[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, creepy kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]
While Tenebrae wasn’t my first foray into Italian horror (that honor would go to Suspiria), it was my very first experience with Giallo cinema, which is probably why it’s always been my favorite entry in this subgenre of mystery thrillers. I first watched Tenebrae on a whim somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16, and while I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t totally “get it” at the time, there was something endlessly fascinating about it all the same that completely hooked me as a viewer and as a horror fan.
As I got older, I tucked Tenebrae away somewhere in the back of my brain, and it wasn’t until I went to Coachella 2008, of all places, when the film would find its way back into my life. It was on the final night of Coachella when I decided to ditch out on Roger Waters’ set on the Main Stage and headed over to the Sahara tent to check out Justice to cap off my festival experience. So, what exactly does this have to do with Tenebrae? Well, it was during Justice’s set when they started playing “Phantom” and then eventually “Phantom Pt. II” when all these memories I had of watching Tenebrae as a child came flooding back. I remember buying Anchor Bay’s Tenebrae DVD while waiting at LAX to board my flight back home to Chicago, and from there, my love affair with my favorite Giallo from Dario Argento was rekindled all over again.
And even though I’ve been able to catch up with so many more of Argento’s films over the years, Tenebrae still remains one of my favorite films from the Maestro, as I regularly revisit it several times a year.
If you’ve somehow never seen Tenebrae (and if you haven’t, the Synapse Blu is a work of art and totally worth owning), the story follows an American mystery writer by the name of Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) as he travels to Italy for a book tour to support the recent release of his novel, also titled Tenebrae. When he arrives, he’s greeted by his charismatic literary agent, Bullmer (John Saxon), who’s ready to make his client an international writing star. Things don’t go exactly as planned once a mysterious killer decides to use Neal’s book as a template of sorts, killing off a series of beautiful women in Rome while the author is still visiting, utilizing many of the techniques of the killer featured in his best-selling novel.
As the body count continues to rise, Neal takes a personal interest in the murders after Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) involves him in the investigation, and he tries to put the pieces of this dangerous puzzle together before it’s too late for him or anyone he happens to care about, including his doting assistant, Anne (Daria Nicolodi). Of course, because this is Argento we’re talking about, Tenebrae takes a decidedly left turn about halfway through, where we end up following a second murderer after the story’s initial killer—the prudish TV interviewer Christiano Berti (John Steiner)—gets his head split open by an axe. We watch as more of the American writer’s associates end up dead, including his estranged fiancée, Jane (Veronica Lario), Bullmer, and his young helper, Gianni (Christian Borromeo).
Tenebrae culminates in a blood-soaked finale where this second killer is revealed to be none other than Peter Neal himself, who had previously been sexually humiliated in his youth and had killed the young woman responsible in retaliation. Neal had repressed these memories until he found himself in the middle of this murder investigation, which triggered his violent tendencies, and Peter saw the opportunity to destroy those he believed had wronged him (Bullmer and Jane were having an affair), as he thought he’d be able to pin his devious and deranged acts on someone else.
While I’d call Tenebrae very much a prototypical Giallo—a mysterious killer, stylish death scenes, shocking violence, sexual deviancy (by the standards of the early 1980s) and lavish visuals—there’s also a case to be made that this film could be considered an antithetical Giallo all the same. Tenebrae lacks a certain sense of calculation when it comes to its murders, where they don’t have much influence over the plot, and by splintering the narrative into two distinct parts, it feels like Argento has assembled two movies into one here. There’s also definitely a Hitchcockian influence that looms over Tenebrae, particularly during the murder of Bullmer, and even the reveal of Peter Neal in the end gives off some serious film noir-esque vibes, too.
There are a multitude of literary references made throughout Tenebrae as well, including the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (specifically The Hound of the Baskervilles, which happened to be my favorite Doyle story growing up). And to me, it feels like Argento was utilizing a multitude of influences in Tenebrae that stretched far beyond the world of Italian cinema, making it one of his most accessible and thought-provoking Giallo entries from his career, with a scope that extended far beyond the filmmaking language of his native country.
Another aspect of Tenebrae that I really admire is how Argento utilizes the concept of mirroring, or doppelgängers, throughout the film. One of the most prominent examples is with Jane, Peter’s fiancée, and the woman that we see on the beach in the flashbacks who ends up fooling around on her lover, who we eventually learn is Peter. Both women are only seen wearing white in the film, and it’s certainly no coincidence that the young woman on the beach is wearing bright red heels and right before she goes to meet with her lover, Bullmer, Jane is also gifted a pair of bright red heels as well. Visually, that should have been a tip-off to the identity of the killer, but I was completely obtuse to this connection until my second or third viewing.
We even see double with both Peter and Detective Giermani several times in Tenebrae, too. In their first meeting, both actors are wearing similar dress shirts and ties, and they’re both often dressed in shades of brown here as well. The most memorable instance of them acting as mirror images of each other is during the finale, when Giermani crouches down to investigate a switch blade, and once he resumes a standing position, he is standing in perfect synchronicity with Neal, who is directly behind him (which is one of my favorite shots in the entire film). Argento even fakes us out a bit earlier in that scene, when Peter believes that he’s just killed Anne, but it is revealed that he actually murdered Detective Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) instead, as they are both wearing beige trench coats during the finale.
These are only just a few of the double vision occurrences in Tenebrae (one subtle example comes from a pair of bros playing video games early on), but they act as a visual representation of this theme of duality that Argento explores throughout the film.
In many ways, Tenebrae also feels like Argento’s cinematic confrontation of how this style of filmmaking had often been accused of being highly misogynistic. And make no mistake, Peter Neal’s actions, as well as his work as a writer, is steeped in his deeply rooted hatred towards sexually charged women, but Argento never paints his character in a particularly positive light, especially as we watch him mentally break down during Tenebrae’s climax. Peter’s clearly disturbed, and I never get a sense that the death of the women here are presented in any sort of manner where they “deserve what they got.” In fact, in the case of Detective Altieri, she’s often seen as very capable despite working in a field that seems to favor men, and her death in the finale feels truly tragic.
The same could be said for Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo), a reporter who confronts Peter about his latest book and its prejudices towards women during a press event, and her gruesome demise (which comes in the form of Tenebrae’s iconic shot through the white fabric of her blouse) feels harrowing as well.
Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely shades of female prejudice at play in the deaths of most of the women in Tenebrae, but just because a character is motivated by their own chauvinism, that doesn’t necessarily make a film’s story misogynistic in its intentions.
In terms of the performances in Tenebrae, the film features one of my favorite supporting roles from the late, great John Saxon (the bit with his fedora is absolutely priceless), and I think this might be one of my favorite performances from Nicolodi as well. Franciosa walks the fine line of charismatic protagonist and horrifying antagonist throughout Tenebrae, and I appreciate that even the characters we don’t spend a ton of time with here all feel so vivid and like real people. They’re often messy and emotional, which makes these characters (even down to Elsa, the book thief) so compelling to watch.
I could probably go on and on for about another thousand words as to just why I love Tenebrae as much as I do (I wrote a review for the Blu-ray release a few years back that digs into some other aspects of the film, which you can read HERE), but there’s just something wonderfully audacious about what Argento manages to achieve as a storyteller in Tenebrae that just checks off all of my boxes. Plus, I’ve always been drawn to stories about writers (thanks to my obsession with Stephen King), and I think the way Tenebrae explores the creative culpability that we have as artists, especially when it comes to depicting violence, makes it such a standout during this era of Giallo filmmaking.
Keep an eye on our online hub throughout October for more of our Gialloween retrospectives!