Review: Tenebrae / Cert: 18 / Director: Dario Argento / Screenplay: Dario Argento / Starring: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliano Gemma / Release Date: December 16th
Although this electrifying Italian horror/giallo classic only made its UK Blu-ray début this past April, here we have Arrow Video already releasing it again, as a much improved, remastered print with an added extra. Rather irritating, one supposes, for those who have purchased it once this year already, but more on that in a moment.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, it sees American thriller author Peter Neal (Franciosa) jetting off to Rome, where his latest opus – yes, Tenebrae – has topped the best seller list for weeks. Already, it appears, stalked by his estranged wife (Veronica Lario, estranged wife of Silvio Berlusconi), he there meets up with his agent (Saxon) and faithful 'Girl Friday' (Nicolodi), and is soon made aware of a series of brutal, shocking murders perpetrated by a killer citing passages from Neal's novel – and, in the first instance that we see, stuffing his victim's mouth full of pages from it. This brings the author directly onto the radar of personable police detective Giermani (spaghetti western icon Gemma, tragically killed in a car crash just a couple of months ago), and the pair get their heads together to solve the mystery. As the corpses mount up, it gradually becomes clear that nothing is quite the way it might at first have seemed...
The giallo cycle initiated by Argento's 1970 directorial début The Bird With the Crystal Plumage may have been played out by this time, in a market now glutted with American Halloween/Friday the 13th clones, but Tenebrae marked the master's triumphant return after the supernatural diversions of Suspiria and Inferno, albeit now with a more recognisably early '80s 'splatter' sensibility. It's also a more personal film than had been seen from him before, with an interviewer (Mirella D'Angelo) turning on Neal to denounce his work as misogynistic, and the author receiving threatening whispery phone calls, apparently based on a stalking experience that Argento had recently endured in reality. Exchanges with camp TV interviewer John Steiner debate the perceived effects of screen violence on society, which certain sections of the press have ever tried to lay at the door of the director and other genre filmmakers like Carpenter and Hooper.
Argento has always spuriously claimed that Tenebrae is set in a near future milieu, where the population has been greatly diminished. Although never alluded to in the script, compare the homogeneous, angular mod architecture with the crumbling Roman grandeur of the likes of Deep Red, and the bright and clear cinematography of Luciano Tovoli (Suspiria) with the deep shadows of Inferno. There's also the predominately electronic score from Simonetti, Pignatelli and Morante (in other words three-quarters of the classic Goblin line-up, unable to use that name as Pignatelli was recording the piss-awful Volo LP under it with some other guys at the time).
The film is full of masterful stylistic flourishes, courtesy of Argento's roving camera and expert use of space. Most noted, of course, is the amazing, now legendary, one-take crane shot that takes the viewer out of a window, over and around an apartment, and back in through another window, all to the strains of the pulsing disco/rock fusion title track. This two-and-a-half minute sequence took three days to film. Also unforgettable are the killer reveal, and that often imitated but never bettered 'he's behind you' shot.
As with most of Argento's work, some scenes do stretch the viewer's suspension of disbelief to breaking point, such as that where young Maria (Lara Wendell), a girl connected to the main characters, just happens to be chased by a vicious guard dog right to the door of the killer, who just happens that night to have accidentally left his key in it. Naturally, said dog conveniently disappears when its set-piece-abetting work is done.
Aside from this, the logic of Tenebrae hangs together surprisingly well for an Argento movie, compared to the head-scratchy likes of Inferno. Along with his early 'Animal Trilogy' and the supernatural excursions cited above, it ranks as one of his masterpieces, and, many argue (Kim Newman for one), that it is his 'last truly great film'. Aside from the odd moment of brilliance, things undoubtedly started to go downhill from there on in.
So, back to the thorny issue of a new edition already coming to supersede the last one. The April release was criticised by many fans for having a grainier picture than one might reasonably expect from a HD master, and some distortion of the soundtrack, most irritatingly on the bravura crane shot sequence mentioned above. While these complaints may seem a trifle churlish to those of us who can recall seeing it on second or third generation VHS dupes during its tenure as an official 'Video Nasty', or even enduring a seemingly interminable period of not being able to see it at all, it's not all that unreasonable to expect better in an age when one doesn't have to dig too deeply to find the grungy likes of Cannibal Ferox in crystal clear 1080p quality.
With this new release, a Zavvi.com exclusive limited to 4,000 units, these problems have been ironed out, which is understandably fairly frustrating to those who forked out for the last release thinking they were adding the definitive article to their libraries, many of whom having probably bought the film already two or three times previously. It still isn't 100% grain-free but is beautifully sharp, its colours rich and vibrant, and the soundtrack couldn't be clearer or more crisp. It's a huge improvement and certainly good enough, now standing as the definitive English language edition. Well, until the next one, at any rate.
Extras: Audio commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman / Audio commentary by Thomas Rostock / Interviews with Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi and Claudio Simonetti / Maitland McDonagh on Tenebrae / Goblin concert footage / Trailer