Today marks thirty years since the Italian release of one of Dario Argento’s most acclaimed and popular films: Tenebrae. I have posted to this blog many times before about Dario Argento, from writing about his best films (Suspiria, The Stendhal Syndrome) to his not-so-best films (Trauma) to the massive role he has played in shaping my identity as a child in the mid ‘80s and as a teenager in the late ‘90s. In college, I wrote about Dario Argento’s films almost constantly, and not least of all because I felt his body of work was every bit as worthy of dissection and appreciation as that of any other great filmmaker. Yet while Hitchcock and Kubrick and Godard were all the rage during my film school years, Argento’s appreciation seemed limited to the horror aficionados—and even then, it was primarily limited to Suspiria.
This (slightly revised) piece was one of two essays that I wrote about Tenebrae during my first year of college. I was a nineteen year old movie snob, and the filmmakers whom I was most passionate about were all Italian and all relegated to the “horror film” ghetto by most of academia. Both of my Tenebrae essays were intended to introduce my professors to the film in the hopes that they might one day incorporate it into their curriculum, if not their movie collections. I have no idea if that would ever go on to be the case for my professors, but I hope that it could still be the case for some of you.
Robert Jeffrey 2/26/01
MA101: History of the Media Arts Part II
Dario Argento’s Tenebrae: Art as Exploitation
When it comes to contemporary exploitation cinema, most American viewers will immediately think of one genre: The Horror Movie. Different viewers might have different interpretations of how horror films exploit. Some would say they exploit women. Others would say that they exploit violence. Many would say that they exploit American youth, who over the past several decades have consistently expressed interest in the most controversial (and most underappreciated) of film genres.
Over the past several years, a number of the genre’s most prominent “exploitation films” have finally been recognized for their artistic merit. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is a permanent resident of The Museum of Modern Art. I Spit On Your Grave (1978) has been reevaluated by critics and sociologists. Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Halloween (1978) are now held in the same regard as Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest works. Over the past two years, the films of Italian horror legend Dario Argento have enjoyed similar rediscovery and reevaluation. Since the release of several of his films uncut (for the first time ever in America) on laserdisc in the Fall of 1998, he has finally begun to be appreciated as one of the finest filmmakers of our time, if not of all time.
Although long dubbed “the Italian Hitchcock”, Dario Argento’s body of work has often been regarded as “exploitation” as a result of its graphic violence. Despite an ever growing legion of devoted fans around the globe, some horror aficionados don’t quite know how to interpret his work. The strict “gorehounds” rarely appreciate the multiple layers of psychology within the confines of his films. Yet many intellectual viewers are unable to get past Argento’s lack of interest in the widely accepted mechanics of “fine filmmaking”. In addition to expressing a disregard for actors, he offers that the actual “mystery” in his mystery films should not be the emphasis of the viewing experience. “We don’t solve mysteries in real life, why should we do it in films? Motivation doesn’t matter to me very much…I’m interested in seeing what goes on in people’s minds..the psychology” (McDonagh 245). Chris Gallant, editor of the book Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento, offers that such a daringly different brand of filmmaking is exactly why people continue to explore, and attempt to understand, his filmography. “Perhaps more than anything else, what seems to invite analysis is the placement of this body of work on an overlap between European art cinema and a genre labeled ‘Exploitation’. These films disrupt what is so often perceived as an inflexible divide between the artistic and commercial, high and low art, forcing a surprisingly easy cohesion between the two” (Gallant 7).
Dario Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae is, upon initial viewing, a fairly straightforward mystery/thriller. Peter Neal (American television star Anthony Franciosa) is a hugely successful American writer of horror novels. When Peter Neal arrives in Rome to promote his latest book, Tenebrae, a series of murders are committed which seem to have been lifted from the pages of Neal’s latest work. With each murder, the killer sends a passage of the novel to Peter Neal, enticing the author to investigate himself. As Neal is drawn deeper into the mystery of uncovering the killer’s identity, the body count mounts, and Neal himself becomes the final target of the maniac’s killing spree. Tenebrae is effective as a mystery, as a thriller, and as a horror movie. But it is the psychological subtext which invites repeat viewings and continued analysis. This is what sets it apart from the (seemingly) similar thrillers that lack its symbolism and nihilistic wit.
A large part of Dario Argento’s appeal to fans is often used by his detractors to criticize him: the hyper-stylization inherent in his filmmaking. Within the Argento canon, Tenebrae could almost be described as one of Argento’s realistic efforts, although “gritty crime drama” it is not. One of the most controversial and thoroughly Hitchcockian aspects of Argento’s genius is his ability to portray graphic violence with the glamour and sensuality that most directors would apply to a romantic scene. The most striking and disquieting example of this in Tenebrae is the film’s most graphically violent scene, in which a woman’s upper arm is chopped off by an axe. The scene is not portrayed with the realistic attempts of a contemporary horror movie. Nor does it boast the outrageousness of Herschell Gordon Lewis drive-in fare, or the exploitive violence of gruesome slasher films. Instead, the depiction is far more terrifying in its spectacle: the camera pans to follow the character, blood literally painting the bleach white wall beside her as she slowly and fruitlessly backs away from her killer. The overtly seductive audience appeal in Argento’s murder sequences, particularly this one, make the acts of violence all the more disturbing. The portrayal is so fluid, and so effectively woven into the canvas of the viewing experience, that the audience is not inclined to look away. The audience may potentially find itself riveted by the hypnotic depiction of violent death in Argento’s world, a stark contrast to the more realistic depictions of violence that audiences are generally more accustomed to. Argento’s deviant delight in toying with his audience’s psyche injects each viewing experience with a thread of black humor, present to varying extents in every one of his films.
It could be argued that since 1970, when Dario Argento made his directorial debut with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, no other director has been quite as influential as he has been in the use of telling a story first and foremost with the camera. The films of such directors as John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, David Fincher, and The Wachowski Brothers have all evidenced Argento’s influence, often using the benefits of bigger budgets to expand upon Argento’s innovations. In addition to a number of devices used to generate suspense and shock, Tenebrae boasts two very simple yet seminal techniques that have served to define Argento’s style. One is the film’s famous “louma crane sequence”. It begins with a shot of a woman looking outside of the window of her house. The camera pans up, gliding across the second story, peering into the windows of the house, before settling on the window of the woman’s lover. The camera begins to move in, before pulling back and panning up again. The camera moves over the roof, and then moves down, looking into the windows of the other side of the house. It finally settles on the ground floor, where the killer is breaking into the home. All of this is caught on film in one uninterrupted shot that lasts for more than two minutes. On paper, the sequence reads like a classic suspense setup. However, the rebellious Argento instead uses it as a means of taking the viewer’s mind in a completely different direction. Rather than attempt to generate suspense here, he chooses to throw a cinematic curveball, in which for no apparent reason the viewer explores the house in which the next killing is about to take place. The scene adds to the film’s stylishness, but furthermore it pulls the viewer into the film’s twisted landscape. A similar concept would be revisited—much more elaborately and with the benefit of CGI effects—in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999).
Another one of Argento’s innovations is put to use in the film’s final ten minutes. In this scene, the killer is in an apartment crouching near the body of the final victim when two characters walk in to discover both of them there. Argento shot a master shot of this encounter using a static camera. The three characters fill up the entire 1.85:1 frame, with sparing cuts to close ups, making the confines of the location seem even tighter than they already are. The frightening effect of this is heightened by the darkness of the room and the pouring rain outside, as this is one of the few set pieces in the film not set in broad daylight. Here, Argento creates tension amongst the three characters so tangible that it is almost unbearable. This claustrophobic encounter may well have been mimicked in the classic Hong Kong action film City on Fire (1987), which according to legend inspired similar scenes in the Quentin Tarantino films Reservoir Dogs (1992), True Romance (1993), and Pulp Fiction (1994).
Among the most striking (and famous) of Tenebrae’s many artistic merits is the film’s fluorescent, washed out visual scheme, courtesy of legendary Italian director of photography Luciano Tovoli. Dario Argento had previously collaborated with Tovoli in 1977 for his most famous film, Suspiria. In that film, Tovoli utilized an outdated Technicolor film process to achieve a kaleidoscopic array of vivid colors that added tremendously to the film’s terrifyingly dreamlike surrealism (McDonagh 144). In Tenebrae, Argento wanted something more much more realistic. Argento was attracted to “American television series like Columbo and Charlie’s Angels...people spit on this kind of police show, but personally I find in them a very precise aesthetic..[with a style] which is deranged by way of its directness” (McDonagh 171). In Italian, “tenebrae” is translated as “darkness” or “shadow” (McDonagh 163). As such, the use of harsh lighting and a washed out cinematographic process to add to the film’s super-brightness serves as an inventive juxtaposition. Argento has often pointed out that this aesthetic underlines the title being a reference to spiritual, rather than literal, darkness (World of Horror). But it also illustrates a consistent defiance of convention, something which marks so many of Argento’s so-called “horror” films.
Equally interesting is the fact that Dario Argento chose not to display any of Rome’s defining landmarks in the film. Maitland McDonagh, author of Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, noted that Tenebrae “takes place in a Rome that has no past: there are no shots of the Colosseum, the Trevi fountain, classical statuary, Renaissance paintings or churches..[the film] takes place in a city of dazzling white concrete. It’s all cool, stark, and slightly remote” (McDonagh 166). Argento’s choice of harsh lighting and ambiguous architecture serves to complement the lesser known fact that the film is set several years in the future—though the viewer is never made aware of this. “Tenebre occurs in a world inhabited by fewer people, with the results that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded. Something has happened to make it that way, but no one remembers, or wants to remember” (McDonagh 166). With this knowledge, the viewer can recognize the common theme that runs throughout the film: underneath a sunny façade, everyone hides dark secrets that can come back to haunt them.
Dario Argento has never been apt to employ traditional scare tactics. His debut, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, drew immediate comparison to Alfred Hitchcock because it demonstrated Argento’s ability to generate classical suspense that the Master himself would be proud of. His subsequent works are arguably even more Hitchcockian, though this has less to do with their style than with their approach to Hitchcock’s favorite instrument of terror: the human mind. This is most apparent in Tenebrae, where the secrets hidden and the guilt lived with serve to bring about the downfall of the film’s characters. Wrote Maitland McDonough, “in the gloom one can hide what one wants to reject, what one doesn’t dare show. But we are ill at ease in the harsh glare. We have everything right in front of us” (McDonagh 171). Thus the “darkness” of the title is not found in the exteriors of the film’s locations, but rather in the interiors of the killer’s soul. “Tenebre is about a very modern kind of horror; not monsters, not witches, but the horror of a twisted mind” (McDonagh 244).
Using the knowledge gained by the revelation of the killer’s identity in the final minutes of the film, the viewer can abandon “the whodunit experience” and go back to more closely observe the twisted mind of the film’s killer. To explore the psychology of Tenebrae, one must know the identity of the film’s killer, but to spoil the ending of this film for the uninitiated would be a disservice to any true fan of cinema. Tenebrae boasts one of the most brilliant identity revelations in film history, on par with the shocking finale of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Yet what makes Tenebrae stand out is that the killer’s identity works so beautifully into the canvas of the film’s psychology—it’s as if the whole movie were leading the viewer to an understanding of a deranged mind before we know whose mind it is. To guess the identity of the killer, one need not put the pieces of a puzzle together, as in conventional murder mysteries. Rather, the viewer must attempt to fully understand the psychology of the killer in order to predict a conclusion that is genuinely shocking yet perfectly rational.
The reason that Tenebrae could be placed into the exploitation subgenre has less to do with the film itself than with its distribution—particularly in America. Although the film premiered in Italy in October of 1982 (Gallant 280), it was not until 1984 that it finally made it to American audiences (McDonagh 165). When it finally opened in limited release, its American distributor, Bedford Entertainment/Film Gallery Inc., had cut the film by more than ten minutes. Violence was censored. Vital exposition was trimmed from the American release along with half of the louma crane shot and even the heel-in-mouth shot. Hoping to cash in on the slasher film craze of the day (rather late in the game, considering how much it had waned since its 1981 heyday), the film was strangely retitled Unsane and promoted as a gory horror movie (McDonagh 165). In 1987, this version of Tenebre was released on home video. Until 1998, American fans not lucky enough to import a Japanese laserdisc had to settle for this bastardized version of the film (Gallant 297).
Aside from its trashy American release, Tenebrae could still easily be mistaken for an exploitation film. It is extremely violent. It does not always adhere to the conventions of mystery/thrillers. And, like most Italian films, it was acted and filmed in English but ALL of its dialogue was dubbed in post-production—and not always by the actors appearing onscreen. Yet despite all of these seemingly defining factors, in the end, it is not Dario Argento who is making “exploitation movies”. Rather, it is the distributors of his films who take his art and sell it as exploitation. Thus far, only a handful of Argento films have played to American audiences in unadulterated form. Most were severely reedited, censored, and even “dumbed down”, bringing the violence to the front and center. Audiences also play a role in branding Argento’s oeuvre as “exploitation”, as proven by the fact that many of his fans seem to appreciate the violence of Tenebrae more than they do its layers of psychology. Worse yet, the very film connoisseurs that should relish such genius are often unable to look past the film’s vital but graphic bloodshed. Thus, as is perhaps the case with all of Dario Argento’s films, you could say that one ultimately takes away from Tenebrae what one brings to it. But with an open mind, and a dark sense of humor, one is unable not to appreciate power of one of the most complex and expertly crafted thrillers ever made.
Dario Argento’s World of Horror. Dir: Michele Soavi, 1985.
Synapse Entertainment DVD, USA. 1999
Gallant, Chris, ed. Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento.
England: Fabpress Publishing, 2000.
McDonagh, Maitland. Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. New York: Citadel Publishing, 1991.
Tenebrae. Dir: Dario Argento, 1982.
Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, USA. 1999