Tenebrae Review

When Tenebrae was released in 1982, it was slightly surprising to many that Argento had abandoned the Three Mothers concept and returned to the Giallo genre. Over time, however, it's come to be seen as one of Argento's most accomplished films and a benchmark for how far he has declined in the intervening years.

A full analysis of the film has been written for the site by Argento expert Michael Mackenzie so instead of repeating many of the same observations I direct you to his review which can be found here.

The Disc

When I first sat down to watch this Blu Ray of Tenebrae, I was suitably impressed by the the colours and the detail on the text of the book being read from. Then the film got going and I started to feel uncomfortable. Surely it shouldn't be as grainy as this? I don't mean the fine grain which any film should have, I mean a texturing which is intrusive. I have no problems with the colours, which look exactly as they should - relatively muted with the vital exception of the startling reds. The level of detail is acceptable too and certainly way beyond the DVD editions that I have seen. But this texturing remains a problem for me and it is particularly irritating in the darker sequences. Some viewers have suggested that a 'fake grain' is being applied in the mastering process to mask the excessive use of DNR. Whatever it is, it's not good and spoils the overall effect.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, is absolutely fine. There are LPCM tracks in Italian and English, the latter being in stereo and coming across well. The Claudio Simonetti score dominates in places, as it perhaps should, but the dialogue is crisp and clear and there are some nice ambient effects towards the end in the storm sequence. I much preferred this to the rather horrible remix which was given to us by Anchor Bay.

A good collection of extras has been included, the best of which is the audio commentary from Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Alan Jones has been an Argento buff for as long as I've been reading genre magazines and his pieces about the director in Starburst and Cinema magazines were largely responsible for making me a fan. He has lots to say here naturally and Kim Newman makes a good partner with his encyclopedic knowledge of movies. They come to much the same conclusion as myself - that it's one of Argento's best movies - and elegantly justify this opinion. Less impressive is an audio commentary track from Thomas Rostock, the expert on Argento whose thoughts on Deep Red bored us all some months ago. He is a huge fan of Tenebrae but has a grating and whiny voice which makes it hard to get excited even about his more original observations.

Also included on the disc are three interviews. The first is with Dario Argento which runs through his motives for making the film - largely concerned with the accusations of misogyny and sadism which surrounded his work in the popular press and the stalking incident which he suffered in LA. This is all quite familiar stuff but interesting enough, offering a good primer for those unfamiliar with his work. The second is with Daria Nicolodi during which she discusses her slightly unhappy experience on the film, her relationship with Dario and the censorship problems. Finally, we get some time with Claudio Simonetti who explains the process behind his music for the film. Claudio is the most entertaining of the interviewees and he pops up again in some footage from a performance he and fellow band members gave in Glasgow a few months ago. This is wonderful stuff and includes the themes from both Tenebrae and Phenomena. Finally, the original theatrical trailer is featured.


I'm sometimes asked about my favourite Dario Argento film and, after a bit of consideration, I usually choose Tenebrae. I don't necessarily think it's his "best" film, although it is a tremendously accomplished piece of cinema, but it's my favourite because it sums up so many of the things which I love about his work without the problems which I find in some of the other films. It's certainly the one giallo of his which most proudly proclaims its debt to the literary form of the genre with quotes from Conan Doyle and a plot which is two-parts Agatha Christie to two-parts Rex Stout. Even more than this, it's a cinematic feast. We get set-piece after set-piece of painfully gripping suspense which eventually erupts into increasingly brutal violence - culminating in the famous arm-chopping scene which so worried the British censor back in 1983. I can't think of another Argento film which has so few longeurs and so little padding. Visually, the clean, white look of the film is inspired, marking it out from Suspiria in such an extreme way that one suspects it was intentional. In many respects, it's also the film in which Argento goes for style for the sake of it, leading to irrelevant but gorgeous sequences such as the tracking shot up and across the house and the quite extraordinary flashback scene inspired by Suddenly Last Summer.

Tenebrae is also marked out by having the most consistent performances of any Argento film. John Saxon and John Steiner are clearly having a lot of fun, Giuliano Gemma is totally credible as the stumped copper on the case and Daria Nicolodi, while she has little to do, does it beautifully. Best of all, it's got the great Anthony Franciosa who is Argento's best male lead - on a par with David Hemmings - and gives the difficult part of Peter Neal his considerable all. The final scenes give him something to really get his teeth into and he more than steps up to the mark.

I don't fully subscribe to the theory that Argento's subsequent work has been uniformally disappointing. Certainly, he's never quite reached the giddy heights of Deep Red, Supiria, Inferno and Tenebrae again but there's been much to enjoy in a lot of his movies. Opera is nearly a great film, marred by some appalling dialogue and a ludicrous climax and there are moments of sheer genius in Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome and the underrated Sleepless. I even enjoyed The Card Player on a slightly-better-crime-thriller-than-ITV-usually-manages-on-a-Sunday-night basis. But it's sad that with the awful Mother of Tears and Giallo, Argento seems to be content to slide headlong into banality and I very much doubt that Dracula 3D will be the movie to restore his reputation.

Arrow's Blu Ray of Tenebrae should have been something special so it's disappointing that the visual side of things has been messed up. It's still worth a look for the extra features and it's certainly true that it beats the previous UK editions. But it should have been a lot better.

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