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Feature


American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) has come to Italy on a press tour for his latest thriller, ‘Tenebre’, a tale of bloody murder concerning a killer’s obsession with traditional Christian morality. Just before Neal’s arrival there has been a brutal murder, and the victim’s mouth has been found stuffed with pages from the titular novel. Neal and his assistant Ann (Daria Nicolodi) join Italian Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) in investigating the increasingly violent crimes, seemingly made in homage to Neal’s popular novel.

Tenebre
Tenebre (also known as Tenebrae and Unsane) is likely one of director Dario Argento’s most accessible features, though its look and sound is possible the most unfortunately dated in his repertoire. After five years, and two supernaturally tinged features, Tenebre marked Argento’s return to his Giallo roots. Considering the utter abstractness of Suspiria and Inferno (not to mention his next film, Phenomena) Tenebre has a surprisingly dense plot. For non-fans it’s not the worst place to start, though I’d recommend Deep Red or Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

However par for the course it may seem to the uninitiated, Tenebre is actually one of Argento’s more fascinating features, and has remained a fan favourite for years. The curiosities begin with the autobiographical nature of the narrative. Argento had actually been stalked and physically threatened by a fan whilst selling Inferno in America, and took the experience as inspiration. For the most part this would be the last time any of the director’s films would take on such a personal angle.

Argento then injects the film with more overt sexuality than any previous film (the sexual politics of Suspiria and Inferno were almost childlike in nature), which is an especially interesting choice, likely based in the then recent increase in ‘sex as a sin’ slashers during the early ‘80s. Bird and Deep Red had homosexual characters, and the black gloved crimes were sort of sexually motivated, but rarely had Argento revelled in the sweaty titillation of sex to this degree. In the ‘70s Argento approached sex in a wholly Italian fashion, worshiping the female form while keeping it slyly covered, with Tenebre he opens the door to a whole world of flesh and sexual focus in the films that followed the fairy tale like Phenomena, including the sexually motivated crimes of Opera, the underage relationships of Trauma, the repeated rapes of Stendhal Syndrome, and the positively dripping sexuality of Argento’s two Masters of Horror entrees.

Tenebre
The surface level appeal extends to the film’s extraordinary photography and lighting. Argento and cinematographer extraordinaire Luciano Tovoli took their cues from popular American television in creating their bright neon environments. Argento stated in interviews that he saw Tenebre as an anti-noir thriller, effectively ensuring that almost the entire film takes place under bright, artificial light, where both victims and killers have no shadows in which to hide. Argento even uses white outs instead of fades to black to represent flashbacks and dream sequences. The not so subtle irony is, of course, the word ‘tenebre’ translates as darkness or shadows.

Most intriguing are not the bawdy, bright and bloody visuals, but the would-be stopping point the film represented in Argento’s canon. Though fans now know Argento would be unable to grow beyond his Giallo roots, Tenebre looked at the time like the director’s last word on the subject. Besides the anti-noir lighting, which pushed the Mario Bava inspired images to their limit, Argento pushed the violence to a level not usually familiar to the subgenre (save Fulci’s New York Ripper of course), and his plot breaks some of the subgenre’s cardinal rules. I can’t really go into the specific narrative reason Tenebre is the Giallo to end all Gialli without spoiling it for those that haven’t seen it, but fans should know specifically what I’m talking about.

Tenebre isn’t Argento’s masterpiece, and it produces its fare share of awkward dialogue and acting. Argento claims in interviews that the film is meant to take place in the ‘near future’ when the world’s population has been cut down to size by some unnamed plague, but there’s really nothing to tell us this story visually, the film just looks like it takes place in early ‘80s Berlin. The thought of Argento actually attempting a Sci-Fi Giallo is a tantalizing one, but this isn’t it.

Tenebre
Tenebre was the first Argento film since Cat O’ Nine Tails that was released censored on US home video. Though Deep Red had been shorn of about twenty minutes, none of the editing was made for reasons of censoring violence or sex. Tenebre is also one of only two Argento films that were banned in the UK during the video nasties phenomenon (the other was Inferno, which escaped uncut in the States with a simple R-rating). This forbidden nature obviously creates inflamed interest in the fan community, and Anchor Bay’s initial DVD and widescreen VHS release was cause for celebration. The one image that was most obviously missing from the old VHS release (under the title Unsane) was that of Veronica Lario’s arm stump literally painting the white walls red with blood, which is possibly the most striking image in Argento’s career. This release is the same cut as that original AB release, and is still missing a few fleeting glimpses of the killer wondering around his or her abode.

Video


This release marks the first anamorphic release of Tenebre in North America. I had prepared some comparison screen caps for this review, but in the DVDActive format it’s more or less impossible to tell the difference between the two transfers. This is because Anchor Bay hasn’t really done anything to the transfer besides anamorpically enhancing it. Argento’s bright compositions often bloom, and are consistently plagued with thick grain. Red, the film’s sort of ‘theme colour’ bleeds a bit, though most other hues are pretty well represented and separated. Edge enhancement is another side effect of the film’s overall brightness. Tenebre is one Argento feature that could really benefit from a Blu-ray upgrade, because Argento intended it to carry a strange cleanliness, but based on the DVD transfers available I’m afraid that the material may not be there.

Tenebre

Audio


Wah oo oo wah, wah oo oo wah, wah oo oo wah, wah oo oo wah…

I was thrilled to find out that French electro group Justice had sampled Goblin’s classic main theme for not one, but two songs on their latest album. I’ve got to acknowledge that this isn’t the group’s best score, but it’s a memorable main theme. This new DVD release features the exact same 5.1 remix as the original Anchor Bay release, right down to the unnecessary echo and strange vocal performances. Tenebre wasn’t one of Argento’s best dubbed features, and the inconsistent volume and production of the voices here doesn’t really help things. Some of the surround effects, however, are very impressive when considering the source material. The base of the track is centred, but effects like airplanes flying overhead and cars zipping past the characters on the street are effectively mixed. The rear channel echo on the score is really the tracks obvious failure.

The Mono Italian track is also included, which is actually not the ideal way to view this particular film, in my opinion. Most of the major actors are speaking English and dubbing their own voices. The only real loss is Daria Nicolodi’s deep purr, which is replaced by a slightly mousy English speaking voice. The Italian track is a bit flat, and actually missing a few of the 5.1 track’s more lively background effects.

Tenebre

Extras


Like the Phenomena re-release that joins it, this Tenebre release is mostly useful for its anamorphic enhancement. Most of these extras were already available on the original release. Included here is a commentary track with Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti, and moderator Loris Curei. Coupled with the Phenomena commentary, this is the reason Argento doesn’t do commentaries any more. He’s very uncomfortable with the entire process, but he’s especially uncomfortable speaking English for long periods. Simonetti’s English is good, and he’s actually full of factoids beyond just the scoring process, and Curei does his best to pry information out of the increasingly quiet Argento. Not the best commentary track, but a rarity now that he doesn’t do them anymore.

We are treated to a brand new retrospective featurette called ‘Voices of the Unsane’, which features interviews with Argento, Simonetti, DP Luciano Tovoli, assistant director (and son of Mario) Lamberto Bava, Daria Nicolodi, and transgender actress Eva Robbins. As an obsessive fan with three Argento specific books in my library most of this info was old to me, but I did learn that Tenebre was partially born out of Italian fans’ disappointment with Suspiria and Inferno, which did better in other countries. According to Nicolodi at least, who has made flat out false statements on previous interviews and featurettes. Argento himself goes off on a few stereotypical tangents, but mostly keeps his focus on the film and his displeasure with censorship, which seems to have waned in its fervour as the maestro has aged. The featurette runs about seventeen minutes.

Tenebre
The next featurette ‘The Roving Camera of Dario Argento’ is an excerpt from the same documentary the Phenomena disc took its behind the scenes footage. The original documentary is actually available in its entirety on the now out of print German release of Tenebre under the title Unsane. This section concerns the film’s highly respected luma crane shot that wraps around an entire apartment complex to revel the killer sneaking in the back window. It only lasts five minutes, but has been altered to be anamorphically enhanced. Another two minute excerpt from the longer documentary is also included, called ‘Creating the Sounds of Terror’, which specifically concerns the film’s Foley effects.

The disc is completed with the alternate end credit music that was mistakenly mixed into the soundtrack before release (a strange pop song that Argento and Simonetti strongly disapprove of on the commentary track), the original English trailer, and an Argento bio.

Tenebre

Overall


I’m still more partial to Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, but Tenebre has earned its rightful place in Argento’s oeuvre, and stands as one of the maestro’s more pronounced efforts. This release marks the first US anamorphic enhancement of the feature, though one has to wonder why Anchor Bay isn’t pumping these features out on Blu-ray yet. The price is right, however, and if you’re a collector (like me) the collection will always have an open spot.


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