23rd Aug2019

Frightfest 2019: ‘Tenebrae’ Review

by Chris Cummings

Stars: Anthony Franciosa, Dario Nicolodi, John Saxon, Guiliano Gemma | Written and Directed by Dario Argento


Deep Red, Opera, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria… Dario Argento is one of the most influential and beloved horror directors of all time, and with the list of films he’s made sits an array of classics, many of which fall into the giallo genre, popularised by Argento himself. In that list and in that genre, sits Tenebrae. It’s been called one of Argento’s greatest achievements, it’s been called one of the very best giallo films of all time, and it remains a favourite among genre fans all over the world. There’s a damn good reason for that.

Tenebrae, made all the way back in 1982, was a story conceived by Argento that he formed into a screenplay and directed. It follows Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), a novelist who is on a tour of Rome to promote his latest book. At the same time as the tour, however, there’s a series of violent grisly murders happening in the city, murders that are said to be inspired by Peter’s new novel. As the victims pile up, Neal, along with his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and a local dude named Gianni (Christian Borromeo) try to discover just exactly who the hell this killer is. A murder-mystery thriller with the lead protagonist being a man who writes murder-mystery thrillers. It’s an intriguing slasher classic that takes the horror genre and blends it with a detective crime thriller, splashes some gory voyeuristic violence into the mix and a pile of plot twists, creating a unique film, a film that still holds up 27 years on from it’s release.

Visually there are striking elements to Tenebrae, with the clarity and white brightness of it all, and though there might not be the pops of colour (like we saw in Suspiria, for instance), there’s still some gloriously vivid moments, especially in the bloody sequences of murder which occur frequently enough to dazzle and delight us horror nerds. Cinematographer Luciano Tovali (who also shot Argento’s classic Suspiria along with a vast amount of other films in his long career. A career that continues to this very day) does a really fantastic job and the film looks absolutely terrific. The up-close style that it takes, at times, adds a discomfort and an unease, putting the viewer close to the violence and the mayhem, close enough to feel the final breaths of those victims. He also manages to take the camera back, letting the performances and the locations tell their stories. It looks great, even in 2019, and Tovali’s work is a huge reason why. Argento and Tovali’s collaboration here works so well, and some of the camera shots are just bloody brilliantly done. Another top-class component to the movie is the incredible electronic score from Goblin (or three members, anyway). It’s no surprise that the score is still spoken of fondly and lives and breathes its own life at the side of the film. It fits like a leather blood-splattered glove with the visuals of Tenebrae.

Tenebrae doesn’t shy away from, but rather faces the concept of sexism in film and literature, with our lead character, Neal, asked about the theme of sexism in his novels. The murders are often carried out in an erotic and sexual manner, with a great deal of emphasis being placed on that. It’s a self-aware story, undoubtedly, looking deeply at the misogynistic nature of perhaps the entire genre, and Argento certainly discussing his own film output in the process. I’m not the biggest expert when it comes to giallo, but I am a horror fan and have been for the majority of my life, and this is indeed one of the most iconic films in the horror genre, because while some may argue that this isn’t really a horror movie… it is. It really is. The whodunit element lends itself well to the morose tone and brutality of the visceral murder sequences, only adding to the story with a depth that is often missing from the genre in our modern age. It’s a technical masterpiece, brimming with concepts and ideas that could only come out of the mind of Dario Argento, and are the reason he is placed so highly in the hearts of fans.

There’s no surprise that Tenebrae is widely considered as one of Dario Argento’s true masterpieces. Influential, shocking, intriguing and stylish, it remains a feast for the ears, eyes and mind. A top notch cast, ultra-cool score and lots and lots of blood, it’s a fun slice of giallo that sits high up on that horror mountain.

****½  4.5/5

…If it really even needs a rating, at this stage.

Tenebrae screened as part of Arrow Video Frightfest’s Dario Argento “Guest of Honor” celebrations on Friday August 23rd 2019.


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