Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reader Recommendation: Tenebrae

Eschewing any in depth analysis or over-enthusiasm for something I personally like a lot, I'll try and just give you one quick reason to see one of the movies on your list. When you reviewed a movie and said that it contained a death by dodgeball scene in it, I wanted to see that movie. That's the kind of recommendation I would like to pass on. That said, my recommendation to you is "Tenebrae," and it's for this reason only: it's got some pretty damn impressive stunt work performed by a Doberman Pinscher. That doesn't sound so alluring now that I've written it, but it's like nothing I've ever seen before.”--Dave 
“You should watch tenebre because I won't read your blog again until you have!”
Having finally watched one of the seminal films of Italian horror, I can honestly tell you what I will take from it most prominently is...

Doberman Pinschers are indeed capable of doing incredible stunt work.
Quick Plot: Horror/mystery novelist Paul Neal heads to Rome for his book tour just as a psychotic slasher begins murdering beautiful brunettes in the style of his pages. A fanboy detective investigates while Neal, his assistant, and driver play Encyclopedia Brown on their own time.

Talking about Tenebrae in the horror community is the equivalent of discussing Citizen Kane at the Producers Guild or Guinness at an Irish pub. It is, to my understanding, the definitive giallo film, one of Argento's crowning achievements, and, for some, the best Italian horror film of all time.
For. Some.
I can't gush over Tenebrae. I can say, in utter honesty, that I found it be an interesting watch from a film-ish point of view. As an experience, however, it never felt...well...effective.
I'm going to divide this review into two parts: the simple sit-down-to-a-movie fan and the intellectual meta-watcher. Here goes:
Couch Potato
Though visually interesting, Tenebrae just isn't that suspenseful from my 21st century sensibilities. It's hard to be emotionally involved in a character's fate when synthesized music blasts through the television to tell me said character is being stalked. It's hard to care about a mystery that seems so calculatedly mysterious on the part of the writer. It's hard to be scared by a film that wears its style on every frame.

At the same time, Tenebrae grew on me strong enough that I was intellectually, if never emotionally invested in its outcome. It’s impossible to not TRY to solve the mystery, even though the film spends just about every minute making it impossibly improbable to crack. The climax is sufficiently brutal (yet still pretty unbelievable) so you’re left satisfied enough.
Intellectual Movie Watcher
One needs to read a little bit about Tenebrae in order to get why it figures so prominently on best-of lists in cinema studies. I did this after watching the movie.
And so yes. I get that the extraordinary movement of the camera, superbly executed crane shots, and meta nature of Peter Neal’s relationship to Dario Argento. It’s there onscreen to be sure, and when analyzed, very impressive. The visuals are superb. The red is very red. There are books to be written (and recommended) and long conversations to be had. It's an important movie to be discussed. I just didn't really like it enough upon first viewing to do it right now.
High Points
I’m always for daytime horror, and one thing I genuinely admire about Tenebrae is how well Argento uses sunniness and full lighting to show us everything
Low Points
I know Goblin and Argento are as complimentary as peanut butter and banana, but really, how scared can I as an audience member be when the soundtrack just makes me want to put on a pair of jogging shorts and a headband and do a few laps?
Lessons Learned
The best way to get a girl in bed probably does not involve telling her you might throw up

When your driver is clearly mentally unstable after witnessing a horrific murder, it’s a good idea to buckle your seatbelt
Those ‘keep your bag in your view at all times’ airport rules aren’t just useful for terrorism
There really is a reason for modern art!
Stray Observation
Two characters do things I can’t: the aforementioned dog climbs a fence and John Saxon demonstrates how to bow and dance without losing a snazzy hat. Both make me feel insanely jealous and inadequate

Considering its pedigree, all genre fans should see Tenebrae at some point in their lives. I would recommend reading up on why it’s so important before watching, something you could do quite rewardingly with blogger extraordinaire James Gracey’s book . I’m sort of stepping away from calling Tenebrae good or bad, great or dull. It’s essential viewing, and one I’ll need to revisit before feeling comfortable with a judgment. In true honesty, I didn’t really ‘enjoy’ it the way I did something like Suspiria or The Beyond. It was pretty. Rather silly. And I know, very important. For now, I’ll leave it at that.


  1. Interesting! Although I love Argento, Tenebre oddly doesn't rank on my top 5 list. After doing some thinking I think it's because I respond better to Giallo with seemingly supernatural elements involved as opposed to the good old fashioned Giallo with black gloves and a whodunnit food for thought. Does that make me unappreciative of good cinema because I prefer flashiness and excitement? Probably. But I also think Pee Wee's Big Adventure is the greatest movie ever made. So there.

    I prefer Phenomena over Tenebre, and even secretly Inferno over Tenebre. I know it's like a sin but whatever. Embrace it! Good points made here definitely.

  2. Whew! Glad to know there's at least one horror fan that won't kill me for not offering my womb to house Tenebrae's babies. I can definitely agree with your leaning to the supernatural. I've never been a big mystery or detective story fan, so sometimes I too need that element of the wacky to keep me invested.

    I don't know that I think Phenomena is a better film than Tenebrae, but I too totally enjoyed it more. Just more interesting and even though its logic is equally unsound, it's not trying to be a mystery you're supposed to solve. The point, to me, of these kinds of whodunits is for the audience to try to figure it out. I was doing that all through Tenebrae, but the ultimate reveal just feels like a silly slap in the face. You kind of think, 'it can't be THAT person' and thus, it is. Maybe on second viewing I'll get a little more of what Argento was trying to do (I'm sure bigger fans of the film will eagerly tell me) but it just fell so flat compared to other classics.

  3. Weird...I just watched this like 2 weeks ago for the first time. I dug the 80's synth, and the movie was decent but I didn't love it. Thought it was a bit predictable, but back in the 80's perhaps it wasn't so.

  4. I love how movie watching seems to go viral sometimes. I'm not the biggest synth fan, although I did used to play the Labyrinth soundtrack over and over again on my pink walkman back in the day. Nowadays, I find it rather distracting, especially when it's used to build suspense.

  5. I saw this long before the internet controlled my mind, and also was kinda meh on the whole thing. You're right on in saying there's little sense to it all, and I love your point on the music - which I love, but just doesn't seem to fit.

    Definitely not my fave Argento.

  6. Of all the classic genre films I'd never seen, this is probably the most canon and like you, I just can't really praise it. I do wonder if I'd just caught this randomly on video if I would have enjoyed it more or less. On one (gloved) hand, expectations were pretty high since some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters rank this at the top of their lists, but on the other, I don't know that I would have watched it that closely if I didn't know it was So Important.

  7. I had the high expectations problem with Inferno. For some reason, I didn't watch it until many years after its release and had built it up in my head to such a degree, it couldn't possibly have met my expectations. I also wanted Inferno to be Suspiria which it clearly wasn't. The second time I watched Inferno, I liked it a lot more, basically because I knew what it wasn't going to be if that makes any sense. But sometimes a film just doesn't work for you, no matter how many people tell you it's the greatest ever or how much they say your internal movie quality compass needs recalibrating. I could go point by point over all the cool things in Tenebrae like the crazy dog, Saxon's hat, Tony Franciosa's suave-yness, hot lesbians, Goblin score, house painting with blood, weird ass crane shot, overly lit nighttime exteriors, but I won't mention that stuff. I do think that Tenebrae has the best written story of any of Argento's gialli and is an excellent example of the genre.

  8. You make a lot of good points Shiftless (and I also swear your package is coming soon). I loved Saxon's hat! One of those lesbians WAS hot! The crane shot neat. And the dog owned the film!

    But yeah, I think giallo just isn't my kind of subgenre. I sometimes feel the same way about the POV whodunit slashers, where you just can't get that much from the story until you know who the killer is (something that sometimes feels like an afterthought in a lot of lesser films).

  9. I'll chime in too in agreement that Tenebre didn't do much for me either. I've watched most of Argento's work and Tenebre isn't a memorable one for me. It has been several years since I viewed it but I remember being very "meh" at the end.

    As Andre said before, it may show my lack of "film appreciation" but I much prefer Suspiria, Inferno, or Opera to this one.

  10. I was the reader who recommended the Doberman acrobatics to you! I probably should have mentioned that it might have been preferable to just watch the Doberman clip on youtube. Hopefully, it wasn't that bad sitting through the whole movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that that's probably the optimal way to view any Argento movie: just watch the good parts on youtube. I'm probably a pretty blasphemous horror fan in that I don't really like Argento movies that much. And Fulci as well. Their movies just seem like they mostly only make any effort on a few, certain horrific scenarios that they dream up and then kind of phone in the rest of the connective parts to make a halfway coherent movie. And those bad dubs don't help either. I've definitely forgotten just about everything else from my viewing of Tenebrae, but I may never again feel totally secure from an angry dog behind a chain link fence, and I suppose that is at least one redeeming quality of such a movie with otherwise limited value, to me.

  11. High five Matt. I sadly still can't comment on Inferno or Opera, but I find Suspiria infinitely more interesting than Tenebrae.

    And yay Mr. "Anonymous!" The dog scene was everything you said it'd be and more. I love how ridiculously long it went on. I was waiting for her to hop in a cab, head to her front door and get attacked just as she took her keys out of her bag. Now I really want a movie about that dog. Or a web series where he continuously surprises thieves by climbing chain link fences and stone walls to tear them apart.

    And in terms of Argento and Fulci, I'm mixed. I enjoy Fulci on a simpler level just for his wackiness. The bad dubbing works for his films because typically, they're flawed to begin with. The added touch of awkward sound and mouthings seems fitting and sometimes adds a strange lil supernatural quality.

    It's more complicated for Argento because I feel like his films are actually supposed to be good. But generally, between the dubbing, synth music and messy plotting, they're either weird and interesting in an otherworldly way that works (to different extents, Suspiria and Phenomena) or just awful (Phantom of the Opera). I haven't seen his recent work, which I've heard is positively atrocious. I feel like his films are great to analyze, but just not that smooth in the actual viewing process.

    Or maybe I just really don't like giallo.

  12. The girl hounded by the dog... is a wonderful doomed young Euroslut. No, the film doesn't make "sense," but that's never Argento's point. The recurrent 80s trashy synth-theme works for me, and the final coup de theatre is wonderfully irrational, building to the perfect final endless red-splashed screams.

    One great Argento no one here has mentioned yet is "Trauma," which features Asia Argento perhaps at her best. No one has ever said "Are you happy?" more memorably. The chopped-up irrationality of certain passages here evokes dream-logic with its constant threat of reducing the dreamer to a helpless child, the child who understands naught but knows too much.

  13. See, I don't have a problem with films that don't make sense but Tenebrae tries really hard to seem like it should, at least by the ending. I don't like being led on by a movie and then slapped in the face at the end. It's like dating somebody that seems perfectly normal and one to bring home to mom, but really just wants to have a good batshit crazy time in the sack, but they don't tell you that until you break up with them for being dull. Or something.

    I really haven't heard much about Trauma--it clearly gets less fan-wide love than Tenebrae or Opera. But I'm somewhat intrigued and will therefore add it to the list.

    Thanks I.!

  14. You might not know it Emily, but you're in such a great (not to mention enviable!) position here - you get to watch some Argento films FOR THE FIRST TIME! There are a few I'd like to experience again for the first time - Inferno (my fav) and Deep Red being but two. Then again, my adoration of the director borders on obsession. I shall cease my rose-tinted slide into sentimentality before it is too late. Give Tenebrae another chance - its definitely one of his greats. And that theme music... *sighs*
    Thank you kindly for the wee shout out, too! :o)

  15. Inferno and Deep Red will soon be viewed...for the first time!

    For whatever reason, I just never grew up with Argento. Two Evil Eyes and Phenomena were probably the only films I saw in my youth, and I only saw Suspiria (probably my favorite thus far) about 4 years ago. So I'm definitely easing into his, and really, '70s/80s Italian style.

    I wonder how much of it depends on my specific taste. For example, for the most part, I'm bored to tears by vampire movies. Just can't find them interesting save for a few exceptions. Somehow giallo kind of has a same feel, not in any clear way but just that slow, sexy mysterious nature. It makes them interesting to discuss but personally, not nearly as interesting to actually watch.

  16. I love Tenebrae. I love how the soundtrack sounds like it's repeating "Fear!" in Italian over and over. "Paura, paura, paura, paura, paura, paura!"

    I love how everything is so bright and sunny and white, so that when blood splatters all over everything it is extra-vivid. I love the dog, the razor, the axe, the transsexual. I love the hole in the t-shirt, the camera callisthenics, the red shoes, the John Saxon.

    Just about the only thing I don't love is the gratuitous homeless letch. What the hell?

    My favourite Argento, though, is Inferno. That movie is a sexy beast.

  17. Tenebre isn't my favorite Argento but it's way up there. I love that it's shot in such harsh, bright light, I love the audacious twist (whether it makes much sense or not, it's a wild move on Argento's part), I love that this is the warmest of Argento's films in regard to its characters, and lastly - any film that ends with a woman shrieking bloody murder always has a place with me. Sorry you didn't dig it that much, Emily, but I guess Argento's films either hit people the right way or they don't. Sadly, the last one that did anything for me was The Stendahl Syndrome.

  18. Pearce: I also really liked a lot of the things you mentioned. The dog was kickass. The transsexual (who I totally didn't realize was a transsexual until I read more about it, now I'm jealous of her ability to be hot and wear heels), the Saxon, the red-on-white. I didn't catch the 'pura pura pura' but that's interesting. I think I get why it's so loved by the genre community, and it's definitely a fun one to write about and analyze. I just didn't have the best time DURING the film.

    Jeff: The screaming was nifty. I just watched another film that ended with a scream over the credits and as annoying as it can be, it's seriously effective. I haven't seen The Stendahl Syndrome--I'm realizing more and more that I've barely seen any Argento--but per your recommendation, I shall.