 1980s were doing. Not so Tenebrae, which includes all the beats of the vintage gialli: a strong police presence, in the form of Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro), the former a huge fan of Peter's books; and derived from the police presence, a much stronger focus on the film as a mystery than as an opportunity for spree killing. The murders are all narrative events, creating clear segments in the film, rather than just spectacular asides from the real plot. When we eventually find out what's going on, it involves a great heaping spoonful of psychoanalysis, though this element of the film has already been implied from the dream sequences experienced by an unknown dreamer, the first of which is a menacing, heavily suggestive fantasia with quasi-homoerotic overtones as a group of shirtless young men crowd around a male victim, beating him to the ground, while a woman orally rapes him by pressing her high-heeled shoe into his throat.

At the same time, Argento clearly wasn't just making an old-fashioned giallo because he could, or because he was bored of witches, or to say "fuck you" to the slashers. Tenebrae is a very shifty, misleading piece of storytelling, one that pivots in a huge way two-thirds through its 101-minute running time, but without telling the viewer it has done so. It's only possible to tell what the film has done if you're paying attention to things that the movie does not in any way ask you to pay attention to. The biggest sign that we've entered the film's second phase is that there are more night scenes, a huge change in a film that has been unusually sunny and bright for a murder mystery, particularly a murder mystery whose title is Latin for "darkness". The other is that men start to be killed in addition to women. But these are not things the film telegraphs, and I sure as hell didn't notice either of them the first time I saw the movie. It's a fine bit of misdirection all told, and makes the film rather more aggressive towards its viewer than one expects, and more surprising than a body count mystery in 1982 has any right to be at all.

But of course, the story isn't really the reason to show up. Though Tenebrae is the only Argento film from 1977 onwards for which the story is good enough that it could be. Still, the big draw is the director's famously grandiose visuals, here aided for the second time by the great cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who'd previously shot Suspiria, and wouldn't work with Argento again for thirty years, at which point they re-teamed to make the repellent Dracula 3D. In a way, this is kind of the anti-Suspiria; in place of that film's lurid, glowing colors, Tenebrae relies on a plain, drab color scheme in which everything seems to be a tinted shade of beige. This is so that when the film needs to, it can place a solitary bright red object into the frame, and the force of it will hit like a nuclear strike. No doubt why it's red: the color is associated with the murders, often in some ways that aren't clear till you know all the film's secrets. It's not clever, it's just damn good: every spot of red feels like a bullet, and then those spots of red are also stage blood, that's when we've got ourselves a real damn movie.

Tenebrae is possibly the bloodiest Argento film; it definitely has the single bloodiest killing in his career, a scene where a woman's arm is hacked off, leading to a proper geyser of blood against a white wall. It is in these moments that the film is most fully the work of the mature director, unlike his early gialli: the violence is unreal, expressionistic, highly excessive. Where a director like Fulci might make you want wince and feel sick, the bloodletting in Tenebrae has more of a hallucinatory quality, even the most simple throat-cuttings: the elliptical editing, and the awareness of blood before we're quite aware of where the blood comes from contributes to this feeling, but it's not the only thing. There's a point where a man takes an axe to the head, and only then does he start screaming and reacting, in an uncanny moment of confusion about where the line is supposed to go between dead and alive.

So there's no doubt that Tenebrae has the goods as a horror movie. And thanks to one of Argento's best-ever casts, including his partner Daria Nicolodi as Peter's sage secretary Anne, and John Saxon as the chipper literary agent Bullmer, it also feels stable as a human-scale mystery. I certainly understand why one might feel the impulse to call it top-shelf Argento; I just, perhaps petulantly, need a bit more madness. The film lakes the baroque mania of the director's other films of this period, and as solid as it is in its own right, it's hard not to wish it had more operatic grandeur. The murder scenes do, for the most part; but murder scenes, alas, do not make a whole movie.

Body count: 12, a number that feels rather large for a giallo, and perhaps speaks to the otherwise unfelt influence of the burgeoning slasher subgenre. This is also perhaps reflected in how backloaded those deaths are.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. That honestly seems high to me - there's a dreamy quality to the most extreme bloodletting that takes away the bite - but I concede that a viewer even slightly turned off by blood would probably have a nightmare of a time with the last 10 minutes. I remain confused that this film and Inferno got on the DPP's hit-list, but not Deep Red nor Suspiria.