Dario Argento’s TENEBRAE (1982) [8/10]

don't touch the axe: TENEBRAE

Tenebrae isn’t based in the present, but about five or more years in the future. It was never meant to be a story about something that is happening now. It isn’t exactly my Blade Runner, of course, but nevertheless a step into the world of tomorrow… Tenebrae occurs in a world inhabited by fewer people with the results that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded. Something has happened to make it that way but no one remembers, or wants to remember.

Dario Argento*

… Intriguing ideas – but anyone stumbling across Tenebrae might initially be baffled that the movie could be taken seriously at all, let alone analysed in terms of philosophical or cinematic concepts, or cited as the work of a fascinating auteur. In the first few scenes the acting is – at best – erratic, with the additional barrier of haphazard dialogue-looping that makes the script sound extremely stilted. The garishly bright images are scored with pounding synth music, and the plot seems to be a tawdry brand of Eurotrash stalk-‘n’-slash: cult US horror writer Peter Neal (Tony Franciosa) visits Rome to publicise his latest novel, and finds the city in the grip of a psychopathic killer who happens to be a fan of Neal’s books.

But there’s much more to Tenebrae than meets the eye, and it would be a grave mistake to be put off by the film’s superficial clumsiness. Just as the audience is starting to balk at the general air of banal crudity, Argento pulls off a staggering coup that should convince even the most skeptical viewer that he is, despite evidence to the contrary, a master of cinema.

It’s a two-and-a-half minute crane-shot that lingers over the surfaces of a futuristic tower-block, gliding nimbly over concrete, slates, windows, blinds, generally snooping in on the two women who live there, and who are about to become the killer’s next victim. A sensual symphony of angles, shapes and movement, it seems to go on forever – accompanied by that infernal synthesiser – until the shot ends with a cut to one of the women shouting “Turn it down!”, and we realise that the racket’s coming from her flatmate’s record-player.

Argento is, it must be said, showing off his technical virtuosity with this sequence. But by having the character express the audience’s impatience with the music, he’s also revealing a sense of humour that radically alters the mood of what could easily have been yet another tedious psycho-on-the-loose bloodfest. Tenebrae becomes instead a bizarre, deadpan, black joke of a movie in the Hitchcock vein: Argento sees how far he can push genre conventions over the top, while deftly delineating a nightmare world of constant, irrational threat.

There’s a lengthy sequence in which John Saxon, as Neal’s sleazy agent, is murdered in a Roman piazza – a very modern, almost futuristic kind of Roman piazza, of course – and the whole thing plays out in the broadest of daylights. So broad, in fact, one realises that even movie’s superbly evocative one-word title (a Latin term meaning ‘darkness’) – also the title of Neal’s new potboiler – indicates ironic intent, as there’s barely a shadow in the whole movie. As another critic has noted, “even the night scenes are brightly lit.”

Tenebrae should therefore ideally be watched in maximum darkness, in a cinema. On video, there’s too much temptation to immediately replay scenes, such is the engagingly bizarre and unexpected nature of what’s shown – from set-pieces like Saxon’s death, to throwaway bits, such as a Doberman somehow leaping a ten-foot fence – and what’s said. (“What languages does she speak?” says a policeman, referring to a Filipino maid who’s emerged as a pivotal witness. “Only Tagalog and Spanish, comes the straightfaced reply.”) Or sometimes both: early on, as Neal is being told of the atrocities committed by the killer, a cop thrusts an explicit photo of a murder victim into his face – only for the author to dismisses it with a bafflingly curt, businesslike “No.”

Such moments make Tenebrae much more than merely watchable — the movie becomes a fascinating example of what happens when a real artist takes hold of a particular genre’s tired conventions and twists them into something utterly idiosyncratic, perverse, and fascinating. But by doing so Argento runs a massive risk. Theres the matter of the acting: Franciosa is such a battle-hardened pro he can look after himself. Veronica Lario, however, as his vengeful ex-girlfriend Jane, is laughably inept, and most of the cast are closer, in terms of ability, to Lario rather than Franciosa.

Again, Hitchcock is a valid comparison for Argento, the actors are elements to be manipulated — a necessary evil. He’s not interested in whether they’re able to deliver a believable performance. After all, they’ll probably be quickly, and messily despatched. Tenebrae builds to a climactic fifteen minutes which leaves only one character standing — and she’s a hysterical wreck. To steal Danny Peary’s comment on Videodrome, the movie “loses its mind” in these latter stages, abandoning its careful whodunnit structure and throwing itself into an increasingly wild bloodbath.

It’s as if Argento has decided to emulate his protagonist Peter Neal, who’s said to “cut out the boring bits”. Tenebrae may baffle, it may annoy, and it may nauseate unsuspecting viewers. But, in terms of a creative individual using cinema to express a particular way of looking at the world, and using a commercial genre as a vehicle for genuinely subversive ideas and methods, it ends up, against all the odds and expectations, something close to an astonishing achievement.

Neil Young
4th May 2001

TENEBRAE : aka Unsane / Sotto gli Occhi dell’Assassino / Tenebres : 8/10 : Italy 1982 : Dario Argento : 110 mins

*The Argento comments are taken from interview with Alan Jones in Cinefantastique (Vol.13, No.8 / Vol.14, No.1), reproduced in Maitland McDonagh’s book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. The book contains a lengthy, informative and intelligent analysis of Tenebrae, in contrast to the essay by Chris Barber & Stephen Thrower in Argento compendium Art of Darkness (ed. Chris Gallant), which bogs down in endless academic jargon and filmschool-speak.