Tenebre: The Nightmarish Force of B-Films

Okay, what is a giallo film? It’s important, when discussing the work of director Dario Argento, to use implications of the genre as aesthetic guidelines. A giallo film [from Wiki] “refers specifically to a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, sexploitation, psychedelic and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements.”

Argento is a master of giallo films and Tenebre stands among his greatest achievements. However, where his Suspiria (1977) was all enriched colors and shadows, Tenebre (1982) is often lit like an operating theatre. In either case, lighting itself becomes an unnamed character, a sinister force contributing to a hyper-reality. Lighting can be an invisible character.

In giallo films, plots are often secondary: it’s wonderful if they’re coherent and somewhat linear, but if not, so be it, there are other elements that pull the drama. We have Peter Neal (Tony Franciosa), an American writer of horror novels, who visits Rome to promote his latest work, Tenebre. There, he is met by his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi), and his literary agent Bullmer (John Saxon).

Unknown to Neal, his embittered fiancée Jane McKerrow (Veronica Lario) has managed to vandalize his suitcase at the JFK Airport, (an impossibility as it’s shot in real time – unless she can move at warp speed – but again, it doesn’t matter) and then follows him to Rome. Hours before Neal’s arrival, a beautiful shoplifter Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) is murdered with a razor. Rome police, Detective Giermani (Giuliani Gemma) and Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro), question Neal because Elsa’s mouth was stuffed with a few pages of Tenebre. Neal receives an anonymous letter, believed by Giermani to signal further murders.

The bald contrivance of the plot is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s work, where a simple, often far-fetched narrative is an excuse to deploy the real emotive tools of filmmaking. (Please note that as another aspect of giallo). After it’s over, you may experience the ‘red-herring effect’, recognizing that clumsy obstacles were placed in the way of attaining satisfactory resolutions. Again, it’s giallo and doesn’t really matter.

Tenebre never reaches Suspira’s depth of horror:  it’s a less claustrophobic work, more grounded in deliberate attempts to dull our suspicions with banalities of everyday life– airports, parties, cars, food. Suspiria belongs to a hermetically-sealed world of its own making.

As with many giallo films, Tenebre’s cult status partially relies on the background conclusion that what we’re watching is a superbly made B-picture. And that – cleverly – tips the scales toward the awful disorientation that’s the basis of it all.