The Video Nasties #147 – Tenebrae (1982, Dario Argento)


‘Once you have eliminated the impossible,

whatever remains, no matter how improbable,

must be the truth.’

Tenebrae is an odd film for Dario Argento. Coming off the back of two of his most wildly supernatural and colourful movies, it would seem natural for this film to be the third part of the trilogy, particularly as the title seems like an obvious reference to the third mother, Mater Tenebrarum. Instead, Argento returns to his giallo roots with an ingenious thriller that foregoes most of the stylistic excesses of the previous movies in favour of a more naturalistic filming style reminiscent of television cop shows of the period.


Naturally, Argento being Argento, he’s unable to shake all his technical skill and the plot occasionally stops dead to allow the camera to perform some flashy moves. The most obvious of these is the famous Louma Crane sequence, where the camera roams around the outside of a house in one unbroken two and a half minute take. It’s a staggering technical achievement for the time, though I wish it had been choreographed a bit better, perhaps following the killer inside the house as he stalks his victims. Instead, a good portion of the scene consists of close ups of roof tiles, and not even a furious, pumping disco score by members of Goblin can disguise the fact that it’s ultimately a fairly pointless moment, albeit a cool one.


Personally, I prefer a much more simple yet equally extraneous shot that takes place in a hotel room. As Daria Nicolodi leaves the room (wearing an Amazing Technicolour Dream Cardigan), the camera slowly pans away from the door and settles on a metal sculpture as it catches a blinding reflection of light. It’s a small moment, but one that foreshadows some of the action of the climax.


The plot initially seems like a straightforward mystery, with writer Peter Neal arriving in Rome to promote his latest book to find that a deranged fan is using the book as inspiration for a series of murders. However, Argento’s script is one of his finest, with some unbelievable twists and turns that make the killer almost impossible to guess on a first viewing, and despite the Columbo-esque aesthetic, Tenebrae is unlikely to play on a double bill with Diagnosis: Murder anytime soon, thanks to some inventive and vicious murder scenes.


Argento goes all out here, staging elaborate and lengthy stalking scenes that always end with the blood flowing. The Louma Crane scene ends in a double murder of a lesbian couple that almost rivals the grandiosity of Suspiria, and a later sequence that finds a girl chased by a dog right into the killer’s house is one of the finest scenes Argento ever shot.


Moving away from the more phantasmagoric style of Suspiria and Inferno also allows Argento to focus more on sexuality. Tenebrae is dripping in sensuality and decadence, from the frequent flashbacks to a traumatic teenage sexual humiliation to the lesbian couple who both seem determined to get naked for the killer.


I mean honestly, one of them hears a voice whispering threats to her, so she quickly whips off her top and tries to change into an almost identical white t-shirt, while her partner’s default fashion style seems to ‘at least one nipple exposed at all times.’ The fashion throughout the film is a highlight – pay particular attention to Daria Nicolodi’s outrageous gold karate suit, an outfit that even in early 80s Italy must have raised a few eyebrows.


Tenebrae is one of the most purely entertaining movies on the Nasties, moving expediently from murder to murder, without resorting to the bonkers supernatural whimsy that overwhelmed Argento’s later films like Phenomena, and another great example of the Italians showing the Americans just how a slasher-mystery should be done.

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