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Tenebrae (1982)

Synapse Films
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/13/2016

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/3/2016

Despite the fact that some horror movie fanatics would try to convince you otherwise, Dario Argento is not a household name. However, the Italian director did gain some notoriety in the late 1970s and early 1980s with his slick and stylish movies. His most well-known film is arguably 1977's Suspiria. Due to its popularity, many of those in the know would identify this movie as their favorite Argento film. While I certainly admire Suspiria and get a kick out of its visuals, I prefer his 1982 entry Tenebrae. This straight-ahead murder mystery proves that Argento is capable of combining luscious cinematography with a good story.

Mystery novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) leaves his home in New York City and travels to Rome to promote his new book. Once there, he's greeted by his agent, Buller (John Saxon), and his assistant, Anne (Daria Nicolodi). Peter is also approached by Police Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma), who informs the writer that a woman was murdered and pages from one of Peter's books were stuffed in her mouth. Obviously, Peter is appalled by this, but doesn't know what to make of it. When a second murder occurs, Peter decides to play detective and solve the crime himself. However, he soon learns that his little adventure is putting those around him in danger.

The great thing about Tenebrae is that it works not only as a film, but as a Dario Argento film. Please allow me to explain. The movie is quintessential Argento, as the visuals play a key role in building a foundation for the movie. Once again working with Director of Photography Luciano Tovoli, who also shot Suspiria, Argento fills the film with very interesting images. Let's look at the three most famous moments from the movie. First, we have the crane shot in which the camera looks into the window of an apartment, proceeds to climb up and over the building, only to come to rest at another window. Does this shot make any narrative sense whatsoever? No, but it's very cool. This same scene includes the moment where a woman is in the act of putting on a shirt in which the killer slices a hole, allowing the woman to see them. This is a brilliant idea -- how freaky would that be? The third shot comes during the finale in which the killer is revealed. This shot has been copies so many times. Tenebrae may not contain the color palette of some of Argento's earlier works, but he still brings in creative camerawork to help tell the story.

Regular visitors to this website know that I love to jump on the fact that Italian horror movies often throw logic out the window and simply exist. (I'm looking at you Lucio Fulci.) Argento has certainly be guilty of this as well. (Try explaining the plot of Suspiria to someone and you wind up sounding like a crazy person.) However, as with Argento's earlier giallo (murder mysteries), Tenebrae attempts to walk the straight and narrow and play like a logical thriller. The movie presents us with the murders and suspects and doesn't give the viewer much more information than Peter has. There are some red herrings here and the twist is well done. The subplot involving the killer's motivation was way ahead of its time and plays like something which would come from today's headlines.

If you were to stop an attendee at Spooky-Boo Con and ask them which Argento film to start with, you'd most likely get a smattering of answers, the bulk of which would be Suspiria. Again, I love that movie, but if you are new to Italian horror, you are not ready for it. Tenebrae is a much better jumping off point, as it has the outward appearance of a standard thriller, but slowly reveals itself to be much more. Along with Argento's clever writing and visual style, we also get some of the better acting seen in the genre, with Fanciosa making a very believable lead. As noted above, Tenebrae has garnered a reputation for some specific images, but the film works as a whole, as it will impress you with its aesthetics and keep you guessing until the end.

Tenebrae demonstrates the physics involved in wearing a hat on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Synapse Films. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 35 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only very slight grain at times and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The picture shows an impressive amount of depth and detail. This is a noticeable improvement over the old DVD release. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. As a mono track, we don't get any outlandish surround sound effects here, but the dialogue is always audible and the effective score shines through. Unlike some other tracks in this realm, we don't get any overt hissing here.

The Tenebrae Blu-ray Disc contains several extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Film Critic and Argento Scholar Maitland McDonagh. "Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo" is a 90-minute documentary which examines the definition of and the history of this unique take on the murder mystery. Featuring interviews with Argento, Ruggero Deodato, McDonah, Kim Newman, Umberto Lenzi, and many others, the movie represents an exhaustive look at distinctly Italian films and how they eventually fell out of favor. Getting back to Tenebrae, we get an "Alternate Opening Credits Sequence" (2 minutes), as well as the "Alternate U.S. 'Unsane' End Credits Sequence" (2 minutes). The extras are rounded out by the INTERNATIONAL TRAILER and the JAPANESE TRAILER.

Review Copyright 2016 by Mike Long