This year MIFF is doing a spotlight on Italian “giallo” films which were basically a very stylized thriller that celebrates scenes of violence and murder to the point of fetish. The films are incredibly stylish (the accusation of style over substance is an apt one in this genre) and I have always been a massive fan of the classic “gialli” made in the late 60’s through to the mid-80’s, and during this time there was no better director working in this subgenre than Dario Argento. He was the absolute master of the “giallo”, taking it to its stylistic zenith and his 1982 film “Tenebrae” is one of his greatest (and one of my absolute favourites).
“Tenebrae” is about an American author, Peter Neal, who travels to Italy to promote his new murder mystery novel “Tenebrae”, but soon after arriving in the foreign land he is questioned by police as a girl has just been murdered with pages from Neal’s book stuffed in the girl’s mouth. Neal, himself, receives a note from the killer confirming that his book was the inspiration for the vicious murder. As the bodies continue to pile and Neal begins to fear for his life, the writer goes out and tries to find the identity of the killer on his own.
The inspiration behind the making of “Tenebrae” seems to be two-fold as Argento claims that after being regularly accused of being misogynistic, too violent and a complete sicko, he decided to fill his film with an artist being accused of just that. It isn’t a stretch to conclude that the character of Peter Neal is a stand-in for Argento himself as the film looks at art and it’s interaction within and effects on society. The other thing that inspired Argento to make this film was after he had had an encounter with a crazed fan that had been stalking him.
There is just so much to like in “Tenebrae” that it is such an easy fill to just sit down and enjoy. It has one of the best lead performances in any Argento film by Anthony Franciosa as Peter Neal. He is really outstanding, very natural and never plays it campy or over the top (except at a key scene towards the end). While the actors surrounding him do not come close to the same level of quality acting, there is a nice turn from John Saxon as the author’s manager, and Daria Nicolodi is, as usual, a nice presence within the film. Nicolodi was Argento’s long time girlfriend (and mother to his daughter Asia) and it is often said that you can chart their relationship by the violence aimed at Nicolodi’s characters in his films. Well, Nicolodi survives “Tenebrae” with barely a scratch, so I guess their relationship was at a high during the making of the film.
Back in 1982 when “Tenebrae” was being made, Dario Argento was well and truly at the top of his game and his visual style was at its most pronounced. In those days, he was always willing to try and find new and exciting ways to film scenes and “Tenebrae” is infamous for its extended “spider camera” sequence. While the shot is a massive technical achievement, personally I have always found it a bit redundant and frankly a little indulgent, as we watch the camera slowly climb over the entire building until it rests on the killer opening a window from the other side. In regards to the visual style of “Tenebrae”, it is something of a novelty within the “giallo” subgenre, as these were films that relied on mood and atmosphere and suspense, and as such were regularly very dark films, with most of the action happening at night. “Tenebrae” is almost the opposite as the majority of the film plays in bright sunshine during daylight hours. Luciano Tovoli was the cinematographer on “Tenebrae” and his work here is fantastic with brightly lit spaces being the norm here, and yet within all of the brightness he is still able to achieve a creepy atmosphere for the film. Five years earlier, Tovoli shot Argento’s greatest film “Suspiria” (as well as his worst, “Dracula 3D”), but in terms of visual style the two films share nothing but the fact that they are both so well done. I cannot go without mentioning the fantastic and atmospheric score from “Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli” (three of Goblin’s band members) which just adds so much to the film experience.
All of my previous viewings of “Tenebrae” have been on dvd, so I was very excited to be able to see it for the first time on the big screen in 35mm. However as soon as the film began, I noticed something was very different; the film was in Italian with English subtitles. So what, you may be thinking, it is an Italian film. While that is true, this was a time when films made in Italy were never shot sync sound, so no matter what version of the film you saw, the film was technically dubbed and for mine, “Tenebrae” plays much better in English, which is the version I am more familiar with from the dvd. I also believe that John Saxon and Anthony Franciosa both dubbed their own lines for the English dub, that it gives it a more authentic feel.
After I came to terms with the language of the film, my heart well and truly sunk when I realized that the print of “Tenebrae” that MIFF was screening was actually a “cut” version of the film. Whilst “Tenebrae” isn’t as graphic as some “giallos”, there are still a couple of very bloody scenes including an infamous arterial spray that happens at the end of the film after a character loses an arm. All of these scenes were affected by either being trimmed or (in the arterial spray case) removed entirely which destroyed all of the intricately choreographed murder scenes. In fact it made the whole film feel incredibly choppy and amateurish. I am hoping that the programmers at MIFF were just unaware that the print they were showing was cut because in my mind, deliberately showing a film in a censored form at a film festival just should never happen. Sadly it made watching this exciting “giallo” incredibly frustrating and seemed to work against the exact thing MIFF was trying to achieve with their “giallo” sidebar. By screening the cut version of “Tenebrae” it fails to show the genre in its proper light and worse, it destroyed the quality of the film entirely.
While I love this film with a passion, the screening of “Tenebrae” at MIFF was a massive disappointment, to the point that I am finding it hard to score. The fact that MIFF screened a cut print did not sit well with me and for that reason I would give the screening itself a score of 2. However, I truly feel that “Tenebrae” is one of the best examples of the Italian “giallo” and even of Argento’s entire career that I recommend that people do watch it, but only on dvd. After watching it in its uncut form, I am sure you will notice just how influential it has been and just how much it has been copied since; a true classic of the genre.
A shot from the "arterial spray" scene missing from the print screened at MIFF