Tenebrae


Color, 1982, 101m.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Anthony Franciosa, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliano Gemma, John Saxon, Christian Borromeo, John Steiner, Lara Wendel, Veronica Lario, Eva Robins
Synapse Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Happinet (Blu-ray & DVD) (Japan R0 HD/NTSC), Arrow Films (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Wild Side (Blu-Ray & DVD) (France RB/R2 HD/PAL), Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (US R1 NTSC), Sazuma (Austria R0 NTSC), Nouveaux (UK R2 PAL), TFI (France R2 PAL), Medusa (Italian R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

TenebraeTenebraeAmerican writer Peter Neal (Franciosa) arrives in Rome from New York to promote his new best-selling mystery novel, Tenebrae, only to be informed by the police that a copycat killer is bumping off Italian citizens with a straight razor in the same manner portrayed in the book. Among the victims are a shoplifter (House by the Cemetery's Ania Pieroni) and two lesbians (including Caligula's Mirella D'Angelo), but threatening letters also target Neal as the final corpse to be. Along with his secretary, Anne (Nicolodi, dubbed by Teresa Russell!), and a dogged police inspector (spaghetti western regular Gemma), Neal attempts to uncover the killer's identity as the bodies begin to pile up.

Among Dario Argento fans, Tenebrae (sometimes spelled Tenebre) is usually mentioned as one of his more neglected films, a masterpiece lurking in the shadows of Deep Red. Perhaps the combination of extreme violence and sexual anxiety made it too strong for many viewers at the time; it was retitled Unsane and heavily chopped down by over ten minutes for a sparse US release, with casualties including most of the legendary Louma crane shot over the apartment building, the equally famous arm amputation via axe, some comic relief involving Saxon's hat (which makes the punchline of his final scene completely meaningless), and the amusing "Oh Massimo, when are you going to take my picture?" bit in a bar.

Fortunately the longer version has since Tenebraebecome the easiest to find and is now the standard one on home video. The film's bright, sleek atmosphere was a major shift from his previous two films, the saturated supernatural freak-outs of Suspiria and Inferno, while the emphasis on perverse sexuality (including some eerie recurring flashbacks involving transgender actress Eva Robins) gives it an edge unique among Argento's output. Adding to the fun is a game supporting cast including colorful turns by John Saxon (as a feisty literary agent), Tinto Brass regular John Steiner (as a very suspicious TenebraeTV interviewer), pretty Lara Wendel (from the notorious Maladolescenza) in one of the longest, craziest chase scenes in the Argento canon, and Christian Borromeo (House on the Edge of the Park) as an assistant playing amateur detective.

The actual running time of Tenebrae has been the cause of much speculation and debate, beginning with reports of its uncut length running anywhere from 101 to 110 minutes. The Japanese laserdisc, widely regarded as the first uncut release in English, is the 101-minute version, though a few strange edits remain in the film (note the jarring jump cut in the middle of John Saxon's conversation with Giuliano Gemma at the TV studio). The first DVD version from Anchor Bay (first released non-anamorphic, then reissued as a 16:9 version that, as with their redo of Phenomena, looks suspiciously like a blow-up from the exact same source) is Tenebraeperfectly letterboxed and more attractive than the Japanese disc, is "uncut" in terms of violence and dialogue, but fans objected over the omission of a few seconds of footage (a quick glimpse of shoplifter Pieroni backing against the wall before her death, a brief shot of Saxon walking across a room, etc.). This is also an alternate print from the Japanese one (note the different title cards, a different take of Lara Wendel rummaging through the killer's photos and clippings, etc.). The audio commentary by Argento along with composer Claudio Simonetti just adds to the entertainment and collectible value (thick accents aside) and, as if that weren't enough, you also get the excellent European release trailer and the alternate pop song (Kim Wilde's haunting "Take Me Tonight") included on the US end titles. The Dolby Digital remix is tastefully handled, confined mainly to the catchy music score and a few startling sound effects. The Anchor Bay DVD also includes two brief "making of" snippets actually excerpted from Luigi Cozzi's Dario Argento: Master of Horror. The Sazuma disc boasts optional English subtitles for its Italian track and also cobbles together the missing fragments of footage as a supplement, while the French DVD offers the full cut (with non-removable subs) and the lackluster Nouveaux disc has been censored for violence. The Italian disc offers the English track as well as the Italian one in Dolby Digital 5.1 or mono with optional English subtitles, a nice viewing option; colors are vivid (perhaps too much so) but detail is softened considerably by rampant noise reduction. If Tenebraeyou watch the Italian version, stick with the mono track as the 5.1 version omits or muffles an alarming number of sound effects, most notably the screams during the T-shirt slashing.

The first two Blu-ray editions in 2013 (with corresponding DVD versions) appeared almost simultaneously , though they didn't not overlap in terms of transfer quality or extras (apart from the usual European trailer). The original British release from Arrow contains a bevy of welcome supplements including a terrific and detailed audio commentary by Thomas Rostock (who also did similar duties for Deep Red), the usual perceptive liner notes by Alan Jones (recounting in more detail the film's famous origin via TenebraeArgento's anxiety over a psychotic fan), a second commentary with Jones and Kim Newman that focuses more on the production and distribution angles of the film, and featurette interviews with Argento ("The Unsane World of Tenebrae," 15 mins.), Nicolodi ("Screaming Queen!," 16 mins., in which she reveals the pent-up reasons for her legendary screaming in the last scene), and composer Claudio Simonetti ("A Composition for Carnage," 10 mins.). As usual for the High Rising featurettes at the time, there's some solid material in here but be prepared to fast forward through those long, long animated intros and transitions. Alas, the transfer on that disc was an unmitigated disaster featuring excessive softness and distracting video noise swarming across the screen for the entire film. The audio side fares better with a spacious lossless surround mix, the mono version, and the Italian track with optional English subtitles, but that doesn't do you much good when the film itself is unwatchable. By far the better option at the time was the Blu-ray from France, released by Wild Side as an exclusive to FNAC chain stores. The image quality is absolutely exceptional with an extremely rich, film-like appearance, nice detail levels, and no damage or lost footage. Many scenes take on a far stronger impact here thanks to vivid details now visible in the background, such as the recurring hallucinatory shade of orange when Jane is first seen exiting the phone box (repeated elsewhere afterwards) or the significant touches of red popping in and out of the production design throughout the film. The English, French, and Italian audio tracks are included in DTS-HD, though small French subs are forced when the English or Italian versions are selected. (Resourceful folks can figure out some workarounds for this if they're really determined.) The only significant new extra is a French-language critical appraisal of Argento's film, but the transfer (which takes up a whopping 34GB of space!) made this one a stronger choice at the time. Considerable consumer backlash led to a Blu-ray reissue from Arrow in 2015 in standard or steelbook packaging from the superior French HD master with the same language options and bonus features, tossing in a new performance of both "Tenebrae" and "Phenomena" at a Goblin concert in Glasgow and, even better, a very insightful new Tenebraevideo piece about the film by Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds author Maitland McDonagh.

As with its simultaneous release of Phenomena, Happinet's Japanese Blu-ray of Tenebrae released in late 2015 is an amalgamation of extras from past editions with a few new bells and whistles of its own. The transfer is essentially identical to the French and second UK ones, which means it looks great, and you get the English, Italian, and Japanese audio (with optional Japanese subs) in DTS-HD MA mono tracks. The Anchor Bay commentary and all three Arrow featurettes are carried over here Tenebraealong with the Goblin concert footage and English theatrical trailer. New and exclusive to this release is the 9-minute "John Steiner's Adventures in Italy," a hilarious companion piece of sorts to his featurette on the Caligula special edition in which he shares his wild acting stories ranging from prestigious stage work in London to crazed Nazisploitation films in Italy, with fun little bits about directors including Argento, Tinto Brass, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. Sadly not English-friendly but really surprising is another new interview, the 9-minute "Girl on the Beach," with Robins covering her casting in her silent but pivotal (and ultimately iconic) role as well as brief mentions of other early films like Eva Man. The third exclusive featurette, the 9-minute "Assisting Tenebrae," is also Italian only (with Japanese subs) with Lamberto Bava cheerfully recounting his time working on the film just after Inferno and before he directing his own Tenebrae-inspired giallo, A Blade in the Dark. Finally "The Look of Tenebrae" (10 mins.), also in Italian with Japanese subs, features ace cinematographer Luciano Tovoli talking about how the film was intended to counter the established look of Argento's '70s gialli with a more bright, antiseptic, chilly look to support the bourgeois urban nightmare of its story. The disc closes out with the alternate English text opening and closing credits (but with Italian audio, weirdly enough) and the superb Japanese trailer under the title Shadow (beautifully cut to "Take Me Tonight"), sourced from the same VHS copy that made the rounds on the fan trading circuit back in the '80s.

However, for a/v quality the best release was yet to come with a 2016 release from Synapse Films (the source for the frame grabs seen in the body of this review), sold as a three-disc, 3,000-unit limited steelbook containing a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a 19-track soundtrack CD (available directly from Synapse or via Diabolik). Though derived from the same HD scan, it's been given an exceptionally generous bit rate (almost never dipping below 30 Mbps) with additional color correction; both detail and film grain look even more naturally resolved and impressive, and the color scheme still looks absolutely beautiful with the slight rose tint from before shifted away. As explained with great detail in the insert booklet, the subtle but visible DNR applied to the French HD master has been corrected here with frame-by-frame work reinstating little details that had been wiped out, and it's an impressive effort indeed. Both the English and Italian tracks are included in DTS-HD MA two-channel mono, with English subtitles for both the English-language version and translated from the Italian (which, to put it mildly, provide different viewing experiences). The main play option runs the film with the usual scan from the Italian negative, but an alternate option (on the Blu-ray only) places all Tenebraeof the English-language insert shots (some of them very rarely seen) in the film from a fresh HD scan as well. That means you can watch it with the opening and closing titles in English along with shots of the killer's threatening notes and other bits of text, such as the material Wendel discovers while looking through the killer's house. This footage looks great as well but features a slight bit of jittering, which is presumably why it isn't the main default option.

The major new extra for the Synapse release is a new Tenebraeaudio commentary by McDonagh, who expands considerably on her piece from the prior DVD as she pulls apart the film's many themes, its manipulations of murder mystery conventions, its censorship history, and plenty more. It's great to hear her offer a long-form study of one of Argento's films at last, and it's easily up to the standard set by her book. The 89-minute Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo takes a look at the beloved subgenre with participants including Argento, McDonagh, Luigi Cozzi, Umberto Lenzi, Ruggero Deodato, Barbara Bouchet (who has one of the best moments explaining why loves playing a "bitch"), Dardano Sacchetti, writers Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Shelagh Rowan-Legg and Mikel Koven, directors Richard Stanley and Bruno Forzani, and others talking about the early days inspired by mystery novels and films through the height of the craze with new titles pouring into theaters almost every week well into the late '70s. It's a pretty good primer for someone curious about the conventions and appeal of the films with quite a bit of context for their placement in the history of Italian cinema, with time given to some of the major highlights like Blood and Black Lace, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Torso, etc. It's very Argento-centric for the majority of the running time, however, so if you're trying to put together a viewing list, there are some more thorough film-by-film breakdowns out there. The familiar English trailer and the Japanese Shadow one (from the same VHS source) are here along with the alternate "Take Me Tonight" closing credits, a rougher alternate 35mm version of the English opening credits. Also included is a liner notes booklet featuring a new essay by The Argento Syndrome author Derek Botelho, plus the aforementioned detailed tech notes by Don May, Jr. and Vincent Periera that will make you appreciate the transfer even more. The track listing of the enclosed CD is identical to the two Cinevox releases in terms of both LP cues and bonus tracks, though this is a new remastering that's as good as the one engineered a couple of years ago by Claudio Fuiano. All in all, it's a must for Argentophiles and giallo junkies alike.

FRAME GRABS FROM JAPANESE BLU-RAY (same as the French and UK)

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Reviewed on March 12, 2016