Thursday, August 25, 2011

DVD Review: TENEBRAE (1982)


Arrow Video
Region 0 PAL 
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 97 mins
Video: 16x9 Widescreen (1.85:1)
Audio: Dolby Digital English 2.0 Stereo, Dolby Digital Italian 2.0 Mono
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, John Saxon
Tagline: Terror Beyond Belief

TENEBRAE found Dario Argento returning to his Giallo roots following two supernaturally charged horror films; SUSPIRIA and the less commercially succesful INFERNO. Argento defied expectations that a third film completing a supernatural trilogy would come next, it would be another 27 years before the travesty that was MOTHER OF TEARS would be foisted upon on, but he instead chose TENEBRE, a video nasty that updates the classic Giallo blueprint for the slasheriffic 80s with more kills, more gore and more naked Italian beauties... dying, of course.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa, CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW) is a best-selling American horror novelist along the lines of Stephen King with throngs of devoted readers. He  travels to Italy to promote his latest wildly popular novel, the murder mystery 'Tenebre' and is joined in Rome by his publicist Bullmer (John Saxon, BLACK CHRISTMAS), his assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi, DEEP RED) plus a second assistant Gianni (Christiano Borrormeo, HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK)

Shortly before his arrival in Italy a gorgeous young woman Elsa (Ania Pieroni, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY) is caught shoplifting his novel from an upscale department store, she avoids a charge of petty theft by arranging to meet with the store manager at her home later that night for something assuredly promiscuous. She walks home that afternoon and is accosted by a street person who chases her to her villa. She slams his hand in the security gate escaping his grasp. Once "safely" inside Elsa's attacked held a razor held to her throat as by an unseen, black gloved assailant who tears pages from the 'Tenebre' book and crams pages of Peter Neal's novel 'Tenebre' into her throat and while she chokes on the pulpy pages her throat is razor-slashed with a nice ropey spray of the red stuff.

Upon Neal's arrival in Italy he discovers that someone has shredded some of his luggage, seems like someone has it out for him, perhaps his ex-wife Jane (Veronica Lario) who we saw observing him at the airport in New York before his departure to Rome. Neal arrives at his hotel where he almost immediately receives a letter slid under his room's door from the killer indicating that Neal's novel has inspired his blood lust. Alarmed by the letter Neal calls the authorities. Detective Giermana (Guiliao Gemma, THE OPPONENT) and his partner Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro, OPERA) arrive on scene and question the author about the note and the earlier killing of Elsa whose mouth was stuffed with pages from his book. The dynamic between Neal and Geirmana is very much like what we've seen previously in Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and DEEP RED, a visiting artist/writer travelling abroad is immersed in a murder mystery, as both suspect and sleuth,  the two have a great dynamic. Sure enough Neal becomes entrenched in sleuthing the mystery which puts him and those around him in peril at the mercy of a black gloved killer with a penchant for razor-slashings and axe-murders who's massacring those he deems "filthy, slimy perverts" from the face of existence.

TENEBRAE is often remembered for it's acrobatic camerawork, particularly anelaborate continuous tracking shot, sorta of a precursor to David Fincher's PANIC ROOM, that ascends one side of a villa, peering through it's windows, over the rooftop and down the opposite side revealing the black-gloved killer breaking into a first floor window setting up two iconic kills as the murderer dispatches the lesbian journalist Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo, CALIGULA), who earlier had a confrontational interview with the author, and then her slutty lover Maria. 

No one close to Neal is safe, even his landlord's daughter Maria (Lara Wendell, ZOMBIE 5: KILLING BIRDS) whom after a spat with her boyfriend (Michele Soavi, THE CHURCH) wonders unwittigly into the killer's lair while running for her life from a vicious doberman pincer, which was perhaps the most agile canine I've ever seen on film. She quite improbably stumbles not only into the killer's home but comes directly upon a door that's the killer's errantly left the key in. Inside she discovers photo and mementos from the killings when the murderer returns home, having forgotten the ket 'natch, and hacks the young woman to pieces with an axe.

Throughout the film the killer is prone  flashbacks of being sexually emasculated by a woman on a beach, mouth-raped in effect with fetishistic red high heels, it's very odd stuff. Perhaps odder still is that the actress portraying the woman is Eva Robins' (MASACRA) birth name is Roberto Coatti, a transsexual of sorts born a male but due to a rare syndrome developed feminine characteristics during puberty, she's still acting to this day, that's something you don't hear about everyday.

During an interview with TV reporter Christiano Berti (John Steiner, CUT AND RUN) it becomes apparent that Berti has an unhealthy obsession with the writer's life and later Neal recognizes familiar phraseology in the killer's letters and something Berti had spoken to him during the interview. His curiosity peaked he and the you second assistant Gianni stake out Berti's home in an attempt to sleuth the mysterey. When the two separate Gianni witnesses Berti's death at the hands of the still unseen axe murderer, scared witless Gianni discovers Neal unconscious on the ground having been knocked unconscious by the killer.

Detective Giermana's investigation further finds evidence that Berti was obsessed with Neal and that he is indeed the killer. Assuming the murder-spree ended things fall back into some routine of normality, that is until Neal's publicist Bullmer is stabbed and killed in broad daylight while standing in a public square, now all bets are off. That's really all I can say for fear of ruining the film for those whom haven't seen it, it only gets better, trust me. 

That finale of the film is breathtaking, beginning with the dismembering of an arm that ignites a bloody geyser of arterial spray painting a white wall blood red, it is a thing of morbid beauty that sets of a chain of events that never fails to satisfy upon repeat viewings. The film ends in a crazed, bloodcurdling scream that is the perfect punctuation to such a stylish, gorey giallo-slasher.

TENEBRAE is absolutely my favorite non-supernatural Argento film, despite some obvious flaws in it's logic and narrative, but it's an Argento film, these things are to be expected. The film is more or less a traditional Argento giallo made at the height of the early 80's slasher craze and Argento accordingly amps up the body count and further gorifies the kills. As for the killer's identity it must be said that Argento really piles on the misdirection here, it's a bit of a cheat to be fair. I didn't catch it first time around and even now after many repeated viewings I can't say that it's clued all that much, so it's a bit of a cheat but damn if I don't love it. It also quotes from several of Argento's own films, notably THE BIRD WITH THE PLUMAGE cribbing not only the writer caught up in a murder mystery but also a climax involving a strange piece of sculpture.  

It can certainly be said that Argento's famous eye for horror extends to memorable European beauties; Ania Pieroni, Mirella D'Angelo, Lara Wendell, there's no shortage of gorgeous women here and most are in various states of undress, it's worth noting is that this is one of Argento's more erotic-fueled outings. Sadly, longtime Argento collaborator and former lover Daria Nicolodi gets a bit part here but her rapport with Franciosa is fun, she does what she can with what she's given.

The fluid cinematography by Luciano Tovoli (SUSPIRIA, DRACULA 3D) is among the best of any Argento film before or after. Unlike any of Argento's previous films Tenebre is bathed in cold, bright light, there's few shadows in which for the killer to hide, even the night shots are extremely well lit, and the result is a stark modern atmosphere (for it's day, anyway) shot on location in the modern areas of Rome, the settings certainly lack that museum quality aesthetic of say DEEP RED or any of the director's earlier works which prominently feature old world Europe.

Italian pro-rock band GOBLIN do not appear on the soundtrack in name having disbanded in 1980 but three band members (minus the drummer) appear as Simonetti-Pignatti-Morante on the score. The ensuing electronic-synth-rock fusion is simply brilliant and is nearly inseparable from the film, it just wouldn't be the same film without it, fitting it like a black glove.

Lastly, some very good special effects work from Giovanni Corridori whose worked with the Italian greats including Sergio Leone, Luigi Cozzi, Mario Bava, Argento and Lucio Fulco, good bloody effects, painfully realizstic and quite bloody.

DVD: Arrow's presentation of TENEBRE looks quite good in 16x9 enhanced widescreen (1.85:1). The colors are vivid, flesh tones look good though it's a bit soft and the contrast appears to have been boosted to some degree, results are varying in that regard, it's a very bright film and at times the contrast seems askew and some fine detail is lost. It's not ruinous but noticeable, that said it's a step-up from the R1 Anchor Bay release. The Arrow release tends to favor greens and yellows while the Anchor Bay disc leans towards blue. At the bottom of this review you can find screen grabs comparing the Arrow Video Region 0 and Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD's.  
Audio options include both Italian mono and English Dolby Digital stereo with optional English subtitles. Both are quite good with no noticeable hiss or snap, crackle and pop, it's a very clean audio presentation. I prefer the English dub myself, many of the film's stars performed their dialogue in English.  The score comes off high in the mix at times but I love the score to such a degree that I wouldn't dare complain.

As usual Arrow Video in association with High Rising Productions have given this Argento classic a healthy dose of the bonus content to further enhance your viewings beginning with an introduction from Italian starlet Daria Nicolodi. There are two commentary tracks, the first with film critics and authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman is blossoming with facts, tidbits and insight. It's very casual and they often fall out of sync with the film while going off on tangents. It's quite a good listen as they drop factoids like Argento's first choice for Peter Neal was Christopher Walken (DEAD ZONE), that won interesting, it's a very good listen and a real treat for Argento fans. The second commentary from Argento expert Thomas Rostock is a much more academic track and that combined with the fact that the audio levels are very low for the track made it a chore to sit through for me personally, I didn't even finish it for this review, but on the next watch most I'll most definitely give it a listen. Screaming Queen! Daria Nicolodi remembers Tenebrae (16:07) is a fun though too brief interview with the scream queen, by far my most favorite Argento featurettes are the interviews with Daria, she' so candid about everything, Argento, the films, her joy and disappointments, good stuff. This time around she speaks to her disappointment with the role she was offered, the climactic series of blood curdling screams, her unhappiness with the English dubbing of her voice in nearly all her films and the censorship of the film in the 90's when starlett Veronica Lario became the Prime Minister's wife. The Unsane World of Tenebrae: An interview with Dario Argento (15:14) features the maestro referencing the film as his answer to critics whose perception of him as a misogynists colored the film, his real-life inspiration for the film, working through his dark impulses through filmmaking, why he returned to the Giallo following the supernatural films SUSPIRIA and INFERNO and taking on Michele Soavi following the departure of longtime assistant director Lamberto Bava. A Composition for Carnage: Claudio Simonetti on Tenebrae (10:06) features the usual appearance of Goblin/Daemoni composer Claudio Simonetti who expands on why Argento chose not to use GOBLIN on INFERNO, why GOBLIN don't appear in name on the TENEBRAE soundtrack, the film's particular electronic-rock fusion and the censoring of the film's artwork in Germany. The last feature is Goblin: "Tenebrae" and "Phenomena" Live from the Glasgow Arches (16:38) which is a solid live performance from GOBLIN, very very cool. Funnily, the screen behind them is playing scenes from Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (which they scored for the Italian export) instead of either of the film's they're performing songs from. As usual I give high marks to High Rising Productions for original bonus content.
For comparison's sake I've included the extras from Anchor Bay's R1 DVD below. The disc earns major points for including a commentary with Dario Argento and composer Claudio Simonetti plus the English language 5.1 surround sound mix. On the downside, the featurettes are relatively short and insubstantial  aside from Voices of the Unsane (17:13) an interview with Daria Nicoldi, who again I must say is always my favorite Argento cinema interview.

So, let's say you own the R1 Anchor Bay edition, you want to know if the Arrow Video edition is worth the upgrade, right? Image wise it's a close call with the edge going to Arrow despite what appears to be some brightness boosting, audio goes both ways. Arrow has both English and Italian audio with optional English subtitles but the Anchor Bay offers up a decent 5.1 but with no subs, not even for the Italian audio. If you're an extras whore like I am it's gotta be the Arrow Video edition but that 5.1 and Argento commentary would still gnaw at me, then again there's no subs... Arrow wins. Then again I own them both, win-win!

Arrow Video Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with Argento experts, journalists and writers Kim Newman and Alan Jones
- Audio Commentary with Argento expert Thomas Rostock
- Introduction by Daria Nicolodi
- Screaming Queen! Daria Nicolodi remembers Tenebrae (16:07) 16x9
- The Unsane World of Tenebrae: Interview with Dario Argento (15:14) 16x9
- A Composition for Carnage: Claudio Simonetti on Tenebrae (10:06) 16x9
- Goblin: Tenebrae and Phenomena Live from Glasgow Arches (16:38) 16x9
- Original Trailer (3:14) Letterboxed
- Original art by Rick Melton
- 4 Sleeve art options with original and newly commissioned art work
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on Tenebrae by Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento

Anchor Bay's R1 Special Features:
- Audio Commentary with writer/director Dario Argento, composer Claudio Simonetti and journalist Loris Curie
- Voices of the Unsane (17:13) 16x9
- The Roving Camera Eye of Dario Argento (4:27) 16x9
- Creating Sounds of Terror (2:07) Letterboxed
- Alternate End Credit Music  (2:16) 16x9
- Trailer (3:15) 16x9
- Dario Argento Bio

VERDICT: TENEBRAE is simply one my favorite Dario Argento Giallos. It's stylish, bloody and there's more than an eyeful of Italian beauties whom are of course butchered in gloriously depraved manner by an unseen, black gloved murderer, when it comes to Giallo it just doesn't get any better than this. If this DVD isn't on your cinema shelf I'm here to tell you there's a gaping hole right inbetween Roman Polanski's THE TENANT and James Cameron's TERMINATOR that this should fill quite nicely.