Dario Argento is broken. It’s 1982, and his celebrated horror masterpieces of the 1970s seem like a thing of the past. Angry members of the press have derided him for his misogyny, as his famed films, such as Suspiria and Inferno, use the stylized murders of beautiful women as set pieces in his overall vision. In 1980, an obsessed fan telephoned him numerous times with increasingly violent zeal; Inferno, mega-hit Suspiria’s follow-up, flopped commercially. Despite the previous decade’s many successes (consider his The Bird with the Crystal Plumage arguably created the giallo subgenre of the slasher movie), his career seemed to be on the downturn, toutings of him being the Italian Hitchcock waning rapidly.
Tenebre, his return to basic giallo stylizations after a nearly a decade away, is his most personal film — and among his best. It provides one of his most cohesive storylines, some of his most inspired sequences of terror, and serves as a wondrous argument for his genius. It isn’t just a whodunit in stalk-and-slash form; it is also a sleek, terrifically designed thriller of the De Palma form, erotically charged and endlessly gripping. While Suspiria and Inferno, his excellent forays into the supernatural, are exceptionally frightening due to their nonsensicality and color, Tenebre is frightening because of its story, its obsessions, its close imitations of Argento’s own life.
Argento’s fictional counterpart in the film, Peter Neal, is portrayed by Anthony Franciosa, an extraordinarily popular crime author whose latest novel, “Tenebrae,” is earning him just as much acclaim as it is controversy. Fans are consumed with the book for its suspenseful atmosphere, but its detractors are concerned with apparent Neal’s infatuation with the killing of women. He is no misogynist, he casually replies to an inflammatory journalist accusing him of the personality. "Tenebrae" is a work of fiction, not an extension of himself.
But fiction begins to metamorphose into reality as violent murders, copies of Neal’s works, start to take shape at a rabid, gruesome pace. The victims are found with pages of his novels stuffed in their mouths; photographs are taken of their corpses and kept as souvenirs. Neal is understandably traumatized, but as a novelist with an adventurous mind, he decides to take matters into his own hands and investigate the crimes for himself. The results, however, turn out to be much closer to home than he could ever imagine.
The parallels to Argento’s personal life are so obvious in Tenebre that it is unthinkable not to praise him for putting so much of himself into a film so commercially adrenaline infused. Neal is faced with the exact same journalistic accusations Argento was targeted with at his prime; a deranged fan is the villain; the murdered are all given a three-dimensional shape that makes their deaths all the more tragic; Daria Nicolodi, playing Neal’s assistant, was Argento’s life partner at the time and shows a similar type of concern for the man that matters the most to her. The nakedness of its psychology is astonishing. Like Hitchcock, Argento can turn personal pricks and prods into thunderous art.
Tenebre is also Argento’s most erotic film, with nudity and sexual identity acting as major characters in ways never before seen in his work. Perhaps it is a comment regarding his abnormal fascination with women, how he appreciates their form, their mystique, just as much as he is fascinated by the idea of their perfection being destroyed scrupulously out of the blue during their most ethereally attractive time. The way sadomasochism plays a part in the mentality of the killer is unsettlingly characterized.
But despite being a horror film of idiosyncratic intimacy, Tenebre is still an entertaining piece in line with the phenomenal stylistic aspects of Psycho and Dressed to Kill. Some of Argento’s most stunningly shot sequences infect its frames, including the aesthetically daring double murder of a judgmental journalist and her lover, and the nightmarish flashback deliriums that take us directly into the mind of the murderer.
More acclaim goes toward Deep Red and Opera in terms of Argento’s oeuvre, but Tenebre is one of his greatest films, as thickly stylish as it is riskily personal. It serves as a reminder that no one does giallo quite like Argento — Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci were never more than placeholders. A