Make no mistake, Tenebrae is an extremely bloody movie with a good deal of violence and graphic depictions of death and even dismemberment. It's also a very well done and suspenseful mystery that manages to keep the audience guessing at every step and shows off some of Argento's great talent with the camera.
Censorship isn't an ideal I'm likely to support anyway, but somehow the idea of censoring a poorly acted, micro-budget movie-in-name-only that very few people are likely to see anyway is just a little bit easier to take than the idea that an artistic and stylistic film like this should be pulled from the shelves.
Tenebrae (also known as "Tenebre" - more later) focuses on an American novelist named Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) whose latest book (entitled "Tenebrae") has become an international best seller. Everything seems to be coming up green until Peter journeys to Rome on a promotional tour for the book. There the police tell him of a gruesome murder carried out exactly as Neal described the first murder in the pages of Tenebrae. If the message wasn't clear enough, the killer has stuffed torn out pages from Tenebrae into her mouth as she dies. Obviously Peter has an alibi, but the news more than disturbs him, especially when he has just discovered the contents of his luggage savagely mutilated.
And the murders continue to follow in the order of the books. The police, led by Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnaro), are baffled. Peter's agent, Bullmer (John Saxon) is equally worried about Peter's life and his press junkets. The press, especially Journalist Christano Berti (John Steiner) begins to speculate that the message of Tenebrae is the punishment of "deviants" and some fan out there is taking his fiction and making it their inspired reality. Just looking for Peter's fans won't work. As one of the most popular writers in the world, even Giermani, Berti and Saxon himself are true fans. Further, Peter gets similar loyalty from his close staff, including Gianni (Christian Borromeo) and Anne (Dario's real life lover and the mother of his daughter Asia, Daria Nicolodi).
As the murders keep going, it becomes clear that the circle is closing in on Peter and nobody is safe, not his inner circle and not him. It's at this point that Peter and company begin to take the investigation into their own hands. Just who is this killer or killers? Who knows more than they are telling? Just why did Peter's ex-wife Jane McKerrow (Veronica Lario) show up in Rome right around the time Peter did? And what of these strange, dreamlike sequences surrounding a "Girl on a Beach" played by Eva Robins? The answers don't come easy, but when they do come, they more than leave their impact.
Many of these answers may take time to unravel, even after the final credits. Most viewers will be enthralled by the mystery, as well as the impressive package this mystery is presented within. Like the character of Peter Neal, Dario has a fine staff surrounding him on this picture. Just about everything was thought of by the crew on this one. This could partially be due to the fact that Tenebrae was a family effort. Dario himself is credited as both Director and Writer (though "George Kemp" shares the credit in some prints) while Claudio and Salvatore Argento serve as the producers. If that's not enough in the "Family Affair" category, Lamberto Bava, son of Dario's mentor Mario, served as assistant director on this film.
Every scene is well lit and bright, even the night time scenes, creating some interesting inversions of formulae. The lighting also serves to amplify the colors in this film, making the whites very white, the Earth tones striking and the Deep Reds very, very red! The music, by Simonetti Morante Pignatelli (AKA: Goblin's Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli and Claudio Simonetti) feels dated from this many years later, but unlike many electronic scores of the day, this one manages to hold up well and support, not detract from, the overall story and suspense. To amplify his steady directing, Argento also hired veteran Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli.
A particular scene of note that is (and should be) mentioned in any serious discussion of Tenebrae (and this qualifies, amazingly enough) is the long and paced tracking shot that explores the in and outside of the home of reporter Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo). Unlike many of the long, cut-free shots that are heralded, this one takes a great many angles and even levels, moving in and outside of windows, casing the house like an unseen intruder and bringing the viewer along with it. What makes this so memorable is more than just what we're shown. The choreography it took to orchestrate this set piece with actors, crane and camera alike playing characters for the amount of time they do is a credit to Tovoli and Argento.
With this much praise one might expect Tenebrae to be a perfect film. As good as it is, Tenebrae does have its flaws. One of these is the mismatched dubbing that we get over the lips of even the American actors. Commonly, when reviewing a movie like this, it's easy to say that in the original, non-dubbed, version of the film this isn't an issue, and it's the original that reflects a more perfect version. However, in this case that argument won't hold water. There is no non-dubbed version of Tenebrae. Like many Italian films of this era, Tenebrae was filmed with the actors speaking English. Italian prints were dubbed in Italian, English prints were dubbed in English and so on. Speaking of Language, the opening credits detail the reading of the novel Tenebrae in English... at least in the close up shots. In the slightly further away shots of the book in the Killer's hands, the language on the page is clearly Italian. Similarly there are some very odd jump edits in the cutting job by Franco Fraticelli. The editing also extends to continuity issues that most high-quality pictures can avoid. There is also no dearth of melodramatic moments in this film which stand in stark contrast the the serious moments and fine acting usually herein. These disconcerting moments tend to distract from an overall well done film.
Also like many Italian films of this era, Tenebrae was released in multiple nations under multiple names. You may remember it from its edited US release title Unsane. One release even renamed the film as "Inferno", which is actually the title of another Dario Argento film that made the Video Nasty List. Most interestingly, the title of this film changes in spelling depending on where you see it written. In the movie the book's title is "Tenebrae" (which is the title I use, as this is a movie about the fictional book). Further, the opening credits spell the title "Tenebrae". On the other hand, the promotional materials use the title "Tenebre" (without the "a"). IMDB.com lists the title as "Tenebre" and refers to "Tenebrae" as an "undefined" alternate title. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia entry lists the title as "Tenebrae" with "Tenebre" as the "Also Known As" parenthetical notation. The original poster for the film as well as the original soundtrack album list the film's title as "Tenebre". However, the film was released in England as "Tenebrae" and it was "Tenebrae" that was pulled from the shelves by the British Authorities and it was "Tenebrae" that the Director of Public Prosecution banned as a Video Nasty. It was "Tenebrae" that was released in England after cuts were made to appease the British Board of Film Classification and it was "Tenebrae" that was finally released in England uncut on DVD. Then again... it was "Tenebre" that was released uncut in the United States.
What's the proper spelling? The word is Italian (from the Latin) for "Shadow" or "Darkness" (making the lighting motifs all the more ironic) and both spellings are used in Italian. The short answer, if you want it, is: "Who cares? Take your pick!" People still want to argue about it though. Ah, well... Big controversy, like a Video Nasty censoring translates into free publicity as does, interestingly enough, small controversy like disagreements over spelling.
Let me know if you all have trouble spelling "J.C.", okay?
Tenebrae by any name is a very fine horror suspense mystery worth the time of anyone who loves good film making and has an iron constitution. Dario Argento keeps the viewer guessing as much as he does the characters in the film itself and that leads to a refreshing and repeatable viewing experience. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for the flawed, but fine and often re-named film Tenebrae. It's no longer banned in the UK and it's no longer cut in the USA. You'd have to be "Unsane" to pass up this one now that it's out of the shadows now. Luckily none of my fans (misguided in taste though they may be) have ended up becoming serial killers. They do seem to get more and more obsessed with Lesbian Sex, Obscure References to forgotten pop culture and Etymology, but that's never hurt anybody. Luckily computers tend to be too big to shove into people's mouths anyway. At least I hope so. You kids be good, okay?
Out of the Shadows and into the Darkness...
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