Tenebrae (aka Tenebre, aka Unsane) (1982)

Tenebrae first published by VODzilla.co

Psychological stories typically come with a primal scene – a significant, scarring incident from the past which influences what is happening in the present, and which holds the key to some sort of resolution, or at least understanding, of otherwise irrational motivations and events. Dario Argento’s Tenebrae features (at least) two primal scenes, one internal, the other external. The classic internal one is a sequence, revealed in unfolding flashbacks, of an adolescent male humiliated and punished by a young, sexually forward woman (played by transsexual actress Eva Robin’s) for attempting to bring her sexual assertiveness to a violent end. Whoever this young boy may grow up to be, in his formative years, once the girl has stood over his supine body and forced the stiletto heel of her red shoe into his mouth in a crude, debasing parody of rape, the sexual repression already present in him becomes distorted into murderous misogyny. This is the ground zero of at least some of the killings that will dominate Tenebrae, Argento’s reflexive return to his giallo roots after several recent forays into more supernatural terrains (Suspiria, 1977; Inferno, 1980). For this is both whodunnit and whydunnit, as the bodies pile up in the modernist suburbs of Rome. 

Primal scene

The other primal scene exists outside the text of Tenebrae itself. For in 1980, while he was living in Los Angeles, Argento found himself being repeatedly contacted, and eventually stalked, by a fan whose messages quickly turned threatening. This has obviously shaped the situation of the film’s protagonist, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), who also receives menacing calls and letters from a stranger in response to his art, and who is clearly in many ways a figure for Argento. Neal may be a novelist rather than a filmmaker, but the books for which he is famous are sensationalist murder mysteries, closely akin to the yellow-covered pulp fiction which gave its name to the whole giallo (literally ‘yellow’) genre in which Argento made his name. And like Argento, Neal often has to fend off charges of misogyny from those who confuse the art with the artist. This very confusion is playfully staged in Tenebrae, which dramatises the realities that both inform, and are informed by, Neal’s fictions, and reveals art itself as the ultimate killer. 

The Latin for ‘darkness’, Tenebrae is an ironic title for a film whose events unfold either in broad daylight or else in well-lit nocturnal interiors. It is also the title of Neal’s latest novel, which he has come from New York to Rome to promote. Yet shortly before Neal lands in Italy, an unseen figure watches a sexually confident young woman (Ania Pieroni, Inferno) stealing a copy of Tenebrae from a store. The figure follows her home, stuffs pages from the pilfered novel in her mouth (literally making her eat Neal’s words) and then cuts her throat, painting the wall with her blood before photographing her corpse (even as Argento also films it). Given that Neal’s novel is not only found at the scene but also itself concerned with a murderous rampage, Neal is soon contacted by the investigating detective Captain Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and his assistant Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro), who worry that the sinister anonymous messages being received by the novelist may point to a deranged fan about to embark on a killing spree. Himself a fan of the author’s work, Giermani soon forms an odd partnership with Neal, as they bring together their complementary skills – of real detective work and of mystery plotting – to try to solve the case. 

The art of murder

As more and more people – at first all women – are killed, and all the victims are either acquaintances or neighbours of Neal, the author grows to suspect that the killer may be television’s literary critic Christiano Berti (John Steiner), a man as obsessive about Neal’s fictions as he is puritanical about others’ sexual mores. Yet the person calling Neal sounds female, and Neal also keeps catching glimpses of his fiancée Jane (Veronica Lario), with whom relations have recently soured, out and about in Rome when she is supposed to be back home in America. Meanwhile Neal’s family friend Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo), who disapproves of the treatment of women in Neal’s writings, as well as Neal’s agent Bullmer (John Saxon) and assistant Anne (Argento’s real-life partner Daria Nicolodi), are all around, even as Bullmer’s young intern Gianni (Christian Borromeo) – who briefly goes out, and parts badly, with a future victim (Lara Wendell) – serves as Neal’s guide and gopher in Rome. 

Tenebrae is all at once a twist-heavy giallo and a sophisticated meta-giallo, as Giermani and Neal, in repeatedly discussing the mechanics and modes of Neal’s chosen literary form, are also providing a constant commentary both on the genre in which they have become involved, and on the slippery connections between the minds of a killer and of a creator. Instead of confronting his own critics head-on with the falsehoods of their claims about his own unsavoury, woman-hating makeup, writer/director Argento entertains the idea that everything his critics say is absolutely true, and follows that notion through to its logical conclusion with shrill abandon. All the hallmarks of a giallo – and more specifically of an Argento giallo – are here. The killer sports the black gloves typical of the genre, and Argento, as always in his films, modelled the gloves himself in the murder scenes. Goblin, who provided the memorable soundtracks for Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria, may by now have disbanded, but their key personnel reunited to score Tenebrae with driving electro-pop tracks. Argento’s reputation for technically elaborate set-pieces and stylised mise-en-scène is here instantiated in modernist, even brutalist locations (especially the killer’s house, in fact the home of architect Sandro Petti) and a bravura two-and-a half-minute crane shot which peeps voyeuristically into one window of a house (wherein a pair of arguing lesbian lovers occupy different rooms) before passing other windows, rising over and across the house’s tiled roof and down to another window (which the killer then enters). “Turn it down!” screams Tilde to her bisexual partner Marion (Mirella Banti) at the end of this crane shot, surprising us with the revelation that the loud synthesised score which we had till now imagined was extradiegetic is in fact being spun on Marion’s record player inside the house. 

For in this film arguably more than in any of Argento’s others, the boundaries between inside and outside, between actuality and invention, and between artist and artefact, are repeatedly confounded and broken down. What remains at the end is a filmmaker who has called his critics’ bluff, and taken full responsibility, direct or indirect, for every depraved action and image in his film, even as he leaves us wondering what part our watching may have played in this tawdry tragedy where art itself becomes weaponised.

Summary: Dario Argento’s return to giallo was also a sophisticated staging of both the genre and his part in it as atrocity artist 

© Anton Bitel