Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tenebre (1982)

Country: ITALY

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.

Gialli have a very difficult balancing act to maintain between a labyrinthine and complex plot replete with numerous red herrings and a sense of narrative cohesion and satisfaction. Few films in the form achieve this, its no surprise that those that do tend to be held up as exemplars of the form. Tenebre succeeds extremely well within its set pieces (one can always rely on Argento for excellence in this area) but at a narrative level is more inconsistent and incoherent than most. I’ve always seen Inferno as the film in which Argento’s writing of plot and dialogue began to take on a secondary importance to set pieces and with Tenebre this is continued. It gets even worse with Phenomena (1985) but that’s another story. For once even the soundtrack fails to produce the requisite atmosphere. The electronic and synthetic disco beats of the Goblin collaborators provide distraction rather than ambience. As a piece of work existing separate to the film the soundtrack for Tenebre is very enjoyable, but the use of certain pieces of music at certain moments is questionable. This is perhaps exemplified by the scene that the film is most famous for. A show off sequence in which Argento tracks around and over the roof of an apartment in a single take. At the time it was innovative, now it borders on self indulgent. The music detracts heavily from this sequence, but it is nevertheless a striking moment in a film lacking such moments. It is the only scene in the film to rival anything seen in Suspiria or Inferno.

Tenebre does achieve a measure of success though in the self reflexive attitude to its principal themes. The film is concerned with the effects of violence in the media and the potential influence such imagery and ideas might hold for susceptible minds - in this case it is the trashy horror novels of Peter Neal (a dull Anthony Franciosa). It is amusing and highly self-conscious of Argento to include a scene in which Neal fends off accusations of misogony from a feminist journalist. This was a particularly prescient theme considering that Tenebre was one of the films held up as a Video Nasty in the UK and banned on the grounds of its potential harm on vulnerable minds. Argento doesn’t quite have the guts to make his protagonist a director of horror films. This would have been a very post-modern step and might have resulted in the film gaining a good deal of academic interest. Unfortunately these interesting layers of inter-textual meaning are lost by the films confusing attitude to the arguments it raises.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

1 comment:

  1. This is my least favorite Argento film, for various reasons. Number one is the colors in the film. As you mentioned, Argento was apparently trying to do something that went in the complete opposite direction to his previous films.

    Instead of drenching them in color, he left it out. All the day time scenes, and the whites used kind of take away from what I love the most about Argento films, the colors. It doesnt feel like a horror film, all the day time scenes in broad daylight simply dont do it for me.

    That tracking shot of the house is one that I really hate, I mean, I didnt see any purpose in it. At all. I rewinded the scene, tried to find some sort of meaning for it, but found none. It wasnt necessary, and that was one scene that made me take Tenebrae a couple of notches down.

    But, the ending is awesome and bloody and saved the movie for me, cause up to that ending with the stormy night and the bloody murders I was really dissapointed with it. I remember, I was exploring Argento films and liked everything I had seen up to that point. This was the first stumbling block for me as far as Argento went...the other was Phantom of the Opera.


Related Posts with Thumbnails