It’s always nice to see a worthy film restored to its original glory after languishing for years in censorship hell.
Prior to 1999, the only way to see Tenebre in the US was to rent the heavily edited VHS version, which boasted an asinine title (Unsane) and nearly none of the character development or gore found in the Italian director’s cut. It was a jumbled and confusing affair, barely held together by a thread-worn script and poor dubbing.
Luckily, the critical research of Maitland McDonagh (“Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds”), praise from Slant Magazine and uncut DVD edition by Anchor Bay have opened our eyes to an overlooked gem, rife with symbolism, suspense and the uncanny ability to walk the line between artistic exercise and crowd-pleasing mystery.
The film revolves around prolific author Peter Neal (played with cocky bravado by Anthony Franciosa), who arrives in Rome on a press tour only to be met with critical outcry, damaged luggage and a police investigation. It seems that local writers have called his new blockbuster “hairy, macho bullshit,” an angry ex has rifled through his belongings, and a local girl was asphyxiated with pages from his latest novel.
Detective Germani, an avid reader of suspense paperbacks, believes that Neal could use his skills as a writer to help track the killer, who has contacted the author by letter and phone within hours of his arrival.
Neal suspects that the black-gloved killer is hiding in plain sight and may be closely associated with him. Could it be Jane, the jilter ex-lover whom he saw driving around his hotel… or could obsessive talk-show host, Christiano Berti have flipped his wig and gone on a mission to rid Rome of the perverted and depraved?
Luckily, the resolution isn’t quite as simple as one might think and Dario Argento’s script has enough twists and red herrings to keep the audience guessing. The crux of the mystery lies somewhere in surreal dream sequences that depict a young man humiliated by a sexually promiscuous woman in a white dress and red pumps. She presses the heel of her shoe into the boy's mouth while he's restrained, affectively emasculating him. He eventually regains his masculinity by stabbing her in the stomach in broad daylight with a large blade.
Not surprisingly, all of the female victims in the film are open-minded, sexually promiscuous women, much like the object of aggression in the dream sequence. The slasher corrects their “aberrant” behavior by slitting their throats, stuffing their mouths with paper or stabbing them in the chest with an axe. The gore is nothing short of horrifying and Argento uses this sadistic imagery to play into his motif concerning male fear of female sexuality and to satirize the exploitative nature of his own filmmaking process.
Often one to focus on particular colors to evoke mood, Argento spotlights bright whites and blood reds, making for a startling juxtaposition. Whether it be the white dress and red shoes of the nightmare antagonist or geysers of blood spraying across a white wall in the finale, the image is always startling and it amplifies Argento’s thematic implications concerning repressed emotion (girl symbolizing sexual freedom, bloodlet symbolizing masculine rage).
Argento also allows the audience to act as voyeur through the camera’s lens, showing us murder from the killer’s point of view. One dizzying shot depicts the camera gliding along a sliding glass door, scaling the wall of a building to an upper-level bedroom and entering the victim’s boudoir all in one take.
As usual, the visual acrobatics are accompanied by an intense, throbbing Goblin score. Synth-driven rhythms are matched by heavy, tribal-influenced drum breakdowns. Moments of suspense and intrigue are met with gothic organ and brooding atmospherics. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the film and it’s not hard to understand why Argento collaborated with them so frequently.
It’s hard to believe that a film could be successful on so many levels, but with Tenebre, Argento manages to have his cake and eat it too. His “meta” self-reflection, impressive direction and cinematography will wow critics, while his torrid sexuality and extreme gore will please thrill seekers and the raincoat crowd. As a blend of artistic style and sexual subtext, it’s the most complete film in the giallo subgenre.
Reviewed by Mdeapo 06/03/2012