Tenebrae - Dario Argento's unique shot framing

Tenebrae (1982) – Essential Giallo


Featured in Malevolent Dark’s “The Definitive Best – Top 10 Horror Movies of 1982“, Dario Argento’s Tenebrae possibly represents the pinnacle of his faceless slasher films. While not necessarily his last great work, this film may be one of the best examples of Argento’s stylistic approach colliding with an excess of blood and violence. This film also shows up as “Tenebre” and “Unsane” in some releases.

Tenebrae (1982) – Trailer

An Author Finds a Fanatic

Tenebrae begins as many of Argento’s films do, with a close and personal encounter with a faceless killer. This time, the killer tears pages out of a novel written by famous crime author named Peter Neal, played by Anthony Franciosa. As Peter Neal travels to Italy to promote his latest work, a novel titled “Tenebrae”, meaning “Absence of Light”. Soon, strange copy cat murders begin to tale place around Rome. These similarities to Peter Neal’s books do not go unnoticed by the authorities. The police first consider Neal as a suspect, but he has an alibi. Eventually they need to protect him as the killer threatens Neal directly.

Argento features familiar giallo performances by John Saxon as Neal’s agent, Bullmer, and Daria Niocolidi as Neal’s assistant, Anne. Those familiar with giallo history recognize John Saxon from The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Of course, he would also gain notoriety in the Nightmare on Elm Street Franchise. Daria Nicolodi became a staple in Argento’s work, playing roles in Blood Red (1975), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987), to name a few. In usual form, she smothers seductive sexuality in plain dress.

Tenebrae - Dario Argento's unique shot framing
Dario Argento uses unique shot framing for his kills

The Duality of Man

One of the often quoted themes of this work is the concept that many people carry around a facade and that behind the face that they present to the world hides a sinister reality beneath the surface. Those that claim abhor violence might be the ones secretly embracing it. Those that decry deviant sexual behavior secretly troll highway rest stations in the night. Those that appear to be victims might be the most dangerous game. Argento does this brilliantly while planting his tongue firmly in cheek. As his own violence unfolds before the audience, what does that say about them that watch in both horror and reverence of murder?

Tenebrae - Iconic murder scenes
Dario Argento explores the horror of murder through the beauty of his subjects

Stylizing Murder

As a director, Argento is no stranger to style. Using a variety of techniques, he creates visually stunning backdrops to tell his tales against. Tenebrae is no exception, but Tenebrae stands out in that Argento pays particular attention to the act of murder as the primary vehicle for transmitting his macabre vision. Arguably, in Tenebrae, Argento may have created some of the most iconic murder scenes in all of cinema.

Likewise, he dispenses with clever technics like colored lighting in Tenebrae. Argento’s cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli uses stark lighting to frame the murders. Almost every murder happens in plain view, in vibrant detail.

In retrospect, this concept of duality actually permeates Argento’s other works. His uncanny ability to create an image of death so abhorrent, yet so demanding of attention defines his artistic approach. In one of the more memorable kills in all of cinema, Argento’s victim gushes pints of blood in a beautifully arcing pattern across the canvas of a white wall. While the audience’s sensibilities scream horror, they are left with a stunning work of art dripping down the wall.

Tenebrae - Argento's artful representation of murder
Tenebrae – Blood is art

Claudio Simonetti – A Horror Soundtrack for the Ages

We have a bit of a Claudio Simonetti addiction over here at Malevolent Dark. Simonetti’s work plays a critical role in the overall horror cinema experience. Sure, Halloween (1978) had John Carpenter’s famous piano line, but that doesn’t really, compare does it. What Simonetti brings to the table is the perfect blend of horror delivered in a danceable groove. Simonetti’s soundtracks have a permanent place in my playlist.

The theme song may be the most complete horror work that he has ever written. This synth driven masterpiece ebbs and flows over several sections, building tension along the way. It’s haunting, but bubbling with pop sensibilities. I fell in love with his work in Deep Red (1975), but the this theme stands tall among the rest.

However, the beauty of the horror soundtrack lies not with how it stands as it own work, but rather how it flows with the rest of the film. The film’s opening demonstrates the apex of Argento’s and Simonetti’s style and timing as the visuals switch from a roaring fire. As Peter Neal races to the airport on his bike, Simonetti’s theme shifts into a kettle drum interlude. It all screams 1982, and that is a wonderful thing.

A Twisting Giallo Plot

Giallo are never a straight forward affairs. The audience can depend on several twists and turns, often including a double twist in the end. Usually, the identity of the killer hits way too close to home when finally revealed. Tenebrae is no exception to the standard formula. Lending to the theme of duality, the ending caters to both our sense of mystery, as well as our sense of betrayal. To say more would reveal too much.

Style and Sophistication, Trademarks of Argento

Replaying a bit from Malevolent Dark’s “Top 10 Horror Movies of 1982“, Tenebrae may be the most accomplished horror film of all 1982. It did not make the top film in the Malevolent Dark list, but only because so many factors have to be taken into account to create a list like that. One of those is approachability. Argento’s approach could be mistaken for conceit. Argento’s hubris literally bleeds through his fantastic imagery made real by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. That being said, this is an art film that requires a specific brand of appreciation to fully realize the films greatness. Consider it a fan film by an artist, for fellow artists.

Tenebrae - A murder scene fit for a VHS box cover
An iconic scene fit for a VHS box cover

As an interesting anecdote, this film was originally released in the United States as Unsane in a heavily edited format, largely to poor reviews. It’s this type of smooth brained response to horror films that threatens the art. To remove even a second of the on-screen gore of Argento’s work fundamentally misses the punchline. There exists a point in which more blood doesn’t increase the horror, but rather adds to spectacle. Quentin Tarantino would certainly agree. Getting back to the point, without Argento’s signature blood-letting, the spectacle becomes a rather pedestrian thriller lacking style. Any attempt to refine the gore serves only to make it banal and tasteless.

Tenebrae, The best of Argento

While it took several years for this film to get its due recognition because of egregious censorship and outright banning, Tenebrae represents the best of Dario Argento. The most profound aspects of the giallo sub-genre hit a deafening crescendo in Tenebrae. Speaking of crescendos, Claudio Simonetti compiles one of the best horror sound tracks ever to grace a horror film. Certainly, other gialli would eclipse Tenebrae in sheer brutality, but none approach the gratifying elegance in violence that Dario Argento achieves.

Tenebrae is a must see film. It represents the state of the art and Tenebrae rightly deserves recognition as essential giallo filmmaking.

Tenebrae (1982) - Essential Giallo - Malevolent Dark
tenebrae dario argentos use of framing

Director: Dario Argento

Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:33

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