Starring: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario
Shortly after American mystery-thriller novelist Peter Neal arrives in Rome to promote his new book (the “Tenebrae” of the title) an attractive young woman is murdered by a razor-wielding maniac who stuffs pages of Neal’s latest novel into the mouth of his victim before slashing her throat. So begins a bizarre series of horrific murders, the details of which strangely resemble the fictional murders in Neal's book. Baffled by the killings, the local police believe the author may hold the key to solving the case and turn to him for help. Circumstances change, however, when Neal himself begins to receive death threats from the killer.
Tenebrae was made during Argento’s “golden” period, coming on the heels of the excellent “Mothers” films, Suspiria and Inferno. The set-up is typical of Argento’s giallo films –a series of brutal murders are being carried out, and an artist finds himself in a position where he has to investigate. In this case, the artist is a best-selling novelist in Rome to promote his latest book. However just hours before he arrived, a young woman had tried to steal a copy from a department store and was stabbed to death when she got home, the pages of the book stuffed into her mouth.However, unlike the protagonist in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, our “hero”, Peter Neal, remains largely passive in his role in the investigation, preferring to provide insight into the possible psyche of the killer, rather than actively investigating himself. Instead he continues his press tour, and encounters a number of people who are to be involved in the case.
Peter Neal’s book has created something of a controversy, as it seems to attack, shall we say, people with alternative lifestyles. The first to confront him is lesbian art critic Tilde, who pointedly asks him why he seems to hate women. Then there is the tv presenter who seems very enthusiastic of the book’s theme of murdering “social deviants”.
Also in Rome is Peter Neal’s agent, Bullmer (the great John Saxon), who’d arrived some time before Peter to set up his press tour. Could he have a secret agenda? And what about Peter’s ex-wife, who is fleetingly spotted by both Peter and his assistant, Anne...shouldn’t she be in New York?
Whilst we ponder our suspects, we are given a couple of virtuoso murder sequences. The camera takes on the perspective of the killer as he arrives at Tilde’s house, and we are treated to a one-take crane shot as the killer climbs over the house and finds an open sky-light, and descends inside...One of the film’s iconic dvd covers shows Tilde’s frightened face framed by her ripped teeshirt –slashed with a knife as she was pulling it over her head. Another iconic shot is of her lover’s head loping back through the banister, her throat slashed (an image edited in the UK to make the red gash into a red ribbon!).
Another girl is killed for stumbling onto the killer’s identity. After she is ruthlessly chased by a Doberman (!), the girl seeks refuge in the cellar of a house, only to discover photos taken of the killer’s victims. Soon she too is dispatched...
Argento’s script is quite playful, and interestingly post-modern in it’s deconstruction of the genre. Characters discuss the art of the murder mystery, with Detective Gianni telling Peter that he’d read his book and figured out who the killer was by page 30.
Tenebrae is a very modern-looking film, and is almost the visual antithesis of his previous film, Inferno. Much of Tenebrae – including two of it’s murders – takes place in daylight. Argento also stages the film in the most modern parts of Rome, eschewing the usual pre-war buildings in favour of clean cut high-rises, shopping malls and modern concrete and glass houses.
There is a big twist in the tale which I won’t reveal but takes the film into very bizarre territory, which will have newcomers doing a serious double take. There are some audacious murders, including one which takes in broad daylight, in a crowded square. This was apparently inspired by Argento witnessing the random murder of some tourists in a hotel lobby in New York.
The film builds to an orgy of violence, four deaths which happen in quick succession to bring the film to a bloody close, and the film ends so abruptly that the surviving cast member’s screams continue well into the end credits!
One of Argento’s best works, and one which still stands up today thanks to it’s fluid camerawork and gory murders. Argento fans will get a kick from the hi-def print of the film and the great extras provided by Arrow, whilst newcomers will get to see what all the fuss is about when people say Argento was one of the great horror directors.
9 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
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