Saoirse’s Cult Corner #42: Tenebrae (1982)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

Today, we look at a classic of Giallo cinema, Dario Argento’s assaultive thriller Tenebrae.

It’s really an honour to get to write about Tenebrae. We’ve talked about Argento’s Opera before in this column but Tenebrae really was the peak, for me, of Argento’s career as a Giallo craftsman. It’s here where, for me, his heady style meets interesting murder mystery for a mixture that is truly potent. If Suspiria is Argento’s finely crafted poison needle, Tenebrae is his sledgehammer. And they stand as twin pillars of excellence in his back catalogue, before it all went wrong… 

Tenebrae follows an American novelist called Peter Neal, (a brilliant Anthony Franciosa who keen eyed viewers will recognise from the classic A Face In The Crowd), on a book tour for his new crime thriller ‘Tenebrae’, after which the film is named. After a young woman is caught shoplifting the novel, she is brutally murdered by having pages of the novel stuffed in her mouth. At first the only suspect the police have is Neal himself but he was on a plane to Italy at the time of the murder. So with an alibi, as it is with so many Gialli, he takes the opportunity to play amateur sleuth, and put his knowledge of writing murder mysteries to the test by actually solving one. 

The story behind this film is by now infamous but it bears repeating and slight contextualising. By the 80s Argento was moving further and further away from the Giallo rubric he’d defined. After his initial iconic run he had his first major flop with historical drama The Five Days, a knowing effort to push his boundaries and try new ways to make statements. After that flop he made probably his most famous Giallo, Deep Red, but something was different. He was starting his move away from conventional mystery tone into the world of fantasia and horror that would go on to define the tone of the slasher films that would be inspired by his work. The pinnacle was reached by Suspiria and Argento’s next film after Tenebrae, Phenomena, would be another attempt to narrow in on this tonal crossover, melding a Giallo set up with a fantastical horror framework about a young girl who can control insects. Giallo itself was on the decline in the 80s, being overtaken by more niche and experiential filone like cannibal movies and zombie films, and although there are Giallo that pop up in this era, they are fewer and farther between, and more focussed on excessive bloodletting than plot when compared to the original batch in the early 70s. But it was with the sequel to Suspiria, the film that really led Italy’s movement away from Giallo, Inferno, that the genesis of Tenebrae would take place. 

It was on Inferno’s New York shoot that Argento collected a stalker. His health both physically and mentally was in decline for a variety of reasons when he eventually started to get phone calls from a fan that, although starting off pleasantly, eventually escalated to threats of physical violence that were directly inspired by the power Suspiria had had over this young person. Argento wanted to channel this kind of mania into his next film, which he already knew would be a Giallo. His whole career he’d been obsessed with the mystical, obtuse evil that comes from troubled minds. Giallo writer Ernesto Gastaldi has criticised Argento’s films for lacking a logical sense of mystery and relying too much on madness as a motivating force but that’s part of the thing that makes Argento’s Gialli and fantasy horror so electric for most viewers. For example, does the killer in The Cat O’ Nine Tails fit Gastaldi’s quite reasonable rules for constructing a logical mystery? Not particularly, but do I find the final chase at the end of that film as the police close in on the killer one of the most electrifying sequences in all of thriller cinema? Yes, yes I do. Argento wanted to take a particular focus on the mania that happens around artists and their art and fame, not just in the fans but potentially in the artists themselves, which he’d explore later in The Stendhal Syndrome. He wanted to put all of these themes in a new Giallo film that he wanted to make unlike any Giallo that preceded it, and he inarguably succeeded. 

So, just to get it out of the way, yes, this is a very meta film. Argento cheekily positions the lead character as a cypher for himself. Although the film works perfectly well without realising this, some of it’s more cheeky points about the way we relate to art may be lost. It is obviously not a film to be taken hyper literally in this aspect though, of course. The film has some very interesting and complicated twists that I shall not spoil, but suffice it to say, the film comments on a lot of the weird and perverse accusations about the potential for violence that comes with violent art. Painfully ironic is it then that this film was banned in the UK for a long time due to it’s supposed potential for the moral corruption of its viewers. That’s a rake to face of any Government who wants to ban films without watching or trying to understand them, eh? Argento purposefully has his representative in the film not only be challenged on things Argento himself has been challenged on, but points the finger at everyone from the artist to his critics to his associates to his fans. No one escapes Argento’s drolly ironic evil caricature. It’s just a big joke, and only horror lovers are going to be the ones who get it and laugh. 

The stylistic choices are worth commenting on because they’re really exceptional. Over his previous few movies Argento had been moving away from the conventional slickness that came with the typical Giallo rubric, introducing more colour, dynamic movement, stab-like editing, and progressive rock music  to his films. Although Tenebrae moves away from the stark colours Argento makes great use of, the other elements are here, going as far as to reunite some of the ex-members of Goblin who had composed his Suspiria score with him to give Tenebrae it’s assaultive yet beautiful soundtrack. Argento composes his most daring set pieces in this movie. A sequence where Neal’s agent is waiting for a meeting is turned into one of Argento’s best sequences of increasing paranoia just through well realised observations of people’s ordinary behaviour and smart editing. There’s a now infamous sequence that, if you’re reading this you already know about, where a couple are the victims of a serial killer in a crane shot to end them all. The killer voyeuristically looks in every room, spying on the couple and vicariously clueing us in on their movements and geography in a way that feels organic. The fact that this is a motivated camera move that could not realistically happen and yet we all understand that this is a killer’s point of view is fundamental to why Argento appeals the way that he does. 

Another weird stylistic choice is one that maybe people don’t appreciate and it’s worth bringing up. So, a little known fact about Tenebrae is that it’s a post apocalypse movie. You wouldn’t know this but in a few reputable sources I’ve seen it reported that Tenebrae is meant to be after a nuclear apocalypse, during a period of rebuild. Now, given its freaky superpowers and knife wielding apes, you’d think that Phenomena would make the most sense to be a film set in a world infected by radioactivity poisoning, however that’s a film that takes place during an alternative future of Nazi occupation and the only way you’d know that is that everyone’s a bit of a dick to each other throughout the film. Tenebrae, conversely, uses the fascist architecture of Italy for shooting locations, but it’s not the film set during a Nazi occupation. I’m sure that makes sense to you. This brutalist, fascist architecture does an interesting thing in conjuring a society where everything is utilitarian. Does this art fit a very limited value set? Does this person contribute? It creates this world as a place where everyone is miserable and violence is rampant. Ironically, in the name of preventing rampant violence, it is this very mindset that would be used as a justification for banning Tenebrae in the UK. 

Conversely, Tenebrae is made from a very socially liberal mindset, especially during a time when the Section 28 instituting Thatcher was in office in the UK. Dario’s reason for having a lesbian couple centre in the film was that he was broadly sympathetic to the situation of queer people in the world, and was deeply embedded in the queer scene in Italy in his youth. He wanted to show them in their lives as, although filled with the troubles of any relationship between flawed human beings, as happy and stable and just like any other couple in a Dario Argento film, (they do get murdered, but really so would any couple in a Dario Argento film). In a flashback he casts a transgender actress as a key part of the villain’s backstory, and I couldn’t tell until someone told me, and thusly he challenges traditional avenues of attack against trans woman by including them in a traditionally inherently feminine cultural archetype. Is any of this representation perfect? Hell no, but even today this would be considered provocative and Argento treats it like it’s part of the wallpaper of his cinema, and makes all the provocative stuff everything else, in a movie from 1982. 

I want to finish by talking about the stellar cast, many of whom are no longer with us. Daria Nicolodi needs mention. Her relationship with Dario was already on the rocks due to not being cast in the lead for Suspiria as she felt it was her baby, she felt it had been taken away from her by Dario, and her roles in his films were getting smaller and smaller. It is said you can chart the quality of Daria Nicolodi’s relationship with Dario by the roles she plays in his films. Starting out as the vivacious, energetic, charming reporter in Deep Red, she finishes her creative relationship with Dario playing respectively villainous and flat, lifeless characters in Phenomena and Opera while getting cast in much more fulfilling roles in films like Shock for Mario Bava. In Tenebrae, her role is subdued, and again not the role she wanted, but she remains singular and charismatic. John Saxon who, like Daria, tragically passed away recently, is great here. For Saxon especially Tenebrae is a much sadder watch. Although Saxon famously didn’t remember a single second of shooting Tenebrae, his performance as Neal’s agent is so full of life and charm and personality. He’s really the tonal centre of the film, providing a boost of tonal balance whenever it’s needed. He was an astonishing actor and the recent deaths of both are tragic are a great loss to the world of cult cinema. Anthony Franciosa in the lead role is also brilliant. Playing the lead with a sense of charm and menace, the places his character goes makes sense but are still surprising, in large part because of how enigmatic his performance is. Especially as it gets into the crazier areas, he carries it off with aplomb. It’s a shame I haven’t seen him in more lead roles. 

So that’s Tenebrae. It’s a complicated film, it’s an aggressive film, it’s a beautiful film. Maybe the last great shout of the Giallo movement, its legacy lives on in thrillers made well after it. It’s horrifically violent, twisty, intelligent, thematically dense, ideologically challenging, meta, modern, cheeky, funny, queer, dreamlike, sensational. A nearly perfect film, in my opinion. 

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