Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Tenebrae

"It was like a book... a BOOK!"

I prefer my Argento with a touch of the supernatural. My favorite of his films remain Suspiria, Phenomena and (more recently) Inferno. That's not to say I don't love his other films - Deep Red is still a masterpiece, after all - it's just that I think his vision works better when there's something of the strange in it. It's easier to let go of the wandering narrative structure or mismanaged/dropped plot elements when there's a girl summoning flies or witches in the basement.

I think part of my preference my go back to the VHS days, when Argento films in the US were always heavily edited. The supernatural stuff just fared better, given that it was already pretty messed up. I saw Phenomena as Creepers, and even with the cuts it still had Jennifer Connelly and a chimp with a straight razor. I saw Tenebrae as Unsane back then, and my general memory of the film was 'meh.' It always ranked pretty low in my mental list of "Argento films to own or watch again." I probably wouldn't have bothered picking it up if I hadn't watched Inferno last year and had a completely different experience from my first viewing. I'd also heard that the original edit was a vastly improved film, with more character moments, a more comprehensible plot, and a lot more violence.

Violence?! In an Argento film? I was just as shocked as you are!

The Medium
Synapse released Tenebrae on blu-ray this past year. I didn't bother getting the 'limited edition steelbook' edition and was happy to purchase the regular release later this year. I don't really need the soundtrack (and have a few Goblin albums with the important pieces on it already). I will be jumping on the Phenomena and Suspiria releases - because I'm also a huge fanboy for those films. The picture quality was excellent and the extras are good, if sparse. The documentary on giallos is a good starting point/overview for those who haven't read much about the genre (I include myself in that group). I've only listened to the commentary for a few minutes, but it also seems to be decent.

The Movie
Peter Neil (Anthony Franciosa), author of crime thrillers, arrives in Rome for a book tour. Shortly before he arrives a young shoplifter is brutally murdered and pages from his most recent novel, Tenebrae, are found stuffed into her mouth. The police don't really suspect Neil - his alibi is air-tight - but the killer is obsessed, going so far as to send Neil letters about the killings.

I wanted to make a joke about eating your words, but it seems forced.
I'm sorry, I'll get my coat.

Suspects and red herrings abound, as per usual for an Argento giallo. And as usual the main character is a creative type - a writer, in this case, as in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Franciosa is a likeable actor and lends Neil more warmth and character than I normally expect from an Argento lead. Daria Nicolodi's role as his 'girl Friday', Anne, is pretty thin for her - a sort of non-entity and not what I expect from Nicolodi, who's usually more interesting to watch. The supporting characters are where the most fun is to be had, particularly Detective Giermani, who can never quite figure out who the murderer is - in mystery novels, at least.

"Evin with Scooby Doo! Old Man Smithers? I never saw that coming."

Tenebrae is restrained for Argento, with few of the more outrageous excesses of style - at least early on. Not to say there isn't style, it's just more... realistic. Even the big tour-de-force scene with a roaming camera around an apartment building is just impressive, rather than being extravagant. The film is easy to follow and the characters aren't too outre' or weird. You may think you know who the killer is fairly early on, and that may initially be disappointing, but as that character is killed about half way through the film you don't want to get too comfortable.

No need to freak out, either, though.

Argento likes to play with images and symbolism, so there's a lot going on in Tenebrae below the surface, if you want to look deeper (there's a character connection with water, for instance, that informs the words I used in this sentence). He plays with light, music, reflections and doubles. On some level he's also asking a question about art and the responsibility of the creator. At its most basic level the question is - if you write/draw/film about monsters, does that make you a monster? I think Argento is aware enough to laugh at the question with this film.

And 'axe' his critics a few questions.

As always he makes the kills so stylish and interesting they become art pieces. The violence is pretty restrained, for Argento - there's still blood and blades and boobs, as expected, but it's still pretty tame compared to previous films. Until suddenly it's not. There's a sequence near the end of the film that's one of the bloodiest scenes in all of Argento's films - a wall is literally painted in arterial spray, there are dismemberments and axe blows and throat slittings and art piercings (you'll just have to see it). It's such a shock after the relatively tame murders that came before  - particularly that dismemberment and the blood spray - that I blurted out "holy shit" when it happened. I know I'd never seen that scene before, and indeed much of it had been cut from Unsane. (I understand that it was also cut severely in Italian releases after the actress - Veronica Lario - got married to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.)

You know I had to add a cap of this scene. Just be glad it isn't animated.

The drawbacks of most Argento films are also on display here - there are jumps in logic and behavior that you have to just go with. There are events that seem unlikely or implausible. The plot - though tighter than some of Argento's films - still has holes. There are a few sequences - one near the end in particular - that bear no scrutiny whatsoever. And, as with most Argento films, I find the ride more than fun enough that I let it all pass.

The Bottom Line
Watching Tenebrae this time around was a much different experience, at least in part due to the 'restored' or original cut of the film. For one thing - it actually makes sense (for an Argento film). For another, the violence is much more graphic than I remembered (and I would have remembered that arm chopping sequence, had it been in the Unsane cut). It also seems like it will be a film that rewards a closer viewing, despite the jumps and twists having been given away. I still prefer the supernatural in my Argento films - but this one's pretty good, too.

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