Tenebrae (1982)

A film poster with the main image a woman's upper shoulders and head on a black background. Facing upwards with her head arched back, she is drained of color, save for her red hair and the red line of blood where her throat has been cut. Above, "DARIO ARGENTO. TENEBRAE". Underneath, the film credits.

By the 1980’s, the face of horror cinema had changed. The horror films of the 1980’s had twice the gratuity, half the sensibility and none of the sophistication of 1970’s horror cinema. Films like The Exorcist, The Omen  and Deep Red would never have been appreciated in mainstream 1980’s cinema, in the 1980’s slasher flicks were incredibly popular, everybody loved zombies and thought provoking commentary was a rare commodity, but instead of lingering in the mentality of 1970’s sophisticated yet subtly artistic horror, Dario Argento opted to move with the times. In the 1980’s, Dario Argento would be creating hyper violent, fantastical horror films with an almost Gothic edge, starting with Tenebrae, his return to the Giallo genre after a 5 year hiatus working with George A Romero on Dawn Of The Dead, and creating two out of three entries into his legendary Mother trilogy.

Tenebrae is Dario Argento’s 5th Giallo film, and it’s definitely a film that’s much more gratuitous and much less sophisticated than the films he had created in the 1970’s. It’s a film that lacks the artistic precision, the beautiful cinematography and the slow, tense sequences that made his earlier works so fondly remembered. Despite this, however, I feel that Tenebrae still displays a lot of Dario Argento’s strengths, especially when it comes to well-written characters and intriguing mystery. There’s no shying away from the fact that Tenebrae contains a lot more sex and violence than his previous works, especially since Tenebrae gained a place on the infamous ‘Video Nasty’ list, but Tenebrae is more casual than his earlier works. Confusing plots are replaced with an easy to follow, self-contained story – one which focuses on character interaction over having an in-depth mystery  – and slow, suspenseful sequences have been replaced with dynamic chase sequences and intensely graphic death scenes. Tenebrae definitely showcases a style very different to Dario Argento’s other works, but it’s a style that’s not wholly unwelcome.

The story of Tenebrae is one that feels ‘smaller’ in comparison to his earlier works. The film’s story is very streamlined, and the film uses fewer sets and fewer characters than his previous works, but the sets are atmospherically claustrophobic and the characters are entertainingly identifiable. I feel that Tenebrae capitalizes on it’s potential by fully utilizing it’s smaller, detailed settings, and by focusing on the characters and their relation to the overall story. Unlike his previous works, the characters in Tenebrae are given more character developement than in his previous films, with each character, no matter how small, having an identifiable, yet realistic personality, thus giving each character their own uindividual uniqueness. It stops the side characters from blending in with the rest of the supporting roles, a problem that was evident in Dario Argento’s earlier works, especially the ‘Animal’ trilogy. Even the killer’s victims are given their own individual story-lines that helps flesh them out, making them feel like real people before they are ultimately slaughtered in a gloriously gory fashion.

Tenebrae is a film that’s made up of great actors – Daria Nicoladi, John Saxon and Giuliano Gemma to name but a few – and each give great performances as the film’s supporting characters that’s only slightly damaged by Italy’s use of over-dubbing films. However, the main protagonist, a writer by the name of Peter Neal who is portrayed by veteran actor Anthony Franciosca, is possibly Dario Argento’s most intelligent protagonist to date. The character of Peter Neal is one that handles each situation sensibly and intelligently, providing scope and depth, helping the character stand out amongst Argento’s previous protagonist characters and horror protagonists as a whole.

The strongest aspect of Tenebrae, however,is the film’s fantastic plot. For such a self-contained story, one which was inspired by Dario Argento’s own experience with a stalker, there’s a lot of subtlety and subtext in Tenebrae. The film’s plot is one that evolves with each scene. The story never stagnates. It never meanders into unnecessary territory, nor does it provide copius amounts of dead ends or hard to grasp logic. The story just keeps building with each scene of murder and mystery, and it keeps building until it all leads up to what is, in my opinion, the greatest plot twist that Dario Argento ever created. I was completely dumbfounded the first time I witnessed it, but upon a second watch through, I realized that the subtle clues were there, ever present in nearly every scene. However, I could never have guessed the film’s final act, it’s definitely one that needs to be witnessed as it’s one of the most visceral, most violent, yet one of the most powerful climaxes in cinematic history.

It may not be as good as Dario Argento’s previous Giallo film, Deep Red, but personally, Tenebrae is my favourite Dario Argento film. Production-wise, Tenebrae isn’t as polished or as artistically daring as his previous films, but whereas films like Deep Red have limited reply value, I feel that Tenebrae is Dario Argento’s most enjoyable film which can be seen time and time again because of how easy the film is to grasp. In conclusion, I highly recommend Tenebrae. It’s a lovingly gruesome horror film with charm, character and personality, and it comfortably fits in with the horror scene of the 1980’s.

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