The very first three Dario Argento films that I ever saw (all on VHS, back in the mid-‘90s) were “Profondo Rosso”, “Suspiria” and then “Tenebrea” – in that order. As any Argentophile worth his weight in black leather gloves will no doubt realise, I got lucky there: I started with what are still the three best movies the maestro has ever made. Okay, so the work that comes between “Profondo Rosso” and “Suspiria”, “Inferno”, tops many fan lists as well, but it took me a while to ‘get it’, although I now adore the work for its languid multi-coloured labyrinthine dreaminess. The others are certainly still my three favourite Argento films though, with it being a very close run thing in which order I’d rate them; I think on balance “Tenebrea” comes top of this ultra-stylish trilogy, and therefore rates as my favourite Dario Argento film overall. (In case you’re wondering “Profondo Rosso” comes in second and “Suspiria” a very, very close third; although some days I completely change my mind, of course!)
One of the things that made it really stand out for me at the time, coming close on the heels of viewing the baroque supernatural extravagance of “Suspiria” and before that the Neo Gothic, art deco-clad violence of “Profondo Rosso”, was the depth of contrast between this film’s photographic style and production design and that of its three forbearers: even though the director’s previous emphasis on the aesthetics and visual texture of his films was there just as strongly as before – if anything, now even more pronounced and clearly foregrounded -- this time we were being presented with a radically different vision of Italy as a stark, minimalist, flashy modern cosmopolitan metropolis -- where the airports, apartments, residences and hotel rooms of Rome all look like the glazed white museum (still with its elaborate and lethal works of art very discernable where ever you look) that we were presented with way back in Argento’s first film “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”.
This vision of the city has no time for the foggy, beaten up back streets and alleyways and grand ancient architecture that provide the atmospheric backdrop for the director’s debut and most of his subsequent features: it’s as if the clinical over-lit white interiors of the Ranieri gallery, which once trapped Sam Dalmas between their clear panes of plate-glass, have now spread out to encompass the entire country in a vivid sheen of sleek, modishly fashion-conscious, antiseptic gloss. Argento pointedly reinstates cinematographer Luciano Tovoli as the enabler of his very precise artistic vision with “Tenebrea”. After the rich mix of colour, light and shadow Tovoli created on “Suspiria”, along with the overpowering Goblins soundtrack that helped make the film’s supernatural kaleidoscope barrage such a memorable experience for Argento’s fans, it is natural that we should have been expecting a continuation of his Three Mothers Trilogy, especially given the name of the film. But instead, the title refers to the nominal hero’s book. Once again, as in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, we have a writer as the movie’s chief protagonist, but this time he’s a giallo writer -- a cheeky nod and wink from the director that adds a knowing layer of self-reflexive playfulness to the film’s armoury of technique and narrative complexity. Who Knows? Perhaps Peter Neil’s novel was the missing instalment of the trilogy all along?
The irony of the film’s title is, of course, that unlike most horror features and in marked contrast to the prestigious run of films which precedes it in Argento’s oeuvre, shadows, darkness and Gothic atmosphere are entirely absent from “Tenebrea”. Those expensive-looking minimalist interiors now blaze white under harsh strip-lighting, and the modernist exteriors of loft apartments and villas alike, as well as the geometrically planned streets and squares on which they stand, look almost Mediterranean-bright in the daytime and are floodlit with a flattening wash of blue-grey at night. The night-time absence of shadows reminds me a little of Gianni Di Venanzo’s work on some sequences in Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits”; the mood Argento evidently intended to convey to the audience, if only in a subliminal way, was of events taking place in a sort of vaguely futuristic setting in which the director’s fashionable parade of rich elite ‘La Dolce Vita’ trendsetter cyphers colour-coordinate their stylish ‘80s clothing with their home furnishings and beige decor (as Kim Newman points out on one of the commentary tracks, “Tenebrea” is one of the few tasteful eighties film in terms of its fashions -- even if it is still so blatantly of its time) and where even the shoplifters look like glossy-haired Vogue models and live in expensive all-mod-cons apartments situated on spacious tree-lined boulevards (although the occasional tramp, who looks like he’s just spent ten years on a desert island, still might attempt to paw at them on their way home from a hard days’ book stealing!) It’s as striking and artificial a look in its own way as anything designed for Argento’s more obviously baroque films. Art and architecture play a huge symbolic and decorative role here -- as ever in an Argento movie -- with the American writer protagonist Peter Neil shown living in an expensive hotel suite during his trip to Rome, that’s decked out with the latest modern art pieces. The film has an Antonioni-like obsession with the perfectly arranged surface value of things: Two of the killer’s victims – a magazine journalist and her promiscuous bi-sexual lover – somehow manage to afford the luxury of living in showily modernist, almost cubist-looking loft building with expansive minimalist white interiors designed by Swedish architect Sandro Petti. The killer’s lair, meanwhile (which is an almost absurdly plush villa with a stylishly lighted pool and fountain in the expansive grounds), is decorated with so many framed works of art on the walls overlooking his smart leather three-piece-suite that the place could easily double as a small but trendy art gallery.
This was the clinical, glamorous and conspicuously aspirational (if you were living in 1982) ersatz environment onto which Argento chose to project one of his most meticulously plotted gialli yet; a world in which (appropriately enough!) high-street department stores stock a display of violent crime novels in the cosmetics section. “Tenebrea” is about an American writer (Anthony Franciosa) who jets to Rome to promote his latest murder thriller, and quickly finds himself caught up in the deranged plans of a razor-wielding, black glove-sporting, copycat serial killing fan -- who stuffs the pages of Neil’s latest blockbuster into the mouths of his beautiful scanty-clad victims, sends the author creepy notes on giallo-coloured notepaper, and makes threatening phone calls to his hotel room. If that’s not off-putting enough, the author also has to fend off accusations of misogyny from a glamorous journalist (Mirella D’Angelo) during a press junket, and disavow the unwanted approval of a homophobic book reviewer (John Steiner) on prime time TV, who sees a ‘sexual-deviancy-deserves-to-be- punished’ subtext behind the author’s prose and its violent blood-soaked mystery plots.
This outline is grounded in Dario Argento’s own experience of being stalked by an obsessed fan in Los Angeles once while on a writing trip abroad and also his impression during this time that the city’s actual violence seemed random and without motive. It’s also inspired by his increasing frustration with the reasoning in some quarters behind the criticism of his work, which says that Argento himself must be a misogynist for including so many images of beautiful women being brutally slain among his carefully choreographed, lovingly photographed set pieces. The director’s response to all these niggles and criticisms is to actually play up to them in as provocative a manner as possible: Anthony Franciosa seemingly becomes Argento’s on-screen alter ego as Peter Neil, voicing the director’s own answers to the accusations that so frequently used to blight critical assessment of his work back in those days, and who apparently also has a difficult, jealous and neurotic ex-partner stalking him across Rome as well -- slashing his clothes and smashing the present he’s brought over for his Italian publicist Ann, who is rather obligingly played, one has to say, by the director’s real ‘difficult’ ex-partner at the time Daria Nicolodi.
The film undoubtedly gains more piquancy from a knowledge of its autobiographical relevance to Argento’s own situation at the time, and there is a playfulness in the story, based on psychological transference, the notion of art as a dangerous weapon and the usual complex array of pseudo-Freudian psycho-sexual hang ups one usually expects to find in any gialli (represented by the contrast between the recurring motif of a red pair of stilettos set against a white backdrop), although, ironically enough, they’re here made just a diversion from the revelations of pharmaceutically medicated madness that are really the only ultimate explanation for the killer(s) actions.
Artifice, art and its connection with voyeurism are specifically made prime concerns of the person or persons carrying out the film’s crimes, in such a blatant way you can practically see Argento begging to be criticised for glamorising violence against women – for the film fully engages with the notion of murder as a form of artistic expression by deliberately imitating the killer’s own aesthetic pleasure in his acts. All of the inordinately catwalk-model-beautiful female victims (many have since come to have, surprise, surprise, a connection with Silvio Berlusconi -- including his now-estranged wife Veronica Lario, who plays Peter Neil’s femme fatale wife) look practically interchangeable and always seem to be dressed in an aesthetically pleasing crisp white at the time of their murders, so as to co-ordinate with their minimalist house interior designs, and emphasis and be off-set against the precisely arranged splashes and puddles of vivid red blood that their slashed corpses are organised like mannequins to lie prettily in the midst of. The killer takes snaps of his handy work, and far from being the hurriedly snatched polaroids of a madman, they appear to be glossy full colour originals of the very stills Argento later used to publicise the film!
This knowing blurring of the lines between the motives of the director and his fictional killers is most heavily apparent in the stand-out sequence in which every inch of the exterior and interior of the journalist victim’s modernist house is explored in a single two minute thirty five second shot filmed with a Louma crane. Although such shots are in themselves no longer particularly unusual, the fact that Argento places it where he does – deliberately interrupting the flow of the narrative simply for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of gliding in and out of windows and along façades and rooftops while accompanied by Goblin trio Simonetti, Pignatelli and Moranti’s classic electro-rock ‘80s soundtrack – emphasis the film’s shadowing the voyeurism of the murderer and positioning it as authentic art. We feel as though we’re gliding through a museum, admiring the brutalist architecture, gazing at a colourful classic Rita Hayworth poster on a bedroom wall and observing the apartment’s half-naked, doll-like glamour puss inhabitants. Eventually we settle on the gloved hands of the killer gaining entry with bolt cutters through an upstairs shuttered window, and the exhibits become the bodies of the two victims, left arranged in the compositionally pleasing manner that would go on to make fine promotional posters for the film itself!
The film also gains its top place in my affections for having a great cast – not something that particularly ever concerned Argento probably, but everyone acquits themselves very well here, and it helps bring a believability to some calculatedly outrageous events: Franciosa is excellent as the investigating author, bringing subtle shades to a performance that you only notice on second viewing once you’re familiar with where the story’s headed. Daria Nicolodi doesn’t appear to have much to do, but I suspect she’s meant to be the audience’s number one suspect for most of the film, she’s a ‘so-nice-there-must-be-a-catch’ double-bluff, and she manages to fulfil this rather oblique role in the film’s twisty narrative very well; and, of course, the final scene becomes one of the memorable all-time greats in Argento’s cinema because of her spirited cathartic performance. John Saxon has only a small role in the film as Franciosa’s agent (so small, he can’t even remember ever shooting the film apparently!) but he brings a lot of humour to it and takes part in the one scene in Argento’s entire filmography that really does justify his Italian Hitchcock moniker. There are so many moments of pure Argento delight in this film that I could go on for another two-hundred words describing them but it’s probably best that you discover this exquisitely crafted film for yourself. I’ll just mention that Franco Fraticelli’s editing really comes into its own in this work, and that the ex-Goblin trio’s soundtrack is one of my favourites: like the rest of the film, it somehow manages to exemplify everything about eighties style but without being tacky and tasteless.
“Tenebrea” is the main film in Dario Argento’s filmography I’ve been most eagerly anticipating on Blu-ray – since even previous DVD versions haven’t been all that hot. Initial impressions are deeply favourable here: Tovoli’s fantastically alluring cinematography looks fresh and detailed for the first time and the subtle use of colour really stands out as Peter Neil arrives at Kennedy Airport in the opening scenes. But, alas, as the film goes on one begins to get more and more distracted by a persistent digital noise that starts to swarms across vast swathes of the film’s all-white interiors like a plague of insects. For a minute I thought I was watching “Phenomena” by mistake but no – there’s a lot of what looks like added artificial grain in several scenes that gets really annoying. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before, but it’s not the kind of thing you want on a film like this, where the sparse décor really draws the eye to such aberrations.
Apart from this strange fault (which certainly doesn’t occur all the way through the film), the HD transfer often looks great, although it seems there is a French release that is much better for the depth of its detail and definition. Arrow have included both the English stereo audio track and the Italian mono audio track with English subtitles for this disc and they both sound fine. Once again, any reservations about how the HD transfer stands up against rival releases are mostly mitigated by the disc including a substantial range of quality extras. You get two commentary tracks, both of them excellent. First up, the commentary dream team of Argento expert Alan Jones and all-round expert Kim Newman provide an entertaining and chatty guide to Argento’s world and the circumstances and notable features that mark out the making and the reception of this particular film. The second commentary features Thomas Rostock following up his excellent analysis of “Profondo Rosso” with a similarly detailed look at “Tenebrea”, pointing out more than one idea that I’d never spotted before. Rostock strikes just the right tone of being academic but not completely impenetrable, but he’s clearly reading aloud a written piece of work and doing a pretty poor job of it thanks to his monotone drawl. Nevertheless, stick with it and you’ll find plenty of interesting analysis being doled out by the good Dr.
Three featurettes are included on the disc starting with Screaming Queen: Daria Nicolodi Remembers Tenebrea (15 mins) in which the actress remembers the difficult circumstances that surrounded the shooting of this film, since her relationship with Argento was by now on the rocks and Nicolodi didn’t like the bland character she was stuck with after her original role of Jane, Peter Neil’s wife, was given to Veronica Lazar instead. The Unsane World of Tenebrea: An Interview with Dario Argento (15 mins) sees the director in a more cheerful mood than he’s been in on some of the other Arrow featurettes, cheerfully describing the game he was playing with his critics on this film, the events in his own life that inspired the story and the method of developing background plot details he uses in order to help create a visual style and mood for his films ( wait till you hear his thinking on the set-up to “Phenomena”!). Finally A Composition for Carnage: Claudio Simonetti on Tenebrea (10 mins) sees the composer talking about the stylish electro tinged prog rock soundtrack he wrote for the film and explaining how it came to be credited to himself and his two Goblin colleagues rather than to the group as a whole. He also digresses on the issue of censorship, which looks all set to become a live issue for UK audiences again at the moment after some recent harsh BBFC decisions.
The disc carries the usual theatrical trailer of course, but also, a very special ‘extra’ extra is the inclusion of 15 minutes of concert footage of the reformed (sort of!) Goblin recorded performing the themes from “Tenebrea” and “Phenomena” live at the Glasgow Arches! The aging Italian rockers have still got it, and they give it to us -- loud and fast, here before an audience of very appreciative Glaswegians!
Arrow Video also include their usual array of attractive packaging options: glossy booklet of Alan Jones writings - check; fold-out double-sided poster - check; and four options of cover art including a brand new painting by Rick Melton – checkity check!
Despite the annoying problems with the sometimes noisy transfer (which is the only thing stopping this being rated as a full 5 SKULL disc), this is well worth getting. It certainly looks way, way better than any previous UK release and the extensive extras have to make it even more of a tempting proposition.