In the second half of the ’70s, Dario Argento put aside his expertise with the flamboyant body-count mystery format known as the giallo to explore supernatural horror with Suspiria in 1977 and Inferno in 1980. He returned to the giallo in 1982 with Tenebrae. Though it stays true to the narrative conventions of its chosen genre and is not as formalistically wild as Suspiria or Inferno, Tenebrae has a heightened visceral impact and some interesting new thematic preoccupations that keep it from feeling like a retread.
Tenebrae takes its title from a novel by mystery author Peter Neal (Tony Franciosa), a New Yorker who has come to Italy to promote his work with the help of his agent Bullmer (John Saxon) and faithful assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi). Troubles immediately begin for him when a mysterious murderer begins bumping off people tied to Peter in bloody ways and leaving notes and phone messages that claim Peter’s work as an influence. Peter finds himself teaming up with local detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) to try and find the killer before the bloodshed circles back to him… but like any good giallo, the path to solving the mystery is complex, strewn with corpses and more than a little twisted.
Considering the year it was released, one could look at Tenebrae as Argento’s response to the widespread popularity of the slasher movie. That trend owes a heavy debt both in structure and bloodshed to the giallo and Argento takes delight in trumping his contemporaries with more style and more blood: highlights include a double-murder sequence that makes vertiginous use of a Louma crane to prowl over and around a house and an ax murder that transforms blood spray against a white wall into a pop-art painting. The synth-layered half-prog/half-disco score and the high fashion decor and clothing also give the film a classy, uniquely European decadence that feels grown up compared to the college and campground settings of most ’80s slashers.
Tenebrae also boasts a unique set of themes that go beyond the usual body count theatrics of American slashers. Stylized, queasy flashbacks harken back to giallo tradition by presenting a past, sexually-tinged trauma that drove the killer to a subsequent reign of terror. Freudian backstories were common in American slashers but they never had the guts to go as perverse and surreal as the flashback material goes here.
That said, much more interesting is how the killer uses Peter’s work against him to justify the killings: one gets a sense that Argento is commenting on how art is often scapegoated for societal ills and how its creators are often accused of polluting the minds of the public. Argento sometimes goes overboard in taunting his critics – notably, a feminist critic is presented as a sexually frustrated, man-resenting lesbian – but the cultural commentary here generally adds a new layer of interest one doesn’t normally get in gialli.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Argento has a cast of Euro-cult all-stars plus a few choice American actors to work with here. Franciosa has fun playing the smart if egotistical author and spaghetti western icon Gemma makes a nice contrast as the low-key but no less intelligent detective. Elsewhere, Saxon enjoys a more comedic role than usual as the charmingly sleazy agent and John Steiner pops up in a scene-stealing role as a book critic with some unique theories on Peter’s work. Special notice should go to Italian horror starlet Lara Wendel, who is highlighted in a lengthy chase-and-stalk setpiece that requires her to be attacked by a dog more than once(!).
In short, Tenebrae showed that Argento could still do plenty of stylish and interesting work in the giallo format after his sojourns into the supernatural. The film remains potent today thanks to its refined yet bloodthirsty sense of style and the cleverly-deployed themes that lurk beneath its cat-and-mouse theatrics.