Before Misery and In the Mouth of Madness, Dario Argento explored the idea of horror novels causing real violence in 1982’s Tenebrae; the story of an American novelist (Anthony Franciosa) in Rome where his latest book inspires a string of murders.
Argento aficionados will know his version of Chekhov’s Gun: if you see a beautiful woman in act one, she’ll be brutally murdered by act two. This principal is heavily applied to Tenebrae (AKA Tenebre or Unsane), Argento’s razor-sharp return to his giallo roots. Along with 1987’s Opera, this might be seen as Argento’s period of a) self-reflection but b) doubling down on the violence against women that is Argento’s dread and butter. Through the murderer’s Peeping Tom-style photography and the author’s alleged sexism, Argento acknowledges the criticisms levelled at the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red then goes: “You thought those films were nasty?”
The result feels angrier and more personal than his ’70s pictures, trading vibrant colours and Roman landmarks for a sparse, modernist cityscape; all grey apartment blocks and blood red stilettos. But he loses none of his attention to detail, apparently taking 3 days to perfect a 2.5-minute crane shot and executing a dog attack sequence that makes Resident Evil look like Snow Dogs. Once again his characterisation, mysteries and talking scenes fall short of his spectacular set pieces, but he masterfully builds atmosphere and employs what might be Goblin’s finest score. John Saxon also shows up in a fedora, opposite Silvio Berlsconi’s ex-wife Veronica Lario.
This makes watching Tenebrae like seeing a Brian De Palma movie with a John Carpenter soundtrack, and recalls the David Cronenberg quote: “Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion.”