Movie Review: Tenebre (1982)

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Tenebre (1982)
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario, John Steiner, Giuliano Gemma, Christian Borromeo

Every humiliation which stood in his way could be swept
aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder

In the early ’80s, after spending several years with the first two films in his Three Mothers Trilogy, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), something happened to Argento while in Los Angeles that gave him the idea for what would be his next picture. He started to receive some strange phone calls from a ‘fan’ who wanted to discuss his work with him. With each call, they became more and more distressing to Argento, especially when this person said he wanted to kill him. After leaving LA, Argento started to really think about that concept of murder. Shortly after, he was quoted saying  “To kill for nothing – that is the horror of today. If you kill for money or to achieve a goal, I can understand that, even if I can’t condone it. But when that gesture has no meaning then it is more repugnant than ever.”

So the genesis of Tenebre started.

The word Tenebre means darkness, and Argento took that concept in this movie to mean the darkness of the person’s soul or unconscious mind. This word also happens to be the title of the new book from the main character of the movie, Peter Neal, a successful crime/mystery writer who is on his way to Rome to promote this novel, which is doing quite well. During his flight though, a young girl is brutally murdered, having pages from this latest book shoved in her mouth, before being sliced open with a straight razor. This girl is played Ania Pieroni, who had just appeared in Inferno, as well as playing the babysitter in Fulci’s House by the Cemetery (1981). She was always a treat to see onscreen.

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Once Neal arrives at his apartment, he is greeted by the police with the news of this murder, trying to figure out if there is a connection to him or just some crazy fan. After two lesbians are murdered, while the police struggle to find the killer, Neal tries to solve the puzzle himself, to uncover the identity of this madman. While discussing the case with the police, a line from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is mentioned, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Argento uses this theme here, but filling it with wonderful set pieces of suspense and terror.

This was originally released here in the states in an edited version under the title Unsane, which cut much of the gore out of the film. But luckily, those days of trying to find an uncut version are way in the past thanks to Synapse Films and their incredible Blu-ray release.

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This film is classic Argento. First off, which we hear pretty much right away, was the return of Goblin….sort of. While not the entire band working on the soundtrack, it did have three of the main members: Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, and Fabio Pignatelli. And they delivered another incredible score that fits perfectly in this film. From the opening main theme to the other tracks, Goblin once again shows that a score doesn’t have to be the traditional creepy score to be scary or to help build suspense.

The other thing that is so apparent here is Argento’s camera work, including a 2 and half minute crane shot that creeps along the outside of the house of a two potential victims. The American distributors wanted this shot to be cut for the US release, but Argento refused. Good for him since this a very memorable shot, making the viewer feel like an intruder circling around the building. This was really back when Argento was in his prime, with so many incredible images and shots within this film, many of which have become an image that most horror fans know. While the film isn’t filled with over-the-top gore, it does have its moments. But more importantly, the scenes of violence are filled with a high artistic feel too them, namely a red arterial spray across a white wall. Nice. This is something that is entirely missing from today’s slasher films…style. Something as simple as being chased by a guard dog, Argento turns into a dragged out, suspense and terror filled episode. Then again, that is why Argento was a master of his craft.

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Of course, this movie has a great cast here. Anthony Franciosa plays the main lead, author Neal, giving a fine performance as the writer of fiction trying to decipher a real life murderer. This was a role that originally was meant for Christopher Walken, which really would have been interesting to see how that character would have played out. John Saxon plays the literary agent and Daria Nicolodi is Neal’s assistant. Die hard Italian horror fans might recognize John Steiner, who plays the television journalist. He appeared in countless Italian produced films, such as Mario Bava’s last film Shock and Ruggero Deodato Cut and Run, usually playing the meaner and darker roles. And let us not forget the beautiful women that Argento fills the screen with. Granted, most of them meet a gruesome end, but none the less, they are fun to watch until that time.

Tenebre is one of those movies that no matter how many times you watch it, even if you know who the killer is, it is a thrill to experience Argento when he was in the true prime of his career. From the music to the cinematography, to the ballet of death that he unfolds in front of our eyes, it is one that will stick in your mind, much like the knife of the killer.

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