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Disc Spotlight: Dario Argento’s Tenebrae

By  · Published on July 12th, 2011

Another month, another Dario Argento Blu-ray release from Arrow Video in the UK. This time it’s a film considered by many to be among his best works in general as well as one of his finest giallos. Tenebrae features all the hallmarks of Argento finest films including a twisted killer in gloves, spectacular set pieces, a pulsating electronic score, and people meeting some very violent endings. It also happens to be the bloodiest of his films from that period. Like, ‘paint the wall red with the crimson arterial spray spurting from a severed arm’ bloody…

The Movie:

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a bestselling mystery writer from the US who comes to Rome on a publicity tour, but his arrival is marred by the first in a string of murders connected to his latest novel, Tenebrae. A young woman is stabbed to death and her mouth is stuffed with pages from Neal’s book, so naturally the Italian police make contact with him. His agent (John Saxon) tries to keep him focused on promoting his novel, but Neal finds himself unable to resist investigating the murders as the killer seems to strike closer and closer to home.

The conceit of the film sees Neal as a sort of stand in for Argento himself as the writer is criticized by the press for the misogynistic, violent treatment of women in his novels just as the director had been for his films. Argento makes that an element of the story itself as is deemed a possible suspect or instigator and forced to defend his art. It’s an intriguing premise that doesn’t quite get the full treatment it deserves as the central plot becomes the driving force behind the action.

That’s not a complaint though as the film’s plot is far less convoluted than many of Argento’s other works, and the set pieces range from spectacularly bloody affairs to a beautifully crafted crane shot that slowly crawls up and over and into a building. That shot and the double murder that it accompanies get all the press, but the less technical and more artistic highlight is a murder in broad daylight in a busy public area. Argento lulls us in as the soon-to-be victim watches strangers going about their lives… kids playing, a couple arguing, two men fighting… then suddenly the glint of the knife signals the poor soul’s end and their lifeblood seeping into the cobblestones beneath. It’s a fantastically done scene heavy with impending menace.

Franciosa brings a high degree of enthusiasm to the role starting with his first appearance on a bicycle smack dab in the middle of highway traffic, and that energy carries through the film in his excitement for his novel, the search for the killer, and his many lady friends. Speaking of the ladies, there are several Italian beauties mingling about offering a healthy mix of eye candy, red herrings, and victims. Not only is this one of Argento’s bloodiest films it’s also one of his most nudity-filled titles… at least until the abysmal Mother Of Tears was released a few years ago.

Tenebrae is a thriller with a high body count and some beautifully shot scenes, and it even manages to feature one of Goblin’s best scores (even if one quarter of the band is absent). The fact that the killer’s identity is easier to determine in advance than is typically the case doesn’t mar the film for reasons that become evident upon watching, and in fact it makes things more intriguing. For my money Deep Red remains Argento’s finest film (although my favorite is still Phenomena), but Tenebrae sits comfortably towards the top of Italian genre cinema for a reason. Check it out if you haven’t seen it yet, and remember why he was once considered a director worth watching.

The Blu-ray:

Arrow Video’s all region Blu-ray comes packaged with their standard selection of physical extras including four cover art options comprised of existing material and new artwork, a double-sided fold-out poster, and a booklet featuring a seven page essay on the film by Alan Jones. Your affection for these now-expected extras may differ, but I’ll always be a sucker for the multiple sleeves and booklet. The poster? Not so much.

The disc features a new HD transfer of the film that looks better than previous DVD releases… for the most part. Arrow’s past problems with excessive DNR doesn’t appear to be an issue, but there’s an odd visual noise(?) that appears periodically throughout the film. It’s a mild distortion to be sure, but it’s noticeable each time it appears and may distract some viewers from the experience. Like the physical extras the disc’s special features are exactly what we’ve come to expect from Arrow and High Rising Productions. The interviews are a mix of the informative and the meandering, but the highlight is a brief concert appearance by some members of Goblin earlier this year in Scotland. Watching them perform tracks while Argento-related clips play on a screen behind them is pretty cool. I just wish the footage ran longer.

Bottom Line:

Tenebrae is a fun, exciting thriller and easily one of Argento’s best. I’d still put Deep Red and Phenomena ahead of it in a ranking, but this remains one of the finer giallo films from any director. Between the stylish visuals, bloody set pieces, and catchy score this is a must watch, but the Blu-ray’s minor (and occasional) image distortion prevents it from being a must buy.

– Buy Tenebrae on Blu-ray from AmazonUK

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.