Director: Dario Argento (Italy). Year of Release: 1982
American novelist Peter Neal is at Kennedy airport, ready to fly to Rome to promote his new book Tenebrae. A tannoy announcement brings him to the counter to take a telephone call. He briefly puts down his hand luggage, and while he is on the phone, a woman appears to fiddle with his bag. When he returns, he makes a meal of looking for his luggage, which finally appears at the side of the desk.
At a press conference at the airport, a female journalist asks Neal why he hates women so much, berating him for the inherent sexism of his literature – which always contains defenceless women having to be saved by strong men. Neal’s agent steps in to break up the conference, promising the journalist that she will get a special one-on-one interview with Neal the following day,
Aha, we think. Director Dario Argento is playing with a criticism often levelled with Giallo films, and Tenebrae is not going to contain the old tired sexist stereotypes. And, indeed, it is a little different – one of the detectives on the case is an actual woman (albeit one with few lines). And yet, there are no fundamental changes. There is still the usual gratuitous nudity, and a number of scenes of women with a breast hanging out – for instance when a lesbian couple is butchered.
For some reason, the film is less interested in showing semi-nude men. More germane to the criticism from the journalist, most of the scared people running away are still women. One point to Argento for a certain degree of self-awareness. Minus 10 for not really changing anything. Having said this, it would be unfair to focus on Giallo as being particularly reluctant to offer significant parts to women. The problem is not in this particular genre – it’s much more systemic than that.
Back to the plot. A serial killer is stalking Rome, using the Gialli staple features of a black glove and a razor blade. He (or is it she?) is using Neal’s books as a template. The first victim is a woman with a history of shoplifting, who has just tried to liberate Neal’s new book from a book store. She is found, throat slashed, with pages of the book stuffed in her mouth. The police visit Neal, but he reasonably asks them if they pay similar visits to the CEO of Smith and Wesson after shootings.
One critic suggests that the killings may be linked to the “human perversion” in Neal’s book. Neal is a little bemused by this charge, especially as it is mainly based on one of the characters being gay. The critic explains that he’s a Catholic, though of course he’s for abortion. Neal has a similar air of the lapsed Catholic about him, and it looks like we might be onto something interesting. But the discussion of a divided society caused by a Church in crisis odd never explored properly.
Two quotes stand out however. One, lifted from the Hound of the Baskervilles: “we have eliminated the impossible. whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Later, Detective Germani tells Neal that he never usually gets who the killer is in Neal’s book, but in the new one, he had worked it out by page 34. I had a similar experience – based on the quote from Conan Doyle, I was pretty sure that I knew who was responsible for the killings very early on.
This would have meant a special prize for me, if Tenebrae were remotely concerned about Whodiddit. And yet the mystery dimension is only there to get us from Point A to Point B, where we can view another bloody killing. The whole point in the film is neither who does what nor why. Instead it wants to show in every gory detail the aesthetically sumptuous scenes – in particular the crimson blood pouring from a severed artery, which spills over a brilliant white shirt.
I am reminded of Dobermann, Jan Kounen’s comic book film starring Vincent Cassel and Monica Belluci. I absolutely loved that film, but the ultraviolence made it one of the closest I’ve got to understanding the term “guilty pleasure”. The guilt was not because the film wasn’t cool – quite the reverse – but wouldn’t only a sadist get off on this level of aggression? It only worked because the violence is so extreme as to be unbelievable. Tenebrae works in a similar way.
Speaking of dobermen, there is a great cat and mouse chase in which one of the endless helpless women sees a vicious dog on the other side of a fence. Nothing to worry about … until the dog gets through the fence and gives chase. Again a period of calm, when the woman successfully hides, until we come to another 8 foot metal fence. The dog vaults the fence in one bound. The woman hides inside a house … where she meets the killer with black glove and razor blade.
This is Tenebrae at its utter best, adeptly mixing moments of calm and those of utter terror, making us feel one minute that everything is safe and the next that we are in mortal danger. Set piece scenes like this work so well, because we are brought into the thought process of the people on screen who are literally fleeing for their life. Tenebrae is slightly less good at joining the dots. It adds plot development as an arduous necessity, but is much keener to show us a bit of action.