For a film that passed its 30th anniversary a few years ago, Dario Argento's TENEBRAE (1982) continues to exert remarkable freshness. Despite its title (Latin for "shadows"), the film is characterized by perversely bright imagery, smiling faces and a persistent sense of quirky humor, and an insistently toe-tapping score by three former members of Goblin: keyboardist Claudio Simonetti, guitarist Massimo Morante and bassist Fabio Pignatelli. Considering how fun, playful, even danceable it is, it comes as something of a revelation when Argento admits in one of the extras on Synapse Films' new Blu-ray restoration that TENEBRAE was not a film he wanted to make. As Dario was preparing to follow SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980) with the third entry in his proposed Three Mothers Trilogy, provisionally titled TENEBRAE, his father - producer Salvatore Argento - summoned him to his office and told him in no uncertain terms that, in the wake of INFERNO's box office disappointment, his Black Magic films were out and he must return at once to the formula on which he'd built his success: the giallo.
And so TENEBRAE commences with an image of an open fire as the new novel by the film's protagonist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) - also titled TENEBRAE - is tossed into the flames as in a ritual sacrifice destroying an old idea so that a new one can take its place. Everything a giallo normally was, Argento would rebel against - it would be bright, it would be playful, and it would also be self-conscious. The film chronicles Neal's trip to Rome to promote his new book, a visit which finds him basking in all the comforts of celebrity, giving interviews at the airport and being attended by more assistants than any writer would need. With such attention and privilege also comes resentment and aggression: an old family friend-turned-reporter, Tilda (Mirella d'Angelo), questions him with a hard feminist edge, accusing him of writing his "hairy macho bullshit" thrillers to formula in order "to sell copies" - and he is informed by the police that a series of murders are being committed by a fan as quotations, of a sort, from the new novel.
The first victim is a shoplifter, played by Ania Pieroni, who had played the Mother of Tears in a cameo scene in INFERNO. Her throat is slashed as pages torn from a copy of TENEBRAE are forced into her mouth. Given Argento's revelation about the film's origin, it is hard not to see this victim as Argento's projection of his desire to continue the Three Mothers Trilogy, being slain by his financial obligation to his father, embodied by the black-gloved killer always played in his thrillers by Argento himself. There is a sense about TENEBRAE of an artist going out (and up) in a blaze of glory - never again would Argento's films feel so bracing or inspired. One or two (OPERA, the anime-like PHENOMENA) might come close, there were still great individual scenes to come (the opening of SLEEPLESS), but TENEBRAE is Argento's career's great act of defiance: it gives his audience what they demand but wholly on his own terms as he turns all the basic tenets of gialli inside out. While not exactly written against formula, it's full of surprises. There are no dark and musty rooms to provide atmosphere (Neal is "allergic to dust"), and the detective assigned to the case (Giuliano Gemma) says he only drinks on duty, turning the usual cliché on its head. It is also a veritable necklace of what may be, taken as a whole, the most inspired murder set-pieces of Argento's career. The cinematography of SUSPIRIA's Luciano Tovoli is let off the leash, resulting not only in style but genuinely sublime visual excess - the famous Louma crane shot that prowls the outside of Tilda's building before the killer pays her and her gay lover Marion (Mirella Banti) a visit, and my own favorite moment in the film, when Neal and his entourage exit his hotel room and the camera pans back through the empty quarters to a gleam of light perfectly timed to flash off the edge of a metallic sculpture as the Goblinesque soundtrack seethes.
As time soon proved, the failure of INFERNO at the box office had nothing to do with INFERNO itself, really; it had more to do with the rise of Hollywood blockbusters and their growing monopoly of cinema screens worldwide, which resulted in a crisis in Italian film production that has continued to this day. INFERNO was denied US theatrical release, withheld until a complete VHS release finally surfaced in 1986. (Such slow years!) As it happens, TENEBRAE's commercial fortunes proved even worse; it was held back almost as long, not surfacing in the US till 1987 and then only in a mutilated cut retitled UNSANE. It was not until 1999, after uncut copies had found their way into fans' hands via the grey market (sourced from a Japanese laserdisc titled SHADOW), that the film first became available in this country on VHS and DVD in supposedly unexpurgated form. But even those official complete release were found to be missing snippets of film included in the Japanese source, and the film has struggled ever since toward the ideal copy its admirers have sought for so long. Even when all the footage was present, previous DVD (even BD) releases from around the world have been found guilty of weak color, soft resolution, or excessive digital noise reduction.
The new Synapse release - available in regular and limited steelbook editions - represents a reported 30+ hours of color correction and more than seven months of frame-by-frame restoration to remove hundreds of digital artifacts, incurred by the master licensed from the French company Wild Side as a result of a previous licensor's overzealous DNR/scratch-removal pass. It is a thing of magnificence. I've seen the film numerous times over the decades, but the Synapse disc made me aware of many details for the very first time. I discovered that Peter Neal is also the other of two other books (IL SERPIENTE/THE SNAKE and OLTRE L'ALDA/ANOTHER DAWN), seen displayed in a store and on the table at his press conference. When the hotel manager's "jailbait" daughter (Lara Wendel) visits Neal's room to check his water heater, I was surprised by the stubble on his face - appropriate for a man who can't get the hot water necessary for a shave. It's also much more apparent now that a number of the actresses (Pieroni, D'Angelo, Wendel), though clothed, aren't wearing bras, adding not only to the film's sensuality but its summery ambiance. By freezing the frames as the killer tore pages from the TENEBRAE novel, I was able to clearly see that it features characters with the names Brook, Levashev, Krylov, Stark and Jasmine ("Jazz" for short), and that it somehow involves the KGB. (Not much of a giallo, is it?) Those viewers who can read Italian stand to learn even more about Neal's style of writing. But my discoveries were not limited to, shall we say, sensual details like the fingerprints all over the red airport telephone; I also noticed a key moment in the killer's flashback featuring transsexual Eva Robins (who has freckles! who knew?) where he is joined by a second person as he admires her walking toward the beach - hinting at the later revelation that there are two killers; and there is also a hilarious "subjective oops" near the end when an elegant camera pan past a blood-spattered wall suddenly doubles back to allow the killer to turn off a light switch - the better to dim the signs of violence and tempt new visitors in. A compelling account of the feature's 1080p restoration, written by restoration producers Don May Jr. and Vincent Pereira, is included only with the steelbook edition - which also includes a bonus CD of the original soundtrack's 19-track 2015 remaster.
Chief among the bonus content on the disc are a new audio commentary by Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh and a new documentary by Calum Waddell, YELLOW FEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE GIALLO. To start with the commentary, McDonagh (the author of BROKEN MIRRORS, BROKEN MINDS: THE DARK DREAMS OF DARIO ARGENTO) is - of course - knowledgeable, witty, and highly listenable. It's not the academic listen some might expect from the book - she's saucy, down-to-earth company with a sharp eye for clothes and accessories. Her talk is at its best when she breaks away from the scene-specific to talk at length about different topics: the film's characters, what makes the film unusual in the Argento canon, her history with tracking down Argento's work on bootleg tapes back in the 1980s, and the director's difficulties with US distribution. I disagree with her on the point she makes about the murders of Tilda and Marion ("they're not really killed because they're gay") because the killer's subsequent message ("So passes the glory of Lesbos") would seem to dispute this, as does Cristiano Berti's (John Steiner) pre-interview of Neal at the television station, where he notes that two characters in the novel were killed because they were gay. I'm also perplexed by her view that TENEBRAE is "really not a funny film," because so much of what she says about the film in admiration does seem to be, above all, amused by its craziness and some of its absurd twists and turns. So add "provocative" to the above adjectives.
Despite the documentary's all-encompassing title, YELLOW FEVER frames Argento as the genre's Alpha and Omega, saying comparatively little about Mario Bava (and nothing about the important debt of his 1962 film THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH to George Pollack's 1961 film of Agatha Christie's MURDER, SHE SAID) or the German Wallace-krimis, which were the first to mine the giallo's visual territory and to use Hitchcock's shower murder in PSYCHO as a template for their screen murders. There's almost nothing about Sergio Martino (whose 1970s thrillers were more widely seen than Argento's here in the States), and it significantly fails to mention even once the name of Ernesto Gastaldi - only the genre's most prolific screenwriter. It has some very good people aboard: Argento himself, his mentor Umberto Lenzi, directors Ruggero Deodato, Bruno Forzani and Richard Stanley (who comes up with some of the most insightful commentary found here), screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, Argento experts Maitland McDonagh and Alan Jones, LA DOLCE MORTE author Mikel Kovan and others. Unfortunately, the playing field seems a bit overcrowded at the ultimate expense of the most qualified and insightful commentators, and some frankly OCD non-topics - like how the animals mentioned in so many giallo titles never actually figure in their stories - are allowed to vamp on for several minutes. Also surprising is how everyone argues against the charges of misogyny in Argento's work, stressing his appreciation of women, without ever noting that the protagonists of all his films up to SUSPIRIA are male, and that his films have taken an extended dive in quality and character since casting Asia Argento in their leads became the key to getting his work funded. It's feature-length (89 minutes), which has its points of attraction, but had it stayed on track and cut out the waffling and Argento gushing, it would have yielded a much stronger 45-minute featurette.
Also included on the disc: alternate UNSANE footage that allows onscreen English text to flow into the playback via seamless branching; the the alternate UNSANE end credits with Kim Wilde's uncredited "Take Me Tonight" heard instead of the main theme reprise (for some reason, they're in Italian); the Italian and Japanese trailers. As you can see from the grabs illustrating this piece, the film is presented in its original 185:1 screen ratio and in optional DTS-HD 2.0 audio in English and Italian, with optional English subtitles. I have a small ongoing quibble with the use of the film's Italian titles because the Italian title onscreen, TENEBRE, is one letter shy of corresponding to the title of the book in the film - which, I feel, prevent the title of book and film from resonating and only serves to foment confusion - at least for English-speaking viewers. I admit it's a subtle point, but I strongly feel that if we adhere to the Italian title, the film loses an important element of its genius. This probably unavoidable element forgiven, Synapse Films has done everything in their power to deliver the ultimate TENEBRAE.
(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.