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I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge Argento fan. Prior to this review I had only sampled two of his previous works, and early ones at that, Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Profondo Rosso. Having been neither particularly overwhelmed nor all that impressed with either of them, I was intrigued to examine why Tenebrae, among Argento’s most revered work and credited with revitalising the Giallo genre in Italian cinema, should elicit such fervent admiration from horror fans around the world.

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Solidly successful American murder mystery novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in Rome to promote the launch of his latest book, Tenebrae. After meeting up with his altogether sleazy agent (John Saxon) and devoted personal assistant Jane (Daria Nicolodi), who carries a more than merely professional interest in her employer, Neal is disturbed to discover that murders are being committed in a way that closely follow a the madman’s format as outlined in his new novel.

Enter investigator Germani (Giuliano Gemma). A keen reader of murder mystery material, including Neal’s output, Germani approaches the author to request advice on the murderer’s possible motives. Neal concludes that as his book concerns a deranged man’s method of eliminating what he views a modern days perversions and social deviancy. With his seemingly psychotic former flame Jane (Veronica Lario) having followed him from America all the way to Rome, it is when Neal starts to receive sickening notes ultimately threatening his own life that he decides to take charge of the investigation.

With the killer apparently able to select his victims and strike at will, Neal believes he’s found a conceivable candidate for a suitable suspect and, without alerting Germani and his colleagues, attempts to confront the highly educated assassin…

Tenebrae marks a significant shift in Dario Argento’s movie making output. Eschewing some, but certainly not all, of the hardcore horror staples that made his name, Argento strives for a suspenseful thriller much more in the vein (if you’ll excuse the pun) of Nicholas Roeg’s excellent Don’t Look Now than his previous efforts. Indeed the murders, in both number and intensity remain relatively restrained until the final 15 minutes where almost anything and everything goes.

Thankfully, until the blood soaked finale of grand guignol proportions at least, the series of killings are well placed to punctuate a playful and literate dissection of a typical murder mystery plot: Hercule Poirot meets Hitchcock with a few buckets of blood thrown in, you might say. With a screenplay taking its cues from Agatha Christie with shades of Conan Doyle and a visual style recalling the very best of the master of suspense (plenty of Psycho references, the eyeball close up being the most blatant), Tenebrae is self-referential in supporting and subverting the Giallo genre.

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Argento’s roving camera employing the latest in lightweight photographic technology, advanced (not mention expensive) even for 1982, allows a mightily menacing air to pervade the movie. Of course the standout use of this is still a single unbroken shot that encircles a house where two unaware quarrelling women await their fate as the killer attempts to get inside.

Unfortunately, all of Argento’s applied enterprise stands to unravel on account of poor prosthetic effects and some truly appalling acting performances. Secondary characters consigned to the killer’s razor blade, axe or garrotte wire they may be yet that fails to excuse their ineptitude and plenty of ropy dubbing doesn’t help matters either (with the exception of Nicolodi). Granted, many of the actors on show are not performing in their first language but the disparity between these and seasoned pros like the ever dependable John Saxon breaks the spell of the tension which prevents an entire immersion into the story.

Argento is also exposed miscalculating on a couple of the red herrings he tosses in to mislead the audience. Without wishing to divulge any spoilers here, it’s not decidedly difficult to unmask the killer pretty early on although it’s unlikely you’ll exactly understand why even when a flawed but psychologically plausible explanation is exposited.

As per my previous admission I knew of this movie only by association and, as such, I abide a sceptical outlook on the ‘classic’ status easily conferred on this and many other Argento movies. Yet with all the above, Tenebrae is a thriller worthy of the name and such film that commissions a soundtrack that fills the dancefloor of many a 1982 Roman discotheque deserves recognition.

Considering the age of the film and relatively low budget nature of the production, Anchor Bay have once again excelled themselves. With Argento’s oeuvre change of pace in Tenebrae in that many scenes are exterior daytime sequences, the remarkably well restored transfer does very well to cope with vibrant colours and fine contrast levels when juxtaposing the recurring red and white motifs.

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Blacks are wonderfully deep and shadow detail is exemplary, particularly in distinguishing the black coat of the Doberman against the darkness of the park as it chases its prospective victim. Some grain is present during the brightly lit exterior sequences, most noticeable on the grey structure of the New York bridge in the film’s opening, but it is minor and not enough to distract for very long.

Two audio tracks are included on this release of Tenebrae and I admit it’s a toss up between which is better. The remixed 5.1 track offers almost no channel separation and there’s very little from the rear channels save for the score which echoes oddly from behind you rather than being equally integrated to the soundstage. Uncannily this gives the audio presentation more atmosphere in the scored suspense sequences; however, when there’s no music the film feels ‘hollow’, dialogue left stranded from the centre speaker where the patent overdubbing at points becomes painful.

By contrast the 2.0 stereo track is a more rich experience. Splitting the dialogue stream across the front left and right speakers actually enhances channel separation and, while some of the nuances of the music are muted with the bass becoming a trifle overpowering in a more traditionally ‘flat’ presentation, it’s a more satisfying soundstage.

First up on the special features slate is an Audio Commentary hosted by journalist Loris Curci with director Dario Argento and Claudio Simonetti, one third of the trio of Goblin composers on hand to create the score for the film. Seemingly made in 1998, the English of all three is reasonable but it’s a stop and start sort of track with Curci every so often having to prod his co-commentators into life. Where Argento does become animated is when discussing the cutting of his material; intriguingly, not always on the grounds of gore. Argento’s ire is palpable when referring to distribution dealers and censors who applied the scissors to his shockers but with this film in particular it seems that shady politician and sometime President of Italy Silvio Berlusconi ordered the excising of certain sequences because his wife (Veronica Lario) appears in them!

Curci also raises the issue of violence against women in Argento movies several times in this commentary. Seeing that the director has deflected constant criticism for nigh 20 years on this single sore subject, Argento gets a bit miffed with having to justify himself several times in a single commentary and becomes increasingly defensive. At least at the end of the commentary Curci manages to engage Argento in discussing Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain shot for shot homage to the film’s carve up conclusion.

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Overall it’s an occasionally interesting listen, with Argento detailing the painstaking preparations behind the movie’s most celebrated sequence and explaining or purposefully obfuscating some key motifs (the significance of the red shoes among them), yet it’s not something that you’ll be tempted to revisit too often.

Next comes an Interview With Argento. Made at the time of the film’s release in 1982 and clocking in at 38 minutes, the perceptibly thorough feature is rather less profound than it initially appears as much of the time is taken up by Argento’s uncomfortably hesitant attempts to speak in English. Thankfully Daria Nicolodi is on hand to help out at key points and it’s a general overview of the pair’s respective careers up to the making of Tenebrae, touching upon how Christopher Walken was originally considered of the central role, the use of electronic music on set to unsettle the actors and the three months of pre-production storyboarding. Including the obligatory line of questioning related to sexual violence against women, Argento justifies his position by arguing that a woman in peril elicits a greater emotional response from the audience than would a male counterpart. While unpalatable to some, he does have a point…

In addition to this there’s a Film Analysis By Xavier Mendik. An 11 minute treatise on Argento’s resurrection of the Giallo genre culled from several critical sources, it’s a shame that the dry but informative and simple piece to camera has been run through the Michael Bay school of merciless rapid wide shot and close up editing that is likely to leave you feeling sea-sick.

A Special Camera Equipment featurette follows. At just 4 minutes it’s a slight affair but nourished by insider nuggets by Argento himself, speaking animatedly in his native language but with an English dub, and looks at the how the extended crane shot was conceived and executed.

A Sound Effects snippet is also included with a 2 minute peek behind the scenes at the work of the film’s foley artists. According to this value added feature, the best way to simulate the sound of a blade stabbing flesh was to record, well, a blade stabbing flesh, albeit beef in this case. So nothing is quite what it seems on an Argento film, right down to the sound engineers.

As raised in the commentary, the Alternative End Credits round out the extras section of the disc. It’s quite amusing to note the non-plussed nature of Argento and Simonetti in the final moments of the commentary when they encounter a truly horrid American pop song that has been incongruously inserted over Daria Nicolodi’s shrill screams at the behest of the film’s American distributor. Just for the enjoyment of those who like really bad 1980’s boogie pop (it sounds a bit like Kim Wilde singing too), it’s been included here as a fine example of just how far wide of the mark studio executives with no real knowledge of film can be.

The menu system has been thoughtfully designed and chillingly executed. The titles of the various options have been composed with a typeface in the style of the poison pen letters that Peter Neal receives in the film, augmented by snaps from the killer’s personal photo collection and some eerie piano music that really sets the mood for the movie.

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It’s another admirable disc from Anchor Bay with praiseworthy attention paid to the presentation to produce a fine looking and good sounding DVD. Although it may been as sacrilege by some, I found Tenebrae absorbing and unsettling but, dare I say it, not terrifying at all. Perhaps as a result of the distillation of Argento’s ideas and invention employed by the legion of inferior antecedents that it has obviously inspired, the film has not aged wonderfully well.

That said, I’d still recommend Tenebrae over a hundred and one like minded lame modern day slasher thriller travesties for the sharpness of its script and occasionally audacious execution in subverting many clichés of its genre. However, with some rum performances and unfortunately irritating voice acting my search goes on for the film to turn me into a devoted Dario Argento disciple...