Many thought it a peculiar choice for Dario Argento to return to the giallo scene in which he made his name with this early 80s slasher, as at the time he was riding high after the huge success of Suspiria and its sequel, Inferno.
Inferno, released in 1980, had been a troublesome and frustrating shoot for the Italian horror maestro. Argento had been hospitalised during the making of the movie, having to direct via notes from his hospital bed for a large part of the production, but there was worse to come. After the fanfare that Suspiria received, Argento was able to make the second part of what would become his ‘Three Mothers Trilogy’ with some financial backing from a major Hollywood studio. Fox had come on board and it was the working relationship with an executive of the studio – and the general politics that come with making a film for a Hollywood studio – that had crushed Argento’s enthusiasm for the project. After a screening, Fox decided it was too violent and inappropriate for American audiences and would shelve the theatrical release completely, distributing it only on home video.
This was one of the personal reasons that Argento returned to the lurid world of giallo, a seedy back alley of a genre he knew better than anyone, and so he packed away the witchcraft and dusted off the trusty black leather gloves, razors and switch blades for another outing.
Watching Tenebrae now you can tell the director is in a comfort zone of sorts, although Argento’s comfort zone is the last place probably you or I would seek any kind of refuge. It is a film whose director seems to be in complete control of his craft, creating a menace and dread that is horrific, genuinely frightening, rewarding and satisfying. Yes, this is a slasher movie, but it has something else, something much more sinister and at times melancholic.
Argento had spent some time in Los Angeles after Inferno and it was here that he became inspired for his next movie, and – because inspiration for a film like this requires dark moments of the soul – none of these experiences were good. Firstly he started receiving phone calls from a very dedicated fan. At first they were bursting with enthusiasm for his work, but they soon took a darker tone, with threats to his life. This went on for a while until he became so disturbed by them he moved to a hotel by the coast in Santa Monica. It wasn’t long before he was contacted again: “So you thought you had escaped me?” Argento didn’t hang around to find out what would happen next, and returned home to Italy.
Another inspiration came from an incident that occurred in the entrance of a hotel in Los Angeles whilst Argento was staying there. Three armed men walked into the lobby of the Hilton and shot dead a tourist in front of him and other shocked onlookers. It was the threat of the stalker, and the senseless murder of the tourist, which gave him the main plot line of Tenebrae.
In the film Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), an American thriller novelist, travels to Rome on a publicity tour for his new book. Whilst staying in the city and working with his agent and secretary a slew of murders take place, copy-cat killings of the ones that occur in his latest novel. He is suspected, but also tries to investigate the killings himself. So far so formulaic, right? But what sets Tenebrae apart is the tone. It is unapologetic, cold and fierce.
The score, by three members of the Italian band Goblin – who had done such wonderful work on Suspiria – helps ramp up the tension and starkness of the film, and when coupled with the unusual aesthetic of a modern Rome with no famous landmarks in sight keeps the viewer continually ill at ease. Rome here is ugly and soulless. It could quite easily be the Munich backdrop that served Rollerball so well when that city doubled as a futuristic Houston, home of the Energy Corporation.
Argento said that he wanted to create an unusual city where things didn’t seem quite right for the viewer. He had decided that the look of the film, if not the actual film itself, would be set after an atomic bomb had gone off some time before the story begins, and this was the new world that was born out of such a terrifying incident. It was also for this reason that he made the streets look so lonely and deserted, because the population would have been so greatly reduced by the tragedy.
Unlike some other Argento movies – and I mean that in the kindest of terms – the lead is good! As a fan of Argento movies the acting is really the last thing I look out for, due to how little preparation performers seem to have had before shooting and how underbaked the writing tends to be. Argento’s characters generally feel like they’re there to lead us from one shot or set piece to another and little else, something which is common in many giallo movies.
Argento’s lack of patience with actors is legend, which is a surprise as Daria Nicoldi was a long time partner – both personally and professionally – and the stage actress, Giallo movie queen and screen writer returns here playing Peter Neal’s Roman secretary, Anne. Nicoldi is also mother to Dario Argento’s daughter the actress, Asia Argento.
The director’s lack of respect for actors left Anthony Franciosa perplexed, and the two of them clashed regularly. Franciosa plays Peter Neal with an earnestness which is lacking in many characters of Argento’s oeuvre, and the film needs his anchoring and is all the better for it: we are not in a supernatural pysch-out-colour-drome here as in Suspiria or Inferno, instead in the midst of an over exposed white-of-the-eye chiller where there are no witches or demons, just the evil of man.
Tenebrae has many sequences that have made the movie famous/infamous, but there are three in particular (two of which I am pretty sure put the film on the banned ‘video nasties’ list).
The cinematography by Luciano Tovoli as the prowling assassin who climbs and enters the house of a couple before murdering them is strikingly scary, and as good as anything that that other famed one-shot voyeur, Brian DePalma, achieved in his pictures. It’s also as cruel as anything I think I’ve ever seen, as two defenceless females are sliced to death.
An axe coming through a window and dismembering a woman sitting by a table is brilliant for many reasons. First of all you sense something is about to happen: no giallo director lets a female sit by a table – alone and scared – for long, and the shot feels like a second or two too long, toying with us. But it’s the inventiveness of the attack that makes you jump out of your skin; the smash of the window, the thud of the axe and then the panic stricken, one armed woman screaming as she re-decorates her icy-white home with an arterial Jackson Pollock. The actress in this horrific sequence is Veronica Lario, now Mrs. Silvio Berlusconi. This scene was censored on the films release, but even more so in the 1990s when the ‘bunga bunga’ man came to power: he obviously didn’t fancy the world watching his wife getting murdered in such a manner.
But the scariest sequence, for me, is when the daughter of the building manager where Peter Neal is staying is chased by a huge, relentless Dobermann: through a street, a park, over a fence (the satanic-like shuck stops, retreats and then takes a run up before clearing the fence, much to the anguish of the fleeing girl) and eventually towards a house where she can take refuge. The dog, now locked out, throws itself at the window in a repeated frenzy, trying to get at its prey. The terrified girl looks around her safe haven, only to see photographs of all the copycat murders that have taken place. The appalling realisation that she has escaped into the house of the serial killer is chillingly brilliant. The evil that men do, and then some.
Simon Rance is a member of Cinema Under The Stairs (CUTS), a monthly underground movie night in Oxford and home of ‘Shocktober’ the Oxford horror film festival. He is the writer of the CUTS fanzine, ‘Bosh’ and of the forthcoming book, ‘Reg Lacey and ‘Sweet’ Phil’s Mobile Exploitation Video Library: 100 Cult Movie Blood Baths To See Before You Die’.