I have had an awakening.
I've already talked at length about my massive turnaround on Italian horror during my time running this site, so at this point it should just be a given for anyone reading that I love this shit. Loooove it. After several years spent being confounded by it yet drawn to it at the same time, something finally clicked (broke?) in my brain about two years ago and I have been rabidly consuming as much as I can ever since. The majority of the films I found myself seeking out and enjoying have been more supernatural in nature -- Italian zombie films, splatter films, anything by Lucio Fulci. One subgenre in which I was deficient was the giallo, a kind of thriller popular in Italy from the early '60s through the early '80s which eventually gave way to the slasher film.
Tenebrae has changed all of that.
So what exactly is a giallo? I won't pretend to know all the ins and outs of the genre, like the fact that apparently J&B whiskey appears in a majority of them. This is something that has gone unnoticed by me but pointed out other places. But for the uninitiated, the giallo is born out of a series of cheap pulp crime paperbacks published in Italy as far back as the late 1920s and known for their yellow -- or, in Italian, giallo -- covers. As a movie subgenre, the giallo finds its roots in the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Mario Bava's 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye) is widely considered to be the first giallo, as it meets many of the criteria and includes a number of the tropes that have come to be associated with the genre.
And what are those tropes exactly? I'm reluctant to codify them too much, a) because I don't know them all and b) because I want to maintain some flexibility in what movies I can write about going forward. Gialli typically center around a mystery that begins with a murder or series of of murders, which are then investigated by some sort of outsider working independently of the police (who, it should be said, often prove to be ineffectual). The murders tend to be bloody and often have women as the target, many of whom will appear nude moments before dying. The arts and/or fashion (read: models) play a major role in many of the movies. In the most traditional gialli, the killer wears black leather gloves and carries out the murders with knives and straight razors. There are multiple red herrings in determining the killer's identity and the motives are often psychosexual and/or nonsensical in nature. They tend to focus on form over content, more about how the sequences are staged than about breaking ground in terms of content. Sure, there are plenty of gialli that will show you crazy things you've never seen in a movie before, but that's more of a bonus.
Anthony Franciosa plays successful American author Peter Neal, who we first meet as he bikes to the airport (?) and then flies to Italy for a book tour. Not long after he arrives, a series of murders begins that appears to be inspired by Neal's novels. The killer is even sliding notes under the door of Neal's apartment, bringing the attention of two police officers who want to work with him to find and stop the murderer.
Like many gialli, it's almost impossible to predict the killer of Tenebrae. Argento knows this and makes a game out of it by revealing the murderer at the end of the second act: Christianio Berti (John Steiner), a journalist and obsessed fan of Neal's novels. Berti is the kind of generic murderer we've come to expect in this kind of movie -- someone we met earlier on but could hardly guess is so heavily involved in the proceedings -- but also the ultimate red herring. On the one hand, he's a misdirect from the real killer, but not a traditional red herring in that he's a false suspect. Berti really is murdering people for more than half the movie. He's just not the only one. The reveal of Neal as the second killer is a genuine surprise. For two thirds of the movie, he's been acting as the outsider investigating the killings; the twist that he's investigating what will become his own murders feels like Argento taking the giallo to its logical conclusion -- the snake eating its own tail.
On her commentary for the Synapse Blu-ray, film critic and Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh points out the repeated use of doubles in Tenebrae; not only does Argento stage a number of scenes with actors standing opposite mirrors or reflective glass, but just about every major character has his or her own "double" in the film. We spend two thirds of the movie thinking that Neal's double is Detective Giermani, the cop investigating the case (alongside Detective Altieri, the double for Daria Nicolodi's assistant character -- a conceit the movie exploits in its climax). Once Neal is revealed to be the second killer, though, we realize he's actually Berti's double. I love the way Argento uses our identification with Neal as the audience surrogate against us, ending the film with Nicolodi screaming in horror as Neal is impaled on a sculpture. Her horror isn't just the result of seeing multiple people murdered in front of her (though it doesn't hurt), but also because she realizes that the man she has known for so many years, whom she trust -- possibly even loved -- is a total psychotic mystery. She was wrong about him. We all were.
The transgressions committed by the victims aren't devised as subtext, either. Berti kills these people because he believes Neal's novel judges anyone who is imperfect or impure. He thinks he's doing what the book tells him to do. This is Argento directly responding to the criticisms of his own work, often labeled as misogynist and ugly and violent by the critical community of the period. When young reporter Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo) attacks Peter Neal early in the film for the way he portrays his female characters, the words she uses might as well come directly from reviews of Argento's own work. And how does he respond to these critics? With the old "they're just movies" defense? Hardly. Instead, Argento undercuts the seriousness of the accusations by leaning in even harder to the power of his art: Neal's books really do inspire someone else to commit murder, and Neal himself winds up being done in by art. In Argento's world, art has the power to kill.
And I haven't even touched on the crazy sexual psychology of the film! The relationship between sex and violence is nothing new for the giallo, but Argento takes it several steps further in Tenebrae until we're not even sure what the motivations are anymore. The movie is more sexual than most of his work of the period, which may have the reputation for showcasing a lot of gratuitous nudity because it's being lumped in with other Italian horror but which is usually fairly chaste. Not Tenebrae, though. There are a number of flashbacks in which we are to assume that Peter was among a group of young man preparing to have sex with a beautiful woman, but instead she humiliates Peter (possibly after he's unable to perform) and he later murders her. This, I guess, is the first time he kills someone, though few of his later murders seem to be sexually motivated.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the beautiful woman seen in flashback is played by Eva Robbin's [sic], a transgender actress, which confuses the matter of Neal's sexuality. We see that he has a beautiful wife but know nothing of their physical relationship, only that she has taken to sleeping with John Saxon. He seems close with Daria Nicolodi's character but demonstrates very little sexual interest in her, which is confounding because she's Daria Fucking Nicolodi. While the idea of a sexually ambiguous character driven to kill seems regressive (just 10 years later and Basic Instinct would ignite a firestorm of controversy over similar issues), there's not necessarily much that links Neal's original sin with his later murders. In fact, his most significant crimes seem motivated by revenge; the others, it could be argued, are committed to cover his tracks. So what are we to make of these flashbacks?
Argento also bucks the trend of staging many of his suspense sequences at night and puts a lot of Tenebrae into the bright sunlight of day. Saxon gets stabbed in a public place in the middle of the afternoon (and we see a pair of red heels walking away, similar to the red heels worn by Robbin's in flashback; Neal sends them to his ex as an indication that she will be punished for wronging him -- or has he, like the characters in his novel, begun to view all women as deserving of the red shoes?). The first victim -- the girl who steals the book -- is murdered in the daytime. Even those killed at night are shot against stark, bright backgrounds, including the scene that makes for the movie's actual most beautiful shot (referenced above) in which Neal's ex has her arm cut off and sprays a streak of crimson blood against a clean white wall. Argento the stylist is in overdrive, and as a fan of exactly the kind of show off-y, heightened flourishes he embraces here, the movie pushes all of my buttons.
Pass the J&B.