Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tenebrae (1982)

Last time I reviewed Inferno, the supernatural follow-up to Suspiria. After Inferno, Argento returned to true Giallo, creating Tenebrae, perhaps his best contribution to the form. Not only does it work as a tightly plotted, gory mystery, Tenebrae is also an exercise in narrative folding, serving as a sort of commentary on Argento himself and his relationship to his audience.

Spoiler alert: a girl gets her throat slit.

The film starts with a pair of black gloves burning pages of a book as they read a passage, apparently from the novel, about the revolutionary freedom a murderer feels. We're then introduced to Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosca), an American mystery writer whose latest work is due to debut in Italy. To promote the novel, he takes a trip to Rome, although he is the target for an unseen figure destroying something in his luggage. Meanwhile in Rome, a sexy shoplifter tries to steal Neal's new book, but gets caught and kicked out of the store. She is attacked by an amorous homeless man, but escapes back to her apartment. Unfortunately for her, she was apparently followed by a different creepster, as her throat is slit and crumpled pages of the book she tried to steal are forced into her mouth. The killer then takes photographs of the murdered woman, presumably for a ghoulish scrapbook.

Lots of people read books while wearing black gloves.

Neal arrives in Rome and is immediately approached by the police, who wonder if he has any insights as far as the bizarre murder that happened during his flight. Neal has no leads, but when he receives a letter from the killer at his apartment, he agrees to work with the police. He also meets with his assistant, Anne (Daria Nicolodi), and continues to be harassed by an unseen figure: both Peter and Anne believe his mentally unstable ex-wife Jane has followed him to Rome.

Maybe our killer is just an heroic vigilante who punishes shoplifters?

The next day, Neal meets the press, and is called a misogynist because women in his books tend to die. He's also praised by a man with a really creepy mustache, who he's due to meet with later.

Later, we see the female reporter who called Neal a misogynist back at her apartment, where she is insulted by her chesty lesbian lover. This leads to a scene that is monumental in its excess, as a crane shot goes over and around the entire apartment before tracking the killer as he murders the mean lesbian. The reporter is also killed in a way that is spoiled by the film's cover.

"Ah, but what is 'abnormal'?"

After meeting with the inspector and his female partner, Neal decides to solve the mystery himself and heads to the creepy reporter's home. He and a young accomplice stake-out the man's backyard. We see a figure speak with the reporter briefly, but a moment later, the reporter is murdered by an axe. The young assistant is sure he saw something important, but can't quite put the pieces together.

No busty Italian can stand between "POO" and his high score.

I don't want to go too much further into the plot because Tenebrae's mystery is very good, and I don't want to ruin it for first-time viewers. But I will say the movie is worth a second viewing, if only to see how well the pieces fit once we know the result.

Who says post-modern art doesn't have a point?

The movie has a few frustrating scenes, a result of Argento trying to one-up previous murder set-pieces, so they occasionally go on far too long and feature tertiary characters as they are pursued by homeless people or terrifyingly focused dogs. But if you can get past that, this has not only a great story, it has a lot of meaning within it.

In hindsight, this was a really dumb thing to do.

Peter Neal's status as an outsider (and an American) visiting Italy parallels Deep Red, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and countless other stories where a foreigner visits a new location and becomes embroiled in a murder mystery. But unlike these other works, Neal's character functions both as an audience stand-in and a stand-in for Argento. Neal is a writer of the sort of movies Argento makes, and defends himself from critics that accuse him of misogyny and excessive violence. This doubling also becomes important in the film's final scenes.

The moral is: Don't mess with dogs or you'll be horribly murdered somehow.

Something else worth talking about is the incredible sets and set-ups used throughout the film. Whereas Deep Red created a creepy vibe by setting much of the action in and around an old turn of the century house, Tenebrae exists in a world full of "post-modern" architecture, including dangerously sharp sculptures.

Argento also takes us on a sort of voyeuristic tour of depravity: like many of his films, we get references to cross-dressing, homosexuality, and other unusual genderized roles. This might not seem as revolutionary today, but in 1982 it was still a major taboo that Argento's films regularly showcased. Here, a major story point involves a violent sexual encounter where a young man is assaulted and humiliated by a woman. We see the scene as a flashback, but its final meaning remains hidden until the end.

Like his other Giallos, Argento focuses on a theme of impaired vision. The inspector laments that he can never solve mystery novels, trained as he is to go with the most likely scenario. While he's able to predict the mystery in Neal's new book, he isn't able to discover what's really going on until he's too late.

The "seeing" of something important without context is also explored as Neal's assistant tries to remember what he saw and heard before he witnessed a murder. This is extremely similar to the device used in Deep Red and several other Argento films: the truth is shown the first time, but so fast or so obscured that it's not until later that we can ascribe meaning to it. What I like about this style of filmmaking is that if it doesn't exactly play fair, it at least gives the appearance of playing fair. All the pieces to solve the mystery are given to the audience extremely early, but without context these clues don't become important until later on.

Arbitrary Rating:

5 violent murders out of 5.

Memorable Quotes:

[First lines] Narrator: "The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation. Murder.

Peter Neal: I've been trying to build a plot the same way you have. I've tried to figure it out, but, I 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.
Detective: Explain that.
Peter Neal: You know, there's a sentence in a Conan Doyle book: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Argento Trademarks:

Black gloves? Yes, in the opening scene no less!

Goblin? Yes! The band even re-formed at Argento's urging!

Cruelty to animals? Barely! A girl bats at a barking dog with a stick. She is later hunted down by said dog.

Window related death? A strangled girl crashes her head through a window. A door is also important in a death late in the film.

Creepy children? Not really, although maybe in the flashback?

Nepotism? Daria Nicolodi gets a major part, and is one of a very select few to even make it to the final scene.

Overall Argento-ness? 5/6. Only Suspiria can top it!

Stand-out Scene:

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