I first became familiar with Tenebrae when I watched a documentary about the Video Nasties, the seventy two films that were banned in the UK by the BBFC in the 1980s for being too ‘obscene’. Whilst many of the films on the list were low budget slasher films with some pretty shoddy – if bloody – effects, Tenebrae was something a little different: a psychological thriller that sees an author looking into a series of murders in Rome.
Like many of the more famous Giallo movies, Tenebrae was written and directed by Dario Argento, and is actually one of his more celebrated films. It opens with a reading from the book Tenebrae: a novel written by Peter Neal (Anthony Francoisa), that deals with serial murders and deviancy. From here we meet Peter as he boards a plane to Italy to take part in the tour for his book; meanwhile a mysterious figure plants something in his luggage and watches him leave. As Peter flies to Rome, a young woman is caught trying to shoplift a copy of his book, but is let off when she flirts with the store detective. Arriving back at her home, she’s attacked by an assailant armed with a razor, who forces pages of the book into her mouth before cutting her throat.
After arriving in Italy, Peter is approached by the police, who want to get his opinion on the case, and when he is called by someone claiming to be the killer, he ends up becoming involved in the case. As Peter and the police try to piece together who’s behind the crime, more bodies begin to mount as the killer moves from one brutalised victim to another.
Tenebrae is a little different from some of the other work that Argento has produced over the years. Those coming to the film expecting his more supernatural offerings might be left a bit disappointed. There are no witches or ghosts in this film, and Argento has swapped the dark alley and Gothic locations for a bright, modern setting. Despite being set in Rome, the film never makes use of any of the iconic locations the city is known for. There are no shots of the Colosseum, and we don’t get important walk and talks on the Spanish Steps; instead, the film is set in high-rise offices and new apartment buildings. This is the modern Italy of the 1980s, and because of this the film has a style that sets it apart from some of the other work Argento was producing at the time.
That being said, this is still unmistakably an Argento movie, complete with sweeping camerawork and impressive shots. One of the better known moments from the film sees the camera pan around a building, moving from one window, up the wall, across the roof, and down on the other side of the home to look in another window. The shot is long and lingering, and it takes its time to get to where it’s going, with only the electronic rock music from Goblin to engage with. The shot famously took multiple days to shoot, and was something Argento fought to keep in the US cut of the film.
It’s moments like this that make the film stand out as more than just a bloody murder mystery. It’s a film with style, with flair. Argento was not just a good storyteller, but a great filmmaker, someone who understood that you use the camera to tell a story too, and that if you take risks and do what others would consider strange or even bizarre it can lead to a film with an identity all its own. There’s a particular shot at the very end of the film that is so cleverly done and so shocking that I’m surprised it’s not cited as one of the stand-out moments of cinema.
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It has been a few years since I’ve watched Tenebrae, and I’d honestly forgotten how the story played out, and who the killer was. It was a genuine delight to watch it through again, this time introducing it to someone new too. It’s a decent, engaging story that keeps you guessing, and has some fantastic twists in the tale. If you’ve ever looked at Argento’s work like Suspiria or Inferno and thought that perhaps they were a bit strange and unusual for you, I’d definitely point you towards Tenebrae, as I think it’s a great gateway movie in the work of this truly superb director.
Alongside this newly restored version of the film from Arrow Video there are a number of extras for fans to enjoy. There are three separate commentaries: one with authors and critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; another with author and Argento expert Maitland McDonagh; and a third with Argento expert Thomas Rostock. There’s a feature length documentary called ‘Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo’ which covers the history of Giallo and features a number of interviews with experts and figures from the genre, including Argento. And there are several featurettes and archival interviews that offer insight into the actors and the movie. There are a lot of great pieces included in this set, and this might be one of the better versions of the movie – albeit with one issue.
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The big issue with this release, and the reason I cannot score it higher, is that there are examples of transphobic language used, and what appears to be transphobic behaviour within the extras. First, some context. One of the actresses in the film, Eva Robin’s (yes, that is the correct spelling), is a trans woman. Her character isn’t trans, and was originally going to be played by a cis woman. Eva transitioned before appearing in the film, and as far as I can tell she just happens to be an actress who is trans. However, she’s not simply allowed to just be a trans actress.
In the ‘Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo’ documentary (which was not produced by Arrow Video), Maitland McDonagh talks about the film, and Eva, by saying “There are a lot of glittering surfaces, but nothing that’s under those surfaces is what you think it will be, starting with the girl in the red shoes, who of course is not even a girl.” The shot then cuts to footage from Tenebrae, and Eva’s deadname appears – needlessly – on the screen. Considering that Eva never acted under that name, has no credits with it, and has nothing of note under that name, I can’t see why it was included here at all. There is never any reason to use a trans person’s former name. It is something that often causes distress for the person, and is often used intentionally for this purpose (although I cannot know the intentions behind this specific occurrence).
McDonagh also makes some troubling comments about Eva in her commentary. Despite calling Eva a woman earlier in the film, and using she/her pronouns, she goes on to talk about her as an “ambiguous woman, because of course we know she’s not… she’s a trans woman”. She admits that this isn’t a part of the film’s narrative at all, but goes on to say “I think you’re supposed to take her simply as a biological woman, but I don’t really know. But I think most people looking at her have some vague suspicions that she is in fact not a biological woman, and so it adds a particular kind of oddness to the scene with the boys on the beach, which is unsettling.”
The notion that the scene is unsettling because you can tell Eva isn’t a ‘biological woman’ feels absurd and – frankly – bigoted. I’m a trans person. I’m used to seeing all sorts of trans people, and I had no idea that Eva was trans until she was outed in this documentary. McDonagh’s idea that you can tell she’s trans and it’s supposed to unsettle you feels ridiculous, because unless someone told you, you’d never know. The term ‘biological woman’ is often used as a transphobic talking point, as it sounds scientific but is actually a complete nonsense, although, again, I can’t speak to the intention behind the phrase as it is used here.
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Sadly, these aren’t the only places where you’ll find transphobia in this set, as it’s also present in the commentary with Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Both of them use the word ‘transsexual’: a term that is often seen as outdated and in some cases offensive. Whilst this can be seen as an innocent mistake from people who aren’t as clued up on the correct terminology, their other behaviour is less excusable. Jones deadnames Eva once again, and Newman uses the abhorrent phrase “chick with a dick”.
I really enjoyed my time with Tenebrae, until I reached the extras. I was shocked and disgusted by the transphobic language and the deadnaming found here. To discover that one of the actresses in the film was trans this way was awful. As a horror fan I come to films like this to get away from the awfulness of the world. Entertainment is supposed to be an escape, so to find transphobic language and comments just casually included here honestly ruined this entire experience for me. This is a great presentation of the movie, but the above mentioned issues drag the whole thing down.
Tenebrae is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.