Other than John Waters, it is difficult to think of a filmmaker who revels so much in ugliness as Dario Argento. And yet his ugliness is not really the same. Rather than Waters’s grotesqueries, we have the ugliness of the nearly beautiful. In Tenebrae, his lighting is bright despite the title of the film, eschewing the shadows of the genre; his colour scheme is garish, bright reds and greens and yellows a-go-go; his actors and actresses are always a bit shy of movie star beautiful and even when they are conventionally attractive they have a pallid, unwell and plastic look to them. And Italy - il Bel Paese - becomes particularly un-bel, an almost entirely urban clutter of concrete and glass or rain-soaked streets populated by dirty old men, psychopaths, angry dogs and prostitutes. And that is before we consider the ugliness of the violence to which many of the characters are subjected.
Peter Lane (Anthony Franciosa) is a successful murder mystery novelist in Rome as part of a publicity tour when a series of murders begin to take place, each featuring a connection to his latest novel, Tenebrae. A woman is killed with an old-fashioned straight-edged razor and pages of the novel are torn out and shoved into her mouth. The list of suspects includes an obsessive ex and a deranged journalist and any number of demented fans. As with Deep Red, we have some unlocated flashback episodes that point to an earlier trauma and go some way towards explaining the insanity of the killer.
Generally considered Argento’s last good film before a precipitous decline, Tenebrae was a return, after experiments with supernatural horror, to the classic giallo formula: the black leather gloves, the endangered foreigner, the inventive murders and the killer’s point of view. It offers a series of satisfying twists and turns, although some of these are facilitated by almost transparent trickery, lapses in logic and a general holiness of plot to compete with the nearby Vatican. The acting is exactly one notch above porn and the comedy is weak - ‘are you going to wear that hat? Aren’t you afraid it’ll fall off?’ ‘What, this hat? This hat won’t fall off’ - but no one watches a Dario Argento film for the comedy, we watch for the horror. And there are genuine moments of tension and unpleasantness - the scene with the dog is a particularly gruelling moment.
Argento identifies more closely with the killer in this film than any other. The murderer is self-consciously artistic, taking photographs of his own crime scenes, many of which also feature in the publicity material for the film itself. He or she seems wildly protective of Lane’s book Tenebrae (which obviously shares the title of the film), killing a shoplifter who has purloined a copy. Anyone who downloaded the film illegally might be wary of sharing a similar fate. Argento revels particularly in the murder of the lesbian film critic who has accused Peter Lane of misogyny - the bitch will die in her knickers for having the gall - with the same bitterness with which Clint Eastwood had a Pauline Kael substitute murdered in The Dead Pool (1988). This double murder is introduced by a justly celebrated crane shot, lasting over two minutes without cuts and which took three days to film.
Argento pushes the bloodletting to the extreme and pulls off some genuinely shocking moments, which remain so even today. His gallon-sized tubs of red paint will always be preferable to the CGI gloop we are treated to nowadays. And his eye for the telling physical detail, the drool of a strangled victim or the slipperiness of a fatal spike, are more effective in conveying the pain than any kind of gore. Yet I can’t help but exit each of his films relieved, not because the tension has been resolved, the killer caught/done away with etc, but rather just to get out of that world of over-lit post-modern interior design.