After helping to pioneer Italy’s budding giallo genre throughout the 1970s with influential titles like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red, Dario Argento took a brief sabbatical from the lurid thrillers to explore supernatural elements in Suspiria and Inferno. When the latter failed at the box office, he made a triumphant return to gialli in 1982 with Tenebrae (sometimes spelled Tenebre; originally released in the US as Unsane).
While his American contemporaries were trying to come up with inventive instruments of death to propel slasher films, Argento was designing more lavish ways to film his kill scenes. Suspiria remains his crowning achievement, but Tenebrae finds the filmmaker bringing his honed visual panache to the giallo sandbox in which he made a name for himself. The result stands not only as one of Argento’s strongest efforts but also a landmark giallo work.
Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa, Death Wish II) is a bestselling American author promoting his latest horror novel, Tenebrae, in Rome. When a girl is found murdered with the pages of his book stuffed in her mouth, local authorities seek Peter’s expertise in solving the mystery. The deaths don’t stop there, as the killer targets other “human perverts.” The plot, including the big reveal, relies on several contrivances, but it remains engaging all the way through its blood- and rain-soaked finale.
Tenebrae serves as Argento’s metafictional response to the vocal criticism lobbed at his previous work, and its themes are evergreen. Peter is accused of misogyny for victimizing women in his work. The finale shrewdly drives home the concept of dangerous art. Queerdom ties into the plot of both the film — not just in the form of fetishized lesbians but also subtextually with a hypnotic beach scene that employs transgender actress Eva Robins — and the book within.
A master of mise en scène, Argento often favors style over substance. Tenebrae is one of his more straightforward efforts — and it succeeds because of it — but the filmmaker still appeals to his surreal sensibilities in the psychosexual dream sequences peppered throughout the film. Each one is set to off-kilter, disco-infused prog rock composed by Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante, three-fourths of the then-recently disbanded Goblin (Suspiria, Deep Red).
Reuniting with Suspiria cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Argento accomplishes some of the most spellbinding set pieces of his career in Tenebrae. An elaborate, two-and-a-half-minute crane shot that voyeuristically tracks three stories of a house does nothing to advance the narrative, but the impressive technical achievement paired with the dynamic score make it captivating.
It’s fun to imagine an Argento movie starring Christopher Walken, who was reportedly offered the role of Peter, but Franciosa holds his own in one of his few leading roles. John Saxon plays Peter’s agent, providing some levity with his beloved fedora — incidentally portending his future tenure in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Giuliano Gemma (The Leopard) chews the scenery as the lead detective on the case. Argento’s muse and then-wife Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red) plays Peter’s secretary, while his proteges Lamberto Bava (Demons) and Michele Soavi (Cemetery Man) make uncredited appearances.
Tenebrae‘s baroque set design and vivid colors are absolutely stunning on Synapse Films’ 4K Ultra HD edition. The impeccable restoration from the original camera negative, presented with Dolby Vision, brings the already-elegant visuals to new heights. The film is presented in its original, uncut form, with restored original DTS-HD MA lossless Italian and English 2.0 mono soundtrack options.
If you held off on last year’s limited edition set, the standard edition provides a more affordable alternative. It lacks some of the bells and whistles, most notably the second 4K UHD disc with the truncated US cut of the film; an interesting footnote for completists though not one I’d ever choose to watch over the original version. The new edition features reversible artwork and all the same special features.
Three archival film historian commentaries are included. Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths, & the Magic author Alan Jones and novelist/critic Kim Newman are paired for a casual but informative discussion about the film. Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento author Maitland McDonagh hosts a scholarly, analytical track. Argento expert Thomas Rostock digs into the picture’s thematic and aesthetic aspects.
Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo is an 89-minute documentary from 2016 with Argento, Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox), Richard Stanley (Hardware), and more who were present in the thick of the giallo movement, along modern experts. Documentarian Calum Waddell explores the roots of the genre, from the pulp mystery novels for which it’s named to the influence of Alfred Hitchcock. The interviewees discuss the key giallo movies and filmmakers, citing Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much as the progenitor, along with some more obscure recommendations.
Other special features include: Voices of the Unsane, a 2008 featurette with Argento, Nicolodi, Robins, Tovoli, Simonetti, and Bava; individual interviews with Argento, Nicolodi, Simonetti, McDonagh, and actor John Steiner; a brief introduction by Nicolodi circa 2013; an alternate opening credit sequence; the Unsane end credit sequence; two trailers; and six galleries of promotional materials (Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, US, and miscellaneous).
Drawing inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Tenebrae is a classic giallo that adopts familiar tropes as it follows an amateur sleuth weeding through red herrings to catch a black-gloved killer targeting beautiful women. As he was known to do in his prime, Argento elevates the murder/mystery proceedings with visual flourishes and unabated bloodshed to craft a unique experience that’s as opulent as it is visceral.