Tenebrae serves as a great, standalone example of a giallo, one that is demonstrably an Argento work yet containing all of the components of its subgenre.
In 1982, Dario Argento was coming off of a series of personal and professional peaks and valleys. 1977’s Suspiria’s esteem has grown over time, but it was well received in 1977, particularly by Argento’s fellow auteurs. As a result, George A. Romero invited Argento to collaborate with him on his 1978 masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead. Argento’s next film, 1980’s Inferno, was a sister film to Suspiria – quite literally, as it served as the second film in his “Three Mothers” trilogy. Inferno wasn’t an outright bomb, but it wasn’t met with the same rapturous praise as Suspiria. Argento blamed this on his struggles with hepatitis and even called Inferno his least favorite of his own films, despite its fantastic and memorable visual and musical flourishes.
Finally, feeling both physically well and free of the expectation placed upon him as a result of his early work, Argento returned to his signature subgenre, the giallo. There is some debate as to whether Argento’s more mystically minded films (Suspiria and Inferno included) count as giallo, but there is no doubt about 1982’s Tenebrae; it’s giallo through and through.
Like many of his films, Argento wrote Tenebrae in addition to directing, and with the writing he undertook a very meta task. He wanted to represent his own experiences with an obsessed fan, who stalked Argento over the telephone and eventually threatened his life. Argento’s proxy in Tenebrae is the stylish American crime novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa). In the film, Neal travels to Rome to promote his new book, from which the film takes its name. As murders start to pile up, seemingly inspired by Neal’s book, Argento also grants us glimpses into the anonymous killer’s thoughts and past, lending the film the light supernatural quality that is a hallmark of gialli. This slight “offness” is present throughout the film, particularly in the Roman setting, which is presented in stark fashion: all empty streets, glass store fronts and cement structures.
This cold contrast to the real, messy, loud and colorful Rome makes Tenebrae all the more terrifying. There feels as if Neal and the killer’s victims have more to lose in this underpopulated capital. Vulnerable, beautiful women wander closed stores, empty alleys and large, spacious homes, waiting for the killer to pounce. And pounce he does. Tenebrae’s deaths are bloody, brutal and often sexually suggestive.
Taking the film’s violence against women is a hard matter to consider. Like all of Argento’s films, and particularly his early gialli, Tenebrae’s murders are horrific yet often erotic. On the one hand, it is indeed excessive, particularly when male victims are allowed to die with their clothes on. On the other hand, Argento is reflecting the realities of the danger women face for simply existing. Men prey on women who walk alone, who are home alone, who work late. And these crimes are often sexually motivated. I don’t find them to be glorifying the process so much as exposing it, but as a gay cisgender man I have privilege and blind spots to consider.
While Tenebrae features a few less strong women than the typical Argento film, they are present, led by his frequent collaborator (and one-time wife) Daria Nicolodi as Neal’s assistant. And while there is an abundance of clichéd female behavior, there is also a progressive edge, such as the appearance of lesbians. Argento makes his inclusiveness hard to judge as so many of his characters end up being either psycho killers or their victims, but the fact that Argento includes and portrays queerness, female friendship and even disability means he’s at least considering the existence of all three, something many male directors fail to do.
Within the director’s winding, weird oeuvre, Tenebrae serves as a great, standalone example of a giallo, one that is demonstrably an Argento work yet containing all of the components of its subgenre. It holds up well, but its value increases when you watch it with the knowledge that it marked a mini comeback for Argento, at least in his own mind, one that set him up for several more decades of filmmaking.