How Low Can You Giallo?- Tenebre (1982)

Dario Argento and I don’t always get along. In fact, for a while, I thought the best gift he had given to the world of film was his smoking hot daughter, Asia. Not to diminish that contribution, I have finally started to get into Argento’s film. While Opera and The Card Player (so dreadful I could not bring myself to review it) have certainly let me down, watching films such as Susperia, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, or tonight’s feature, Tenebre, has finally allowed me to see what all the fuss is about. Argento will probably never become one of the indispensable directors to me, but when it comes to making quality gialli, his name must be on the shortlist of revered masters.

Argento began his directing career in 1970 with the aforementioned film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. This first film, a giallo of great skill, popularized the style that Mario Bava had begun in the 1970’s with films such as Blood and Black Lace and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. As I reviewed that film back in March, I won’t say much more about it other than it was an excellent debut. Argento went on to make several more gialli before reaching a peak with 1975’s Deep Red. He went on to make several films with a similar feeling, but beginning with Susperia many of his films took on more supernatural overtones. Then in 1982, some years after the giallo craze had ended, Argento chose to revisit the form with his film Tenebre.

Inspired by his own experience with a crazed fan, Argento’s film focuses on writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) who specializes in macabre thrillers often labeled as misogynist and sexually abhorrent. He travels to Italy to promote his newest book, Tenebrae, but as soon as he arrives, murders begin to plague Rome, murders that have taken their inspiration from Neal’s work. As the bodies begin to stack up, Detective Germani’s (Giuliano Gemma) investigation draws the writer deeper into the mystery, but Neal does not know if he is merely the inspiration or the final target of the straight razor wielding killer.

Before I get any further into discussing this film, I want to say that I am going to try to avoid spoilers, but it would almost be impossible to discuss this film deeply without spoiling parts of the plot. So, if the synopsis or my continued discussion of the film seems elusive at points, it’s because I feel very strongly that Argento crafted a script for this film that relied on the suspense and surprise of the mystery. Unlike many of his other films, Argento wrote the script on his own, and it shows, as the character of Peter Neal is essentially a stand in for the criticisms that had been leveled at Argento in the past. The pacing of the sequences as well as the twists and turns of the mystery make this film one of the best examples of the genre.

Tenebre was made with the American market in mind, and primarily the cast spoke English while filming. Although in the traditional Italian style, the sound was put on after the filming was completed. While Argento made the film hoping for success in the U.S., the film was heavily edited when it was finally released in 1984 under the title Unsane. This cut version excised some of the gore, but it also took out chunks of that narrative. Reviews of this version were not favorable, but at least it was released. In Germany, the censorship board has never approved the film, and it was one of the films slapped onto the U.K’s Video Nasties list.

Unlike many other films that made that list, Tenebre deserves the distinction. If you want a film that is full of the old red stuff, then this is the film for you. Throats get cut, arms get lopped off, and there is more than one instance of axes to the head. I loved every minute of that, and especially the arm being lopped off. The victim flails around with blood spraying up and down a white wall, and I could not help but wonder if Tarantino took some inspiration for this scene for his arm severing in Kill Bill Pt. 1.

Of the Argento films I have seen, this is the bloodiest, and it stands in stark contrast to the well-lit locales where the violence takes place. Gone is the colored lighting of Susperia, and in its place Argento wanted "...a modern style of photography, deliberately breaking with the legacy of German Expressionism. Today's light is the light of neon, headlights, and omnipresent flashes...Caring about shadows seemed ridiculous to me and, more than that, reassuring.” Argento was interested in portraying the events that occur in the film with a hand in realism. I wonder if his own brush with a real life maniac out for his blood made the experience seem more real to him.

The film is full of some really good performances, but almost as if Argento was taunting his critics, the females in the film are objects of desire, sadistic nightmares, or fodder for the killer’s blade. Instead, the film keeps its focus on two men, Anthony Franciosa as writer Peter Neal, John Saxon as his agent Bullmer. Franciosa does a magnificent job as the terrorized writer, and the layers of his character would surely be even more impressive on a repeated viewing. Saxon also puts in a great performance as the slimy agent. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Saxon play such a likeable sleaze before, and I relished every moment he had on screen. The only other notable performance was Eva Robin’s turn as “Girl on Beach” in the mysterious flashbacks that pepper the film. I have to admit I found her quite attractive, so when I dissevered that she was a transgendered actress; I was more than a bit shocked. I feel certain that Argento put her in that role for just that reason. He lures you into being titillated, and then in a sly turn of events, it’s not what you expect.

That may well sum up Tenebre quite well. It is not exactly what you expect. Sure, the giallo conventions are on display. There are boobs a plenty, there are black gloves, and the blood, no worries there. Tenebre surprised me at every turn from the violence on display to the ending that brimmed with surprise. Every time I thought I knew how the next scene would unfold, I quickly found out how wrong I was. This film is going to get a score on par with Susperia, which many consider Argento’s masterpiece, and I think it deserves to be held up there right with that film. While it does not revel in the style of Susperia, Tenebre finds its strength by being a classic example of the giallo form and updating it for the age.

Bugg Rating

I feel remiss at not mentioning the incredible prog rock score by Goblin for Tenebre. While I often have problems with the music Argento picks for his films, I had no such issue here. Check out this video that plays several of the tracks from the film.


  1. I think we share the same feeling towards Argento. TENEBRE is my 2nd favorite of his films after SUSPIRIA. Most of his films, I just can't get into, especially anything made after OPERA. There are about 5 films of his that I think are terrific and the rest are just so-so to downright awful. I just saw FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET for the first time a few weeks ago and thought it was pretty good.

    Great review!

  2. I've been on a Dario Argento kick lately watching nothing but his films for the past 2 months. I have to say Tenebre is one of the better movies. I'd rank it 3rd or 4th on my list of his movies that I've seen so far.

  3. "Tenebre" is no doubt one of his 2 or 3 best's a classic that got every element right. The performances are perfect, and I also LOVE me some John Steiner. This guy is perfect in every sleazy movie he's in and his completely bizarre performance here is another of his greats.

  4. Probably one of his best efforts and also one of my favorites (the others are Suspiria, Phenomena, Opera, and 4 Flies).

    Just to add some trivia:

    -I've always heard that Tenebre was supposed to look like all the American crime shows that became popular at the time in Italy, the "realism" idea is a new one to me.

    - the movie is also suposed to be set in the near future and a lot of the details are meant to indicate this - basically there are fewer people around and less youth, but everyone is fairly wealthy, at the same time though, everyone is also quite cruel and selfish and no good deed goes unpunished.

    -perhaps related to this idea, it's also interesting to note that Argento used the buildings that were build by Mussolini for the (cancelled) World Expo in Italy in 1942 (which are considered to be prime examples of (futuristic) fascist architcture) as the setting for most of the film.

    -this is also the only Argento film that got censored in Italy - apparently the woman who gets her arm chopped off is now the wife of Berlusconi and Argento has repeatedly claimed that Berlusconi tried to buy the movie and destroy it and that he's also behind censorship attempts in other countries (most notably Germany where Tenebre was banned shortly after its release).

    I don't know how much of this is true, but I really think this might be one of his more interesting efforts and for once really deserves the -frequently made by Argento fans- excuse that it's mostly about the subtext and less about presenting a logical murder mystery.

  5. Agreed on the plot twists here Bug, I absolutely love Tenebrae, and I constantly switch back and forth between Suspiria and Tenebrae as my fav Argento entries. The set ups for each of the red herrings are so perfectly crafted that too obvious to be true, but also too obvious not to be. We are all so well versed in the genre that it takes a lot to truly surprise us, but I found myself surprised at every turn by Tenebrae, and love it dearly.


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