Synapse Films: Tenebrae (1982) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Synapse Films

Tenebrae may be Dario Argento’s finest achievement as a storyteller. You’ll notice I said “storyteller” and not “filmmaker.” While visual masterpieces like Suspiria and Inferno will leave you with images burned into your retina for the rest of your life, compounded by the variety of memorable kills and scares, no one could honestly look you in the eye and summarize their respective plots with any degree of accuracy. You ask ten people to explain Inferno, you’ll get ten different answers, but oh my good God, it is hauntingly beautiful to look at! 
Plot is always beside the point when sitting down to enjoy any classic Argento. Then along comes Tenebrae, filmed by Luciano Tovoli, the same gifted cinematographer whose images haunted our nightmares in Suspiria, and co-written by Argento with George Kemp. Is it Kemp’s influence that makes this the most narratively successful of Argento’s works? Or was this Argento attempting to play in tune for audiences looking for more than moody atmosphere from their Italian maestro? Perhaps you’ll find out in the bonus features on this gorgeous UHD transfer from Synapse Films. I guarantee you this movie has never looked this good before. Colors scream, the grain levels are perfect, and aside from some organic flaws in the title cards, it looks truly impeccable! 

Tenebrae can best be described in one sentence: It’s Basic Instinct without the sex. For those of you who haven’t had your senses assaulted by the same creative team who brought you cult classics like ShowgirlsBasic Instinct was Paul Verhoeven’s sexually charged erotic thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone about an author whose works inspire a series of real life murder-death-kills. The author is interviewed by police in connection with the grisly homicides, only to become intwined with the cop leading the investigation. Is this sheer morbid curiosity or something more sinister? Meanwhile, double and triple crosses lurk beneath the surface of every relationship, peppered with a healthy dose of homoeroticism and jealousy. This basic framework accurately describes both films, but it can’t prepare you for just how different two films with virtually identical stories can be. 
Basic Instinct was told from the perspective of a cop in over his head with a femme fatale so titillating she short circuited his thinking meat, leaving his little head to do all his investigating. It was aggressively sexual to the point where the sex became the fulcrum for the marketing campaign. Tenebrae has some of these erotic elements, but they’re never center stage, and always at the service of the story. Argento places us firmly into the shoes of the author whose book has inspired true homicidal madness. 

Peter Neal is played by Anthony Franciosa as a man repulsed and intrigued in equal measure by the perversion of his work into a killer’s calling card. He cooperates with the investigation not out of philanthropy, but sheer opportunism, referring to himself in the third person as he imagines the headlines that could result from solving the mystery. An author of fictional sleuthing gets it right in the real world? It’s a public relations wet dream. Echoes of this character must have informed Rob Zombie’s iteration of Sam Loomis. 
All the while Argento populates the screen with a supporting cast that includes genre legends like John Saxon and Daria Nicolodi, plus a gallery of potential victims and perpetrators to keep us guessing whodunnit and who's next. One femme fatale, dressed all in white (another Kim Novak costuming homage a la Vertigo?) remains a mystery until the film’s closing scenes. While the actors are center stage, Argento tosses us some surrealistic flashbacks involving another woman in red high heels. Who is this woman and who is remembering her? You’ll find out. In the meantime, enjoy a virtuoso crane shot that follows two arguing women from outside their home. 

The camera peers through glass, goes in and out of open windows, scales the whole house, tilts into a closeup of the rooftop before plunging down two stories, giving us the entire layout of the setting before revealing a killer on the cusp of his next adventure. It’s a stunning scene, scored to perfection by Claudio Simonetti, whose music is all the more beautiful thanks to Synapse’s flawless rendering of the soundscape. With the synergy of the music, the images, and the sheer tension, Argento succeeds in turning his audience into an omnipresent voyeur, powerless to stop the impending doom on screen. 
It would all be for nothing if the plot held water like a pasta strainer. Lucky for us, Tenebrae is the closest to airtight plotting that Argento has ever written. There are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked all the way through, and it all culminates with a coda so shockingly violent and gruesome that it almost blows the roof off the joint. While Argento is known for the merciless lethality of his kills, he shows remarkable restraint until the last act of Tenebrae. Many of the killing blows in the first two-thirds are cut with sound and clever editing; it’s very Hitchcockian and effective. Then comes the dark and stormy night that ends the film, and all bets are off. This scene is so blood soaked and smashing, it’s all but guaranteed it inspired the gunshot decapitation in Drive.

Tenebrae is a film that deserves this kind of lavish treatment. It shows Argento’s versatility as a filmmaker, and gives the audience a fun mystery to chew on at the same time. As one of the mandatory entries in the giallo genre, it also has that exotic travelogue feel and wealth worship you’d expect, but it’s Argento’s uncanny ability to slowly ratchet up tension with visuals and music that truly take it over the top into timeless greatness. Bravo to Synapse for giving this classic thriller the treatment it deserves.

--Blake O. Kleiner