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Screenwriter and critic-turned writer-director Dario Argento ruled the Euro-thriller roost in the 1970s with a series of beautifully photographed and interestingly directed murder thrillers and horror efforts bundled under the generic name giallos. Argento's first slasher thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage startled audiences with its fetishistic embrace of razor-wielding killers dressed in shiny black raincoats; textures of wet plastic, designer clothing and flashy Italian architecture made the films seem like horrors conceived from a glossy fashion magazine. After several extremely bloody whodunnit-type murder tales exploiting every narrative gimmick and red herring detour known to mystery writing, Argento settled for a few years into a more intense series of horror films with even more intense carnage. By the late 1970s the blood-bucket had been overfilled by other Italian practioners like Lucio Fulci and his zombie carnage horrors. In response Dario Argento returned to his earlier murder mystery format.
The intriguingly titled Tenebrae (initially released in the U.S. as Unsane) doesn't develop the giallo formula, but tries instead to play more cat & mouse games as we try to guess the identity of the mystery killer shadowing popular mystery writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa). As soon as Neal's agent Bullmer (John Saxon) flies him into Rome to publicize his latest book "Tenebrae" and make more publishing deals, a mystery killer begins killing both strangers and people associated with Neal. A journalist who interviews Neal criticizes the murder scenarios in his books as sexist, macho bullshit, returns home to be slashed to death along with her roommate. Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) can only watch as the bodies pile up; nobody has a clue as to what kind of maniac is responsible. Neal worries that his ex-wife Jane (Veronica Lario) is involved, a connection that Bullmer is worried about as well -- he's having an affair with the woman.
Tenebrae has appeal on a visual level. Once again, Argento shows the residential neighborhoods and business areas of Rome, avoiding obvious travelogue locations; the movie does have a feeling of being in a real city. The actual killings are indeeds jolting and disturbing, but not as sadistic and obsessive as Argento's work of a few years before. The appeal is all in the staging of the violence, as the victims seem almost arbitrarily chosen to insure at least one killing per reel. As a mystery thriller the show is simply absurd. People around Peter Neal are dropping like flies, and neither the author nor the detective thinks any security or surveillance might be in order. Peter's employees and associates go about their business unconcerned by the threat. Detective Germani operates without backup, and in one murder scene doesn't bother to find out if the bloody bodies on the floor are really dead, or might benefit from some first aid.
The large list of characters provides a steady stream of victims for Argento, whose death machine is up to its old "sexist, macho" tricks. Beautiful women are preferred targets, especially when undressed. As with so many Italian murder thrillers of the era, a pair of Lesbians are singled out for a particularly bloody demise.
The elements of Tenebrae that work are the ones Argento always excelled at. The camera of Luciano Tovoli (The Passenger, Reversal of Fortune, Argento's Suspiria) makes a visual feast of a couple of designer houses. A digression involving a pair of scarlet high-heeled shoes reminds us of the delirious carpet-level camera angles in Argento's Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). Although the "Italian Hitchcock" title bestowed upon him is wholly undeserved, Argento's work does perpetuate the visual tradition of Italian horror. When Jane suddenly reaches for the bright red shoes, the film's excitement level takes a step upward.
Another scene is a schematic reworking of Tippi Hedren's encounter with some crows in a schoolyard in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, that teases us in one direction but pays off in another. Death in a sunny, busy public place is a fairly unusual idea for Argento and a welcome change of pace.
Other elaborate set pieces of direction, although lauded by critics, are almost laughable in their meaninglessness. Argento must have had the use of the flexible Louma crane for an extra day, for he invents a show-off camera move that observes a victim in one part of her town house, and then prowls up and over the roof to re-connect with her through a window on the other side of the building. An elaborate repeated flashback doesn't really explain the killer's motivation very well -- that part of the film is a muddle -- but it will please shoe fetishists with the introduction of those alarming red pumps. As in Once Upon a Time in The West, the flashback slowly pieces together a malignant formative episode in the killer's backstory.
Favorite Argento actress Daria Nicolodi returns for a substantial role, and future Silvio Berlusconi spouse Veronica Lario gets the key part. Giuliano Gemma and John Saxon contribute acceptable performances, but the only exceptional performer is Anthony Francisosa, who gives his writer-hero a winning personality right up to the absurd multi-twist conclusion.
Arrow Video's Blu-ray of Tenebrae is an acceptable encoding of this highly-regarded Dario Argento slasher horror. Many scenes have an odd grain structure that doesn't appear to be sourced in the film itself, and in some cases digital enhancement seems a bit heavy. On whole the film looks very bright and attractive -- most of these killings occur in lush and luxurious environments, as opposed to stylized shadows. This goes against the Latin title Tenebrae, which means "shadows and darkness". Goblin's agitated score is a good match for the film's moods, although not as commanding (or as deafening) as their earlier music compositions for Argento.
Arrow engulfs Tenebrae in fan-friendly extras, all of which begin from the assumption that Argento's work is High Art. Thomas Rostock contributes an academic commentary, while the more congenial Alan Jones and Kim Newman are equally erudite on all things Argento, revealing associations within the film that will connect with the interests of Argento fans. New video featurettes include a Daria Nicolodi intro and interview, interviews with director Argento and composer Claudio Simonetti as well as a Goblin featurette on music from Tenebrae and Phenomena.An original trailer is included as well.
A reversible, flippable insert card allows buyers to display any of four main artwork choices for their video package. The keep case includes a double-sided folding poster for the film and an insert booklet with an informative, if somewhat uncritical, essay on the complexities and cinematic brilliance to be found in Tenebrae.
We're informed that cinematographer Luciano Tovoli is at present filming for Dario Argento a new show called Dracula 3D.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tenebrae Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.