Goon Reviews: Tenebrae (1982)

(Submitted by Andrew Peters…Thank you for the Giallo Goodness, Mr. Goon. 🙂 xoxo)

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Dario Argento is without a doubt one of the most influential horror directors of all time, even if he never gets the full credit he deserves. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino often use his style or cinematography and lighting or storytelling elements, which were always used to convey some sort of dark, ominous mood and create tension much in the style of Mario Bava and Alfred Hitchcock. Tenebrae is often considered to be his finest Giallo flick, coming back to the murder mystery genre after a couple supernatural horror flicks, Suspiria and Inferno, and consider it a return to form.

Synapse Films has finally, and painstakingly, released the film in what I think is one of the finest transfers of a film to date. I say “finally” not as impatient, but “finally” as in someone has at last taken proper care of the film to give it to fans to show them how amazing this film looked the day it was released in theaters and for a Dario Argento film, this is absolutely necessary considering his film’s camera and lighting work. The film is presented in a brand new 2K transfer that was well worth the wait, because just like I said with The Mutilator, it was like experiencing the film again for the very first time.

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Having dealt with similar issues with a stalker (although not quite to this extent), Dario Argento decided to return to his Giallo roots with Tenebrae, tell the story of a writer whose work is being mimicked by a lunatic who promises to kill him once he’s done killing the others. It’s much more complicated than that, however. It’s never that simple in an Argento flick and that’s why we watch them; for the mystery and the near Hitchcock-like suspense. Tenebrae opens with mystery, wasting no time, and keeps it rolling throughout the duration of the film to the last minute. The story tells one of a novelist Peter Neal, joined by his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) who is on his way to Rome to promote his new book of the same name with his carnival barker of an agent, Bullmer, played by A Nightmare on Elm Street alum John Saxon. Unfortunately, somebody plans on making his stay a bloody memorable one as random women are being murdered in horrific fashions, like having pages of the book stuffed in their mouth and slashed to ribbons with a straight razor.

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The body count rises as does the suspects. The police (who seem to be Peter and Anne’s doppelgangers) seem to think it’s Peter, Peter himself has a sneaking suspicion it’s an oddly obsessed TV reporter, Anne think’s it could be Peter’s ex-wife who has followed him to Rome from New York. Quite a long way for a stalker. Of course, there are more red herrings, but you can see the predicament the audience is put in and this is the fun of the movie. You’re always going to be guessing – and second guessing – who the killer is. Motives are always questioned as Peter, Anne and their other assistant Gianni sit around in a hotel with a map and pages from the book, playing detective and possibly pinpointing who the killer is. Meanwhile, someone in the shadows is having nightmares of a women sexually humiliating him, but who could this person be and could they be the killer?

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Unlike Deep Red, there isn’t any seemingly intention slapstick type humor, as the film seems to take itself more seriously, which I have to admit that it’s better for. It keeps the tone of the film at an even balance, but also like Deep Red there are very long tracking shots (most notably the one that tracks around the house for nearly three minutes) to create a sense of dread as you know the killer is stalking an individual. Obviously in the time between Deep Red and Tenebrae, Dario Argento has had time improve the tension he wants to create, which at times then felt a little dragged out. Tenebrae offers many moments of false security and can put you on edge, like when one of the characters is dropped off in the middle of nowhere only to be chased for quite a while by a dog… then lands her right into the den of the killer.

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If I talk anymore about the film, I feel like I’m going to give too much away, but I feel like you now have the basic idea of it. Without going into them too much, there is also an underlying theme of water which seems to be present before and after a scene with the killer and hints that this film could take place in a semi-quasi fascist future, like how everyone seems very upscale; seemingly rich and aside from the hobo (who comes out of nowhere and is there for no reason other than to creep you out), there is no signs of money struggles. Some of the technology hints at this too, like Bullmer’s video screen in his office. I got off topic a little bit, but I had to give examples of how complex Tenebrae can be under the surface. It’s not a straightforward murder mystery. It has a lot of twists, turns and surprises that’s sure to keep even the most die hard fan second guessing.

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All of this mystery is backed up with some glorious, bright red blood colored murder. The victims who at first seem to be random and then halfway through the film are then important characters that seem to be killed for a reason, are dispatched in some pretty graphic ways. You have your traditional throat slashes and what have you with an occasional axe to the head, but the real show stealer here is when a woman who is waiting in terror for the killer to come for her has her arm hacked off to spray a geyser of blood until the killer hacks her up. The tension is drawn out so well, I’m always at the edge of my seat when viewing this scene, probably making it one of my favorite kills of all time. Oh, and what would a Dario Argento film be without a collaboration with Goblin? Once again, it’s their score that really amplifies the intensity of scene, whether it be somebody creeping along or being butchered brutally.

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As I mentioned, Tenebrae was just re-released by Synapse Films in a brand new 2K transfer from the original negative elements that looks absolutely gorgeous. I’m still an awe over how wonderful it looked and to top it off, it’s boxed in a cool collectable steelbook. However at $40 a pop, that can seem a little steep, even if it is in a collectable steelbook. Not to say it’s not worth it, mind you. The film includes quite a few features, like featuring both English and Italian tracks with newly translated subtitles for both languages (hey, this is kind of a big deal for us Italian horror fans), an audio commentary from film critic and Argento scholar, Maitland McDonagh, an original theatrical trailer, rare English sequence shots that can be inserted into the film with seamless branching (and also restored in HD, I might add), original Unsane end credits sequence, the alternate opening sequence and my personal favorite, the feature length documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo, which chronicles the genre and the influences it had on modern slashers and includes interviews with the greats, like Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Luigi Cozzi, Richard Stanley and a whole lot more. And to top it off, there is a booklet inside with liner notes by Derek Botelho, author of The Argento Syndrome and additional technical notes by Don May Jr. and Vincent Pereira. So, yeah for $40, they make sure you get your money’s worth.

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Tenebrae is an amazing experience for Giallo fans as a film and Synapse’s new release of the film is a masterpiece. Fans who have seen it numerous times will be experiencing it for the first time and for those who have never seen it will be in for one of the finest Giallos.

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