Most of the genres utilized in the art of cinema had the origins over here in the United States. Like fine cuisine most of these types of films have been adopted by film makers in other countries who then went on to add their own style and flair. One of the best examples of this has been the variation afforded to horror films in different countries. There is little doubt that one nation has created a new flavor to horror that it is snow a genre unto itself; Italian horror. At the forefront of this very stylized new format was one man in particular; Dario Argento. He has been called the Italian Wes Craven and in many ways that title fits. He has carved out a niche that many have imitated but as yet no one has surpassed. While many horror films made over in Japan have been co-opted and diluted with American remakes the films of Argento typically remain as foreign film classics. One of his more controversial films has been around for decades but is now finding new life on DVD; ‘Tenebrae’. It combines Argento’s unique style with more violence that most horror films posses. It was actually banned in England for what was referred to as excessive sexualized violence. There are at least four variations out there; the one offered here by Anchor Bay is the 101 minute long American director’s cut.
Typical of a Argeno film he is the writer and director. This movie is a prime example of an Argento story. It is more complicated than most horror films utilizing numerous plot twists and layers as a foundation for the brutal and bloody horror. This story is one that employs themes well used in the horror world; obsession and chaos. Here Argento piuts them against other, playing them out in the deeply disturbed mind of a serial killer. He is a man who maintains order in his world through his murders yet circumstances seem to always arise with the unexpected forcing him to act outside his murderous psychological profile. One plot device that is all too often neglected in modern horror flicks is that of a mystery. Many American films of this sort rely on some supernatural creature that is the incarnation of pure evil to slash his way merrily across a group of twenty-somethings. Here, the heinous acts do come to the attention of the police and instead of relegating the detectives to a minor character Argento places him right in the middle of the action. The basic story has been seen in everything from mystery films to television crime dramas. A well known but somewhat of a hack horror novel author discovers that his latest book about a slasher murderer is being used as a template for real killings. Sometimes a simple plot is best since it does provide a familiarity for the audience. In the hands of someone like Argento it also permits him to lull his viewers into a false sense of security highlighting the twists that he is famous for providing. While this may seem like something ripped from a ‘Murder She Wrote’ episode but this is a level of gore that Jessica Fletcher never imagined.
Argento has stood on the shoulders of some of the greatest directors of all time. He freely uses techniques others have developed but he does so with his own, unique variations. There is one thing that Argeto has mastered that places him above others in the genre; he has mastered suspense. In so many flicks you know that someone is going to get horribly slain by the all too familiar music queue or swooshing sound effect. Argento will let the camera follow a person and suddenly they are in front of the killer. You may know they are going to be numbered among the victims but Argento builds to the moment; of course he is not opposed to some creepy organ music for a little foreshadowing. He knows how to set up a camera for interesting angles while the lighting creates shadows that invoke an emotional response. He is an artist in the way he exhibits his story; always shifting the perspective. For those horror fans that are new to the Argento experience don’t worry, he has never been shy about letting the blood flow and flow it does in this film. He revels in the dark corners of the human psyche and gleefully splashes the terror on the screen. His films are for many an acquired taste. The method he uses to make artsy horror flicks falls outside of the expectations of many. We have been spoiled here in the States with the mundane. Girl runs, shadowy figure follows, she screams and her clothes rip off. He kills the girl. Okay, this does go on in most Argento films but he does so with more panache than usual.
The film opens with a close up of a book as the voice over reads. The words in the book are about obsession, torture and murder. The passage is from the latest novel by author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa). He is well known for the graphic nature of his novels and is currently on a book tour promoting his current one, ‘Ternbre’. The reading continues that the murderer in the novel broke the ultimate taboo and rather than finding guilt or anxiety but freedom. At the airport the mystery begins as Neal momentarily misplaces his bag. A woman stands nearby moves off the line and knocks on a telephone booth signaling another, better dressed woman. The watch as Neal’s plane takes off for Rome. In Rome a beautiful young woman, Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) is browsing in a little store. She comes upon a copy of ‘Tenebre’. When she thinks no one is looking she slips a second copy into her purse. Before she can walk out Elsa is apprehended by the store’s security manager. Elsa tries to flirt her way out of going to jail and the manager seems to fall for it. It is not Elsa’s day; she is attacked by a homeless man that gets a knee in the groin for his troubles. She is relieved when she gets home but a strange feeling seems to persist. Elsa tries to make a phone call but the line is dead; never a good sign in a horror flick. She sees the homeless man outside here window and backs away from him. A pair of black gloved hands grabs her from behind. The killer begins to slash her throat, slowing. To keep her from screaming he tears pages from the book and stuffs them in her mouth. A TV reported, Christiano Berti (John Steiner), picks up on the pages in her mouth and tries to connect the book and its subject to the murder. He develops a keen interest in Neal who just happens to be in Rome at the time. Adding to the mix is the police officer on the case, Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) who feels the pages where just a coincidence and Neal’s ex-wife, Jane (Veronica Lario), who was the sinister woman in the airport. The murder soon becomes part of a serial killer’s profile as other fall victim. Among them is journalist Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo) and her lover, Maria (Lara Wendel). It is beginning to look as if there might be so truth to the book having something to do with the murders.
You have to remember that this film was made in 1982; it is 26 years old and often shows its age. Some of the outfits that were considered provocative back then are tame by today’s much looser standards. Also the inclusion of American actors Anthony Francisosa and John Saxon dates the film. They were all over the place in little films and television and were a staple of the decade. This DVD releases is from Anchor Bay and they do well considering the age of the material. The video is not as crisp as we are used to but acceptable. The Dolby 5.1 audio is rather flat most of the times with little in the way of surround effects. There are some interested extras provided. There is a commentary track with Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curei. Together they do cover some interesting aspects of the film. Featurettes include ‘Voices of the Unsane’, ‘The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Agrento’ and ‘Creating the Sounds of Terror’. This is a must have for Argento fans and anyone else interested in a different take on the genre.