Sunday, June 28, 2020

Tenebrae (1982)

... aka: Der kalte Hauch des Todes (The Cold Breath of Death)
... aka: El placer del miedo (The Pleasure of Fear)
... aka: Pelkoa ei voi paeta (Fear Cannot be Escaped)
... aka: Shadow
... aka: Shadows
... aka: Sotto gli occhi dell'assassino (Under the Eyes of the Killer)
... aka: Tenebre
... aka: Unsane

Directed by:
Dario Argento

Having taken a break from the more traditionally-plotted murder mysteries he initially made his name with to concentrate on the supernatural-themed SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980), Argento makes a return here to the style he's now most associated with. The film was only moderately successful in Europe (it performed better than Inferno though not as well as many of Argento's previous films) but was very poorly-received here in America when it was given a limited theatrical release in 1984 under the new title Unsane. As was customary at the time, the U.S. distributor (Bedford Entertainment Film Gallery) decided to remove most of the violence / gore, neutering the murder scenes in the process, and even took it upon themselves to shorten some of the more elaborate camera shots (which is unconscionable for an Argento film!). Around ten minutes in total were removed. This same cut of the film was re-released in 1987 to theaters and issued on VHS (by Fox Hills Video) to little fanfare. It would take well over a decade for the film to start to repair its reputation when it was finally made available uncut on VHS and DVD by Anchor Bay (it has since been released on Blu-ray by Arrow, Synapse and other companies). But rebound it has! Out of the 20+ features Argento has directed since 1970, it's currently his fourth highest-rated on IMDb and his third highest-rated on Letterboxd.

Popular American mystery writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arrives in Rome for a book signing / press tour for his best-selling latest release Tenebrae, leaving behind mentally imbalanced former lover Jane (Veronica Lario), who he's been avoiding for six weeks, in the process. Peter is greeted at the airport by his agent Bullmer (John Saxon), secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi), young personal assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo) and a slew of reporters / photographers. And then the trouble starts. First off, his formerly pleasant friend Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo) has turned into a (gasp!) angry lesbian feminist magazine writer who attacks Tenebrae as being "sexist" for featuring "women as victims" and "men with their hairy macho bullshit." Second, someone back at the airport in New York has destroyed all of his belongings in his carry-on bag. Third, once Peter arrives at the hotel suite he'll be staying while in Rome, he's greeted by Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and Altieri (Carola Stagnaro), a pair of police detectives who relay something even more startling...

Just three hours before Peter arrived in Italy, shoplifter Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) was attacked by a black-gloved assailant who stuffed pages of Tenebrae in her mouth before slashing her to death with an old-fashioned open razor... the same murder weapon of choice for Tenebrae's fictional killer. The killer has also somehow managed to locate Peter's suite before his arrival to slip a note under his door quoting a passage from his book. And if that's not enough for one day, the killer makes a creepy, threatening phone call from a pay phone right outside the window. Time for new accommodations? Nope! For better or worse (read: worse), Peter and his entourage decide to just stay put where they are despite the fact a psycho killer knows their exact location!

The stalking and string of grisly murders continues as the suspect list, also including Peter's ex Jane (who comes all the way to Rome just to spy on him) and Cristiano (John Steiner), a TV reporter a little too into the psycho-sexual content of Tenebrae (the killer is also obsessed with the "degenerates" and "filthy, slimy perverts" in Neal's book), is trimmed down. During the film's most memorable (and celebrated) sequence, Tilde and her promiscuous bisexual girlfriend are killed by the psycho, which not only features Argento's trademark woman's-head-goes-through-glass bit but also includes an unbroken 2 ½ minute shot prowling outside the home, which goes from the window, up the side of the house, over the roof and around to the other side. This impressive shot was achieved with a special Louma Crane that had to be imported in from France.

Many of the other horror set pieces are also very well-done and photographed by Luciano Tovoli, especially one involving the hotel porter's teenage daughter (Lara Wendel) being pursued by a rabid, fence-scaling Doberman Pinscher before (whatta coincidence!) running afoul of the murderer. On a side note, Wendel deserves special credit for running around the woods, repeatedly falling down, wrestling with the dog and scaling (and jumping off of!) numerous high fences all while barefoot and wearing a miniskirt! The hectic ending, featuring several axe murders, an amazingly bloody (and oddly beautiful) bit where a severed arm stump paints a white wall red and an impalement with a piece of abstract sculpture is pretty memorable, too.

On the down side, the scenes where people aren't being slaughtered are far less successful. The plot is contrived, frequently silly and filled with implausible cheat scenes to try to throw you off, much of the dialogue is poor and unintentionally funny and most of the supporting performances suffer from poor English dubbing. There's a self-reflective element to the proceedings when it comes to contrasting Tenebrae's fictional author with the real-life Argento (both are criticized for essentially making careers out of depictions of violently killing beautiful women) that provides slight additional interest. It's also worth noting that while the film is stylish in its own way, it has more of a consistent steely / stone / cold / blue-grey color pallet than the eye-catching full color spectrum used on Argento's previous two films. It's also much brighter, with well-lit night scenes and even a number of the horror scenes taking place in broad daylight. Not that the visual presentation necessarily means everything. While Inferno is one of Argento's best-looking and most colorful films, it is also, narratively-speaking, perhaps his weakest up until the 90s.

Transgender actress Eva Robins (born Roberto Coatti) was interestingly cast in a small role as a red shoed temptress in some brief, though evocative, beach flashbacks. Marino Masé (ALIEN CONTAMINATION) and Fulvio Mingozzi (who had small roles in every Argento film up until 1985's Phenomena) also show up briefly and Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi (both assistant directors) appear in uncredited bit parts. The score, which is more polarizing than in most of the director's other films (personally I really like it), is from Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli and Claudio Simonetti.

I haven't seen this one in well over a decade but it was interesting on a re-watch, especially in regards to how my rankings for Argento films have changed over time and how well some of them have held up over the years and through repeat viewings. When I was a teenage horror fan obsessed with Argento films and collecting everything Argento I could get my hands on, this was among my Top 3 favorites. Now, not so much, though I do still like this one.

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