As we approach Halloween, the rest of this month will be devoted to “Robin s Underrated Gems” features on horror films, and I think it’s long overdue that Italian horror maestro Dario Argento finally get his moment in the sun. In case you’re not familiar with his work, Dario Argento is one of the all-time greatest examples of a “style over substance” director. The plotlines of his films are often ridiculous, incoherent or practically nonexistent, but his work is so stylish and beautiful to look at that you don’t even care. In the early 1970s, Argento started his directorial career by making giallo films, which is basically an Italian term for crime mystery stories which are often filled with horror elements and contain tons of gore and violence. Argento’s early works included The Bird with the Crystal Plummage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Deep Red, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest giallo films of all time. Argento would turn to more surreal, supernatural-related horror when he made films such as Inferno and his most famous and acclaimed work, Suspiria. In 1982, he would return to the giallo subgenre to make Tenebrae, a clever murder-mystery which contained Argento’s trademark mixture of stylishness and ultra-violence. Argento had already built up a major cult following in North America by this point, but unfortunately, Tenebrae would not achieve an official release over here until 1984 and it could only be seen in a heavily censored version. But once Tenebrae was eventually released in its original uncut form, fans could see that it was one of the director’s most well-rounded and underrated works.
Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a very successful writer of horror-mystery novels who travels from New York to Rome to promote the release of his latest book, “Tenebrae” (the Latin word for “shadows” and “darkness”). He has barely landed when he find outs that a young woman has been brutally murdered in a fashion directly copied from a scene in the novel. Pages from the book have been stuffed down her throat, and the killer soon sends a letter to Peter to let him know that his novels have inspired him to go on a killing spree. It isn t long before there are more murders and Peter finds himself immersed in an investigation to find out who this mystery serial killer is. There are many potential suspects: Peter’s loyal assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi); his fedora-wearing literary agent Bullmer (John Saxon); his embittered ex-wife Jane (Veronica Lario); even a local TV interviewer named Christiano Berti (John Steiner), who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with Peter’s work. The solution to this mystery is not as easy to guess as you think, and I have to admit to being legitimately fooled at times. Even when you’re sure you’ve figured out who the killer is, there will always be something nagging away at you to make you re-evaluate things. In fact, I’m actually surprised that Argento’s final twist has never really been copied by a Hollywood film. Of course, the plotting isn’t exactly airtight and the story has its fair share of holes, but the mystery is still pretty clever and Argento will constantly keep you guessing. Besides, you won’t care too much about plot holes when the director delivers beautifully shot, ultra-gory murder scenes such as this.
Argento s inspiration for Tenebrae came from a personal experience he had with an obsessed fan, who frequently phoned him up and eventually told the director he was going to kill him. Thankfully, nothing bad actually happened, but Argento decided to use this as the basis for a story about the horror of an obsessed fan taking your work too seriously. Throughout the film, Peter Neal is often criticized for the level of violence and misogyny in his novels, a criticism which Argento has frequently faced for his work. Tenebrae represents a unique example of a filmmaker giving the middle finger to his critics while simultaneously acknowledging their concerns. That said, Argento’s themes and his plotting do take a back seat to visuals and atmosphere. One of the most iconic trademarks of Argento’s classic films was always the electronic musical scores provided by the Italian rock band, Goblin. Unfortunately, Goblin had broken up by this point, but three of the band members agreed to reunite to compose a kick-ass synth-driven soundtrack for Tenebrae. Their music greatly enhances many of the film’s set pieces and Argento certainly provides some memorable ones. The standout sequence in Tenebrae is one that involves the murder of a lesbian couple, which is set up by an unbroken two-and-a-half-minute crane tracking shot by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Suspense is built as the camera circles up and around the victims’ house and while this shot was extraordinarily difficult to film, the end result is just breathtaking to watch.
Now, even though Dario Argento is very well-regarded amongst horror fans, I d be lying if I didn’t concede that his films are an acquired taste. Argento is not a director of great subtlety, and he does tend to be very melodramatic and over-the-top at times. In particular, the climax of Tenebrae could best be described as an example of the “Argento Meter” being turned all the way up to 11. The violence, acting and filmmaking are so exaggerated that it’s hard to tell if the director is actually winking at the audience and poking fun of his own style, or if the sequence is just unintentionally hilarious. Whatever its intentions, the climax is pretty damned entertaining and Argento fans should eat it up. That said, Tenebrae is probably Dario Argento’s most accessible film. It’s pretty much a straightforward murder mystery without the touches of surreality that can turn non-fans of the director off, so casual horror viewers should still find Tenebrae entertaining. As stated earlier, Argento fans had to wait two years before Tenebrae came out in North America and unfortunately, they were treated to a heavily edited version which was released under a new title, Unsane (which is admittedly a pretty kickass title). Unsane was ten minutes shorter, had virtually all the gore and violence cut out, and parts of the story were pretty much incomprehensible. As you can imagine, horror fans were majorly disappointed, and Tenebrae did not garner the respect it deserved until the original, uncut version was finally released on home video many years later. The film now holds up as one of Argento’s best works and even those who aren’t a fan of the director should give it a look.