Peter Neal is a successful murder-mystery novelist, going to Italy to get away from it all, and to promote his new book Tenebrae. Things take a dark turn when a series of murders are committed in line with this book, and the killer calls him personally. Neal realises he must track down the killer before anyone else is hurt, himself included. But is the author up for the challenge of a real life mystery?
Tenebrae is a quintessential giallo film. While it's not the best to some, it's highly regarded by many, and is a perfect introduction to the genre. If someone doesn't know what a giallo is going on, they'll be well versed going out.
The movie gets off to an arresting start, with it's neat introduction and opening credits, and the plot gets rolling fairly quickly. We're introduced to a good supply of suspects and victims, although the former list dwindles as the latter grows. Despite the culprit being a little obvious in some ways, Tenebrae is a film that delights in unexpected twists and turns. Sherlock Holmes's famous quote is references throughout-"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
It's important that a mystery make sense, and while giallos would often play fast and loose with logic, they would generally come together by the end, if in a bizarre or impossible to predictable way. Tenebrae is no exception. While there are a few moments that might make the viewer go "...Huh?", it delivers in a very satisfying manner.
The characters are a good bunch. Peter Neal is a likeable and down to earth guy. He's a good protagonist to follow, and also acts as a surrogate for Argento himself. Like the director, Neal creates lurid and violent works of fiction, and that's all they are, yet people criticise him for being misogynistic, and other insults. Tenebrae has some interesting thematic qualities regarding this, and a creator's role in events.
Peter's assistant and girlfriend Anne is a nice girl who adds some charm. His ex wife Jane is also around, trying to cause trouble. It's a little unclear what she wants. Does she wanna get back together with Peter, or get with her new lover? Italian assistant Gianni is a decent guy, and has a few brainwaves with the case, which turns out to be an unfortunate thing in a giallo.
The police detectives on the case are good, with Inspector Giermani being a highlight with his interactions with Neal. His partner barely appears though, or even speaks. When she returns for the finale I had trouble realising it was even her. The main suspect is Christiano Berti, a lanky and creepy man who can't go more than one sentence without making a creepy comment of some kind.
The victims range from a seductive book thief, to a landlord's waifish daughter, and a lesbian journalist. I kinda wish she had a larger role. It could've been a neat touch-A critic decrying this author as vile and misogynist has to investigate them, and maybe even team. At the very least I wish she'd had more than two scenes before dying, because it feels like there's seeds of an interesting (if bitchy and two faced) character there.
There are many setpieces through Tenebrae, with one of the best being a long chase scene. One girl ends up on the run from the most determined dog in existence (if only she'd given him a pat instead if being mean!), and over the course of this getaway she stumbles upon the killer's lair. She does a really good job of assessing the situation too, nabbing plenty of evidence, and even doing a decent job of fighting the returning killer! Just a shame she's not the main character, and doesn't survive the scene.
As great as it is, I feel Tenebrae gets a little carried away in the finale, trying its best to kill off as many named characters as it can. Some feel a little pointless, like Argento had leftover gore effects from Jane's demise, so figured another axing wouldn't go astray. Despite that issue, it's still a wonderful conclusion to the film, and really gives you a lot to think about.
Tenebrae is visually fantastic! The environments are carefully crafted, and there is a unique and almost oppressive feel from all the white, and the sometimes bizarre architecture. Argento's direction is superb and unmistakeable, The most impressive moment of the film is a long tracking shot from one apartment to another. It doesn't really have any reason to exist, but its a neat addition all the same, and does build the tension as the music ramps up. The last act has some truly memorable shots, which have been seen in a few later film
The effects are equally good. Some of he murders are lower scale compared to other Argento films, with some simple throat slashings or stabbings, but the way they're orchestrated gives them pizazz. As the film goes on the deaths get more intense, culminating in one scene that'll either make you shriek in terror, or howl in laughter. Or both! All I'll say is, have you ever wondered how you can paint your house if you're dying?
The cast in Tenebrae do great jobs. Anthony Franciosa is a good lead, and Daria Nicolodi shares chemistry with him, delivering an equally good performance. John Saxon has an amusing role, while John Steiner is amusingly creepy. Guilano Gemma does well with his serious part, and is a warm personality throughout. The rest of the cast include actresses like Ania Pieroni, Lara Wendel, and the transgender Eva Robin's, who all deliver effective performances in their own ways.
The score by electronic band Goblin is great! There are many tense, fast-paced, and thrilling tracks to enjoy, and the flashback music is like an eerie distorted music box. The main theme is the best track in the film for me. It starts off ominous, but soon becomes almost cheery, like it's scoring an 80s aerobics video.
Tenebrae is one of my favorite Dario Argento films, and a great introduction to Italian horror! If you have a kid who is eager to get into the genre, all you need to do is show 'em this and they'll be a fan for life!...Or I suppose you could wait till they're older, if you wanna be un-cool about it...