Tuesday, March 29, 2016

There's Always Room for Giallo: Tenebrae

by Patrick Bromley
Ho accoltellato una donna transgender e ora sono Unsane !

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.
Long one of director Dario Argento's most famous films I had not seen, I finally got to view Tenebrae (originally released in the US under the title Unsane) recently thanks to the new Synapse Films Blu-ray boasting a gorgeous 2K restoration. To say I loved the movie is an understatement. It changed something chemically in my brain, inspiring not just a deep, deep dive down the giallo rabbit hole but this new column as well. The movie was a turning point for me.

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.
Following the box office disappointment of his 1980 witch movie Inferno, Argento returned to the genre that made him a household name in the first place (assuming you live at my house). Considered by many to be one of Argento's best -- if not the best -- 1982's Tenebrae is the culmination of his efforts in the genre while also being a somewhat atypical example of a giallo. It is highly sexual and technically dazzling. It offers one great set piece after another. The mystery at its center is reasonably compelling. These are all hallmarks of an effective giallo, but Argento isn't satisfied to just make another good giallo after having made some of the best that cinema has ever seen (including his debut film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Profundo Rosso, my current pick for the best giallo ever made). Instead, Tenebrae subverts much of what we've come to expect from the genre -- in large part because Argento created the framework himself -- and creates something that seems like a traditional giallo on the surface but which, upon further inspection, reveals something much crazier.

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.
I'm torn on how much to say about Tenebrae in this piece. On the one hand, I want to be able to discuss spoilers because that's the best way to really get into what makes it so unique and effective. On the other, if there's anyone out there that hasn't seen the movie, I hope that reading the piece to this point will convince him or her to seek it out. From here on out, there will be major spoilers for the movie. You've been warned.

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.
Besides being the rare Italian-shot giallo that's actually supposed to take place in Italy, Tenebrae breaks from the often heated, psychedelic style that marks much of what came before and instead opts for a kind of angular architecture -- it's all straight lines, clean to the point of sterility. This isn't just Argento trying something different, but rather factors into the themes of the film, which deal with the illusion of order and a character's attempt at constructed normalcy. Peter Neal's world is one of order, which is why each person in the movie who transgresses against that "order" meets with a grisly demise: the beautiful young woman who steals a book, or the two beautiful young women engaged in a lesbian relationship (which, in 1982, may have been considered against the usual order -- three cheers for progress), or the ex (current?) wife cheating on Neal with his agent played by the great John Saxon. Eventually, the architecture of the onscreen world Argento established rebels against Peter, too, as the straight lines give way to a jutting sculpture that impales him to his death.

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?
Ignoring the bizarre thematics and the way the movie subverts gialli tropes, Tenebrae is probably Argento's best made film in terms of its technique. In the '70s, he was building on the ground that Hitchcock and Bava had established. Then Brian De Palma came along and took what Argento was doing several steps forward. By the time he made Tenebrae, Argento was competing not just with his previous work but with those inspired by that work, and responded by directing the film in such a way that would make even De Palma jealous. He constructs brilliant set piece after brilliant set piece, the best of which involves the beautiful young reporter and her girlfriend. It begins with a stunning crane shot that climbs up and over the side of their apartment building, then moves inside for an expertly timed double murder that includes the movie's most famously beautiful shot (well, second most famously beautiful -- more on the first in a second): a woman pulls a white t-shirt over her head, and just as her face is covered the killer slashes through the material before cutting her throat. Even if the rest of the movie failed, this sequence alone would be unforgettable.

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.
I could go on and on about Tenebrae, a movie that's easily in the running alongside only two others for the title of Argento's best work. I've watched at least a dozen other gialli since seeing this one and only one comes close to being this good: Argento's own Profondo Rosso. But even if I didn't think it a masterpiece of the genre -- and I do -- I know it's always going to hold a special place in my heart as the film that set me down a very specific path and led to a column I'm excited to continue. I know the gialli I watch going forward won't all be great. Some might not even be watchable. But like with so many of the kind of fringe movies to which I'm drawn, all of them will offer something. I look forward to exploring all of those somethings with you guys in the future.

Pass the J&B.

16 comments:

  1. Excellent read! Makes me want to revisit as it has been years since I've seen it and never a clean copy. I generally like to watch older Genre films in a nostalgic, dirtied-up, distorted fashion, but I think with Giallo's adn Italian Horror that I make the exception cause they are just damn beautiful to miss out on what was initially the Director's vision.

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  2. God I want this so bad, but the bluray is so expensive. I have a dvd copy but it's not the best quality. I can't wait to watch this and Suspiria on bluray.

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  3. If you google translate the tag at the top of this it's pretty hilarious :)

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  4. For so many years, "Unsane" was the only way to see this great film on VHS. Once I started importing LD in the mid 1990s, it was wonderful to finally see "Tenebrae" in its complete glory.
    Seriously, try sitting through "Unsane" and you can understand why so many people in the states thought Argento was an incoherent mess.
    It's so funny, Patrick seeing you dive into the Italian horror genre so wholeheartedly now after so many years. I still remember the joke you made at the end of your favorite zombie film podcast in which you said not to ask you about Fulci because he would never make it onto your list. Well, look at you now. :)

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    1. I still don't know if any Fulci films would make my Top 5, but there's much more of a chance. Certainly my Top 10 (either City of the Living Dead or The Beyond, if we're calling that a zombie movie).

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  5. Love it! I has forgotten all about the use of doubles, it's been a while! Now I really gotta buy the new Bluray, and I want to see the new Yellow fever doc on the Synapse release too, I'll never have any money....

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  6. I'm so glad this is your new column. I love Italian horror and I've been working on expanding my collection as of late. I haven't seen Tenebrae since they played it at a Massacre, and I was half awake or whatever, so I didn't read after the spoiler section so I can rewatch it fresh after I get the blu. Nevertheless, I am very excited to see where this column goes since there are a bunch of straight up gialli I still haven't seen and a ton I would love to read your opinion on. Buona fortuna!

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  7. I watched lots of gialli between age 14 and 18 or something around that. I liked some, I disliked some but I don´t think that I was old enough to really appreciate them. Reading this great column makes me want to revisit at least Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebre.

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  8. Watched The Whip and the Body last night, Very interesting 1963 movie with a young Christopher Lee looking kinda swarve, glad I watched it, it's got a good premise that I won't spoil here, good stuff

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    1. I heard Darin Scott talking that one up on Killer POV last week. It's a good one. I really like Bava's gothic movies and wish he had done more of them.

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    2. Do they go into much about Tales from the Hood on that episode?

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    3. Not too deep but it does come up. It's a good episode, well worth a listen

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  9. Great piece Patrick. Italian horror has been a late discovery for me too and I'm still only int he pretty early stages. I haven't explored too much outside of Argento and Bava but I'm really keen to. I LOVED Susperia, and I was only luke warm on Tenebrae the first time I saw it, but this article has definitely convinced me to go back and revisit. Looking forward to doing Profondo Russo and am super excited to eventually sink my teeth (literally) into some Fulci. Any other recommendations?

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    1. So many! A few that I've seen lately that I'm sure I'll be writing about in the future include Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Torso, The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times...with Fulci, I'd maybe start with The Beyond or City of the Living Dead. Thanks for the nice words!

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    2. Thanks Patrick! That first title...wow. I can only hope the movie lives up to it. Sergio Martino is definitely one of the directors I wanted to explore. There is something about these Italian horror filmmakers that is so fascinating and entertaining. The stylisation, the colours, the way these movies are put together; It's like a jolt to the senses I love it.
      Have you seen any Umberto Lenzi? He's another I am interested in.

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    3. The movie does live up to the title.

      I've seen a handful of Lenzi films. He's hit or miss for me. Cannibal Ferox is like a trashier, more artless rip off of Holocaust. Nightmare City isn't great but is kind of fun (and one of the main inspirations for Planet Terror). My favorite of the Lenzi films I've seen is actually Ghosthouse, which I cannot defend or explain but for some reason I love it. I hear Eyeball is really good but haven't tracked down a copy.

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