|Director: Dario Argento|
|Screenplay: Dario Argento|
|Stars: Anthony Franciosa (Peter Neal), Christian Borromeo (Gianni), Mirella D’Angelo (Tilde), Veronica Lario (Jane McKerrow), Ania Pieroni (Elsa Manni), Eva Robins (Girl on Beach), Carola Stagnaro (Detective Altieri), John Steiner (Christiano Berti), Lara Wendel (Maria Alboretto), John Saxon (Bullmer), Daria Nicolodi (Anne), Giuliano Gemma (Detective Germani)|
|MPAA Rating: NR|
|Year of Release: 1982|
|Country: Italy |
You see it in the corner of the room, and if you’ve seen another Dario Argento film, you know what will eventually happen, if only subconsciously. The “it” is a large, seven-foot modern metallic sculpture composed entirely of what looks like a jumble of shiny silver spikes. It sits in the corner of an apartment where the bloody climax of the film takes place, and you know that it is not just passive decoration. While I won’t give away exactly how it is incorporated into the action, I will say that it is just as spectacular and gruesome as you might imagine, just a hair’s breadth away from being utterly silly. But, then again, that is the heart and soul of Argento’s films: simultaneously rigorous and ridiculous, a curious blend of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful sadism and Michelangelo Antonioni’s arty ennui with a dash of mad hatter surrealism just for good measure.
Tenebrae marked Argento’s return to the giallo—hyperstylized mysteries obsessed with extended murder sequences and bizarre psychoses—after making the supernatural horror films Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). And, while Argento had begun his career with a series of particularly stylized gialli—The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (197o), Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)—Tenebrae marked a particularly self-conscious turn for him, as it is at once an over-the-top roll in all the most gruesome and outlandish of Argento’s preoccupations (beautiful women being graphically slaughtered, relentlessly roving camerawork, a bombastic musical score) and an aggressive defense of them.
The film’s protagonist, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), is an American author who writes the literary equivalent of Argento’s films. The plot involves a series of murders in Rome that seem to correspond with Neal’s latest novel (well, definitely correspond to the extent that the first victim has her mouth stuffed with pages torn from the paperback) just as the author is on a press tour there. When the police arrive at his doorstep, Neal sardonically asks them if they interview the president of Smith & Wesson every time someone is killed with a gun. A cheap shot, to be sure, but it is only the most overt of Argento’s sly melding of reality and fantasy, which is the film’s primary theme. In Tenebrae, art literally kills in more ways than one, but the film’s exaggerated style and tone work against the obvious to remind us that fiction is still fiction.
One of the most frequent criticisms of Argento’s films is their narrative incomprehensibility, which makes Tenebrae something of an outlier in that he constructs a solid narrative that (mostly) adheres to logic and reason, right down to that bloody climax. Of course, there are a few random detours here and there, such as Argento solving the problem of how to get a young woman into the killer’s house by having her chased there by a gnashing Doberman. It’s exactly the kind of “Huh?” scenario that confounds first-timers, although longtime admirers of his work will have no problem digesting it. The killer’s identity is keep cleverly guarded until the end, with Argento throwing out a number of potential suspects, including Neal’s obsessive ex-wife (Veronica Lario), his self-absorbed publicist (John Saxon), his doting secretary (Daria Nicolodi), and even the inspector in charge of the case (Carola Stagnaro), who happens to mention early on that he’s a big fan of Neal’s work. And let’s not also count out the snooty book critic (John Steiner) who seems a little too intent on reading into Neal’s stories about depraved killers.
As a mystery, Tenebrae works extremely well, drawing you into the pulpy scenario and keeping you transfixed even as suspect after suspect gets knocked off. The film’s style is quite different from Argento’s previous efforts, relying on a cold, sterile look that emphasizes white marble, modern architecture, and empty space instead of the baroque architectural trappings and gaudy colored lights that defined his previous films. Argento also indulges in some particularly extravagant camerawork that seeks to out-De Palma Brian De Palma, including a stunning crane shot that crawls across the front of an apartment building, peering through windows while sustaining an unbroken sense of dread.
The murder sequences are just as compelling and spectacular as you would expect, and Argento seems to have reversed the strategy of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in making each one successively more grandiose. The first killing, while certainly gruesome, seems positively restrained by Argento’s standards, while the final 15 minutes turns into a literal slaughterhouse, with hacked off limbs, spurting arteries, and unexpected axes into the back. It also features one of the hands-down best killer reveals in modern cinema.
|Tenebrae 4K UHD + Blu-ray|
|Audio||Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monauralEnglish DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements||Audio commentary by authors and critics Alan Jones and Kim NewmanAudio commentary by Argento expert Thomas RostockAudio commentary by film scholar Maitland McDonaghYellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo a feature-length documentary“Out of the Shadows” archival interview with Maitland McDonagh“Voices of the Unsane” archival featurette“Screaming Queen” archival interview with Daria Nicolodi“The Unsane World of Tenebrae” archival interview with Dario Argento“A Composition for Carnage” archival interview with Claudio SimonettiArchival introduction by Daria NicolodiInternational theatrical trailerJapanese “Shadow” theatrical trailerAlternate opening credits sequence“Unsane” end credits sequenceImage galleries|
|Release Date||September 26, 2023|
|Tenebrae was last released on Blu-ray in 2017, and the image on that disc was from an older master, so Synapse’s new 4K UHD disc offers a dramatic improvement over what has been previously available. Although Tenebrae is far from Argento’s most visually ravishing work, it still has a lot of memorable imagery that looks superb in the new 2160p Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible) presentation (which is the same that was included last year on Arrow Films’ 4K release, although that release included both the original Italian theatrical cut and the shorter American cut retitled Unsane; Synapse’s release only includes the Italian theatrical cut). The Dolby Vision color grading has really made the primary colors pop, whether it be the blue of the protagonist’s workout clothes or the splattering blood of the gruesome climax (which is decidedly more realistic looking that in many of Argento’s previous films, where it looks like melted Crayola). Quite a bit of the film leans into a more subdued color palette, with a lot of grays and earth tones, all of which looks great. Detail is particularly improved, but without sacrificing the inherent grain structure. The disc includes the option of the original Italian or English soundtracks in restored, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio monaural presentations. Despite the limited range of the monaural mix, they both offer strong, robust sound, especially when the music and the screams kick in (I prefer the English language track since almost all of the actors were clearly speaking English and the protagonist is American). |
All of the supplements from the earlier 4K release are included here—and there is a lot. We get three audio commentaries: one by authors and critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman, one by Argento expert Thomas Rostock, and one by film scholar Maitland McDonagh, whose book Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds was the first book-length scholarly analysis of Argento’s films. Another fantastic inclusion is Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo, an 89-minute documentary that includes interviews with filmmakers Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, and Luigi Cozzi (some of whom have some rather strong opinions about each other’s work), film scholars Kim Newman and Maitland McDonagh, as well as numerous actors who appeared in various gialli. The disc is also bursting with interviews: “Being the Villain” is a newly edited archival interview with actor John Steiner; “Out of the Shadows” is an archival interview with McDonagh; “Voices of the Unsane” is an archival featurette containing interviews with Argento, actresses Daria Nicolodi and Eva Robins, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, composer Claudio Simonetti, and assistant director Lamberto Bava; “Screaming Queen” is an archival interview with Nicolodi; “The Unsane World of Tenebrae” is an archival interview with Argento; and “A Composition for Carnage” is an archival interview with Simonetti. Nicolodi also appears in an archival introduction, and the disc includes extensive image galleries, an international theatrical trailer, and the Japanese “Shadow” theatrical trailer. Completists will also appreciate the inclusion of an alternate opening credits sequence and the Unsane end credits sequence.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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