Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re diving into a heaping helping of giallo. Now, I’ve never been shy about sharing my misgivings with the giallo subgenre. My inability to get over the cognitive dissonance instilled by the wonky dubbing and the convoluted mystery elements usually keep me from truly loving Italian horror’s most famous import. But although I’m too often underwhelmed by the overall product, I find at least something to like about any giallo I watch. So I’m always up for trying a new one, especially if I get a chance to see the great John Saxon wearing a very silly fedora.
With that in mind, I’m very grateful to this month’s guest, Mark O. Estes, as he’s introducing me to Tenebrae, the 1982 offering from giallo maestro Dario Argento. You may know Estes as the host of the Midnight Social Distortion podcast, a show that Estes describes as where his love for “horror, blerdom, gay mess, and pop culture collides.” He describes Tenebrae as one of those films that he never gets tired of, so I was certainly intrigued to dig in.
The film features Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), a popular horror novelist on his way to Rome to promote his latest novel. Naturally, someone starts stalking and killing people around Neal, leaving him letters crediting his books as their inspiration. While Detectives Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) try to find who’s behind the murders, Neal starts his own investigation. Might the killer be his unstable ex-wife, Jane (Veronica Lario), local journalist Christiano Berti (John Steiner), or even someone from Neal’s inner circle like his assistant, Anne (Daria Nicolodi), or his manager, Bullmer (John Saxon)? After watching the film, I’ll say this: if you say you guessed the full extent of who was behind the killings, I say you’re a dirty liar. But we’ll get into that later as this will be a spoilerific conversation, as always.
Typically, I kick things off by asking about a guest’s first time watching a film, and we’ll certainly get to that. But Mark, I have a burning question that I have to ask first because I need to make sure I’m not losing my mind. Am I nuts, or does this film open with a sequence showing our leading man riding a damn bicycle to JFK International Airport?
It DOES!!! When I first saw that scene, I was perplexed as to why someone would do that. Was the bike a rental? If it wasn’t, what happened to the bike when Peter entered the airport? Did it get transported back to his house? Was it a part of his luggage? These things did cross my mind when I first saw it and with subsequent airings afterwards!
It’s certainly a movie that comes out swinging and continues to leave an impression. Do you recall your first time watching Tenebrae? What was that experience like?
During Covid, I was going through a Dario Argento binge after a friend, who’s a huge giallo fan, told me to check out his works. I had just seen Deep Red, another classic by Argento that doesn’t get enough love with modern audiences, and thought to dive into Tenebrae afterwards. I’m glad I did, because I was introduced to another classic that I didn’t get tired of watching. The cinematography, the soundtrack, the twists, the movie is just amazing. I especially love the mid-movie twist that opened up a whole other door that I wasn’t expecting. I have yet to see a modern slasher go this route. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I just haven’t come across it yet. But Argento’s earlier work is just must-watch horror, and Tenebrae is in the top three for me.
It’s also pretty wild to consider that just a little over ten years into Argento’s career as a director, this would already be his eighth movie. He’d made his mark in the giallo realm with films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, branched out with supernatural movies such as Suspiria and Inferno, and here he’s sort of returning to basics. Do you prefer when Argento blends in those supernatural elements, or are you more of a giallo purist?
I wouldn’t say I’m a giallo purist, because I’m fresh to the genre and am guided by a good friend of mine who is a walking giallo encyclopedia, but movies like Deep Red and Tenebrae made me want to go deeper into the genre. The fact that Argento can put his mark on both and still leave the viewer in a state of awe is why he’s one of the masters in the game.
Of course, gialli and slashers are often discussed as close relatives, with many crediting folks like Argento and Mario Bava for paving the way for American counterparts like John Carpenter. I think one of the reasons I’ve struggled with gialli is because they’re so much more complex than slashers. In most slashers, you simply stick a bunch of people in a relatively contained area and let the killer pick them off. But in a movie such as Tenebrae, Argento is not only asking you to pay close attention to keep up with a lot of spinning narrative plates, but at the same time he’s asking that you not get too wrapped up in using real-world logic. How do you think Tenebrae establishes itself as a giallo rather than the slashers that were exploding at the time?
Let me start off by saying that I will always love a good slasher, which is my default horror subgenre that I go to unwind and just watch bodies hit the floor, window, whatever. However, the thing that separates the two, that complexity you mentioned, is that defining attribute that gives gialli, at least to me, a leg up on the slashers we know today. In most American slashers at the time, you almost always knew who the killer was, i.e., Michael Myers, the driller killer of The Slumber Party Massacre, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, etc. And for the American slashers with an unknown killer (Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Sleepaway Camp, etc.) there isn’t a heightened level of suspense or a cooldown moment to try to piece together the mystery. Everything is leading to the event/holiday of the film.
With movies like Tenebrae and Deep Red, you know the killer isn’t of a supernatural origin, and the many but contained people introduced throughout the narrative are suspects until their demise or until they are simply revealed to be red herrings. Also, there’s not a “deadline” or overarching event surrounding the deaths. But for me, the greatest thing about watching these movies is the rewatchability factor, because once the killer is revealed, you can go back and piece together the clues that were peppered throughout the movie hinting at the culprit. Some you don’t find on that second viewing, but maybe that third. One big example is in Deep Red, but I won’t spoil that here for those who have yet to see the film. I was so engrossed in the story that the one piece that revealed the killer went right over my head.
While Tenebrae serves as a return to basics, Argento is still bringing some new aspects to the proceedings as he incorporates some interesting meta elements with Peter Neal serving as a stand-in for Argento himself. Neal, a character who made his name in horror, continually has to grapple with public perception of his work’s effect on our collective consciousness. How do you think these elements played over the course of the film?
They were ahead of their time, at least to me. We are in an age where metafiction is considered a trend or devolving into its own subgenre. But in Tenebrae, Argento played with something that other people would look at as either an homage or a straight-up rip-off if done by another director during that time period, yet Argento was commenting on his own work. It reminds me of how Wes Craven did something similar with New Nightmare in 1994. I will say that it was interesting for Argento to make Peter Neal only an author, and not a director, to serve as this avatar in the story.
Everything about Peter’s arc is pretty fascinating, both in terms of the narrative and in the meta conversation. (Big Spoiler Alert) To find out we have parallel killers in the movie and that one of them is in fact Peter is fiendishly clever. Some may see it as a cheat, but I like the idea that while violence-obsessed journalist Christiano is revealed to have started the killing spree, Peter seizes an opportunity to murder Jane and Bullmer under the guise of the killer as revenge for them having an affair.
When he’s revealed as one of the killers, we also realize that the flashbacks we’ve been seeing reflect violence in his own past. In that context, Argento establishes an interesting conversation where both his alter ego and those analyzing his work are capable of murder. What do you think of the big reveal, and what do you think Argento is trying to say?
For someone who was raised during the era of Scream and Urban Legend, I was still gobsmacked by the reveal. But it made sense for the narrative. As for what Argento was saying, I’m sure there’s a definitive answer out there from him about his intentions with that choice, but for me, I will say that it’s a societal mirror, or rather he showed us the “Looking Glass of Society” with Christiano and Peter. We know after the reveal that Peter was bullied as a kid, killed the girl at the center of it, and he repressed it. Then he became this well-known and beloved author. Some could argue that maybe Peter subconsciously was revealing this murder through his art as a coping mechanism, or a means to control those murderous urges if they were still there. But his murders were reactions to betrayal and humiliation, both triggering this latest spree. On the other hand, we have Christiano, who was obsessed with Peter’s work and used it as a means to commit the first slew of murders, all committed against women he deemed “immoral” or depraved individuals in society.
At the end of the day, it seems like both men were representations of the “life imitates art, and art imitates life” cycle. One murders out of reaction to personal vendettas, while the other murders out of self-righteous joy. I don’t have any idea what that says about Argento himself, but we do know that mirrors and reflections are seen throughout his work. Maybe he’s saying that the people who were highly criticizing his films are just as likely capable of the stuff that they’re railing against, which is quite scary in itself.
That’s a pretty chilling thought, especially when you consider that he’s absolutely right. Now, usually I ask about whether or not a movie is ripe for a remake or a sequel, but gialli seem like such tricky animals when it comes to that kind of thing. You almost never see sequels to these movies. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because there’s no story left to tell. There’s no Boogeyman that haunts a particular area or situation. There’s no holiday or day of significance where said Boogeyman has a reason to return. They’re usually just damn good one-hitter quitter movies that stand on their own legs with enough to analyze and admonish over for years. And this goes back to the differences between American slashers and gialli. As for a remake… I don’t know. If they go a different route with the kills, killer, scenario, etc., then maybe, but that can alienate the fans of the original. I say if you want a “sequel” to a giallo, just look at another giallo. If you want a remake of a giallo, just look at James Wan’s Malignant. It’s as modern as a giallo can get.
Ultimately, I found Tenebrae a delightful little gem tucked into Argento’s catalog and in the giallo genre in general. Where do you stand on its legacy?
I think it’s a brilliant entry not only into the giallo canon, but horror in general as well. It’s a must-watch for the horror scholar, as well as the everyday horror fan, if not to see how a true master does it.