“Tenebrae is a sexist novel. Why do you despise women so much?” Perhaps the most self-reflective moment from Dario Argento’s entire career. Having constantly been accused of misogyny due to the excessive violence his films have often levelled at their female victims, Tenebrae was a chance for the Italian filmmaker to finally comment on the treatment of women in horror. This scene would come shortly after a graphic murder in which a promiscuous shoplifter (having offered sex in return for avoiding prosecution) is brutally stabbed and then pages of the novel shoved down her throat. Does fiction promote violence in society and are the likes of Argento to blame when one of their fans rapes or murders? “Women as victims?” continued the journalist who had accused Tenebrae of being sexist, “The male heroes with their hairy macho bullshit.” Whatever the critics thought of Tenebrae, Argento’s first giallo thriller since Profondo rosso (Deep Red) in 1975, the BBFC and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) certainly were not impressed, resulting in the movie being labeled as a ‘video nasty.’
After directing four successful thrillers, Argento felt that his career was being pigeonholed and was eager to move in a new direction. The result was Suspiria, his critically acclaim supernatural nightmare that would become an international hit, followed three years later by Inferno, that continued the themes laid out by its predecessor. With both stories depicting the Three Mothers, Argento would spend some time attempting to develop the closing chapter of his trilogy, but after the unpleasant experience of making Inferno, he was not eager to go through it all again. Despite the popularity of both Suspiria and Inferno, fans were eager for the director to return to giallo and, with the American slashers playing with the formula he had in part created in the early seventies, decided that his next project would be a thriller. With his latest story, Argento intended to explore the nature of random violence, something that had become so commonplace in society. Tenebrae would feature all the trademarks of a classic Argento thriller, whilst also depicting obsessive fans, feminist critics and a protagonist who slowly goes insane after being subjected to scenes of extreme violence.
The story told of a successful American author, Peter Neal, who travels to Rome to promote his latest novel, a thriller entitled Tenebrae. His visit coincides with a violent murder, in which the victim was found with pages from the book forced into her mouth. The lead detective, a self-confessed fan of Neal, is brought in to investigate the connection between the writer and the killer, with the evidence pointing to everyone from Neal’s estranged wife to an intense television critic. The initial idea for Tenebrae came from a visit that Argento made to Los Angeles in 1980, in which an obsessed fan had begun making increasingly disturbing phone calls, threatening his life. Although unpleasant at the time, Argento became intrigued by the notion of motiveless violence; the hurt or kill an individual for no logical reason whatsoever. “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,” stated the opening monologue of the script, itself lifted from Neal’s fictional book of the same name.
Another experience that would have a profound effect on the director was during a stay at the Hilton Hotel, when three men walked in and shot a businessman. For murder, such a definite act, to be dished out so coldly fascinated Argento, and so the seeds of Tenebrae were born. He intended for his story to be set in the near future, approximately five years (which, in theory, would have made it 1987), although this concept is not explored or even hinted at. Argento also considered the script amusing, feeling that his fanbase would find elements of funny, but it seemed that the humour would become lost in translation. As would be common with much of his work, the majority of the victims within Tenebrae are young, sexually active females, leading to the usual accusations of misogyny. To this, Argento has famously been quoted as saying, “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.” Whilst Suspiria and Inferno had been full of shadows and dark colours, Argento wanted Tenebrae to be brighter, with many sequence set in the daytime.
Once again working with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, the movie was shot using Kodak 300 ASA film stock in order to make the picture clean, avoiding the colour adjustments he had used on his previous two films. His assistant director would be Lamberto Bava, son of famed filmmaker Mario Bava, who had previously worked with Argento on Inferno in 1980. His second assistant director, meanwhile, was Michele Soavi, whose own subsequent work as a director would include Il Mondo dell’orrore di Dario Argento (Dario Argento’s World of Horror), Deliria (Stage Fright) and La chiesa (The Church). His editor on the movie would be Franco Fraticelli, who had previously worked with Argento on L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Il gatto a nove code (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) and Deep Red. The role of Peter Neal had initially been written with Christopher Walken in mind, who had delivered intense performances in the likes of Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. Instead, Argento decided to cast Anthony Franciosa, an American actor who had first begun performing off Broadway in the late 1940s and would later work on the likes of The Drowning Pool.
For the part of his agent, Bullmer, B-movie legend John Saxon was cast, having previously appeared in such Italian productions as La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) and Apocalypse domani (Cannibal Apocalypse). In the role of Detective Giermani, who is investigating the murders, was spaghetti western veteran Giuliano Gemma, whose prior credits had included such underrated gems as Arizona Colt and Sundance and the Kid. Argento’s rea-life partner and frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi would lead the supporting cast as Neal’s assistant, Anne, having first worked with the director on Deep Red before co-writing Suspiria and Inferno. Principal photography commenced on May 3 1982 for approximately ten weeks, taking in such locations as Kennedy Airport and Elios Studios in Rome. Whilst the cast would consist of mainly Italian and American actors, the film was shot in English to help with international sales, with Nicolodi’s voice dubbed by an American actress. This was a different practice to Suspiria, in which each actor (making up various nationalities) would perform in their native language and then the film would be dubbed according to the country it was released in.
The most acclaimed aspect of Tenebrae was the inventive camerawork, particularly during a sequence in which the camera moves up and over the house of reporter Tilde (Mirella D’Angelo). This effect required a specially designed Louma crane, allowing the scene to be shot in one take. This would prove a major technical challenge for the filmmakers, with the sequence lasting over two minutes and taking three days to shoot. Ironically, the distributor would request Argento trim the scene down, due to it playing no part in the narrative of the story, yet this would be the one moment that critics would praise within the movie. In America, a heavily censored version was released under the title Unsane to negative response. Tenebrae was passed through by the BBFC on February 16 1983 with just four seconds worth of cuts. This rather lenient approach would not last, however, as the British tabloid frenzy continued with newspapers branding countless movies as obscene and moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse publicly condemning the so-called ‘video nasties.’ Tenebrae soon found itself on the DPP’s list of banned films and would remain unavailable for several years, until the BBFC granted it another release on August 11 1999 with further cuts.