I love Italian horror. It is arguably the most aesthetically stimulating subcategory within the entire genre. These films that hail from a land otherwise known for its classical art, food, and culture, nearly never fail to elicit a strong reaction from those that have seen them. Films like Black Sunday (1960), Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), and Suspiria (1977) simply have a sort of refined power to them. A distinct ambiance that captures the viewer and makes it nearly impossible to look away from the screen – regardless of whatever horrible thing may be occurring on it.
They are often completely over-the-top and excessive, especially when considering the dates in which they were shot and released. Movies that came out in the ’70s and ’80s are still, to this day, managing to make even the most seasoned of audiences recoil in shock and disgust. The eyeball puncture scene from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie 2 (1979) is one of the primary images to come to my mind when ruminating on this topic. As is the infamous first fifteen minutes of Suspiria. It is a display of pure and unadulterated perfection, presented in its most grotesque of forms.
Uno Dei Maestri
When it comes to the world of Italian horror, no other director encapsulates this concept of grotesque elegance better than Dario Argento does. His films are like morbid poetry – an absolute assault on the senses. If Monet had painted a portrait of a hanging, or if Bach had composed the score to a fatal car accident, they would share in this same macabre spirit. It is a terrible subject, rendered in a magnificently beautiful fashion. His projects, like the aforementioned Suspiria or the groundbreaking Giallo film Opera (1987), are experiences not easily forgotten. As such, he has remained a monumental name in horror for several decades – and rightly so.
His film Tenebrae (1982) is, in my opinion, one of his greatest achievements. Starring Daria Nicolodi, Anthony Franciosa and John Saxon, Tenebrae is Dario Argento’s triumphant return to Giallo. A refrain from the more supernatural tones of Suspiria and Inferno (1980), which were shot in the years prior. For Argento, it is a return to tradition. A return that would ultimately prove to be a jewel in the crown of his filmography.
The story of Tenebrae is set in Rome and follows the events that surround an American horror author named Peter Neal. Neal has only recently arrived in Italy, having come to promote the release of his latest novel – also called Tenebrae. Unbeknownst to him, a young woman is viciously murdered mere hours before his plane touches down in the city. When her lifeless body is discovered, her throat is slit and her mouth is stuffed with pages that were torn from a copy of Neal’s book. This revelation, of course, leads the police straight to the author’s hotel room door.
After learning of this horrific crime from the local detectives, Neal quickly finds himself intertwined within the investigation. As the authorities continue to scramble for leads, the killer turns his depraved attention towards Neal himself. Now, with a maniac stalking his every move, it is up to Neal – with the help of his assistant, Anne – to unravel the killer’s motivations and identity. As the bodies continue to pile higher around the city, the pair grows ever closer to uncovering the truth. A dark and disturbing conclusion that will forever alter the course of their lives as they know them.
Argento’s film explores many different themes and can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. Personally, I felt a strong undertone regarding the question of art and societal responsibility. At what point should an artist be held to account for the impact of their creation? When an already twisted mind takes inspiration from a piece of media – be it a book, movie, record, or video game – and then proceeds to do something abhorrent because of it, exactly who is to blame? Is it strictly the person acting on their dark desires who is at fault, or does the source material for their warped fantasies hold some of the responsibility, as well? When precisely does the creator transform to become the criminal?
It is my staunch opinion that the person who did the crime should also do the time. No art in the world can force someone into doing something that they otherwise wouldn’t. There are, of course, those who would disagree with me. It is a very old question; one that Tenebrae seems to not-so-subtly carry over the course of its 110-minute running time.
Tenebrae is an example of Giallo at its very finest and represents Argento working at the top of his game. The story consistently keeps the audience on its toes, while it simultaneously avoids crossing over the line into absurdity. It is complex, but it isn’t convoluted. The film’s bright and gorgeous use of setting is punctuated by a fantastic score, once again provided by the Italian synth-rock band, Goblin; who also gave us the iconic soundtrack used in Suspiria five years earlier. The cinematography is phenomenal, particularly the impressive exterior crane shot, which is actually famous for how incredibly complex it was to achieve. The death scenes in the film all pack a wicked, stylish punch to them, and will undoubtedly burn themselves into your memory for years to come as a result. Speaking from a technical standpoint, the entire project is a masterpiece.
I strongly recommend Tenebrae as a must for anyone who is interested in Italian horror – whether you are already versed in the subject or are looking for a good place to start. Hell, I would even go so far as to recommend this film to horror fans in general as a seminal piece of cinema that any serious follower of the genre should see at least once.
As one of my all-time favorites, I give Tenebrae a dazzling 5 out of 5 Cthulhus.(5 / 5)