Studio: Sigma Cinematografica Roma
Starring: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Veronica Lario
Directed by: Dario Argento
Running Time: 101 min.
Synopsis: When an American writer is in Rome promoting his new book, a killer is copying the killing style in the writer’s book.
Two words to describe Dario Argento’s Tenebre are stylish horror. In my opinion the film is a cinematic piece of art and is one of my favorite horror films. Just like Argento’s Suspiria, Tenebre tells its story through astounding cinematography, crafty editing, an excellent score, and a top-notch cast. The film has been one of those films I heard great things about and waited years to see. When I finally saw it in 1994 it became my favorite Argento film. Tenebre combines the elements of a 80’s slasher film with the giallo style of Mario Bava and a touch of Hitchcock for its suspense and framing and editing of scenes.
Tenebre is a story about an American writer, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) who goes on a promotional tour to Rome for his new book, Tenebre. Before Neal arrives in Rome, a woman is brutally murdered with pages of his new book stuffed in her mouth. The killer also leaves a message for Neal before his arrival at a Rome apartment where Neal would be staying. The message is a verse from his book. Rome police are on the case and believe the killer might be copying the killings in the book.
Neal tries to help the police figure out whom the murderer is as other killings pop up. Neal also believes that his ex-girlfriend, Jane (Veronica Lario) who he thinks he sees in Rome, might have something to do with the killings. The plot thickens as the story continues, which I won’t give away, but all I’ll say is there are plenty of unexpected twists throughout the film that take you into journey of suspense and horror.
As I mentioned before, Tenebre is a work of art in cinema. Every movement in the film has some sort of meaning and it’s beautiful to watch. Camera angles, editing, music, set design, acting, and story all mesh together perfectly to make up this excellent film. In the opening scene, we see that we are the point of view of the killer reading a page from Tenebre. We are the killer’s eyes as the camera goes close on the text in the book. Then the killer, who is also wearing black gloves (which is common in giallo films and a staple with Argento), throws the book in a fireplace and the haunting score of the film hits. This very short opening has a great impact to start the movie. It starts off quite and calm and puts the audience as the killer then a sudden impact happens when the book hits the flames and the mood has changed. It is very skillfully shot and edited and sets the tone for the movie.
The film as a whole is excellent, but there are a few elements of the movie that stand out for me. There are two chase scenes in the film that are very thrilling. The first one is a short chase scene, but very effective. It involves a woman walking home and a homeless guy starts to harass her. She ends up kicking him in the balls and runs away. The guy gets up and runs after her. She gets to her gate at her house and struggles with opening it. She finally does as the guy almost reaches her. While in her house, the bum is outside banging on her window, but the real terror is inside her house she becomes one of the killer’s victims.
The other chase is scene is my favorite out of the two and very well done. Another woman is walking home at night. A dog behind a fence startles her by its barking. The dog is able to jump the fence and purses the girl. The chase goes on for a while going through the side streets of Rome and through people’s yards. You think the chase is over when she manages to hide in a house where the door was unlocked, but the owner of the house turns out to be the killer and a new chase is started. Now the threat is no longer the vicious dog, but it is now the crazed killer.
There is a lot of good cinematography and editing throughout the film. Some of the best shots are done very simple, but are very stylish. One scene has the camera panning over to a sink with the water running. The camera gets closer to it then it cuts to an extreme close-up of the water running and then a bloody blade coming into frame being placed under the water. Another shot has two pills placed on a black table. The depth of the shot makes the pills look like the size of spaceships. Then the camera pans over to a glass of water and the depth of that as well makes it look like a huge lake. Another stand out scene for me is a lengthy shot that starts on a woman in a window at an apartment. The camera is on the outside and gracefully moves up passing another window where we see another woman. Along with a thrilling score playing in the background, the camera goes to the top of the building then back down on the other side where we see the killer breaking into the place.
Editing is top notch all through the film and here are a few scenes that stood out for me. One is a series of different scenes that happen just right after the killer murders their victims. As he takes a picture of them after they’re dead, the scene plays out with a shot of the victim then a quick cut of the camera’s flash. Another scene is when the killer is leaving his house and we are shown different shots of the killer turning off the light, going out the door, a shot of the house, then back to the door where he left his key in the door. This style of cutting makes us feel we are right there with the killer.
There’s a great scene in the film that is very Hitchcockian. This scene has Neal’s agent, played by genre favorite, John Saxon, sitting on a bench waiting for someone. During the scene, Saxon looks around and watches what is going on around him to pass the time. He sees kids playing, a couple breaking up, a fight breaking out at a café, it reminds me of Rear Window in a way when James Stewart is watching all of his neighbors. The style in which this done and what comes after it is something that has a Hitchcock vibe.
Other elements of the film that are memorable are the acting from the excellent cast, the bloody violence throughout, which features a scene where one of the victim’s arm is hacked off with an ax and her blood sprays all over the wall like a paint gun just exploded, and the soundtrack to the film by Goblin. Goblin has work with Argento before on Deep Red and Suspiria and they also did the excellent score for Dawn of the Dead. Tenebre’s score by Goblin is one of the best soundtracks in a horror movie or in any movie.
I must point out that there are a few similarities to this film and Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Both films involve an American writer in Rome helping the police with a murder case. Also the killer in both films has similarities like wearing black gloves and the high-pitched sinister whispering voice, which is another staple in most of Argento’s films. Other than that the films are unique in their own way. I like Bird with the Crystal Plumage very much, but I think Tenebre is the more polished film of the two.
Tenebre is one of Argento’s best and is one of my top ten-horror films of all time. The film has inspired me in so many ways as a filmmaker. When I first saw it, I was just getting into making movies and the style of this film gave me inspiration on how I wanted to make my movies. From the music to the editing to the photography of the film to the story itself, Tenebre is a total package in the realms of horror. The film is a stylish piece of terror that only a skillful director like Dario Argento could make.