After the outlandish visual pyrotechnics of the hallucinatory Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) Italy’s chief exponent of horror Dario Argento returned to the plot complexities and red herrings of the giallo genre. In many ways though he had never left it. Beneath the thick layers of supernatural hocus-pocus that marked his nightmarish descent into the realm of the Three Mothers both Suspiria and Inferno functioned primarily within the parameters of the murder mystery format - this offered gialli a route into a dark and fantastic realm of phantasmagoria that few of Argento’s contemporaries chose to take up. Instead gialli limped on into the 1980’s with few innovations and began to lose favour with a public that had moved on to imported American slasher films. Argento at this time was in the enviable position where he could pretty much make whatever he liked, and despite one or two thematic departures, and one ill fated historical film, he has remained loyal to the narrative strategies of the giallo form. Unfortunately Tenebre is one of his least inspirational endeavours, and compared to the two films that preceded it is distinctly underwhelming.
Once again Argento is heavily reliant on his Director of Photography and for this film brought back the man who had been so important to the Technicolor magnificence of Suspiria; Luciano Tovoli. His importance to both films cannot be understated. Instead of the brooding primary colours of Suspiria Tovoli and Argento this time conjure up a brightly lit and stark visual presentation that hints at the slightly futuristic and minimalist aesthetic Argento was seeking. That they don’t quite pull it off is one of the weaknesses of Tenebre as a visual exercise. Rome is a lifeless shell, a desolate urban nightmare a million miles from the chic cosmopolitanism of earlier Argento films. Argento takes this to a typical extremity when he has John Saxon stabbed to death in broad daylight in a crowded shopping area. Even night time scenes are unusually well lit resulting in a dilution of suspense and tension.