By PETER GUTIERREZ
Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, John Saxon, John Steiner
Written and directed by Dario Argento
To state here, at the outset, that I first saw TENEBRAE in a 42nd Street grindhouse in its initial U.S. run in 1984 is done not to establish any sort of Dario Argento-cred (it just shows that I’m old) but to provide a sense of why and how much I’ve marveled at this new 4K UHD release from Synapse Films. The transfer and sound quality are pretty flawless, and the contrast with my first experience of the film, with its mangled edit and numerous hairs in the print, mirrors the cultural arc of Argento’s reputation over the last several decades.
As a teen, I’d heard of Suspiria, but I don’t think I’d yet seen it, and I certainly wasn’t aware of the auteur behind it. Like North American audiences, generally, I stumbled across the maestro’s work simply because it looked like a promising package of unsavory thrills. Though lauded and popular in Europe, it was not widely heralded abroad. But as VHS became more commonplace, an entire generation came to discover Argento, and by the ’90s, he was considered something of a legend. Subsequent years have seen countless scholarly explorations and sparkly retrospectives. In 2016, Synapse issued a Blu-ray of TENEBRAE (included in this new release, by the way) that was already eye-opening in terms of clarity and detail; I wasn’t used to seeing the pancake makeup on the actors so right there, but somehow, it just fit both the period vibe and Argento’s distinctly color-splashed brand of horror expressionism. It added a Kabuki element that mixed well with all the liminal spaces and in-broad-daylight violence.
It was this striking stylization – blood so brushstroke-y that you almost couldn’t take it seriously – that explains why the film hit so hard and so fresh. Back in ’84, I left the theater rather stunned, and to this day, TENEBRAE has the power to unnerve and disorient like few other gialli. The same director’s Deep Red certainly rivals it in its evocation of ambient dread, but I’d argue that Argento’s detour into the supernatural with Suspiria and Inferno left a mark on his creative impulse that he couldn’t easily shake, had he even wanted to. Metaphysically, TENEBRAE presents a reality suffused with malice not as a result of intrusions by the paranormal but because, fundamentally, that’s the hidden essence of our world. Although often maligned as ill-fitting or even nonsensical, the original U.S. title, Unsane, is now, it seems, strangely apt. While TENEBRAE (meaning “shadows”) is far more poetic, a portmanteau of “insane” + “uncanny” nicely sums up the film’s sensibility.
Famous American writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) has written a Poe-like first-person novel about a serial killer, full of existential musings about “freedom.” He travels to Rome to promote it but is apparently being stalked before he even arrives. His agent (John Saxon) and assistant (Dara Nicolodi) organize various media events for him where he must deal with questions regarding misogyny, as well as journalists like the one played by the late John Steiner, who is just a bit too intense. If you know something of Argento’s career and critical reception, the autobiographical antecedents are clear. This book tour, unfortunately, is marred by a string of brutal, baroque killings by a murderer obsessed with Neal and his latest novel. While the plot is almost absurdly twisty, brimming with coincidences and red herrings, this only supports the feverish sense of madness that is Argento’s true goal.
In case you find the film too befuddling, the commentary tracks and other features consistently provide both context and insight. For Argento fans, Thomas Rostock’s thoughts on the film’s aesthetics are not to be missed. For those yet to be fully converted, Maitland McDonagh’s positioning of Argento within genre history and film culture might be the perfect place to start.
To be sure, TENEBRAE may not be the most acclaimed, most influential or craziest of Argento’s films, but I’d argue that it is the most Argento-esque of them and will always be special for that reason if no other.