Dario Argento's film title translates to darkness yet in a successful attempt to tread new ground and surprise the viewer, many of the disturbing sequences or murders take place in either broad daylight or bright artificial light. Tenebrae is a rare breed of film where the plot complexity and the picture's artistic merits match the sheer ferocity of the violence that occurs. The film is set a few years into the future which is reflected by the choices of architecture seen and by the very experimental (and ahead of its time) electronic score provided by three Goblin members.
Anthony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, a semi-autobiographical character from Dario Argento. Peter Neal is a well-known author of lurid and violent novels. This quite often leads to the titles of misogynist and sexist being incorrectly ascribed to the author, like Argento himself. Another connection is that Peter Neal receives death threats on the telephone. This is something which happened to Argento when he received the same from a so-called Suspiria "fan" in America.
Neal arrives in Rome to publicise his new "Tenebrae" novel only to find himself involved in a murder investigation. A local shoplifter was brutally slain and pages from Neal's novel were found stuffed into her mouth. After that and being subjected to threatening notes and phone calls, Peter Neal decides to take a more proactive role in the events and investigates the murders himself. Classic giallo stuff really but I have to say that this is the most finely plotted giallo that I've seen to date and the most logic-bound of Argento's pictures with painstaking attention to detail. It especially seems so coming straight after the surreal and dreamlike atmosphere of Argento's classic Inferno. You have to watch this film twice to fully appreciate all of the character behaviour once the killer's identity has been revealed.
BTW John Saxon claims to have never watched this film which really annoys me. It's one of the classics from his career. I get the impression that he imagines it to be of similar quality to other Italian films (Cannibal Apocalypse!) that Saxon appeared in, and I'm certain that he'd be pleasantly surprised if he saw it.
Anyway, these two scenes demonstrate a perfect Argentophile test:
- Set to Goblin's music, the camera pans out of a window and spends almost two minutes slowly tracking over the features of an unusual house in an "impossible" shot before finally settling down on a black gloved killer forcing his way into the building.
- In a very short sequence, the killer smashes a ceiling light bulb by tapping it once only with his straight razor. The glowing filaments fade to black.
If you watch both of those scenes and find yourself fascinated with them and wondering how they were made, then congratulations, you are an Argentophile. If you watch them and find yourself looking bored or maybe even wondering why rather than how they were made, then shame on you! You're not an Argentophile and whilst you'll still enjoy watching this film, you may wonder why others hold both the picture and director in such high regards.
Just one very short scene seems to let the film down slightly. That one at the (presumably) gay, lesbian and bisexual bar where cheesy looking hunks like to high-five straight after playing Space Invaders. It used to bother me but then I came to my senses and realised that it was a joke. A pretty funny one too, much like that Bee Gees mention in Phenomena!
Tenebrae was unfairly banned as a "video nasty" back in the UK's puritanical 80's and it's only recently that the UK has done the decent thing and passed this excellent film with no cuts at all. Tenebrae is the most complexly plotted of Argento's gialli and it's highly recommended to all horror fans out there. Yes, it's Italian but as well as being filmed in English and starring two western actors, it's a shit-hot psychological thriller and horror film. Seek it out if you haven't done so already.
This Anchor Bay UK DVD boasts decent enough but not great 5.1 sound and unlike the region one version, it has an anamorphic print. That's the good news. The bad news is that the print quality is poor. Far too soft and quite often grainy (especially during that sequence where the camera tracks over the lesbian couple's house).
The region 1 Anchor Bay disc had a very short amount of footage missing due to "print damage" so it was pleasing to note the AB UK claim that this disc would be the complete version restoring that missing footage. Which makes it VERY disappointing that AB UK have provided us with exactly the same version again. That missing footage has NOT been restored. It looks as if most folks in region 1 or 2 land will have to grudgingly make do with this version for now but as the German DVD company "Dragon" will also be releasing a region 2 Tenebrae DVD, perhaps that one will be the definitive version to seek out.
Now for some better news about the DVD, the extras! Like region one people, we get an English commentary track with Dario Argento and Claudio Simonetti (interesting but sometimes difficult to follow, especially when drunk), a trailer, biographies, alternate title credits (with lame pop song) and two short featurettes on the camera and sound effects. But this DVD also offers over 45 minutes of exclusive extras. An 11 minute Tenebrae film analysis to watch by some guy called Xavier. I certainly didn't agree with a lot of what he said, especially towards the end but still interesting stuff. The best extra is easily the 37 minute made for cable television interview with Dario and Daria Nicolodi. This dates from just after the completion of Tenebrae and the two get interviewed by some odd looking English guy who resembles one of my old teachers from school. I'm sure it's not him though. Like the commentary track, this interview is all in English and whilst Dario gets a bit confused at times by the interviewer, this is a really great extra to have! This DVD also has damn cool animated menu screens but it is unfortunate that one of the swirling Polaroid’s does actually give too much of the plot away.
So the bottom line is that although this UK DVD has far better extras than the region 1 version, the picture quality is poor and that missing footage has still not been re-inserted, so it's a case of "close but no cigar" for Anchor Bay UK. However keen UK Argentophiles may wish to pick this disc up purely for the impressive extras.
Mind you, this is still far more desirable than the previous cut UK DVD of Tenebrae. Even that previous version's cover was censored! The female victim with the cut-throat that you see on the cover, well, she used to have a little red bow tie around her neck to disguise her fatal injury. Crazy! Now we can see both the cover and the film as it was intended.