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Review: Tenebrae


Richard Cosgrove takes a look at Argento's classic on Blu-ray and discovers a new side to it...

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There's no denying that Italian director Dario Argento is something of a legend among horror fans, myself included, but equally there's no denying that he hasn't really done anything not only of note, but even remotely interesting in the film department in perhaps the last couple of decades. Granted, he did turn in a couple of half decent episodes of Mick Gariss's mostly enjoyable Masters of Horror offerings, but even they weren't a patch on his earlier work, of which one of the finest examples is Tenebrae.

Lumped in with the Video Nasties business nearly thirty years ago (yes, it was that long ago), Tenebrae is a wonderfully deceptive film in that every time I sit down to watch it, and I confess it's been a good decade since my last viewing, I always remember it as being a dark, serious movie, but in reality it's a very funny film, though not always for the right reasons.

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That's not to say it isn't entertaining, though, not by a log chalk. In common with what I like to refer to as Argento's other 'style over substance' films – Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) – Tenebrae (1982) hangs a series of set pieces off an emaciated plot but does so with great panache. For example, at one point a young girl (Lara Wendel, who had a somewhat controversial start to her film career, which is another story for another day) is dumped in the middle of nowhere by a boy on a moped, and begins walking home. As she passes a gate a dog suddenly lunges at her, making her (and the audience) jump out of her skin, so naturally instead of walking quickly away she begins to taunt it. Said dog then leaps over the huge gate and chases her, accompanied by some wonderfully abrasive Goblin music, straight to the house where the razor wielding killer of the piece lives. Needless to say, being an Argento movie, it doesn't end well for her.

At this point you'd be forgiven for thinking that Tenebrae isn't worth an hour and a half of your time but trust me, if you like horror comedies then you couldn't be more wrong. John Saxon (best known as A Nightmare on Elm Street heroine Nancy Thompson's police officer father) proves that he is adept at being funny in his role as the literary agent of star Anthony Franciosa's troubled author Peter Neal. His facial expressions and cheery disposition light up the screen and are the perfect complement to the bumbling cop duo of Detective Giermani (Guiliano Gemma) and his female partner Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro). On receiving a letter from the killer written in Latin, the dynamic duo deduce, with straight faces, that the killer must have studied Latin. The fact that they apparently never studied forensics, passing the note around with ungloved hands like some murderous pass the parcel, is one of many cinematic howlers that will have you laughing out loud in places.

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Before any Argento fans out there burst an artery, rest assured I'm not being disrespectful to this classic movie. It’s just a case of seeing it in a different way after so many years, a side effect perhaps of having aged a decade and seen another thousand films since my last viewing. As an example of a giallo, the crime genre that Argento helped bring to the mainstream with 1970’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (itself a genuinely great movie), Tenebrae is superb and is considered in some circles to be the director's finest film. Personally I think that honour goes to either Opera (1987) or Deep Red, but that's just my humble opinion.

The bottom line with Tenebrae is that if you're a fan of Dario, or 80s slasher flicks (which it just about meets the criteria for) then you'll love revisiting its boobs, blood and blades by way of a gorgeous new Blu-ray transfer. Purists should note that the default audio track is the awful English dub, but a quick visit to the menu saves the day with the original subtitled Italian track.

Extras are impressive and include two commentaries, one by critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones and the other by Argento expert Thomas Rostock, a (very) brief introduction by star Daria Nicolodi who also provides a retrospective look at the film, an interview with Argento himself, a featurette with composer Claudio Simonetti and, my favourite of the bunch, Goblin performing the themes to both Tenebrae and Phenomena live at the Glasgow Arches in 2011.

3 stars


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