Tenebrae (aka Unsane) (1982)
D: Dario Argento
Anthony Franciosa, Christian Borromeo, John Saxon and Daria Nicolodi
The idea of an unseen killer slashing his or her way through unsuspecting victims with brutal escalation is not distinctly American. Italian giallo has been around for decades. For the uninitiated, giallo can be hard to define, but imagine a combination of film noir nihilism, slasher-movie gore, and operatic drama. Giallo master Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve is widely credited as a direct influence on Wes Craven and Sean Cunningham.
Bava’s disciple, Dario Argento, took the genre to even greater cinematic heights in the early 1980s with stylish and sexy slasher thrillers like this one. Released as “Tenebrae” in Argento’s native Italy and under the puzzlingly bad title “Unsane” in the U.S., the film managed to scare up a cult following for Argento.
Like many giallo, Tenebrae is plot heavy and, for those used to the brisk pacing of low-budget American slashers, plodding. The plot concerns an American author Peter Neal (Franciosa) doing a promotional tour for his new book “Tenebrae.” The Italian media is hostile to the misogynistic tone in Neal’s book. Even his friend Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo) ambushes him at a book signing.
Neal’s trip worsens when a beautiful young girl is attacked in her apartment and slashed open with a straight-razor. The killer, you see, shoved pages from Neal’s book into her mouth and has sent a letter to Neal crediting his book for inspiring what will be a swath of carnage. Not only that, but the killer is now placing calls to Neal from a phone booth right outside his apartment.
Neal’s agent (A Nightmare on Elm Street’s John Saxon) tries to keep Neal on point, but Neal becomes frazzled by his bitter ex-wife’s constant barbs and tricks. After Tilde and her lesbian lover are butchered (with a note that reads: “So passes the glory of Lesbos”), police enlist Neal’s help. Neal is only too glad to help, as much out of curiosity and fascination as his desire to stop carnage and bad publicity.
Neal theorizes, in typical authorial fashion: “I’ve tried to figure it out, but I just have this hunch that something is missing, a tiny piece of the jigsaw. Somebody who should be dead is alive, or somebody who should be alive is already dead.”
Of course, as the mystery unfolds, that line winds up being more prophetic than insightful.
What drives Tenebrae is heavy attention to style – perhaps too much for some viewers. The cinematography from Luciano Tovoli is intentionally brightened and, in some cases, blown out. Argento claims he wanted to create a hyper-realistic version of light rather than depending on the more traditional German Expressionist use of shadows. While “tenebrae” translates to “shadows” or “darkness,” the lighting allows anything but.
If one ever wanted to make a case for violence being glamorized in cinema, they need only look at Tenebrae. Argento makes murder a work of art with a panache that rivals Hitchcock. While Hitchcock’s artistry generally showcased the brutality of the murder and helplessness of the victim (Barbara Leigh-Hunt’s rape/strangulation in Frenzy, and Karin Dor’s spreading dress in Topaz spring immediately to mind), Argento’s gaze is far more ambiguous. An Argento death is less about morality and more about pretty colors – not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that from an artistic standpoint.
Many viewers might find Argento’s heavily storyboarded killings distracting as opposed to artistic. The reason the mystery (and subsequent double-twist ending) is so hard to solve has less to do with an intelligent script and more to do with Argento’s dazzling visuals that don’t add much to the story.
None of this is to say that Tenebrae lacks intelligence. Many papers have been written on Argento’s thematic use of visual impairment and reaction to sexual deviancy (see the casting of transgender actress Eva Robin’s). Argento himself claims that the film is supposed to be set in a not-so-distant future in which much of the population has been wiped out leaving only a wealthy few behind in a less crowded world. What this adds to the film, only Argento can say for sure. Perhaps a touch of banal amorality?
The film comes lightly recommended for those who enjoy stylization. Film school students should absolutely revel in Argento’s use of camera technique and Freudian symbolism. Fans of mystery and plot, however, will be hamstrung by the contrivances. Too many things “just happen” because they’re necessary to move the plot along. Check this one out for its beautiful camerawork, but be prepared to be frustrated if you’re seeking a well-crafted mystery.
Previous films: The Dorm That Dripped Blood | The Prowler