“Tenebre” is self-reflective Argento. It’s the Italian auteur at his most personal. The film is about a writer of violent murder mysteries, criticized as misogynistic, deviant, and overly violent, who then becomes the target of a vicious serial killer, a razor blade slasher who has been cutting through the beautiful women of Rome. “Tenebre” is a reaction to Argento being accused of those very things. Considering the ending, Dario seems to be suggesting that people who create art revolving around dark acts have a great amount of darkness deep within their own minds. The shadows of the title refer to the ever present shadows of the mind. But this film certainly won’t dissuade anyone on Argento’s attitudes about women.
Honestly, the director might just have injected some of his feelings at the time into a standard giallo story. Either way, the film is a fascinating study of a writer’s relation with his work while also functioning as an exuberantly scary and gory horror film.
“Tenebre” is easily the best of his post-seventies output and one of his best overall. Argento’s style is on full display and this film feature maybe his best camera work. In an absolutely incredible sequence, the camera, suspended from a specialized crane, starts at one side of an apartment building, cranes up and around the building, and over to the other side, all in one long continuous shot. It’s completely amazing.
Argento’s camera pulls other tricks as well. The killer is given several POV shots, the most impressive of which involves the intoxicating choice of holding a fire axe directly in front of the camera as it runs along. (The killer switching from a razor blade to an axe as his prime murder weapon isn’t just a hint towards the killer’s reveal, but also Argento seemingly commenting on how impartial a murder weapon a razor blade honestly is.)
Ironically, considering the title, a bright white, slightly washed out look dominates the film, lending a sterile atmosphere of deeply urban isolation to the proceedings. The movie has one of the most intense sequences of Argento’s career, the scene of the girl being chased by the most persistent Doberman in film history. A number of visual tricks are pulled off near the end, including the great “hiding man” gag. (Which was later blatantly reappropriated by Brian DePalma for “Raising Cain.”)
The film doesn’t skimp on the gore any. The opening murder makes the connection between media and crime literal, but having the pages of the lurid murder novel shoved down the victim’s throat. The camera movement dominates the murder of the lesbians but still stands as one of the most cruelly eroticized set of kills in Argento’s career. A fantastic axe to the head is on display, as well as an intense strangulation, before the gore builds to a fever pitch near the end, in an amazing moment of gore and suspense, one of the best kills ever put to film. And then the end, that final death? Oh, it’s so good, so crimson, so brutal. Gorehounds won’t walk away from “Tenebre” disappointed.
The music, a partial Goblin reunion, is transcendent and a great deal of the film’s success belongs to it. The main reprise reaches dark highs with its hypnotic beats. Its electronic organ brings feelings of gothic horror, while its heavy drums suggest the inherent savagery of man, and its electronic groove sets the tone in the modern age. It’s also just a badass song, probably one of the rare horror movie themes you could dance too.
The movie is also Argento’s most erotic output at the time. The reoccurring dreams of the girl on the beach are not only a hint to the movie’s reveal, but also recognizes the theme of aberrant sexuality. Twisted sexuality is often a scapehound in the origin of horror movie maniacs but this film earns it. Disturbed sexual repression and frustration runs deep, like the titular shadows, always bubbling beneath the surface, always hiding at the edges of our mind.
Moreover, “Tenebre” is a captivating murder mystery, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing up to the end. Anthony Franciosa is very good in the lead role, as an analytical man. Daria Nicolodi is also very good as his romantic interest. While the romantic subplot barely features at all, and Daria is obviously dubbed by an American actress, she is still given plenty of things to do. John Saxon brings his sleazy best to a small role while Giuliano Gemma is hilarious as the wildly incompetent police detective.
If you love a good giallo, you’re unlikely to find a better one then “Tenebre.” It’s Dario Argento at his very best, a highlight of the man’s career. [Grade: A]