Tenebrae (1982)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #207


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: 28 October 1982
Sub-Genre: Giallo
Country of Origin: Italy
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Producers: Claudio Argento, Salvatore Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Special Effects: Giovanni Corridori
Cinematography: Luciano Tovoli
Score: Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, Massimo Morante
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Studio: Sigma Cinematografica Roma
Distributors: Titanus, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Arrow Video
Stars: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Christian Borromeo, Mirella D’Angelo, Veronica Lario, Ania Pieroni, Carola Stagnaro, John Steiner, Lara Wendel, Giuliano Gemma, Mirella Banti Mirella Banti, Marino Masé


Suggested Audio Candy:

Goblin Tenebre

Dario Argento V' 95 bei der VIENNALE

“The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder.”

I’ve love to spend just a few minutes inside Dario Argento’s gloriously contorted cranium. One imagines it would be painted in garish primary colors, be densely populated with impossibly beautiful women, and be laced with more than a dash of sickness. In over thirty years of divulging horror it has been Argento’s work that has shown most dominantly just how beautiful the macabre really can be when witnessed through the eyes of a visionary genius. Like any filmmaker, there have been a few troughs amongst the peaks but, when you consider the apex here includes deep red rubies of Suspiria, Inferno and Profondo Rosso caliber, it suggests that a bad day at the office for Argento is still well worth putting in a shift for.


While the aforementioned trinity are regularly referred to as the Italian maestro’s finest works; many still regard Tenebrae as his last complete masterpiece and some still cite it as his finest hour. It’s a common misconception that his work has trailed off since and, to his detractors, I urge you to revisit Opera, Sleepless and the mad as a crate of squirrels Phenomena and try telling me that they are the works of a spent force. The fact us that Argento possesses that certain indefinable something that most filmmakers spend their lives attempting to emulate and it resides deep within his glorious frontal lobe.


Tenebrae ran into considerable strife with the BBFC during their 1983 clampdown and placed on the DPP’s infamous video nasties list, where it remained indefinitely. Laughably it was then released with its cover image of a woman with her throat cut obscured by a red bow. Although eventually re-released in 2003 with all cuts reinstated, it still remains banned in Germany to this day for some reason. How anyone could regard any of his films as reprehensible is beyond preposterous, let alone such a striking display of artistic impression as this, but the film’s voyeuristic stylings certainly haven’t helped its cause.


“Let me ask you something? If someone is killed with a Smith&Wesson revolver… Do you go and interview the president of Smith & Wesson?”

Tenebrae actually came about as a result of Argento’s real-life trauma after he was stalked by a fanatical follower during a trip to the United States. It focuses on American mystery-thriller novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa in a role originally intended for Christopher Walken), who arrives in Italy to promote his latest best-seller with his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and agent Bullmer (John Saxon) in tow. Before he can so much as unpack his luggage, he is paid a visit from Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and informed of a young woman found brutally murdered, with pages from his book stuffed in her mouth. To make his stay even more uncomfortable, it isn’t long before the killer strikes again and appears to be drawing inspiration from his literature.

tenebre light

The title Tenebrae derives from a Latin word meaning darkness which is ironic as much of the film is brightly lit. The striking primary colors of Suspiria and Inferno are nowhere to be seen, although deep red plays a significant part, never more so than during a recurring dream sequence where it provides stunning contrast against pale whites. This disparity is also evident for a number of the kills almost as though he is painting on canvas and, in true Argento style, his victims gaze at the camera for long drawn-out moments, implicating us all personally. I believe it was this film that taught me just how beautiful an act murder can be, although I’d prefer not to be quoted on that one.

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Luciano Tovoli’s cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking and there is one magnificent and technically glorious tracking shot that beggars belief to this very day. Argento’s roving lens scales a victim’s home in one single seamless take, navigating walls and rooftops, and peering in through windows, using the Louma crane. This scene took three days to shoot and, astonishingly, Argento was requested to remove it for the film’s American release. Thankfully he stuck to his guns. It just shows how much this film was misunderstood at the time although, more recently, it has started to gain the adulation it deserves. Another element of note is the fantastic synthesized score by previous Goblin members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli and Elsa Morante who reunited specifically for Tenebrae.


“We have eliminated the impossible. Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Tenebrae is far more of a conventional thriller than out-and-out horror film but has more subtext submerged beneath its surface than possibly any other of Argento’s works. Freudian psychology, suppressed childhood trauma, sexual deviancy, spectatorship and the fetishization of violence are all touched upon here. The sum of its masterful parts don’t always hang together in a cohesive whole but since when has Italian horror cinema concerned itself with cohesion anyhoots? While undoubtedly giallo in a sense, there is a far more contemporary feel to proceedings than most of its brethren. Indeed, Argento breathes new life into a genre just starting to grow a little obvious at the time and that, my dear Grueheads, is the sign of a true visionary at work. Grazie per tutti i ricordi meravigliosi di Dario Argento.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: As for the kills, well there are a number of particularly grisly dispatches including the infamous scene where a hapless belle has her arm extirpated from the elbow down via axe that provides Argento the opportunity to splash his deep red all over a pallid concrete canvas. Needless to say, he does so gleefully. Giovanni Corridori’s practical effects are excellent and there are a number of gory set-pieces spread across its runtime. Indeed, pound for bloody pound, Tenebrae may well be the most violent of all giallo. He also caters well for our craving for sins of the flesh proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that Argento really is the gift that keeps on giving.

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Read Suspiria Appraisal

Read Inferno Appraisal

Read Profondo Rosso Appraisal

Read Absurd Appraisal


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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2014 (Revised Edition 2016)



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