****/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B
starring Anthony Franciosa, Christian Borromeo, Mirella D'Angelo, Daria Nicolodi
written and directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Dario Argento is a stylist and a fan who pays attention. His films are shrines to Hitchcock in the way that Tarantino's are shrines to grindhouse exploitation: imitations that transcend imitation by understanding what made the originals work. Argento's movies invite you to engage with them at a meta-level to appreciate them intellectually, yet are so engaging on a visceral level that it's hardly a requirement. At their best, they're phantasmagorias mashing up stuff like Cornell Woolrich, Mickey Spillane, and Edgar Wallace with Antonioni and, of course, Hitchcock. At their worst, Argento's films either perilously discard the gialli pillars that provide touchstones for him in favour of gothic horror (his truly abominable takes on Phantom of the Opera and Dracula), or desperately try to recapture old glory (The Card Player, Sleepless, and, alas, Mother of Tears).
Briefly, the "giallo" is a thriller sub-genre featuring, among other things, elaborate murder sequences, a sometimes-nonsensical and often needlessly complex central mystery, and unapologetic misogyny--and crushing amounts of it. If Hitchcock's films are essentially the confessions of a man terrified by female sexuality, then gialli are, for me at least, the expressionistic explosion of those violent loathings. It's the most Freudian of all movie genres and it's not even close. Consider multiple examples within the giallo of scrapping all pretense of art and just murdering women by stabbing them in their vaginas. Giallo's name derives from the yellow covers of the Mussolini-era pulp novels penned by Italian authors after their British and American counterparts were banned. It's an umbrella term that ultimately overlaps with stuff like Nicolas Roeg's great Don't Look Now, Hitchcock's own Frenzy from 1972, and those films of Brian De Palma that largely function as part of an exchange between him and Argento. For a while, De Palma and Argento were making extraordinary Hitchcock critiques in the form of that extant conversation. Both have alleged not to have seen the other's films--a claim I find to be at least specious, but wouldn't it be wondrous if it were true: two filmmakers responding to Hitchcock in a way that seems like a cogent, substantial dialogue.
Whatever the case, Tenebrae is Argento at his best. It's a tetchy reaction to the miserable production and critical and box-office disappointment of his Suspiria sequel, Inferno, and as such finds the creator in a nasty temper, attacking his critics and audiences by taking on an arch, meta-textual tone throughout. To belabour a comparison, look at Tenebrae as Argento's North By Northwest: a compendium of "greatest hits" delivered almost more as a rebuke than as a creation for its own sake. Though it largely eschews the Technicolor orgy of his best-known work, Tenebrae is also, visually, the director's busiest movie. Argento packs his scenes with information. In a great sequence that recalls Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a hapless fellow spends a sunny afternoon in the park as fights break out in the background between extras. The world, to parse an idea, is wrong, and he is--and we are--only just waking up to its perversion. The scene is almost immediately echoed in a packed police station where a fight breaks out in a hallway with no set-up and no resolution. There is no why. Forget it, Jake, it's the apocalypse.
It's the first of Argento's multiple career "resets," shouting back to the glorified procedurals that marked his early success. It borrows elements from Suddenly Last Summer, Peeping Tom, and, from Hitchcock, a few extreme close-ups of dilating eyes and red colour suffusions courtesy Psycho and Marnie. Crucially, while Tenebrae takes its narrative structure from "The Hound of the Baskervilles", it pulls its technical structure from Notorious in its unstable-unto-guilty protagonist and a midpoint reversal suggesting that should you fold the film in half, you'd discover that the first half mirrors the second. The idea of mirroring, of doubling, is central to the piece and pops up repeatedly in its casting and in the blocking within scenes. Glass figures loom large, with an almost fetishistic interest in reflective surfaces and screens that distort images before, often, being penetrated. And central to the film is the idea, cribbed from the Doyle story, of the dangerous, maybe supernatural night and a mystery that can't be solved because it follows none of the frank rules of rational daylight. The picture leans heavily on disguise and misdirection, and just as the "shadowy figure" on the moors in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is revealed to be Holmes, the murderer of Tenebrae--or one of them, anyway--likewise reveals himself to be the ostensible hero.
Said hero and stand-in for Argento is Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), author of a book called "Tenebrae" and, as the film opens, en route to Rome to promote it. It's telling that Argento wanted Christopher Walken--fresh off Pennies From Heaven and without his eccentric screen persona fully established yet--for the role, as Walken was not only a mere three years Argento's junior (Franciosa is twelve years older) but also something like a dead ringer for Argento circa 1981: same slight build, same nervous energy. Tenebrae opens with Franciosa's Neal riding a bike to Kennedy Airport with a sort of manic, aggressive physicality. It establishes his character immediately as a certain kind of man of action: a keeper of schedules and maker of his own fate. It's an image of virility and far from Argento's mien. I'm of a mind that Argento might have liked the masquerade of "putting on" Franciosa as his avatar. What better way to hide than in the body of a strapping alpha? After some business in the airport, Argento shifts the scene to shoplifter Elsa (Anna Pieroni), purloining a copy of Neal's book and getting nicked by the store cop. She offers sex in exchange for release, walks home in her skimpy clothes to the quiet opprobrium of a woman standing in a window (shades of the neighbours' disapproval of young love, or of young beauty, in Splendor in the Grass), is assaulted by a homeless man, and then stalked by Argento's floating perspective in her own home. Caught, she has pages of Neal's book jammed into her mouth before a straight razor opens her throat. More vicious than gory, it's nonetheless unequivocally hateful towards women: alternately leering and sexually violent. The only real surprise is that she's not simultaneously naked. What's interesting is the casting of Pieroni, who appeared as the Mother of Tears in Inferno, insinuating that what the audience most wanted (a completion of the Three Mothers trilogy begun in Suspiria and continued in Inferno), it was absolutely not going to get and fuck you for asking.
The mechanism of the murder mystery is the least interesting part of the film, but it does introduce Detectives Germani and Altieri (Giuliano Gemma and Carola Stagnaro) and with them the first images of doubling in the film. They look just like Neal and his assistant, Anne (Daria Nicolodi, Argento's real-life partner and the mother of his children). Argento and his Suspiria DP Luciano Tovoli arrange the four in a crowded frame as carefully as players on a stage. They never overlap and, often, appear as mirror images facing each other--when, for instance, Germani shows Neal a note from the murderer and discusses whether Neal thinks it likely that his books inspired the crime. It's a line of inquiry marked by criticisms that Argento had begun to field for inciting violence and glamorizing misogyny with his films. Argento uses Neal in the early going as his stand-in for the noble artist under attack: Neal makes a bad analogy to the detective ("Would you question the president of Smith & Wesson?") and, later, when a long-term friend who's now apparently a literary critic, Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo), loudly accuses him of misogyny, Neal asks what's wrong with her, since she's known him a long time. I don't know Argento, but his films are sledgehammer misogyny. This is far from a judgement of their value; if we accept the premise that giallo is largely an exploration of the masculine id, misogyny is almost the point. Additionally, a Freudian may argue that a good portion, if not all, of the male creative impulse is about sexual conquest, making this expression of consumptive, mad love the single unifying trope of the entire genre. That poor Elsa has been made to literally eat Neal's/Argento's words complicates Argento's own facile public denial. Argento may not hate women, but his films, as expressions of his fears and desires, do.
That unbridgeable duality between what can be expressed and what is desired is conveyed through Tenebrae's doubles and reflections. Crossing one into the other leads to the film's aberrant behaviour and Argento casts broadly in making the film's first killer a book critic and intellectual talk-show host Berti (John Steiner). Coded effete and wanting to engage Neal on a philosophical level about the book's impact on society, Berti becomes one enemy of Argento--the type of obsessive fan who famously stalked the filmmaker after the success of Suspiria. The second murder set-piece finds Tilde--the girl who cries "misogyny"--and her live-in girlfriend Marion (Mirella Banti) in a fight that has Marion dodging thrown water glasses. Wearing a towel that perpetually slips, Marion leans over at one point to give an angry Tilde a kiss and Argento scores it with a faint cat yowl. It's not subtle. In the aftermath of their spat, Argento follows the two women around the house, literally crawling up, over, and through its two stories from outside using the innovative Louma crane for the first time in Italy.
Marion, wanting to make up with Tilde, turns up the volume on the Goblin score, suddenly diegetic. Note that a nice, old Italian one-sheet for the Charles Vidor-directed masterpiece Cover Girl (a.k.a. Fascino), starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, decorates one of the rooms. There's a remarkable sequence in that film where Kelly, having been stood up by Hayworth, suffers a bit of a nervous breakdown on an abandoned midnight street and dances with a mirror image that has gained sentience and broken the plane into "reality" before it's trapped back in glass and shattered by a thrown trash can. Images, all, reappropriated by Tenebrae for its own tale of trauma and psychosis. It's easy to dismiss Argento as a one-trick pony, and without asking him, it's hard to know if the choice to decorat this set with a Cover Girl poster was an accident, simply meant to convey Marion's vanity, or in fact a complex, meta-textual marker, but if it's unintentional, it's a hell of a coincidence. Anyway, at the end of the elaborate camera move, Tilde's face is momentarily shielded, then framed by the neckhole of her sweater, at which point her throat is slashed. Marion, catching sight of her dead lover (in a reflection), attempts to flee but is cornered against a pane of polarized glass and defenestrated as her throat, too, is slashed. These acts are punctuated by the killer snapping a few pictures.
Tempting to see this trio of murders as punishment for transgressions or "bad sex." The better read is that the one is a message for the audience that there won't be a conclusion to the Mothers trilogy (yet), and that Argento is taking some responsibility for the content of his films, while the double-homicide is a working-through of the film's themes of doubling and disguise, voyeurism, and violence towards sexually-unavailable women. Consider that the next murder is of the landlord's daughter, Maria (Lara Wendel) whom Neal earlier described to a jealous Anne as "jailbait. That's jailbait." Never mind that he strokes his own chest where her jailbait breasts have rubbed against him. Maria is out of bounds for Neal, so Maria needs to be punished. The only way he can have her, or lesbians, is violently. The darkness referred to by the film's title is male sexuality. Argento complicates the film's misogyny by going to a flashback straight out of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer where a a group of young men ravish a beautiful woman (Eva Robins) in red high heels on a beach. One of them strikes her, leading to the others turning on him and holding him down while the woman orally rapes him with one of said heels. Later, from his point of view, we see him stabbing her to death and stealing the shoes in revenge. All of it's coded, all of it's loaded to the brim with dark Freudian implication and cultural referents for homosexuality and, through Tennessee Williams, the image of Orpheus as artist torn apart by the Maenads for his art. Argento further muddies the stew by casting Robins, a trans woman, as the siren/rapist/victim. Her death prefigures Neal's death, just as it predicts his rampage: he has become she--an idea that Brian De Palma carries to literal fruition in his response to Tenebrae, Raising Cain.
The red heels in this construction are both the offending phallus of the woman's attack on a young Neal, and the marker of a castrating woman when they're given to Neal's wayward, mercurial fiancé, Jane (Veronica Lario). He gifts them to Jane because she's having an affair with his agent, Bullmer (John Saxon). They are fetish objects reminding him of his humiliation. At the 1:01:50 mark of the film, Argento pans across a sharp sculpture in a dark room until it catches a beam of light that glints off its tip. It's at this point that Neal, awakened like a Manchurian Candidate to some assassin's secret call, takes over the role of the murderer. To this point, the culprit was Berti--but now Neal will dispatch Berti, then deal himself a serious blow to the head with a rock to cover his tracks. It's a good gambit and a better symbolic gesture of a psychotic split. Neal is destroying his superego. There is no longer a governing element to his unconscious. Argento announces Neal's freedom by his sudden seduction of his previously platonic assistant, Anne. Jane, thinking the heels are prelude to some romantic evening, puts them on and, in the film's best murder set-piece, gets her arm chopped off after it smashes through a window, the stump literally painting a white wall with her blood in an awful/beautiful expressionistic geyser. Another flashback to the murder of the woman on the beach is inserted here, in addition to shots of the scene of the crime--such as the broken window, reminding that a window had blown open prior to Jane's murder like the doors of perception blowing wide open once the amnesiac doctor remembers who he is in Hitchcock's Spellbound.
This series of events culminates in the return of the doppelgänger pair, Germani and Altieri, with Neal axing Altieri in the back and Germani holding a gun on the author while flashes of lightning indicate his psychic disturbance. Neal appears to kill himself, thus creating an appropriate pair in the surviving Germani and Anne--but it's a ruse. In a technically-brilliant film's most technically-brilliant shot, Germani bends down to inspect something on the floor to reveal Neal standing right behind him. Though commonly described as having the effect of Neal shedding the skin of his doppelgänger, I like the idea of someone holding a mirror in front of his face and then letting it drop. Our suture to the Neal character has transferred after his "death" to the very decent, if not very good, detective, Germani. Argento holds a mirror up for us to see ourselves reflected as Germani, here to wrap up the film with the usual summary, only to find ourselves looking at our previous avatar, unreliable as it might be, who also happens to be the director. We were wrong to ever trust him. We see that now.
Tenebrae is unusually cruel in telling us what fools we've been. From the start, we're told we'll never be able to solve this mystery (Germani says he's read them all, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout--and even though his trade is ratiocination, he's never once solved any of them, which elicits a pacific smile from Neal), that Argento will not be playing fair here and that the only comfort he'll provide is reassurance that we die alone and frightened. Rather than allow for a doppelgänger pair to survive, the only one left is Anne, who, framed in an open doorway against a torrential downpour, screams her knowledge that she's alone now with these experiences to re-enact them in a grotesque way, or repress them until she goes mad. It's perhaps Argento saying that if he didn't make films, he'd be in jail--and he's not the first male filmmaker to confess this. When he was labelled the "Italian Hitchcock" early in his career, who could have thought how nuanced an analysis that would prove to be.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Synapse Films delivers Tenebrae to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that will stun anyone who grew up with the movie on VHS or even DVD. There's a shot beginning at the 33:32 mark of the killer rinsing off a straight razor in a faucet that is stunning in its clarity. The stain-flecked copper faucet, the gleaming stream of water, the slimy blood, it's all so remarkably tactile. Note the grains of sand on the flashback beach, the trowel marks on the concrete tunnel where Maria learns things she shouldn't, or the individual leaves on the trees during Neal's nighttime descent into the abyss of his id. Indeed, you can even read every word on the book pages being torn out and fed to the first victim. Grain management is excellent, with no DVNR that might tip the image into the unreal. My only criticisms would be that bright highlights tend to blow out and that one of Argento's least garish films is slightly compromised by the intensity of the saturation. But yeah, it's exceptional. English and Italian soundtracks for the film are presented in 2.0 DTS-HD MA and offer wonderful atmospherics despite the monophonic source. While the dubbing remains distracting on either version, at least it hasn't been revised in such a way as to destroy the cozy familiarity of that Eurohorror convention.
Special features launch with the comprehensive 90-minute documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo, which gathers expert talking heads, plus a very salty Umberto Lenzi, who says Argento was his student and that nothing would have ever come of the lad were it not for his influence. British horror critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones (the latter of whom published a fantastic large-format book on Argento, Dario Argento: the Man, the Myths, the Magic) contribute lively thoughts on both the genre and Argento's contributions to it, including sober and fair reads of his later work. Director Richard Stanley surprised the hell out of me, though, with really smart analyses of movements and themes in giallo, tying strings together that wouldn't appear at first glance to fit. They should've tapped any of these three blokes for the audio commentary, and lest you think me sexist, I would push for Shelagh Rowan-Legg or Jace Anderson as well.
Who they got instead is Maitland McDonagh, author of Broken Dreams--for a while the only book-length study of Argento in English, back when I was first researching and writing on him. I like it fine. There are moments where I feel like it's trying to ape Pauline Kael's style, and it relies heavily on quotes from Argento and his collaborators in lieu of in-depth analysis, but it's well-researched and goes into good thematic detail on his films. Her commentary track for Tenebrae is, alas, a disaster. It's snarky and over-descriptive for its first hour and then snarky and unprepared for its last hour. I don't mean it, but it would've been better if she'd read aloud her half-chapter on Tenebrae from her book. She dishes on the fashions and their extravagance, skates over the misogyny with jokes about how in gialli, a girl takes off her shirt...or would if she had time to before getting killed. Themes she touches on in her book--doubling, for instance--are reduced to the simplistic observation that if the doubles were an accident, Argento would've recast.
There's not much backstory, not much discussion of craft--all the more frustrating because I've read McDonagh's book and I know she knows a lot of interesting things but has jettisoned them in favour of an arch tone at once hep and world-weary. The last thing I want to hear in a commentary for an Argento film is someone not taking it seriously. Her yakker feels disrespectful, and though I'm not the biggest fan, I still would've expected more from McDonagh. It's a genuinely difficult listen and a missed opportunity for a release otherwise well-considered. Also on board are English inserts of text from the book-within-the-film that can be branched into the film if you so wish; Alternate Opening Credits (2 mins.) that are what you think they are; an Alternate End Credits sequence (not remastered) from when Tenebrae was distributed in America under the title "Unsane" that use Kim Wilde's "Take Me Tonight" song (which is...how you say...terrible); an International Trailer (3 mins., SD); and a true gem of a Japanese Trailer (2 mins., SD) that contains that weird, feral kiss between Marion and Tilde along with Wilde's "Take Me Tonight," which suddenly makes sense. It spoils the arm gag in a shocking way, too, demonstrating that the Japanese know what's up. This very fine mini-movie features, too, an insert shot of an eye that I don't think appears in the movie. Oh, and it closes with a beating heart on a plate--why not? Anyway, Tenebrae is a masterwork, the transfer is reference quality, the documentary is grand. The only thing that's bad is McDonagh's yak-track (and it's really bad), but we'll always have her book--and now we have a couple of even better ones to join it. If you pick up the Jones text--and you should--there's a fascinating anecdote where Jones asks John Saxon about working on Tenebrae that I won't spoil here. Buy it. And this Blu-ray. A now-OOP Limited Edition steelbook from Synapse packages the disc with a bonus soundtrack CD.