The success of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Tenebre depends on the spectator’s appreciation for its rigid self-reflexivity. During the film’s opening sequence, the killer’s gloved hands hold a book (titled Tenebrae, a variation of the film’s title) up to a flame. (These hands actually belong to Argento, no doubt a way of entering the film’s narrative indirectly.) A faceless narrator reads the following passage: “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 or fear, but freedom. Every humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by this simple act of annihilation: Murder.” This is a disclaimer of sorts and it offers many important hints. And while these words represent many things, mainly they serve as an unbridled apology for both the actions of the film’s murderers and for Argento’s very own cinema of horror. It’s as if Argento is saying that he can’t help himself.
One of Tenebre‘s greater achievements is that it demands that we work to solve the identity of the killer, all the while daring us to get it wrong. No scene better details the Genovese syndrome at work here than the strange events surrounding the death of the film’s first victim. Writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosca) is on his way to Rome to promote his new book (the one burnt in the film’s opening shot) and discovers that someone is using his novel to justify a series of murders. A bookstore owner reprimands a young woman after she tries to shoplift a copy of the tome. She’s released under her own recognizance, all the while being peeped at by the film’s ominous, unknown killer. A homeless man threatens to sexually assault the sexy shoplifter though it seems that a woman watching them from a window above will serve as her silent protector should the man go to far. But Argento has always been concerned with the passive gaze and he evokes a chilling atmosphere of human detachment and non-involvement when the true killer finally slices the woman to pieces.
The fact that the killer photographs his crime scenes suggests that he (or she) derives pleasure from “seeing” his victims suffer. The film’s elements of spectatorship are inextricably bound to and informed by Argento’s compositional allowances. The old lady in the window gazes blankly at the homeless man as he hits on the young woman. Hellbent on hurting the woman, the homeless man follows her to her home only to witness her death at the hands of the film’s true killer. Is he shocked by what he saw or is he dumbfounded that someone beat him to the punch? If it isn’t already clear that Tenebre is very much obsessed with the nature of sight and sightlessness, Argento frequently cuts away to extreme close-ups of eyes in various states of unrest. Additionally, his audacious mise-en-scène seemingly likens his own voyeuristic gaze to that the killer’s own psychological fetishes.
Since the killer’s face is carefully hidden off-screen for most of the film, the audience is left to tease out the film’s many ambiguities via a series of context clues. Peter arrives in Rome via airplane, takes an urgent call on a bright red-colored telephone and has his luggage stolen and ransacked by a woman we later discover to be his ex-wife, Jane (Veronic Lario). The bursts of color are most important here, because a second viewing of the film suggests that there’s something more to Argento’s elaborate use of color (like the spare use of reds and blues) beyond mere shout-outs to Antonioni’s Blowup (the film’s cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, frequently collaborated with Antonioni).
Argento’s preoccupation with architecture-as-terror-mechanism is ritualistic in nature and, despite the grotesque results, is ravishing to behold. The interior décor of many rooms compliments the death of the film’s victims with great symmetry. A sharp object in Peter’s hotel room prognosticates doom while the dead bodies of Tilda (Mirella D’Angelo) and her girlfriend fall to the ground in such a way that their corpses become symbiotic elements of Argento’s mise-en-scène. A panoramic shot outside Tilda’s home prefaces the woman’s death—Argento’s camera fluidly hovers up the home’s outer walls, across its roof and down to the ground. The psychological result is a claustrophobic one and evokes the pervasiveness of the killer’s reach. Before dying, Tilda stares out her window, seemingly unaware that her thoroughly modern home has turned into a deathtrap.
Tilda, the daughter of one of Peter’s longtime friends, bumps into the author inside a hotel lobby. She calls Tenebrae a sexist novel. “Why do you despise women so much?” she asks, as if speaking to Argento himself. Critics have suggested that Argento is hostile to his female characters, a theory the director deems bogus. Like magpie visionary De Palma, Argento is first and foremost a man fond of female beauty. Of course, Argento has said he prefers to kill beautiful women instead of ugly ones. But this response is less sexist than par for course coming from a very heterosexual director whose made a career of building and destroying beautiful things. The fact that Argento uses his own hands as substitutes for those of his killers has also lent fire to these sexist claims. Argento refuses to discuss the rationale behind this “hands-on” approach, though he’s more than willing to put himself on the line and suggest that the horror director (not unlike Peter) is perhaps subconsciously oblivious to the moral implications of the art they create.
Both Peter and Argento’s moral scruples are called into explicit question when a book critic, Christiano (John Steiner), interviews Peter. Christiano finds it coincidental that Peter’s fictional victims are all deviants of some kind—that each murder can be read as an attempt at ridding society of a so-called pestilence. It bears mentioning that Argento himself was a critic for the Rome daily Paese Sera and is therefore hyper-conscious of the paired rivals battling it out during this scene: murderer/victim, critic/creator, fan/author. Christiano is in fact Tenebre‘s copy-cat killer, proactively using Peter’s book as a means to justify his crimes (he thinks he’s cleansing Rome’s moral ailments).
When Christiano calls Tenebrae a book about human perversion, Peter scoffs. Not only is Peter oblivious to the moral implications of his novel, he fails to understand why Detective Germani (Giluliano Gemma) must question him when pages of Tenebrae are found stuffed inside the mouth of the film’s first victim. Peter asks, “If someone is killed with a Smith & Wesson revolver, do you go and interview the president of Smith & Wesson?” It’s a valid point that he himself fascinatingly subverts by film’s end, when he is revealed to be the film’s second killer. Even more successful than Deep Red, Tenebre evokes the chilling evolution of altered states—here, though, Peter adopts his madness not merely from his own fractured past but also from the mind of someone else.
Before Argento discloses the identity of Tenebre‘s psychopath, all signs seemingly point to Jane. She make’s frequent crank calls to Peter’s hotel, all of which following the deaths of many of the film’s characters, and she’s always in the vicinity of the hotel whenever the killer’s letters arrive. Jane’s phone calls are first perceived as threats from the killer when in retrospect they are nothing more than the emotional rants of a bitter ex. When Germani, a fan of Peter’s works, finally reads Tenebrae, he takes pride in telling Peter that he discovered the identity of the book’s killer by page 34. As a labyrinthine study of “wrong man” theory, Tenebre may owe plenty to North by Northwest but it’s far superior to Hitchcock’s pop classic. Though more user-friendly than Tenebre, Northwest never involves or implicates the spectator in its on-screen mayhem. Anyone whose watched Tenebre more than once has no doubt noticed how everything is so precisely spelled out—it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together in the right order. It’s no coincidence then that Argento’s masterpiece plays out like a cinematic rendition of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
Undoubtedly annoyed by the detective’s educated guess, Peter looks to outwit the detective by catching Rome’s runaway killer on his own. If Peter is the film’s Sherlock Holmes, local youth Gianni (Christian Borromeo) is his Watson. The teen inexplicably leaves the hotel owner’s daughter, Maria (Lara Wendel), alone in a deserted city street after a furious bike ride through the streets of Rome. The girl is eventually chased by a rabid, quasi-bionic Dohberman through a field and seeks refuge inside the nearest home which, ironically, turns out to be that of the film’s killer. She stumbles into the basement and discovers the photographs taken by the killer of his victims. Until now, Christiano was little more than an overzealous, prodding critic. Now he’s something else entirely.
When Peter flips through the local phone book, he discovers that Maria’s body was found near Christiano’s backyard. As far as the spectator is concerned, the case is solved when Christiano is indeed revealed to be the film’s killer moralist. (It’s impossible to ignore the critic’s religious moniker, especially since Tenebre functions in many ways as a Christian allegory.) Taking Christiano’s many justifications into account, it’s safe to assume that he killed the first victim because she tried to steal a copy of Tenebrae (he might say: “Thou shalt not steal!”) while Tilda and her girlfriend were likely hacked to pieces for being lesbians. Maria, on the other hand, was an unfortunate victim of circumstance, punished for spying and being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In his justification of Tenebrae as a manifesto against corruption, Christiano pointed out that one of Tenebrae‘s victims was a homosexual. For Peter, this is beside the point. The author goes as far as to acknowledge that his gay victim is a perfectly normal human being. In retrospect, Christiano’s interview with Peter could read as the critic’s own apology for the murders he himself has committed. Interestingly, though, he defends his Catholic beliefs (he’s pro-choice and pro-divorce) and therefore weakens his moral justifications. If Peter’s counter-argument is to be taken as Argento’s own self-defense then Tenebre is really nothing more than rigorous study of moral gray areas.
Tilda’s death is the film’s most spectacular. She changes clothes while staring at the off-screen space directly in front of her, seemingly aware of the presence of the camera and spectator but blind to the presence of the film’s killer. When the faceless Christiano lunges out at her, Argento implies that the faceless Christiano was there all along. Her “blindness” is in many ways a cultural one, but it more literally evokes Argento’s obsession with the unreliability of his victims’ gazes. This fabulous point-of-view perspective also has a way of implicating the spectator in Tilda’s death. Through the loud score, a barely discernable whisper can be heard: “Filthy, slimey pervert.” According to Christiano, Tilda is corrupt and a sad victim to her sexual weakness.
The note found after Maria’s death implies that the murderer’s next victim will be “the great corrupter.” Before he can commit the next murder, though, Christiano himself becomes Tenebre‘s fourth victim. While Christiano certainly doesn’t plan to die, his death still sticks to the predestined formula: the second killer (Peter) views the critic as the great corrupter and, in effect, more corrupt than himself (the creator). Before fingering Christiano as the killer, Peter says: “If Peter Neal got it right, that would be something.” He does get it right but Germani thinks it’s more than something, though he (and the spectator) won’t realize for another half-hour that the detective is conducting a background check on the troubled author. Now that Tenebre has a second killer, the audience is forced to reevaluate everything that transpired from the point of Christiano’s death onward.
If the naïve Peter is somewhat oblivious to the notion that his book is used to judge the perverse, that’s merely because he’s unconscious of the full force of his bubbling subconscious. Argento’s extreme close-up of pills lying on a jet-black table precedes images of a mysterious shadow awakening from deep slumber. A pupil dilates on-screen and Argento takes us inside a sinewy dreamscape where four men pursue a woman through a sandy beach. After being rejected by the woman, one man slaps her in the face and runs away. The men catch up to him and the woman imparts punishment: she drives the heel from one of her red-colored shoes into his throat. (The gorgeous Eva Robins, a real-life transsexual, stars as the mystery woman, proving beyond a doubt that Argento’s view of the female form isn’t very easy to pin down.)
If all of this sounds eerily familiar to a De Palma hallucination, it’s no coincidence. Tenebre seemingly lays out much of the groundwork for De Palma’s silly Raising Cain. Tenebre is a riveting defense of auteur theory, ripe with self-reflexive discourse and various moral conflicts. It’s both a riveting horror film and an architect’s worst nightmare. In Tenebre, one of Sir Conan Doyle’s more famous quotes is used as a point of departure: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This is the crux of Sherlock Holmes’s inductive theory. If Argento and Peter are one and the same then Tenebre is the director’s confession laid bare: I am detective and victim, killer and creator, judge and executioner.