Maestro or misogynist? Those are the two labels that have continously clung to Italian horror master Dario Argento ever since he first started plying his brutal, Hitchcockian trade to global acclaim. Yes, his movies show graphic, brutal and suspiciously drawn out murders that tend to favour glamorous, nubile women, but then his plots have also featured strong female characters and even the occasional female villain, with 1975’s Deep Red storing highly on both points.
However, in 1982, after making back to back supernatural spectacles with Suspiria and Inferno, Argento returned to the vicious world of the Giallo genre in order to address the accusation of misogyny directly – and ended up making arguably his most misogynistic movie yet in Tenebrae. But did his critics have it all wrong and amidst the bloody bodies of gorgeous, slain women lies a deeper meaning? Just like Argento’s typically gloved psycho-sexual lunatics, I guess we’ll have to dig a little deeper.
Peter Neal is a popular writer of very violent horror novels and he’s currently visiting Italy to promote the release of his new title, a particularly nasty piece of work named Tenebrae and as he settles into the grind of interviews and signings, he’s flanked by his dutiful assistant, Anne and his typically smarmy agent Bullmer. However, the early hitch of Neal’s embittered ex-wife following him to Italy and trashing his luggage is quickly overshadowed by a black gloved murderer who claims that the author’s books have inspired them to go on a bloody spree to punish those the killer sees as immoral and the brutal death-by-straight-razor of a shoplifter just goes to show that shit’s gotten serious.
Not only does the killer start goading/praising Neal with letters, but targets are made of people that the writer actually knows such as a lesbian journalist who takes Neal to task over the content of his books and her unfaithful girlfriend. This leads to literature fan Detective Giermani and his headstrong partner Inspector Altieri getting involved but despite their efforts the shredded bodies of nubile women stubbonly continue to pile up leading for Neal to try and figure up this mess all on his own using his writing experience.
Due to flashbacks only we see, the killer seems to have been triggered by a repressed memory that sees him take vicious revenge on a woman who sexually humiliated him as a youth with an upsetting use of her high heels, but can Neal and his entourage manage to unravel all this psycho-sexual shit before more blood is luridly shed over the suspiciously monochromatic surroundings?
Tenebre means “darkness” or “shadow” and that’s exactly how things are going to get – freaking dark.
If you’d never seen one of Argento’s movies before and decided to start with Tenebrae then the answer to that earlier question about misogyny would seem to be a very definite yes – however, those familiar with the filmography of the Italian Hitchcock will instantly realise that the director is most likely screwing with his critics by deliberately and cheekily giving them the exact experience they’ve been complaining about. While women admittedly aren’t the only victims in the film, the ones who are are all voluptuous brunettes who the killer has deemed impure for various infractions against their tenuous moral code and the punishments are typically severe. Instead imposing a fine and possibly some community service, Argento has a pretty shoplifter have her mouth stuffed full of paper before having her throat slashed while the couple of partially clothed, arguing lesbians (she’s never going to get dry towelling like that) get taken out in equally graphic fashion – but, as always, the director manages to cloak his vicious nature with some truly stunning camera work. Take the moment when he has his camera scale the side of a building, peeking into windows as it goes, before creeping over the roof and coming down the other side like an invisible prowler while Goblin’s infernally catchy theme blares over the soundtrack – even though extended shots like that are commonplace now, to see it happen in an Italian slasher pic in 1982 must have been fucking hypnotic and it proves that Argento wasn’t taking his return to Giallo lightly.
As jaw dropping as the camera work and violent set pieces are, where Dario is really having fun is with his plot, that writhes and coils like a worm with an electrical charge pumped through it and to discuss it means giving the game away to prepare yourself – here be spoilers. The revelation that the identity of the the person slaughtering all these “wayward”, attractive women isn’t the main antagonist and that Peter Neal himself murders the murderer two thirds of the way through to disguise his own attempt to spectacularly take the life of his ex-wife is proof that Argento is fucking not only with us, but his naysayers. For a start, how ballsy do you have to be to make the actual murderer a red herring in a murder mystery – plus the director is obviously having a ball while actually broaching critics accusations within the movie by having separate interviewers put Neal on the spot for his violent content only for Argento to have one violently murdered by the other.
It probably won’t change anyone’s mind that’s already made up – fellow Hitchcock referencer Brian DePalma plus Hitchcock himself face similar accusations to this day – but it’s genuinely amusing to see the normally focused maestro actually having fun with his own bloody legacy and using it to such a stylish advantage. The rainbow coloured chills of Suspiria have been replaced with stark, more muted colours in order to make the blood pop to jaw-dropping effect, especially in one majestic moment when a character has their arm suddenly removed by a surprise blow from an axe to have their stump shoot blood up a pristine, white wall like a fire hose. The performances are solid and even a little tongue in cheek with lead Anthony Franciosa giving a somewhat amused, detracted air to Neal, while Argento regular Daria Nicolodi plays a lot more subdued than her role in Deep Red – but props have to go to B-movie demigod John Saxon as Peter’s smug agent who drops his usual tough-guy shtick to play the rather dapper, hat-obsessed gent who has inadvertently kicked everything off thanks to his choice in women.
So, are Argento movies misogynist? I’m personally still on the fence I’m afraid – but then aren’t most slasher movies to some extent? The whole film is literally about a killer who hates women who’s work is co-opted by a man who hates a specific woman so it would be fairly hard to not to go down that particular road, but the results are undeniably spectacular and shows that Dario hadn’t lost his touch when it came to orchestrating mass carnage that is bewitchingly stylish as it is unflinchingly brutal.
You may or may not agree with the content, but there’s no argument that Tenebrae is Argento at his most cruel; and yet at the same time his most playful. Maybe not a perfect ten, then (the final five minutes fail to stick the landing as confidently as the rest the film) but maybe a damn good ten-ebrae…