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Thursday, May 8, 2008

TENEBRE -- DVD review by porfle

I'm a Dario Argento fan but have yet to see all of his films. So it was a real treat to get the chance to watch TENEBRE (aka TENEBRAE), the Italian director's 1982 return to the giallo style after a detour into the supernatural (SUSPIRIA, his masterpiece, and its follow-up INFERNO). According to Wikipedia, "giallo" films are typically slasher-style whodunits characterized by "extended murder sequences featuring excessive bloodletting, stylish camerawork and unusual musical arrangements", which would make this a prime example of the genre.

Tony Franciosa plays Peter Neal, a murder mystery writer who's just arrived in Rome to promote his latest book, "Tenebrae", only to find that a serial-killing stalker is using his new novel as a template for ridding the world of sexual deviates and other undesirables. With the help of his secretary and budding love interest Anne (Argento collaborator and former spouse Daria Nicolodi) and eager young assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), Neal hopes to add a feather to his literary cap by solving the real-life murder mystery himself as bodies begin to pile up. The arrival in Rome of his spurned ex-lover Jane (Veronica Lario) and the presence of a television journalist named Berti (John Steiner) who appears to be a little too obsessed with Neal and his writings are just two of the many pieces in Argento's jumbled jigsaw puzzle.

One of the first things I noticed about TENEBRE is how bright it is. Much of it takes place in broad daylight, while the night scenes are often overly-lit. Argento has stated that he wanted the film to look hyper-realistic, with no shadows for either the victims or the killer to hide in. It's an interesting stylistic choice that Argento uses effectively. The often light-bleached visuals and pallid settings also allow him to emphasize certain elements such as a woman's fire-engine red pumps or the gouts of blood that liberally decorate several moments of terror.

Some of my favorite Argento touches are well-represented here, including: a haunting flashback, the details of which are only gradually revealed to us (not unlike Harmonica's recurring childhood memory in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which Argento co-wrote); characters not picking up on an important visual or aural clue until it suddenly occurs to them after much reflection, as in the "three irises" scene from SUSPIRIA or the mysterious painting in DEEP RED; and several POV shots that disconcertingly put us in the killer's shoes as he (or she) is on the prowl.

As usual, Argento uses sound very effectively. In particular, he shares something in common with singer Nick Lowe--he loves the sound of breaking glass--so if you see a plate glass window in this movie, chances are it's going to shatter when you least expect it. Argento uses such devices to make his murder sequences even more nerve-wracking than they already are, usually after some very careful buildup and a few fake-outs to keep us off guard. And when the killer strikes, it's disturbingly violent. But unlike the standard slasher bore such as FRIDAY THE 13TH, Argento is more interested in the imaginative cinematic depiction of violence rather than simply racking up outlandish yet by-the-numbers body counts. When he does go for the gore, it shocks us, and it happens to characters that we care about and for reasons that keep the story moving.

Oh, and speaking of nerve-wracking, Argento managed to reunite three members of the disbanded rock group Goblin (Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante) to supply the original score. Unlike their music for SUSPIRIA, this has a synth-heavy, somewhat cheesy 80s sound that seems to be influenced at times by Giorgio Moroder's drum-machine disco rhythms. Other passages resemble their music for George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. But it has that unmistakable Goblin sound, which somehow manages to compliment Argento's style even as it's turning your eardrums to mush.

Tony Franciosa is an old pro who did a lot of television while I was growing up, in addition to appearing in scores of fun films (a year after this, he got to do a steamy love scene with my favorite actress, Isabelle Mejias--the lucky dog--in the lively Canadian thriller JULIE DARLING). John Saxon, who plays Peter's literary agent, is, of course, always a welcome presence, and Veronica Lario is very effectively creepy as Jane. The rest of the cast is good, too--I especially liked Giuliano Gemma and Carola Stagnaro as a pair of homicide detectives--although in most cases the dubbing makes it hard to fully appreciate their performances. Daria Nicolodi does her usual fine job as well.

There are some really nice-looking women in lesser roles, adding considerably more sex appeal than you usually find in an Argento film. Ania Pieroni appears briefly as a lovely kleptomaniac who uses sex to beat a shoplifting rap but can't escape the fate awaiting her when she gets home. Lara Wendel plays a lesbian magazine writer whose promiscuous, half-naked housemate is the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Italian model Mirella Banti, in a sequence that allows Argento to indulge his stylistic impulses to their fullest.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the casting of Eva Robins as a woman who appears in several strange flashbacks to a traumatic event in the killer's youth. Born a male, Robins reportedly began to develop breasts and other female characteristics during puberty, to an extent that convinced her that nature intended her to live as a woman. At any rate, she's convincing enough as the "girl on the beach" in some of the film's strangest scenes.

The new DVD from Anchor Bay features an uncut, remastered widescreen (1:85:1) transfer enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Aside from the trailer and an Argento biography, there's a commentary track featuring the director along with composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curci, which is as informative as you might expect although much time is spent waiting for Argento to figure out how to say everything in English--I kinda wished it could have been in Italian with English subtitles. "Voices of the Unsane" is a nifty 17-minute featurette with Argento, Nicolodi, Simonetti, and other principals discussing the making of the film. (UNSANE was the retitled, badly-edited version first shown in the US.) Other brief featurettes explore the creation of TENEBRE's sound effects and the filming of an intricate extended shot featured in one of the murder sequences. All in all, not a bad array of extras.

It's interesting to see Argento eschew the sumptuous, fairytale look of SUSPIRIA for a more stark and austere style here. Without the dark shadows and saturated colors, TENEBRE is like a blank canvas splattered with bright red, with a realism that's as brittle and sharp as all that broken glass. Only when the killer's identity is revealed at last in an axe and straight razor-slashed finale do we get a really dark, lightning-streaked scene, and it's horrifying enough to warrant the seemingly never-ending screams of the last person standing as TENEBRE fades out into its closing credits. And if you're a Dario Argento fan, you'll definitely want to be there when it happens.


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