Director Dario Argento’s name has always been synonymous with the “giallo” genre – a wave of Italian horror cinema in the ’60s and ’70s that he (along with Mario Bava) helped to establish and popularize. It is best described as being a blend of the murder-mystery genre with the slasher genre, fused with a specific Italian flavour that comes across through unique musical scores, pervasive violence, and a strong focus on bizarre and stylized cinematography. After taking a break from the giallo genre for a brief foray into the supernatural with 1977’s kaleidoscopic witch-house thriller Suspiria and its sequel Inferno (1980), Argento returned to his roots with 1982’s Tenebre – a film that functions on many levels as a homage to his earlier works as well as a reflection of his own life as an auteur writer/director. It is seen by many as a welcomed return to form for the director, and remains one of the most polished and coherent films of his career.
I must also point out that Tenebre is arguably my favourite of Argento’s films, weaving together numerous complex themes with startling psychological plot twists that are ripe for analysis and discussion, yet still functioning as a well-paced and appropriately bloody thriller. The plot follows American novelist Peter Neal who is visiting Rome to promote his new giallo novel (entitled “Tenebre”) when a mysterious copycat killer begins to murder victims in a similar fashion to that of Neal’s book. As the supporting network of characters/suspects are slowly dispatched, Neal becomes obsessed with finding the identity of the killer before it’s too late. Several twists and turns follow, leading to a shocking and bloody final act that is among the director’s finest moments.
Several theorists view Peter Neal as a reflection of Argento himself, exploring his anxieties and fears that a psychotic fan will take his films too seriously and become dangerously obsessed with them and their murderous subject matter. The director has described an incident from 1980 wherein a crazed fan repeatedly called him and threatened his life, citing this experience as the main source for his writing of the film. Regardless of how deeply you read into it, the plot remains particularly refreshing when one considers what has happened by the end, and the implications that are made concerning the psychological state and motivations of the killer.
Thankfully, the film is also incredibly entertaining, offering visceral thrills that work to balance out the deeper psychological implications of the material. Many of the predominant themes that drive the giallo genre are present, including an ensemble cast of quirky (read: suspicious) characters, the traditional “black-gloved” killer, a strong focus on sight and memory (what is seen and how it is remembered/interpreted by the subject), and an exploration of the psycho-sexual nature of violence. It also has an extremely memorable musical score by the Italian prog-rock band Goblin, who scored the majority of Argento’s greatest films, as well as numerous other Italian horror gems.
The visual style is unlike any other film by Argento. Traditionally, the director makes use of lush Gothic architecture and powerful imagery with vibrant colours; whereas Tenebre is filmed almost entirely in brightly lit stark white locations, using mostly white wardrobes which all work to provide a jarring contrast to the deep red of spilled blood. And while there is quite a bit of blood spilled by the end, the gore is much more restrained near the beginning and begins to flow more freely as the film gains momentum, culminating in the final act where the walls quite literally turn red (thanks to one of the director’s most memorable kills).
While often overlooked in favour of earlier Argento works like Deep Red (1975), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) or Suspiria (1977), Tenebre remains one of the director’s most accessible and coherent films, taking what worked best from the “golden era” of giallo cinema and exploring it in a more modern light. It could be seen as a second-generation giallo; and while it feels in some ways like less of a classic than those of the ’70s, it continues to be an excellent starting point for anyone new to the genre or to Italian cinema in general.
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Tenebre (1982, Italy, Unrated: 101 min) Directed by: Dario Argento. Starring: Anthony Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, Christian Borromeo, Mirella D’Angelo, John Steiner, John Saxon, Giuliano Gemma, Ania Pieroni, Veronica Lario, and Eva Robin’s.