Synopsis: Following the worldwide success of Suspiria and Inferno, Master Of Horror Dario Argento returned to the giallo genre with the shocker that remains one of the director’s greatest. Anthony Franciosa stars as an American mystery novelist on a promotional tour in Rome who finds that his most recent book has inspired a copycat serial killer. When the psychotic impulse becomes irresistible, does freedom await in the simple act of annihilation? John Saxon (A Nightmare On Elm Street), Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red) and John Steiner (Caligula) co-star – along with a nerve-shredding score by Goblin and a mind-blowing twist ending – in this classic of sexual corruption, savage bloodshed and virtuoso filmmaking that fans and critics hail as an Argento masterpiece.

Tenebrae 7.0

eyelights: the stylistic filmmaking. the unique score. the pretty girls.
eyesores: the hammy performances. the illogical script.

I can barely explain it, but I actually appreciated ‘Tenebrae’. It’s odd, though, because, for all intents and purpose, from a purely technical standpoint, it’s not a good movie: the acting is wildly uneven, the screenplay becomes ridiculous beyond belief, and it’s filled with gratuitous nudity and violence.

However, it does have a unique style going for it.

Granted, this means that the film rides on style over substance, but Dario Argento’s visual sense pushes the picture in ways that his pen simply cannot. And, buoyed by a dramatic, evocative electronic score by three quarters of the band Goblin, it can’t do anything but leave an impression on the viewer.

In fact, the two combined are the very allure of Argento’s work, in my opinion, in that I have never seen a film of his with a solid script and top-notch performances; what makes Argento alluring is that he brings a very different aesthetic to the screen than most (all?) of his contemporaries.

The key problem is that one has to have a high tolerance for a stylistic approach over a realistic one. I can’t even think of a scary sequence that remotely looked credible: the way the actors moved, the construction of the scenes, the fashion in which the murders took place, always felt staged.

It would be easy to dismiss Argento for not thinking through the scenes logically, for just cobbling everything together on the fly, but the reverse is quite true: some of his montages (ex: the dolly shot from one victim across the roof to another and back) are extremely elaborate constructions that he must have spent a lot of time developing.

In fact, he also claims to have spent three months in seclusion to write the script for ‘Tenebrae’ – something which astounded me, because I suspected that it had been written over a drunken weekend: the dialogue is trite, the situations contrived, the motives for the killings incredibly flawed.

But, perhaps this gives credence to the notion that he’s more about style. Perhaps writing a script for him is a process to innovate, to come up with new ways to shoot scenes, to construct otherwise dime-a-dozen killings with novel approaches. Perhaps the time he invests is simply in other areas, thereby coming short on the basics.

If such were the case, I wish that he would collaborate with an exceptional screenwriter instead of relying on his own screenplays. For instance, he could provide the basic premise or outline and then let someone else develop it, flesh out the characters and write more thought-out dialogue. He would then imprint the film with his particular touch.

Still, the basic idea for ‘Tenebrae’ is quite good. It’s about Peter Neal, a horror novelist who goes to Italy on a promotional tour for his new book and finds himself tied to a series of murders. As the death count rises and the murderer strikes closer and closer to him, he discovers that his own life may be in danger. Complicating things are the number of mysterious characters and red herrings buzzing around him, including a fragmented ex-wife and an obsessed fan.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

The problems are innumerable, but not necessarily insurmountable. Here are a few of them:

-In the beginning, Neal leaves his luggage on the ground at the airport to go take a phone call. In the short time that he stepped away, mere meters from the bag, someone took it and secretly ransacked its content, casting the luggage aside. Bizarrely, Neal thought nothing of the fact that it had been moved, and only thought of looking inside much later.

-A young shoplifter goes home, but is accosted by a homeless man along the way. She feels compelled to run home from this incredibly persistent harasser (everyone knows that creepy homeless people are sexual abusers, right?!) and barely makes it past the gate. After which she is slaughtered by an intruder in an awkward fashion.

-Neal receives a phone call from the killer while being interrogated by the police. He automatically assumes that the killer is across the street and waves the police to go find him/her. They (obviously!) wordlessly understand what he means and run out into the street to an empty phone booth – a phone booth the killer may never have been at in the first place.

-A lesbian couple have an argument over a sexual encounter with a third party that they had agreed to an hour prior. Despite hearing sounds outside and a creepy voice in her room, one of them proceeds to undress instead of checking the area out for the source of the noise. Her girlfriend comes down the stairs, finding her dead and runs back up to her room – only to be brutally murdered in the staircase by a killer that was nowhere to be seen until then, and who should have been downstairs.

-In a fascinating sequence, the daughter of the hotel manager Neal is staying in gets chased by a vicious Doberman – a dog so tenacious and athletic that it quite literally jumps over tall fences to get to her. The whole thing didn’t make any sense because there was no one anywhere in this whole sequence, as though she were alone in the whole world with this dog. It was nonetheless impressive to watch. But then she just happens to escape the dog by falling into the serial killer’s lair, proceeds to manhandle all his/her documents and shoving them in her pockets. She then proceeds to being chased and despatched by the murderer – who hadn’t heard the dog or heard her break in, but now suddenly pops up when she’s about to make a phone call. So much of this was absurd I don’t even know where to begin. So I won’t.

-Neal’s agent is murdered in an open space surrounded by people. The killer actually walks across the square towards him with a long knife and proceeds to stab him multiple times. And no one notices. Oh, except for a dazed woman who walks over and only realizes he’s been stabbed when she is inches from him – as though she couldn’t see all the blood from 50 meters away!

-Neal goes to spy on a TV interviewer who has an unusual interest in his novels. He brings along one of his assistants and, after they separate, his assistant sees the interviewer gets axed by the murderer. He also hears him confess to the murders before being killed, even though he’s at a distance – enough of a distance that he can’t at all see the axe-wielding lunatic. Ironically, he wouldn’t remember the confession until later – even though this seems like an important detail that one would be hard-pressed to forget.

-Neal’s ex-wife gets chopped up (quite literally) by the killer in what is the most grandiose murder sequence in the film. This one is also unrealistic, but it’s so visually stunning that it doesn’t matter. The perfect example is when her arm gets severed, and she proceeds to cover a wall with her blood in a fan-like fashion. It’s completely gratuitous, but there is nonetheless an artistic quality to it – it’s beautiful in a twisted sort of way.

-The police detective shows up mere moments later with Neal’s other assistant, Anna, and finds the killer suddenly lumped in the corner, shaking. Unable to escape, the killer commits suicide by slitting his/her own throat. Not only is that ridiculous, but the detective doesn’t even check to see if the murderer is actually dead. Which he/she isn’t. Obviously. Le sigh…

-The detective and Anna run out to his car, and then he runs back in for unknown reasons. He gets killed. Somehow, in the thunder and rain, locked inside a car across the street, the assistant hears the commotion and runs across the way to see what’s happening. In trying to open the door, a statue that had fallen against it inside the house goes flying and pins the killer against the wall, thereby killing him/her. Anna screams ceaselessly like a lunatic.

-Finally, throughout the film, the killer’s motive is explained in a dream-like flashback. What makes no sense is that it is slowly revealed from the beginning even though it’s only related to the second killer – not the first one who started the onslaught. It’s bad enough that the whole recollection looks like it was staged by a high school drama class, but the fact that it surreptitiously overlapped the two killers was dishonest at best. Furthermore, the events taking place in that flashback do not justify the killer’s actions and total breakdown at all. So, all around, it was a terrible device.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

The performances are mostly slipshod. While I felt in ‘Il cartaio‘ that the actors may have been hampered by delivering their lines in English instead of their native Italian, I found that even some of the English speaking actors weren’t in top form here (in particular, I was aghast by John Saxton’s turn in ‘Tenebrae’). Having said this, the best of the bunch was, without a doubt American actor Anthony Franciosa, who struck a natural tone throughout, even in his most intense moments. I was quite impressed with him. The rest, though, were mostly a bag of hammers.

I really enjoyed the music in this picture. While I’ve grown to like much of the music in Argento films (out of curiosity, I crammed most of Goblin’s oeuvre in the last few years – a good primer if anything is), I must say that the music in ‘Tenebrae’ is distinctive even in their already quite unique repertoire. It’s filled with synthesiser-driven, prog-rocky themes. While this truly not my favourite genre, they have a sound that is quite their own – even John Carpenter’s theme to ‘Halloween‘ is inspired by their work. I wish I had more of their CDs, quite honestly.

If not for Goblin, and if not for Argento penchant (and skill) for artistic visual flourishes, I can’t fathom that I would have appreciated ‘Tenebrae’ – I probably would have given it maybe a 5.5 (or 6.0 at best). What’s amazing to me is that it is considered one of Argento’s best. Granted, I have yet to see all of his pictures, but I would hardly call this one a masterpiece. So, if this were indeed an example of Argento at the top of his craft, either I don’t get it, or fans have a different set of standards than I do.

But I will find out. There is a lot more Dario Argento on my plate.

Date of viewing: November 8, 2012

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