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Rabbit Holes

In the House October 4, 2021 

On Tenebrae


ou don’t often watch a slasher movie and wonder if it’s a particularly personal work for its director. But it’s basically impossible to watch Tenebrae (1982),

writer-director Dario Argento’s second film of the 1980s, and not notice that the by-then established horror filmmaker is using his seventh giallo project not only to stylistically reinvigorate (as was his specialty) genre conventions, but also mull over horror-filmmaking ethics more broadly. It’s among Argento’s best, both stylistically and conceptually — the work of a veteran director unmistakably in command of his craft. It’s also among the best slasher movies writ large — a thriller that provocatively reiterates tropes while also sometimes taking steps back to perceptively look at the implications they leave behind. 


We’re meant to see some of Argento in the

Daria Nicolodi in 1982's "Tenebrae."

Daria Nicolodi in 1982's Tenebrae.

film’s protagonist. Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is a popular horror novelist who, as the movie starts, is doing promo for his newest — and apparently most unequivocally fucked-up — book. It’s about a serial killer targeting beautiful women, and, like the movie of which it’s a part, is called Tenebrae. The film opens with Neal, who has an avuncular warmth in opposition to his preferred subject matters, arriving in Rome for a junket — a visit that also ignites something deadly. 


Almost as soon as Neal lands, a series of violent killings making a concerted effort to duplicate the ones featured in the new book commence. As do breathy, threatening phone calls to his hotel room, themselves preceded by the discovery that his suitcase has been tampered with. The intentions of this ostensible maniac, black-gloved and faceless, are made especially clear by their tendency to tear pages from Tenebrae and stuff them into their latest victim’s mouth, like a crumpled signature. Neal is certain the culprit is a disgruntled friend or family member: the book is so new that even the most deranged a fan would struggle to commit copycat killings this quickly. But Argento’s answer is more self-incriminatingly brazen (and satisfying) than something that tidy. 

Tenebrae hadn’t gestated long when Argento decided to make it. At the start of the 1980s, he had designs to finish up the Three Mothers trilogy, a triad of carnival-colored horror fantasies that began with 1977’s Suspiria and continued with 1980’s Inferno. Overarchingly the films were about the destruction wreaked by three all-powerful witch-sisters. But after Inferno did badly commercially stateside, Argento was disillusioned, and his enthusiasm to start on the third chapter dulled. His dispiritedness increased severalfold after receiving a series of obsessive calls from a supposed fan that took issue with the psychic damage presumably inflicted on them by Argento’s consistently gory movies. (These calls culminated in threats to Argento’s life.) 


Eventually, though, the rattling latter experience proved constructively productive. And, in a twisted way, so did the uptick in senseless violence Argento noticed regularly in the Los Angeles where he was temporarily staying. What seemed right to Argento amid this dark period was not to continue with the Three Mothers films as planned (the third part ended up deferred by nearly 30 years) but to instead make a film that both captured the pure ugliness of violence (as opposed to the ultra-stylized kind found in Suspiria and Inferno) and allowed him to openly consider the kind of effects his films had on audiences.


enebrae obviously isn’t a straightforward essay doling out what was bothering Argento when he wrote the movie. Because it is still a slasher movie with credo to maintain, it’s a movie that eagerly offers a hefty spate

of electrically shot, over-the-top killings (most of them coming with voyeuristic — and overtly sexual — overtones, like one involving the plunge of a red high-heel spike into a mouth) and a pulpy, sensationalist mystery as the plot’s engine. You wouldn’t want an Argento movie to do without either of those things, anyway.


But Tenebrae is nonetheless the rare slasher movie that metes out everything we want it to, as a person seeking out a slasher film in the first place, that is also smartly, and thankfully never too didactically, self-aware. In an early scene, Neal is taken aback when a woman journalist calls out the misogyny his books conserve. She feels a little like a stand-in for the critical viewer, given that she enjoys the books and doesn’t necessarily dislike Neal — he even considers her an old friend — but nevertheless isn’t unaware of the ideological subtext and exploited social imbalances inherent to what she’s consuming. In another scene, Neal is dumbfounded when someone ponders whether his morals align with those of his villainous characters. The suggestion is certainly oversimplistic, but it still gets at how, as a creator of horror, a repetitious dependence on shocking violence understandably slightly more often calls into question how your subconscious informs your work compared to peers who prefer to create under friendlier genres. 


Tenebrae is also aware that just because it outwardly acknowledges what is foundationally reprehensible about the genre of which it’s a part through dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean much when it’s still serving more of it. (That female journalist, for one thing, later becomes one of the film’s several victims.) It’s a movie always fascinatingly tussling with itself, battling with its true nature. Like all of the other movies to come out of Argento’s most creatively lucrative era (arguably lasting from around 1969 to 1987), Tenebrae is a cut above its peers purely from a formal standpoint. But for both Argento and the genre, it’s also an outlier because of its steadfast commitment to self-criticism and clear-cut dubiousness about what it’s offering. Its meta approach hasn’t lost its freshness; the larger questions it poses (but doesn’t answer) are even more gratifying to engage with than the eventual solving of the mystery. A

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