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, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Every humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by this simple act of annihilation: murder."
So begins the 1982 giallo1 Tenebrae (or Tenebre, meaning "shadows" or "darkness") by Italian cult film director Dario Argento. A black-gloved killer (you know it's the killer; Argento often "stands in" for the killer's hands in his films) is reading the latest best seller from American writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa).
The film, following two of a more supernatural nature, was Argento's return to the crime thriller he had become known for. It has a firmer plot than most of his work (the phrase "short on sense, long on style" is often leveled at him). Of course Argento doesn't mind as his method of working has been self-described as "surrealistic...like being in a trance.... When I finish a picture I'm surprised by the things I see. It's like automatic writing.... Like a schizophrenic. As though I have a second soul." Motivation in the context of his films doesn't interest him, the visual elements and the "psychology" of the characters do (sort of like Peter Greenaway's line about cinema being too important to leave to the storytellers).
Tenebrae is a film of deception on all levels. The location, the characters and their relationships to each other, the killer(s), the director's story (one might say deceitful in a way), even the dubbing, 2 all conspire against the viewer and his/her expectations.
While the film starts out with Neal in the United States preparing to leave for Italy to do a book tour on his new novel, the location is Roma. But it is no Rome we are familiar with (one suspects most nonresidents would not recognize it without the caption). It is all modernbright buildings, new cars, freshly painted surfaces, shops catering to the well-off. No ruins or quaint little streets. No sense of the history of the city.
Argento claims it is based "five or more years in the future.... in a world inhabited by fewer people with the results that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded." Perhaps, but it's a hard sell, despite the distinct lack of crowds or traffic congestion. He also described it as "an imaginary city in which the most amazing things happen. For this reason I stayed away from anything old. My decor is ultramodern. Extreme...." Regardless, this is a world like our own but much different once one looks to the shadows behind the clean cut angles and white space. As in McDonagh's explanation of gialli (footnote 1), it is a "warped world defined by the mind of a maniac." The seeming calm underscored by something decidedly dark within the mind of its characters.
Everything is brightly lit and white white white. The color scheme is in direct contrast to the title of the book and film. Even the night scenes are well lit under bright street lamps or outside lights. The killer's "darkroom" is white and when not developing, very well lit. The darkness is entirely psychological.
The first thing once the viewer arrives in Rome is to see a girl shoplift (Neal's book). There is a suggestion from the camera's POV that the killer is there in the store. She is caught and brought into the back by the store detective where she somewhat subtlety offers sexual favors to be let off. He refuses. While there is no way that the killer could have seen that, it sets the tone for what follows as the killer, obsessed by Neal's book, tries to clean up "corruption." She returns home and is accosted by a transient. He follows her to her house and appears at her sliding glass doorsbut he isn't what she should be worried about, nor the audience concerned withthe killer is there. Holding a straight razor to her neck, he forces pages from Neal's book down her throat before killing her.
The next murders are two women, a lesbian journalist and her promiscuous bisexual lover, continuing the idea of cleansing (before he kills the first, he whispers "pervert...filthy, slimy pervert"). Another motive could be the journalist's hard questions at a reception (the killer is there but the audience doesn't know), where she calls the book a "sexist novel;" that in his work, he portrays "women as victims, ciphers. The male heroes with their hairy macho bullshit." She then questions why he despises women so much. The comment is also pertinent as it reflects on Argento, who has made a living making movies where women are killed (he has explained that "I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man"). It also relates to the parallels between himself, as one marketing in violence, and Neal who does the same. Of course, there are differences. Argento doesn't really have any male heroes with their "hairy macho bullshit" in his canon. Nor does he have a fan killing people, though the possibility always exists.3
The two separate and go off to their own apartments after an argument over the one picking up a guy for casual sex. The journalist hears a noise and the camera cuts to the outside of her window for one of Argento's celebrated camera acrobatics.4: in a crane and tracking shot that lasts over two and a half minutes, the camera slowly prowls up the wall and over the roof, coming down to view her lover, voyeuristically,5 then continues along the roof and walls of the building, finally pausing on the black-gloved hands cutting their way inside. But then the shot stops and cuts back to the journalist yelling at her lover to turn down the music (another deception as the pounding Goblin soundtracksomething of a bass- and synth-heavy prog rock group that has often collaborated with Argentoisn't part of the score as it appeared, but a record).
As she goes to put on a new shirt, the killer grabs her from behind, shirt still over her head and first slashes a hole in it, giving another bit of Argento camera trickery allowing him to first frame the killer, then her, as she is dispatched with the razor. The lover, hearing noise comes down to find the journalist dead, turns to run and is slashed from behind. As she attempts to escape, her throat is cut and her head crashes through a window. A camera begins to take pictures. At first one thinks it might be the police until we see the pictures in the killer's darkroom as he washes the blood off the razor.
The next murder is Maria, the daughter of Neal's landlord in Rome. She is flirtatious with Neal. She has a shoving argument with her boyfriend, spewing profanity as he rides away on his motorcycle (a lover's quarrel, we assume she is sexually active). As with the first, the sexual component is unlikely to have been seen by the killer, though she fits the profile. She dies as an accident. While walking home, she takes out her anger and frustration on a barking Doberman who escapes from behind a fence, chases and attacks her. She finds her way to a house and hides in an unlocked outbuilding (the killer'swe saw him exit the building earlier, accidentally leaving the key in the door). She finds the darkroom and the photos, taking the evidence. The dog is still trying to get at her, so she escapes to the house to try calling the police. There she encounters the killer who chases her and kills her with an axe (having lost the straight razor in the scuffle). This is significant (and a clue) as the rest are not killed with a razor: something that suggests excising, surgicalityhe is cutting out the cancer of corruptionrather than anger or brutality).6
Letters and an interview
Following each murder, Neal receives letters made of a piece of paper and letters cut out of newspaper headlines. The first is part of the passage from his book quoted at the top. That is followed by a phone call where the voice (which sounds almost like a womaninteresting for two reasons, one related to the identity and the other to a vague red herring used later) says "you and me together, we've only just begun." The killer and the writer (by extension the director and his audience) are intertwined and the words become action in this extreme reality.
The second letter is apparently in Latin, saying "so passes the glory of lesbos" (an obvious reference to the victims). The third is more intriguing as it is more revealing and an escalation of not only the obsession but the "logical" conclusion of the "relationship" between him and Neal. In it he states that "I grieve for this child. Her death was the only way I be free to go on. I will eliminate those who disgust me. The human perverts, soon the corrupter, himself." Neal is the corrupter. As the police detective says, "these killings are like a tribute to Peter Neal." The ultimate (as both "utmost" and "final") tribute to the one who writes of murder is the killing of the writer.
In a pre-interview with self-proclaimed fan (an effeminate, effusive,"strict Catholic," as well) and television journalist Christiano Berti, Neal is asked some pointed questions (especially when viewed with the third letter in mindthough, this scene takes place shortly after the second murders) about the book's themequestions that he admits may be too "deep" for an afternoon television show but ones in which he is "genuinely interested in." The foreshadowing and the high voice (recall the "female" voice on the phone) should help the viewer guess the identity of the killer (until everything changes following Maria's murder).
He begins stating that the novel is "about human perversion and its effect on society," asking how Neal sees "the effects of deviant behavior on our lives." Neal denies that is the theme or core of the book and the interviewer-fan points out that two of the victims are "deviants" and appears to begin saying the killer is "transsexual" (interesting in relation to the flashback/dream sequences noted below) before Neal states that isn't true. One of the them is gay but is portrayed as "perfectly happy" (an awful pun that might only occur in the translated dubbed version of the script) before he is cut off when the Berti states that the murderer's "motivation is to eliminate what he calls 'corruption.'" Neal points out that the killer is "insane" before they start to begin a discussion about what is "aberrant" (such as a "strict Catholic" who believes in abortion and divorce7) interrupted by needing to start the real interview. It is a possibility that any writer is subject tothat a reader totally misinterprets the theme and intenteven more dangerous when the subject is murder.
Identity and the woman on the beach
In a film where the title evokes the shadows of German expressionist cinema, the only real shadows to speak of are in the minds of the characters/plot (and the director; the audience by extension), the first "look" at the killer is a shadow on the wall of a man in torment, moaning and holding his hands to his head. He needs to medicate and takes pills. He also has what are either flashbacks or dream sequences. Whichever, they relate to the history and/or mental state of the (second) killer.
The first is of a voluptuous woman in white (another deception as the character is played by a transsexualI couldn't tell) walking on a bright beach amid a palette of dulled, pale colors (the soft focus suggesting it isn't taking place in "real time"). She is a temptress. A group of adolescents are drawn to her, all in white, some shirtless. She kneels and pulls her top down as they gather to her. Then one of the youths, apparently disgusted, slaps her, splitting her lip (the red of the blood striking against the dull colors). The boy flees and the others, encouraged by the woman, chase him down and hold him while she, wearing blood red stiletto heels (even more striking) repeatedly kicks him, spits on him, and finally penetrates (the sexual humiliation if all too clear) his mouth with the heel.
A later sequence shows this woman, dressed similarly (particularly the shoes) walking with a man beside a pool. The POV is of a voyeur or "spy" (or killer) hiding in the nearby foliage. The man leaves her and she is murdered. A third follows later, with the killer removing the shoes from the body trophies that represent her "corruption" and "corrupting influence." While this could fit the established pattern of the killer, it occurs following his death. Argento deceives. There are two killers at work.
The other murders
Neal and a young male secretary assigned him stake out the house near where Maria was killed. There, the two separate and the young man sneaks up closer to see the (staged) murder of the ownerBerti (axed in the head). He flees finding Neal with an apparent rock-to-the-head wound. Something bothers him, though. Something he heard or saw that didn't add up. He later realizes what it was: killer #1 (Berti) admitted his crimesbefore being killed he said that he'd "killed them all" (which the assistant thought was the voice of killer #2). Unfortunately for him, he is shortly after garroted in his car, a look on his face that might signal recognition of his murderer.
A second killer has taken over from the first and seems to be following the same pattern. The next murder happens to Neal's agent who happens to be having a love affair with Neal's former wife (who has followed him to Rome, some suspicious actions on her part suggest she might be a suspect but are never developed8). She has received a pair of red high heels in a wrapped package. Meanwhile Neal, feeling free of his wife (after some time it appears) submits to his desires for his full-time assistant Anne (something that seems cheap and tawdry and both probably know it). Of course, this is significant: soon Neal plans to be rid of his exhe learned something about murder and freedom from the obsessed Berti, though this seems more convenience than corruption (later we learn it may be something much deeper).
Following the phone call (see previous footnote), the next we see of the wife is her sitting nervously at a kitchen table, holding a gun. Suddenly, as she waits, an axe crashes through the window and white curtains severing her hand. She spins and whirls, painting the white walls with arterial spray (Argento and his effects people thoroughly enjoying themselves in ways Sam Peckinpah never dreamed). She is chased and finished off. This precipitates the third "flashback"the taking of the "trophies." The wife is wearing the shoes.
The final Act
Anne arrives and is killed. The camera tilts up revealing the killer as Neal, who is gone over the edge. But this is another deception, as it only looked like her, it was the partner of the investigating detective on the case. He confesses that once he realized Berti was the killer, the rest was easy"like writing a book." Neal pulls out a razor and slits his throat (another staged incident). Anne and the detective leave the house as he explains that when Neal was a teenager in Rhode Island, a woman was brutally killed. Though an accusation was made, there was no evidence or trial. He goes on to add that if it was him, it was an act that "haunted his life and twisted his mind forever." An act which informs the novel, the detective paraphrases: "any obstacle or humiliation standing in his way swept aside by a simple act of annihilation." But then the detective seems to suspect something amiss. He returns to the house.
The detective discovers the body is missing and the razor is a stage prop made to spray blood by means of a button on the handle. He bends over to pick up a piece of paper. When he does, Neal is revealed to be standing directly behind him. Impatient and worried, Anne returns to the house. Neal is on the way to kill her but the opening of the door dislodges a large futuristic, abstract metal sculpture (like points and blades) that falls on him, impaling the killer.
Anne is left alone, screaming as the rain pours down.
1Italian for "yellow," it is a reference to the yellow covers that mystery-detective-crime novels once had in Italy. It has come to mean similar films, usually featuring black-gloved killers, wild plots, and brutal killingsthe killings and the murderer as important (or more) as the solving of the crimes. In Film Comment Maitland McDonagh elaborates: "psychological/detective thrillers driven by the cruel, the outré; they hark back to Hitchcock's Psycho  not because Psycho is suspenseful and keeps viewers guessing about the killer's identity, but because it takes place in a warped world defined by the mind of a maniac."
2Yes, this Italian movie is dubbed (and not so well as is the case with exploitation and genre films). This was standard practice for years. Films were shot without sound (actors usually speaking their native language) and everything dubbed in later. In this case, the voice of the killer is deliberately odd and high pitched, possibly feminine.
3Argento claims the idea for the story came from an actual incident during a visit to LA. Someone called wanting to speak about Suspiria (1977). Even asked to meet him. Call after call came as the man "[confided] more and more horrible things and, at the end of the fifteenth call, he told me he wanted to kill me." The police determined it was a sick joke but Argento got another call where the person said he knew the police were near and "swore he would have my skin." Though it sounds a bit suspect, Daria Nicolodi (who plays Anne, Neal's assistant and who was Argento's longtime significant other) has also told the story as true.
4Argento's feeling about his often showy camerawork is that "when using these techniques to tell a story, the camera, in reality, becomes a performer, a performer with acrobatic skills. ...the story required these effects, these complicated movements of the camera, needed to obtain the right psychological result that gave sense and meaning to the story or scene I was telling" (documentary interview on the collector's video). He uses the camera to disturb, worry, disorient the audience, as well as stand in for the killer or the victim or to make the audience complicit in the act or turn it into one or the other. It is the participatory act of cinematic murder.
5While its framed almost like the typical "killer POV," it clearly is not. It is the voyeuristic view of the audience (and director), creeping around to see the woman coming out of the shower (the suggested victimanother slight deception) and searching for the source of the sound that has to be the killer. It isn't so much suspenseful as anticipatory. We are about to take part in the murder with the killerwe want to see it. (Again, cinematic murderif done rightis participatory in a sense, as we are tacitly allowing it to take place after having chosen to watch it.) In the end, even this deceives as the POV changes.
6Though I doubt the killer would know the girl's sexuality and suggest it is an "accident." Argento might be more devious (and contrived) than I am gave him credit. Maybe the keys which we see dangling for several seconds were intentionally left in the door. Maybe he saw the argument (he was "out" and possibly in the same area). We don't see how the dog gets around the fence. It might be stretching but the possibility is there. Another sexually related motive could be voyeurism. He calls her a "spy," viewing something taboo (the pictures) that she isn't supposed to be allowed to seea possible corrupting influence/exposure (in this sence, we the audience, are also "spies," viewing the murder tableaux presented by Argento).
7The question of whether Berti, himself, is a homosexual, making him a "pervert" and part of the "corruption" of his (and his misinterpretation of Neal's) worldview, is intriguing but never developed.
8She calls Anne, looking for Neal. She's told he left and then confesses (?) "I did something. It's like there are two people in me. And sometimes they are going to take over." "Help me, please. Don't let me kill myself." "I am so sorry. I didn't mean to...I wanted to explain...about everything...I've done." She may be referring to her relationship with the agent but it's never made clear.
(Sources: several viewings of the collectors edition video tape; Maitland McDonagh, Film Comment January-February 1993 issue, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: the dark dreams of Dario Argento 1991, 1994)