31 DAYS OF HORROR #25b: Phil Drinkwater on TENEBRAE (1982)

Spoilers

In our second slice of Argento-appreciation today, Phil Drinkwater – co-writer of the critically acclaimed Broadcast Signal Intrusion – peels back the layers of this one-time “video nasty”…

I spent most of my youth in a perpetual search for video nasties; a hunter-gatherer focused entirely on That Which Should Not Be SeenTM. As the child of an Italian Catholic and a Thatcher-loving police officer, these violent artefacts were absolutely out of bounds, making their terrifying allure all the more enticing. Sleep-overs were often built entirely around viewings of Evil Dead, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw, Halloween 2, The Exorcist and Halloween 3 (that title sequence, amiright?!). Trips to the video shop were spent dreamily sneaking peeks at slasher sequel VHS back covers, but having to come home with horror-lite: Teen Wolf, The Monster Club and… Teen Wolf Too (quick digression – I was so obsessed with werewolf movies at this age that I wrote to Jim’ll Fix It to see if I could be encased in lycanthropic prosthetics for a full day. Dodged a bullet there, lads). 

It wasn’t until I was at university that I realised there were banned video nasties from beyond American and British shores, and spurred on by my never-ending quest, I sought them out. And there on the horizon – covered in orange-red blood and peering through a torn-open night-shirt – was Dario Argento’s Tenebrae. 

It was love at first sight. So, let me count the ways.

The initial draw was it’s aesthetic. This was a future that was barely the future. It looked like the present, but it wasn’t, and it was maybe my first encounter with a film set inside an almost liminal, uncanny space. Later I saw this again in the New York of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, but this is where I encountered it first. This wasn’t an Italy I recognised; this was modern and strange and hard-edged and urban. Something wasn’t right as events unfolded in this high-key, sunlit brutalist world. Eventually I would understand that where the film was set had no direct relation to the real-world, and that – much like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive – we had entered a dream place, with dream logic. Like Lynch and Fellini, Argento instinctively understands that movies have no obligation to make rational sense; that they can operate at a frequency that taps into the subconscious. Cinema is like dreaming – we enter the darkness and close our eyes and live out our fears and desires, before stumbling back out into (or away from) the light. Tenebrae unfolds not just in a geographical dream space, but a psychological one too. Its horrors and attractions hit much harder because they tap into a way of seeing the world that we usually only encounter in deep sleep.

The second reason I love Tenebrae is its meta interaction with the cinematic world around it. Where a meta-text like Scream operates on an almost purely superficial level (“Hey look! This is a bit like Friday 13th!” – I love Scream by the way), Tenebrae is far more probing and advanced in terms of how it uses intertextuality to explore the relationship between art and the artist.

In Tenebrae, as critic Anton Bitel writes, Argento “… has called his critics’ bluff, and taken full responsibility, direct or indirect, for every depraved action and image in his film, even as he leaves us wondering what part our watching may have played in this tawdry tragedy where art itself becomes weaponised.” This is auteurship as interrogation, not dissimilar to Hitchcock’s own aggressive self-examination in 1958’s Vertigo. Like that masterpiece, Tenebrae is concerned with guilt, voyeurism and complicity. You could argue that both Argento and Hitchcock align cinema with the act of voyeurism itself, collapsing the distinctions between the two. In both of these acts, the voyeur and the audience sit just slightly apart from the action, watching, seeking illicit pleasure and gazing as it unfolds, safe in the knowledge that the subject is unaware of our presence. What Vertigo and Tenebrae both do, however, is force us to recognise the part we play in this; the fourth wall is not only removed, but deconstructed. Both films ask us to position ourselves as the male protagonist, but by the finale, they turn this identification against us, as these men are revealed to be sadistic, misogynistic perverts and not the clear-cut heroes we were led to believe. Morally, where does that leave us? Now the choice to use that liminal, uncanny, nightmare space makes more sense; this is a moral purgatory where cinematic voyeurs come to think on their sins.

The final reason I love this film is because, well… because Dario Argento. Suspiria is more dreamy and surreal. Inferno more obtuse and baroque. Profondo Rosso feels as much like a European art film as it does a Giallo. I adore some of the later stuff too, like The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless (how can you not enjoy a film where Max Von Sydow plays a detective whose sidekick is a parrot?). Tenebrae though? Tenebrae is extra special. Not only did it solidify my adoration of his work, but it is in many ways a crystallisation of his reoccurring preoccupations: the inherent beauty of the explicitly violent. Art as destroyer. Gender as a complex fluid spectrum (highlighted by his revolutionary casting of trans actress Eva Robins in the flashbacks, a move which complicates the binary heteronormative representations we typically see in horror cinema of this time). The fine line between sex and death. Our collective dark Freudian impulses. The tension between style and substance. It’s all here, in all its glory, pulsating to Goblin and filmed on a diabolical crane in the sky.

It also contains some of his most astonishing sequences; not least the famous scene where Argento’s virtuosic camera floats away from his characters and flies away, tracking the roof of a house in an awe-inspiring disregard of cinematic rule and convention. As well as this the film provides us with some of his greatest ‘art-as-destroyer’ tableaux’s; Peter Neal impaled on the spikes of a modernist metal sculpture, its reflective surface a clear allusion to the meta nature of the film itself. Or a woman forced to consume the pages of a novel – a deadly diet of force-fed art that eventually chokes her. Or Jane McKerrow’s arm, hacked off at the elbow, spraying painterly blood all over a gleaming white blank canvas; Pollock meets Giallo, Beauty meets Horror.

Ultimately then, Tenebrae has everything I look for in a horror – a mastery of form, heightened aesthetic, violent but beautiful imagery, profound ideas, a willingness to examine its own intentions and an extended sequence where a couple of partially-dressed Italians just hang out and listen to very loud synth music. I love it. I hope you do too.

Phil Drinkwater

Broadcast Signal Intrusion is now available to rent on VOD.

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