Tenebrae (1982)

Viewed January 16th

A writer of violent mystery novels travels from New York to Rome and quickly finds himself embroiled in a real life mystery involving a series of violent murders that seem to be inspired his recent novel.

Spoiler warning...

The horror of Tenebrae is, unlike Dario Argento's previous films Suspiria and Inferno, not supernatural. It's set in the real world and its depiction of reality is not heightened by lighting effects or saturated color. Rather, the horror is a masked man with a knife. As such, it returns to the giallo suspense milieu of his earlier films Deep Red or Bird With the Crystal Plumage. However, in this return, there is a meta-awareness of the genre in which he's participating. It's not just a violent murder mystery story with a twist ending, it's about violent mystery stories with twist endings. In particular, its about the authors of these stories and their relationship to the material they conjure. Are they innocent bystanders--otherwise normal people who happen to have the ability to craft dark or disturbing ideas? Or is there something potentially dark and disturbing about these people? The normal, sane response to this question would be the former. Stephen King, say, or the filmmaker George A. Romero are known to be nice, affable guys; it would be somewhat childish to assume any different. And that is the assumption Tenebrae builds into its story. When its violent mystery novelist protagonist is questioned by the press about the vengeful misogyny of his recent novel, he's surprised--who me? It's just a story! And as an audience member, you're with him. Maybe he's a bit of a male chauvinist, but no more than most men, particularly from that era. And maybe he's irresponsible with the depiction of violence towards women in his stories, but you really can't extend that to him, personally--that wouldn't be fair. And, certainly, as to the question of all these murders inspired by his book happening all around him, he, of all people, couldn't possibly be the suspect. He wasn't even around when these things were happening. We were shown all that. But as the characters in the film repeatedly discuss the way mystery stories are told and how the twist reveal of the killer's identity can be cleverly withheld by a gifted storyteller, we may suspect that there are some red herrings we've been following and something else is going on here. And indeed there is. But what makes Tenebrae really interesting is how Argento implicates himself not just in an abstract way, but in a bold move of highly particular, highly personal self-criticism. His real-life wife, the actress Daria Nicolodi, plays the novelist protagonist's lover in the film. The character she plays has no reason to suspect him and, in fact, defends him against charges of hating women or being anything other than a great guy with an active, if somewhat dark imagination. But she's proven wrong, so very wrong. And when you see Nicolodi's face at that moment of recognition, and when you feel the resonance between character and actress, you have one of the key moments in Argento's oeuvre, made even more complicated by the fact that Nicolodi herself was involved in writing her husband's two previous films.