This year’s FrightFest has a guest of honour who, for me, is one of the very best they’ve had. Following on in the esteemed footsteps of John Landis and Tobe Hooper is one of the most iconic horror directors to walk the Earth, one Dario Argento, a man who for many will need no introduction. Once you’ve watched one of his films, the way you watch horror films may change forever.
In recent years, much has been made about how IL Maestro has taken a decided step-down in quality with his work, but this series of articles is not going to focus on this. Just as this year’s FrightFest looks to celebrate the man, so do we and if you hadn’t already guessed that from the title of the feature then you need you an eye exam. Preferably with a knife…
This article will not be sheepish about spoilers.
Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a celebrated writer of pulpy thriller novels who is on a promotional tour in Rome when he is asked by Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) to help try and solve a series of killings which are taken directly from his latest book Tenebrae.
Tenebrae came at an interesting time in Argento’s career. The highs and lows of the film industry could be very well epitomised within the making and reception of his previous two films – the seminal Suspiria which involved Argento getting into supernatural horror for the first time and its sequel of sorts Inferno, which was financed with US money (20th Century Fox specifically) and became a nightmare for Argento in its production. Following on from this, many hoped for the final part of the Three Mothers trilogy (which would eventually conclude with Mother of Tears nearly 30 years later). Instead, likely burnt out on the making of Inferno, he decided to go back to his giallo roots, which had worked so successfully in his pre-Suspiria effort Deep Red, and in doing so made a film which is one of his most cynical but also, for this writer, most effective.
You don’t get the impression with many of Argento’s films that he is particularly trying to say anything, he makes films to intrigue, puzzle and scare but not to make too much comment. However Tenebrae feels like something else and, looking back on it, very much before its time. As films like Cabin in the Woods and its ilk turn a lens on the construction of narrative itself, Tenebrae did so also, 30 years before.
Peter Neal is a character who finds himself wrapped up in a mystery inspired by his writing and also under attack from critics and even his agent, just as Argento himself may well have been back in the day. In one scene, which is blunt but effective, Neal himself is called out as being misogynist, of writing ”macho bullshit”. Neal denies these claims just as Argento has had to his entire career. Early on, John Saxon’s agent character tells Neal fans “love (your) books but hate success”, something which shows that the backlash-happy culture we find ourselves in today was very much in action then, only with less forms to express it.
Looking even deeper though, we have a killer acting out his interpretation of how a writer creates their story through killing – only to be told directly that this reading of the book is incorrect, this is not the author’s intent and that this is the thinking of a psychopath within the world of the novel. Yet not only is Argento creating the world in which we ourselves see the killings on screen, it is later revealed that our through line in the story, our protagonist, is for a large part of the story the antagonist also. Therefore, can we trust the lead character? Can we even trust Argento? Is Argento saying that interpretation is down to the eye of the beholder? Maybe but then within the film, that eye is doing the killing as well as being the person arguing against it! In the world of Tenebrae, there’s a large chance he himself would be the killer! This may all sound like pretentious crap but to get this level of textuality as to the creation of stories and how to interpret them in a film of this kind is to me, a sheer delight.
As well as all this though, Tenebrae also remains one of Argento’s most technically ambitious and proficient films. Shooting a large portion in daylight, he is able to craft effective kill sequences which rely on a sense of isolation. This is used in a practical sense, the early killing of the shoplifter happening in what looks to be a very sparse area, a tramp and neighbour aside, but then becomes increasingly psychological – as twists and turns come in which make the viewer untrusting of virtually every single character even if those within the film have little reason to suspect them.
The film also boasts wonderful cinematography from Luciano Tovoli, an at-the-time complex but today still fulfilling crane shot moving around a house as a killer stalks his victims and one of the all-time great Argento scores with Claudio Simonetti and co amping up the synth sounds by way of psychedelic disco-funk. If that doesn’t sound amazing, fuck you.
This film certainly isn’t perfect though, and I am happy to admit this. The sequence where the young girl conveniently gets chased by a dog directly into the killer’s home is by turns very silly and rather sluggishly paced and lead actor Anthony Franciosa doesn’t quite have the magnetism to pull of the adored lead but in the light of the absolutely fantastic things surrounding this, I’m not too bothered. And hey, there’s John Saxon in a bowler hat too!
Tenebrae is endlessly smart, fantastically presented and ambitious thriller material which deserves to be debated and appreciated as much as any of Argento’s more talked-of films.