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The last time I watched Tenebrae was in 1999, when it had just been released in as near to a complete, uncensored version as anyone up to that point had managed for the home entertainment market. I didn’t like it much. A “weird blood-bucket whodunit” was one line in my notes, which also mentioned its strange non-sequiturs, its jagged dramatic throughline and its disengaged acting.

So I thought I’d give it another go, to see whether Arrow’s recent 4K remaster – every nanosecond of it now back as Dario Argento intended – improved on the Nouveaux version from the last century, which was on VHS.

For those who’ve not seen it, the film marked Argento’s attempt to recapture the heady glory of Suspiria after the next of his Three Mothers trilogy, Inferno, flopped. Deploying a back-to-basics approach he decided to reference his own work (since everyone else was ripping it off, why not do so yourself?) and reinvent giallo for the 1980s.

So it’s massively referential, not least in the figure of its central character, played by Anthony Franciosa, an American writer of horror whodunits who arrives in Italy and appears to trigger the first of a series of ghastly murders of young women. In an awkward early scene an old friend of Peter Neal (Franciosa) suddenly accuses him of sexism, and it becomes abundantly it’s clear that Neal is Argento’s stand-in for himself and that the scene is an attempt to address a criticism of his work.

With that dealt with in no way whatsoever Argento continue on his way, pushing braless women into the maw of horror, in scenes in which razor blades, knives and a felling axe get the better of weak womanly flesh. In Tenebrae hot women regularly make brainless decisions and put themselves in harm’s way. And they keep on dying, until by the point the killer is exposed the field of suspects is so narrow that the reveal comes as no shock at all.

A blood-soaked woman with an arm missing
Another victim of the mystery killer

So, the verdict. The bad stuff remains bad. Franciosa’s acting is stiff. The dialogue Argento writes for his characters is often awkward. The dubbing doesn’t help and switching into Italian with English subtitles reveals that that’s dubbed too.

The meta stuff – Argento’s reflexive commentary on giallo, via the figure of a writer of what’s essentially giallo literature – is for Argento geeks, who will find the self-referencing, plus appearances by other giallo directors to back up his thesis, something to sink their teeth into (it didn’t do anything for me).

But the good stuff is immeasurably improved by the 4K restoration, a renewal, to use another word.

Argento has at least five different “cameras” in play in this film. The objective point of view, the “killer camera”, from high up a god’s-eye-view now and again, a dream-sequence camera and one in which the future appears to be being foretold. Which one are we watching now is the name of the game, and image quality has a role to play as Argento sometimes jumps but at other times slides between, for instance, the objective and the killer camera. It’s both fascinating to watch and gives the film a much needed dramatic shove.

There is a key “god’s eye view” moment when Argento and his DP Luciano Tovoli range up high and over an apartment building in a long, single take. This confirms something else: Argento’s fierce interest in texture and surface. Wood, silk, glass, leather, metal, concrete, skin, often in starkly lit modernist settings with harsh edges, all occasionally slashed with giallo red for emphasis. James Marriott’s book Horror Films claims Argento was influenced by Andrzej Zulawski’s approach in the “wildly excessive” Possession, from the previous year. Having seen both, I’d agree.

Goblin’s jangly Giorgio Moroder-influenced soundtrack adds a chirpy yet malign edge, and also benefits from the cleaned-up soundscape of the restoration. All round this film is massively improved by this 4K version, which restores Argento’s vision and makes his intentions clear in a way that scrappy old VHS never could.

Tenebrae – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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