“She's very good at running. She seems very afraid.” – Journalist/DVD commentary moderator Loris Curci.
“Yes, she good.” – writer/director Dario Argento
After the supernatural thrillers Suspiria (1977) and its sequel, Inferno (1980), Dario Argento opted to revisit the giallo genre (a move partly to appease Italian fans who wanted a return to murder and more practical mayhem), and over a three month period he crafted this tale of a horror writer whose book tour is ruined by a serial killer inspired by his latest book, Tenebre. Woven into the giallo plotting is the writer's lovesick assistant, a vengeful ex, an adoring fan, and a troubled past involving a sadistic woman with killer red pumps.
When originally released in the U.S., the film was severely edited down to around 90 mins. and re-branded Unsane. Like Profondo Rosso / Deep Red (1975), the edits focused on violence as well as dialogue scenes the original distributor felt slowed the plotting, and it took a while before the original uncut Italian version finally made to North America.
Anchor Bay's prior DVD from 1999 was 4:3, so this new edition is the first time the original transfer is available as an anamorphic release. The image is noticeably sharper and has some stronger colours, but it's still a transfer that looks almost washed out. Part of the problem is the print source – it's a mostly clean but obviously used print – and there's Argento's decision to have cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (Suspiria) opt for a desaturated colour scheme, and boost the lighting in day and night scenes to present a surreal, cold whiteness to every shot.
Maybe it's the limitations of this older video master (it's 9 years old, and there's still visible compression on background textures), but while the distinctive and novel look is the opposite of dimly lit, colour-rich gialli from the seventies, any new transfer ought to be made from a new print to preserve the director's original intentions, and make sure the whites aren't unintentionally harsh or blown out.
The subdued colours – often off-whites, sky blues, chrome, and light wood tones – have blunted the overt eighties styles, and Argento's eye for architecture ensures the film looks far less dated then gialli and thrillers of the early eighties. A major standout is the massive house that functions as the set to the film's pair of second-goriest murders, through which Tovoli's roving camera glides through the killer's basement hideout, and a huge open-concept living room with fluid elegance.
The music score by Goblin members Fabio Pignatelli, Claudio Simonetti, and Massimo Morante has some strong moments (notably the house killings cues, and a teasing theme variation for a girl's discovery of the killer's lair) but the drum sequencer is pure pop-disco and often smothers the few prog-rock ideas within the score. (Ironically, the Tenebre theme became a minor dance hit in Italy, so the musicians' efforts to write in a more popular style paid off.)
Like the 1999 DVD, there's a choice between English 5.1, English 2.0. and Italian Mono, but the English tracks are pseudo-stereo and pseudo-surround remixes that admittedly add some depth to the original mono mix, but it is surprising that no true stereo mix was available, considering the director went all-out to exploit the power of discrete sound mixing in Suspiria. The lack of a true stereo mix is another indicator that Tenebre really needs a ground-up remastering, particularly if its destined to appear on Blu-Ray.
There's a fair amount of discussion about the score on the commentary track with Simonetti, Argento, and moderator/journalist Loris Curci, and the composer also appears in a making-of featurette unique to the 2008 DVD, along with Argento, actresses Daria Nicolodi and Eva Robin's, assistant director Lamberto Bava (who has a brief cameo as a hotel fix-it man), and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli.
David Gregory's new featurette adds extra background into the film's genesis with more reflective career stances from the participants, but more production specs and short anecdotes are to be found in the commentary track (also from the 1999 DVD), which is still pretty solid in spite of Argento's limited English. More recent Argento DVDs have isolated Argento in featurettes where the director can speak more comfortably in Italian and provide concise personal recollections, whereas an English language journalist is usually engaged for a commentary track to addresses the film's minutia (which makes sense, since by 2008 there's been a number of books and essays on the director's work by obsessive writers who've had to research and interview people for their prosaic profiles).
As a film, Tenebre is a mixed blessing, much in the way Sleepless / Non ho sonno (2001) was: it's a contemporary effort to revisit aspects of a genre that blossomed in the early seventies, but whose limitations – gaping plot holes, forgettable characters, and idiosyncratic if not illogical scenes – are more apparent. Ardent fans will certainly argue a true giallo has to behold all the flaws inherent to the genre, but one would hope some of the weaknesses would've been fixed after 10 years during which Argento and his colleagues revisited, and to some extent, beat to death, the giallo.
Unlike Sleepless / Non ho sonno (which is exceptionally and deliciously bloody), Tenebre is probably the most primal of Argento's gialli because the murders are interconnected by specific characters revolving around thriller writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa); had Neal not existed, a lot of people would still be alive - but then we would've lost the opportunity to see some extraordinarily gory killings.
In addition to the new featurette and a 16x9 transfer of Tenebre, Anchor Bay 's 2008 DVD adds an updated director bio. With the exception of the cast/crew bios on the 1999 release, the remaining extras are identical, which include the alternate End Credits with a pop song that was slapped on the American version by the distributor, and two extracts from Luigi Cozzi's 1991 director profile, Dario Argento: Master of Horror, a behind-the-scenes docu-feature on the director, with an English narrator translating Argento's words.
In “The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento” (previously called “Special Camera Equipment”), Argento discusses his visual style alongside an extract of the Louma crane sequence; and in the sound effects demo “Creating the Sounds of Terror” (previously called “Sound Effects”), it's a tongue-in-cheek dramatization of how sound effects are crafted.
This title is available separately, and as part of the 2008 tin boxed set, 5 Films by Dario Argento, which includes Tenebre, Phenomena (1985), Trauma, Il Cartaio / The Card Player (2004), and Do You Like Hitchcock? / Ti piace Hitchcock?
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan