The UK poster for the film

I’m not sure why I watched Tenebrae, currently streaming on MUBI alongside four of Dario Argento’s other titles under the heading of ‘Profondo Argento’. I’m not a fan of slasher films and this is a classic Argento giallo. Gialli or ‘yellow films’ are murder mysteries with elements of horror and extreme violence and possibly eroticism. The genre designation is similar in origin to the French ‘noir’ from the publishing imprint serie noir, referring in this case to the imprint of genre novels in Italy with yellow covers. The categorisation dates from the early 1960s. I picked up on Argento quite late when I started to use the opening of Suspiria (Italy 1977) in my lectures on Horror as a genre. Nobody can create atmosphere quite like Argento. I expected Tenebrae to be different as it isn’t supernatural horror. The title refers to ‘darkness’ but actually quite a lot of the film is in daylight or well-lit rooms.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) and his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi)

Argento is also known for Hitchcockian scenarios and this example, like all his directorial efforts, was also written by him. The narrative begins with the departure from New York of a writer, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) who has become a best-selling crime novelist. He’s heading for Rome where he expects to be interviewed and profiled because his latest book Tenebrae is selling well in Italy and internationally. Before he boards his flight we get an indication that he is leaving behind a jealous woman. When he arrives in Rome, a series of events begins in which several young women are brutally killed with a cut-throat razor. The narrative is constructed so that these murders are in connected to the best-selling Tenebrae novel. I don’t want to spoil the plot development but it is inevitable that Peter Neal will become connected in some way to the investigation of the murders by Detective Germani and his team, simply because of the main theme of the book. The film opens with a quote from the book suggesting that the protagonist feels that all his problems can be solved by murder. If someone causes a problem, murdering them not only removes the problem but makes the murderer feel cleansed.

Reading Tenebrae in the shop turns out to be a dangerous activity for one reader (Ania Pieroni) . . .
A young woman seeks sanctuary in a modernist house – again a possible mistake?

Part way through the stream of killings a series of events directly involves Neal and his team and Neal himself becomes an investigator alongside his two assistants, Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and Gianni (Christian Borromeo). Neal’s agent Bullmer (John Saxon) will also become involved. Not surprisingly, there will be a twist in the narrative, signalled early on when Neal on his initial journey to Italy is seen reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, the source of the observation that whenever all the seemingly possible explanations of a mystery have been discounted, whatever highly unlikely possibility remains will be the solution, despite everything suggesting that it is impossible. There may be a couple of flaws in Argento’s plotting but audiences won’t necessarily spot them (if they do exist) as the tight narrative surges forward irresistibly with knives and an axe joining the razor.

Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and his assistant Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnaro)

The setting for the mystery is an upper middle-class area of Rome with wide boulevards, modernist mansions and high rises. The dialogue suggests that this is the EUR district which also features in Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Italy-France 1962). The mise en scène is about architecture and interior design as well as high fashion. I’ve seen at least one review that suggests that the film is pitched somewhere between soft porn and the mainstream with actors who are attractive but not up to the usual standards of Hollywood stars. I can’t agree with this description at all. The characters seem to me to be quite chic older men and women or youthful and full of vitality.  It’s true that there are several beautiful women brutally murdered, sometimes in a state of undress. But the gender split is not pronounced. Several men are butchered just as savagely. Men and women end up bloodied and some partly dismembered. The weapons are ‘real’ enough but the killings are exaggerated with many litres of bright red gore. The score by the band Goblin is familiar from other Argento films and adds to the expressionist quality.

The TV interviewer Christiano Berti (John Steiner) is a fan of Peter Neal’s books

For many critics, Tenebrae was a confident return for Argento to the slasher type of giallo. There is a form of psychological motivation for the killings, though I’m not sure it is particularly profound. The film ends with screams that are still there as the end credits roll. I’m not sure that I ‘enjoyed’ all the gore but I was engaged and entertained by the narrative. There is an artistry in Argento’s work and watching one of his films is an experience that isn’t too far removed from the opera narratives that his work in some way resembles.

Going out to investigate without putting on a coat seems foolhardy – Mirella Banti as Marion

The ‘International Trailer’ is accessible below (not for the squeamish). The MUBI version of the film is the original Italian print. This trailer uses an American English dub. Anthony Franciosa is actually American like John Saxon and John Steiner who plays the interviewer for a TV channel was actually British. Italian cinema at this time was very much an equal opportunities employer for acting talent.