Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: September 13th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Note: complete and utter spoilers follow in the “movie” section. If you just want a recommendation, skip down the page to the “disc” section, but, in short, this is one of Argento’s finest efforts gloriously and meticulously restored on Blu-ray. Of course you want it.
There’s a moment in Tenebrae when Dario Argento’s lens zooms in a camera’s viewfinder as a mysterious killer snaps photos of a recent crime scene; it’s a subtle, seemingly innocuous filmmaking decision, yet it serves as something of a thesis for much of the director’s career in general and Tenebrae in particular. Few filmmakers have made a career out of artfully observing and capturing violence like Argento, and Tenebrae arguably finds him at his most reflexive. Years before the likes of Lucio Fulci and Wes Craven would look themselves in their respective mirrors, here was Argento acknowledging his critics before responding with a blood-spattered “fuck you” (delivered the most elaborate crane shot imaginable, of course).
But that’s only half the story with Tenebrae, a notoriously schizophrenic film that’s been long analyzed for its instances of doubling. Not only are certain incidents, motifs, and images doubled, but the film’s narrative is almost perfectly split in two. The first half is pointedly standard (if not tired) giallo fare: American horror novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) travels to Italy to promote his latest work, only to be caught up in a case of life imitating art. A murder spree directly inspired by Neal’s works has left local authorities flummoxed, so much so that they eventually consult the author himself for his unique insight. Instead, they only embolden the killer to contact Neal and confirm that his spree is a tribute to the author.
A familiar series of events unfolds, events that would have been routine for Argento by 1982, especially considering that he all but perfected the routine over the course of a decade. However, don’t mistake Tenebrae as Argento simply going through the motions: familiar though it may be, it’s an exquisitely directed reworking of his preoccupations, one that finds the director revisiting everything from the stalk-and-slash of Deep Red to the feverish nonsense of Suspiria. An incredible tracking shot captures one of the most stunning murder sequences ever captured on film, as the camera slinks, prowls, and crawls through the exterior of a house, roving from one floor to the next while Goblin’s incongruously funky score blares. If nothing else, it’s among the most purely cinematic moments of all-time and something of a statement from Argento: for years, critics lobbed their “style over substance” barbs, so he responds in kind with a garish display of thinly-plotted panache.
Bravura nonsense is very much Argento’s aesthetic, and he throws himself right into it here, crafting one delirious scene after the next. One especially inexplicable sequence involves a demented dog chasing an unwitting victim right into the killer’s lair—it’s shades of the similar scene in Suspiria, only it’s somehow even more uncanny. The dog’s preternatural tenacity—which allows it to leap impossibly over a high fence—cannot be accounted for any more than its actual presence in the film. It only functions to maneuver the victim directly into the path of the killer’s axe, almost as if Argento were looking his critics dead in the eye and boldly proclaiming “this is who I am--deal with it."
Rarely one for subtlety, Argento all but highlights and underlines this in an early scene that sees Neal berated by a book critic, who dismisses his work as utter trash. The exchange all but positions Neal as an Argento surrogate, the beleaguered but bemused artist facing criticism but similarly dismissing it himself. With this in mind, that first half of Tenebrae plays as a rebuttal of sorts—it’s Argento basically rubbing his critics’ nose into everything they dislike about his work. Meanwhile, his loyal audience is thrilled by the gaudy bloodshed and wacky non-plotting, and they—like Neal and (presumably) Argento—scoff at the notion that his art is to blame for the rash of very real violence. For all intents and purposes, Tenebrae looks to be a bold, rowdy rendition of Argento’s greatest hits.
However, an unexpected twist happens about mid-way through: everyone’s prime suspect has an axe planted right into his face, leaving both the characters and the audience at a loss. Effectively turned on its head, Tenebrae is suddenly not a simple redux at all. Suddenly, you’re not exactly sure who Argento is fucking with anymore because the film is anything but a sure thing. Despite the mid-movie death of Neal’s overzealous admirer, the murders continue; so, too, do the bizarre, semi-lucid sequences involving a young woman, prompting one to reconsider just what Argento is up to in Tenebrae.
The climax offers an answer of sorts, though in typical Argento fashion, it’s not exactly a clear one: resorting to a lurid affair subplot (an old giallo standard involving The Girl Who Knew Too Much star John Saxon, no less), the director once again leans on a familiar trope only to pull the rug from beneath the audience with a wicked reveal. It turns out that Neal himself is the film’s second killer, his long-dormant psychosexual longings having been reawakened by the first murder spree. And if Neal remains an Argento stand-in, the implications here are wry as hell—it’s easy enough for an audience to have a chuckle at the expense of critics and conservative hypocrites, but it’s a bit more difficult to confront Argento holding a mirror up to himself to reveal an uncomfortable possibility.
“What if everything they say about me is true?” Argento might as well be asking. In a remarkable moment of honesty, he considers all of the criticisms of his work and wonders if there isn’t a kernel of truth in them. Perhaps there is some twisted, perverse impulse resting at the center of his psyche compelling his art, which has already been warped and conflated with death by the film’s first killer. By extension, what accounts for us, the audience that continually craves such nastiness? That Neal is eventually killed by an artistic sculpture drives the point home: what if art will be the death of us all? Tenebrae is uneasy in a way most Argento films aren’t: rather than invite you to revel in its luridness, it leaves you wondering if you should be enjoying this stuff at all. Much like the film's first killer, we may all be a little too self-satisfied when admiring this carnage, meaning Argento's lens becomes both an accomplice and a witness all at once.
Having seen Tenebrae a few times now, it still strikes me just how terrific it is—for many years, I thought it to be the lesser cousin to Deep Red but now consider it a fitting companion piece. Revisiting the film via Synapse’s new Blu-ray release is a revelation in more ways than one: it should come as no surprise given the label’s reputation, but they’ve done an astounding job restoring Tenebrae. There’s a reason their releases sometimes take longer than other companies, and that’s because they get it right, and this is no exception. Not only is the transfer pristine, but there’s little evidence of digital tampering: quite simply, this is the best Tenebrae could look short of an immaculate 35mm print.
Of course, those who sprung for Synapse’s steelbook edition from earlier this year already knows as much and shouldn’t worry about this budgeted edition, which only includes a Blu-ray disc (as opposed to the deluxe DVD/CD treatment). Still, it doesn’t lack for extras, as both newly restored English and Italian tracks are available, as is a commentary with Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh. Some rare English insert shots are playable via seamless branching, joining some alternate opening and ending credits sequences from different territories. Two separate trailers—one international and the other specifically Japanese—give a glimpse of the marketing. Finally, feature-length documentary Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo places Tenebrae in the larger context of its genre. An essential retrospective for both hardcore fans and newcomers alike, it’s a loving examination of a disreputable genre that never quite got its due.
Placing it on a disc alongside Tenebrae is appropriate, as the giallo genre was arguably never more enraptured than itself than it was here, when Argento faced both critics and himself, refusing to blink every step of the way. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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