Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, John Saxon
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Alternate Closing Music, Trailer, Bio
After the supernatural horrors of "Suspiria" (1977) and "Inferno" (1980), Italian maestro Dario Argento made a notable return to the slick thriller subgenre known in Italy as giallo in 1982. The director had his first taste of success with grisly films like "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" in 1970, and although his horror films were highly successful in the United States, Italian audiences were begging for more like his earlier movies. Thus came "Tenebre," a garish mix of sex, violence, and mystery that remains a premier example of the genre. Displaying Argento's unique visual flair and penchant for graphic violence, "Tenebre" is highly touted as one of the director's best films and a testament to his stance as a horror auteur.
In Rome to promote his latest book, American mystery novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) finds himself in the middle of a bizarre murder mystery when a woman is found stabbed to death with the pages of his book stuffed into her mouth. Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) is put on the case and first suspects Peter of the murder, but it soon becomes clear that someone else is responsible. The killer begins stalking Peter and sending him letters after each subsequent murder, many of which seem to be modeled after the murders in the novel. Peter believes that his ex-fiancée, Jane (Veronica Lario), may be involved. His close relationship with Anne, his personal assistant (Daria Nicolodi), made Jane extremely jealous, and it seems that Jane has been hanging around outside his hotel. As the body count builds and the (mostly female) victims become more and more varied, virtually everyone in Peter's circle becomes a potential suspect. With the police unable to make any progress in the case, Peter decides to do a little detective work, putting his research of criminal activity and talent for murder mysteries to good use as he goes after the killer himself.
Moving away from the magical elements of his two previous films, Argento focused this time on a very human psycho, drawing partially from his own experience with obsessive fans. The horrors of "Tenebre," even at their most outlandish, come from very real places – repressed childhood memories, social anxieties, and sexual insecurity. The killer primarily targets women who engage in socially taboo lifestyles. In one of the film's most famous sequences, two lesbian lovers are brutally slashed to death, one of them draped only in a bed sheet. "Tenebre" is possibly Argento's most overtly sexual film, and at the heart of it lies an all-too human fascination with sexuality in all of its desirable and frightening forms.
Argento has always been known for emphasizing flashy style over all else, and while "Tenebre" may not be as visually interesting as some of his other films, it certainly bears a distinctive design. The camera movement is of utmost importance. With director of photography Luciano Tovoli, Argento keeps the camera in a constant state of movement during suspense scenes. Frequently taking the killer's point of view, the camera stalks the characters as they wander about, oblivious to the killer's – and, by proxy, our – presence. The above mentioned lesbian murder scene is a cinematographic tour de force as the camera steadily scopes out the house, moving up the walls, peering into windows, and hovering over the roof in one continuously smooth motion.
The film is bathed in bright lights and white hues. The characters, particularly the victims, frequently dress in white, in contrast to the killer's black clothing. Buildings, interiors, and furniture are also generally white. Most of the action takes place in brightly lit environments. Even night scenes are strangely well lit, leaving no shadows for the victims or killer to hide in. Everything is out in the open, providing a canvas for the gory violence that unfolds. Special mention must be made for the electronic music score by Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, and Fabio Pignatelli. Formerly members of the group Goblin, the musicians had collaborated with Argento on "Deep Red" (1975) and "Suspiria." Their pop-techno sound compliments the director's aesthetic perfectly, underscoring the violence with rhythmic energy.
Violence is a key element in any Argento film. For many fans, it is the only element. As with his mise en scène, Argento spurns realism in favor of a spectacularly heightened form of carnage, with bright red blood and easily severed limbs. There is a surreal aspect to his violence, and even in the most ordinary of circumstances, the victims seem trapped in a dream world. Paired with the brightly lit surroundings, the stylized violence suggests an unnatural environment where there is no hope for escape, except through death. With great visual splendor, death is depicted as both painful and ecstatic. It is beautiful and horrifying at the same time, and Argento is one of the few notable filmmakers who regularly confront death at both extremes.
With so much emphasis on style and violence, it is no surprise that the film's weakest area is the plot. The general storyline is not uninteresting, but the characters are quite dull at times, especially the leads. Peter Neal is not particularly bold, and his relationship with Anne lacks sexual energy. It is difficult to be truly concerned for either of them because they are characteristically flat and one-note. The various female victims are infinitely more intriguing, both in their presence and in their action. In a supporting role as Peter's agent, John Saxon is also memorable. Dialogue is clumsy, especially when it tries to be funny. Structurally, the plot is considerably more linear than those of many Argento films, and it moves at a reasonable pace. Plot holes abound, however, and ultimately the stylish elements are of greater interest than the film as a whole.
Originally released in the United States as "Unsane" in 1987, the film was shortened by about ten minutes to remove some of the more extreme violence. Anchor Bay Entertainment presents the unrated, 101-minute version in a new edition. I am presuming that the transfer for this release was taken from the same elements as Anchor Bay's now out-of-print 1999 edition, as it does not appear that much, if anything, has been done to improve the picture. The one major difference is that the film is now in anamorphic widescreen. Image quality is reasonably good, though the picture is grainy at times, and there are some frequent scratches and dirt. The film has a generally washed-out and dated look. This may be due, in part, to the deliberately white aesthetic, but I think this could use some definite restoration. Colors pop but are not as vibrant as I believe they could be. Black levels are generally strong. Overall, this is a good transfer, but not a perfect one.
English-language dubs are provided in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. The 5.1 track sounds great, nicely spreading the music and ambience around the speakers for an atmospheric effect. The murder scenes in particular greatly benefit from the surround. Because of the casting of both American and Italian actors, all of the language tracks will be dubs. Like most of Argento's films, the actors spoke English on camera, and in many cases the Italian actors were later dubbed by English-speaking actors. Interestingly, Argento mentions in the commentary that actress Theresa Russell dubbed over Daria Nicolodi's voice. An Italian mono soundtrack is also available, but unfortunately there are no English subtitles to go with it.
Starting off the special features is the audio commentary from Anchor Bay's 1999 release of "Tenebre." The track features Argento with moderator Loris Curci and composer Claudio Simonetti. They discuss the film's technical aspects at length, though it is not the liveliest discussion, and at times it is difficult to understand due to their thick Italian accents. I must also point out that the volume is very low on this track, and I had to turn the volume up much higher than I did on the other soundtracks in order to hear it. The sound also dropped out completely for a second a few times near the beginning. I'm not sure if this is a flaw on the track itself or a glitch on my screener DVD, but I'm leaning toward the former as the other soundtracks were fine in the same scenes.
The only major supplement that is new to this special edition is the 17-minute making-of featurette, "Voices of the Unsane," featuring interviews with Argento, Simonetti, actresses Daria Nicolodi and Eva Robins, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, and assistant director Lamberto Bava. This feature is much more interesting and informative than the commentary track, as Argento and the others go into greater detail about the artistic intentions and themes of the film as well as the production. Nicolodi, who was married to Argento for several years and is the mother of his daughter Asia, is by far the most candid interviewee, frequently making known her disappointments with the film as well as her admiration.
The next two featurettes are both carried over from the original release. "The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento" lasts four minutes and begins with Argento discussing his trademark use of the moving camera in his films. We are then treated to the memorable roving scope of the house from "Tenebre." The next feature, "Creating the Sounds of Terror," is very much in the same vein. It is even shorter, lasting only two minutes, and begins with footage of Foley artists creating sound effects for the movie, followed by one of the climactic murder scenes. Neither of these features is particularly enlightening, and both are dubbed in English.
Also carried over from the original DVD is an alternate closing credits sequence with different music. It is explained that a pop song (Kim Wilde's "Take Me Tonight") was mixed into this sequence for the English version of the film without either Argento or Simonetti's knowledge or consent. Indeed, the song has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it! Rounding out the disc are a trailer and a talent bio for Dario Argento.
As a special edition DVD, this falls short of my highest recommendation. Except for the anamorphic transfer and the new making-of feature, there is not much here that distinguishes Anchor Bay's re-release from the original one. For those with the 1999 DVD, I will advise you to purchase at your own discretion. If you are satisfied with the old transfer, there is really little reason to double dip. For anyone else, this is a generally good presentation. The film has been made available individually or as part of Anchor Bay's new "Dario Argento Collection," which also includes the re-released "Phenomena" and the previously released "Do You Like Hitchcock?," "The Card Player," and "Trauma."
"Tenebre" ranks among Dario Argento's best-loved films, and it is easy to see why. For fans of giallo, it was a return to form. In terms of aesthetics and violence, Argento reaches sublime new heights that have kept the film a favorite among gorehounds and cult cinema enthusiasts. Argento touches on some thought-provoking themes and ideas with his sexually based story, and although it often seems nonsensical, horror fans will find much to savor in this beautiful, bloody, vicious feast.