While in Los Angeles to pitch a horror story to MGM in 1980, Dario Argento began receiving phone calls from a stranger who wanted to discuss Suspiria after it left a huge impression on him. After talking to this “fan” for a few days, the phone calls had become more and more intense until eventually Argento was receiving death threats. Even after the police determined the calls to be nothing more than a sick joke, the stranger continued to harass Argento, claiming to know the police were getting close and swore that he would kill the maestro. Out of this experience, Tenebre – Argento’s return to the giallo after working in the supernatural realm of the Three Mothers for the past five years – was born. Much like Argento’s deranged admirer, the madness that runs rampant in Tenebre is inspired by a work of fiction.
Tenebrae, the title of Peter Neal’s (Anthony Franciosa) book in the film, is a Catholic service – which consists of lighting 15 candles and extinguishing one after each preselected psalm is read aloud, followed by a loud noise of sorts and the revealing of a final remaining flame that signifies Christ’s resurrection after the earthquake – that is held the night before or morning of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday; the three final days of Holy Week. While some direct religious implications are made in the film (most notably the conversation between Neal and television interviewer Christiano Berti (John Steiner), it’s Tenebrae’s Latin definition – shadows or darkness – that more directly explains a great deal about the film’s inner workings.
In Tenebre’s case, the darkness or shadow is the evil that is enveloping the world; the darkness that overtakes the soul and makes us do immoral things. Stealing and infidelity are among the sins committed by the victims prior to their demise, which solidifies the flashback sequences intercut throughout the film, highlighting a sexual humiliation of sorts and a murder, as the killer’s true motivation. Truly, this is why you shouldn’t pick on people. This line of thinking also brings up an interesting contrast to the darkness of the human condition: the film, of which most others in its genre take place at night, plays out almost entirely during broad daylight.
Much of the trickery and setup in Tenebre plays out in a dream-like state; not in a Suspiria sort of way but more like a literal blurring between fact and convincing fiction. Rome, where the story takes place, is not based in modern day but rather an alternate Rome of the future which, according to a Cinefantastique interview with Argento conducted by Alan Jones, is “inhabited by fewer people with the results that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded. Something has happened to make it that way but no one remembers or wants to remember.” Indeed, the Rome in Tenebre has no historical past, with landmarks like the Colosseum, churches or even buildings with any Roman architecture conspicuously absent. The flashbacks, which potentially tell the story of the killer’s past, are presented with a foggy perspective. A speech Detective Giermani gives towards the end, meant to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, is worded so that there is a very slim possibility the flashbacks aren’t something from the killer’s childhood but even so, it represents something that was maddening, whether it be an actual occurrence, a nightmare or something from a book or film.
Even with the bait and switch that occurs halfway through the film (the most interesting part of a narrative that is probably Argento’s most complex, considering the simplistic nature of most of his plots), the strangest and most fascinating trick played on viewers deals with the young woman (Eva Robbins) in the flashbacks. She represents a desire, one that doesn’t come without a price, and her red high-heels are out of place on a beach, which makes the imagery that much more fantastical. Since this is a giallo, appearances can be quite deceiving and, in the young woman’s case, this has never rung more true; Robbins grew up a man but developed female sexual characteristics due to a disorder.
Although one could be tempted to label Tenebre as Argento’s attempt at a slasher film, it actually resembles noir more closely than anything, which the giallo strongly resembles in many aspects. The film stands as the most meticulously constructed Argento efforts; one that not only challenges the viewer with its many themes and intricacies but also retains the same look and feel as the maestro’s more famous and widely celebrated films. Not only that, it also features one of the best gore sequences ever put to celluloid which served as an inspiration for Sofie Fatale’s arm amputation in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1.