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Tenebrae (Blu-Ray)

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Actors: John Steiner, John Saxon, Giuliano Gemma, Ennio Girolami, Anthony Franciosa / Director: Dario Argento / Classification: 18 / Studio: Arrow Video / Released: 27 Jun 2011 / Run Time: 105 minutes

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      31.01.2013 09:52
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      A good giallo let down by a shoddy Blu-ray

      This Blu-ray from Arrow Films is pretty cheap at the moment - I got it online for about £5.

      Dario Argento made his name making gialli - a type of indigenous Italian horror in which murder mysteries are turned into horror movies by ramping up the suspense and gore. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red were among the best gialli made in the early 1970s, and Argento had a unique visual style that made the hackneyed giallo plots seem like less of a problem than they were for most directors. Then Argento made Suspiria, which broke free of the giallo mould and seemed to mark his emergence from the relatively enclosed world of Italian exploitation into the international horror mainstream.

      Unfortunately his follow-up, Inferno, was a sprawling mess. So for his next film, Tenebrae (1982), Argento returned to the reliable giallo for a less ambitious but still enjoyable movie.

      In Rome, a murderer is killing women in ways that imitate the latest novel of detective writer Peter Neal. Neal happens to be in Rome promoting his latest book, and the killer stalks and taunts him, while continuing to slash his way through the supporting cast.

      The plot is typical of a giallo. It throws at least half a dozen red herrings at us along the way, and manages to make us think twice about pretty much every character. It does throw a few relatively clever plot twists at us, but it's a colossally unrealistic film, with the ending particularly straining the credulity. The trick with gialli is not to try to second guess who the killer actually is but just to enjoy the convoluted ride. Because it's not really important who the killer actually is.

      The point of these films is the murder set pieces. That's where the horror comes in, and what the audience is in it for. The plots are usually upper-class soap opera of the most tedious kind, but with murder taking the place of divorce, adultery, bankruptcy and all the other plot devices soap operas use. And Argento knows how to put together a striking looking set-piece. The most famous is the second killing, in which a lesbian couple is murdered in their home. The camera prowls around the outside of the house for ages, using an elaborate crane shot which at the time hugely impressed everyone. I found this sequence a bit much, actually - it was like Argento trying too hard to be Argento, attempting to impress his audience a bit too self-consciously and ultimately failing to do so. The sequence also involves one victim deciding to change her T-shirt even though she's just heard someone whispering threats at her. This is just to give the film it's most famous single image, as we see the victim's terrified face peeping out through a hole in the shirt as the killer slashes at her (it's the image on the cover of the Blu-ray).

      While the silliness of that scene makes it a bit hard to take seriously, there's a much better sequence later in which a teenage girl is chased halfway across Rome by a nasty Doberman (although in the scenes where the dog catches up with her it actually looks quite friendly). She ends up stumbling across the killer's house in her desperate attempt to find help, and realises that she's in even more trouble. That scene manages to be a great deal more suspenseful, and nastier, because she is at least a halfway sympathetic character, while the lesbian characters are ghastly.

      Argento is often accused of misogyny, and Suspiria especially featured gruelling, lengthy murders of beautiful young girls. The murder scenes in Tenebrae are less protracted, less sadistic (although usually very bloody anyway. This film was on the video nasties list in the 1980s). But most of them still end up with lovely dead women posed like glamour models, often without many clothes on, and with decorative wounds and splashes of blood. At one point Argento has Neal confronted by an angry feminist journalist who accuses him of hating women. The journalist is one half of the lesbian couple who get murdered about ten minutes later, and she's shown to be possessive, jealous and prone to temper tantrums. Her girlfriend seems to like men more than women anyway, and wanders around with her boobs out most of the time. So the person who objects to the violence in Neal's novels (and probably Argento's films) is a nasty lesbian character who ends dead and sexily posed. That showed her!

      So lesbians are evil and women are there to be murdered, but only if they're sexy. Argento insists he isn't a misogynist, and men die in Tenebrae too. But his films leave me with a slightly uneasy feeling I don't tend to get with other, sleazier gialli - it's probably because Argento is technically head and shoulders above almost everyone else who made these kinds of films, which means the usual distancing you get with poor production values and acting aren't present.

      A lot of the acting is pretty bad. Most of the victims - male and female - come straight out of the big book or personality-free clichéd giallo victims. Some of the actors do better with their roles than others. American Anthony Franciosa is decent as the hero, Peter Neal. It's one of those films in which the police are curiously willing to involve a civilian in the investigation, and while Franciosa doesn't quite handle everything the film throws at him, he does alright. The other American cast member is John Saxon, who is in loads of similar films, and manages to make at least something of his nothing part as Neal's agent. He gets to wear a nice hat, anyway.

      Argento's then-partner Daria Nicolodi is good as his assistant and lover Anne, like Saxon making something of an underwritten part. Further down the cast list, though, things are less interesting. Englishman John Steiner, another Italian exploitation perennial, is unimpressive as a waspish critic. The girl being chased by the dog, Lara Wendel, gives a cute performance, and later ended up in Zombie 5, one of the worst films I've ever seen. Another victim is played by Silvio Berlusconi's then-wife. The English dubbing is better than usual for this kind of film - I guess Argento had enough clout to make sure the lip movements generally synced with the voices. The voiceover at the beginning sounds a bit like David Warner, but I can't imagine it is.

      The best thing about the film is the incidental music by members of prog outfit Goblin, Argento's most famous musical collaborators. The soundtrack is more 80s than their earlier scores (appropriately enough), and could be described as unusually intense disco. The only problem with the excellent main theme is that it plays whenever anyone gets killed, so does rather signpost the deaths. I guess that's the point.

      It's a very 80s film generally, with lots of pastel outfits and big hair for all the women. But it doesn't get intrusive. There are some great set pieces in the film, and it's pretty entertaining. But it isn't horrifying or particularly scary, and the silliness of the plot and faint air of dodginess make it difficult to completely like.

      This isn't a terribly impressive Blu-ray. Arrow released quite a few disappointing Blu-rays of Argento films, and got themselves a bit of a reputation for not giving the films anything like the kind of care and attention they deserved (their worst offense was releasing Bird With The Crystal Plumage in completely the wrong aspect ratio). While the aspect ratio is fine here, and the colours look nice and vibrant, the whole film is slathered with a weird swirl of digital noise that I found distracting. It looks like they smoothed away too much of the image while remastering it, thus obliterating the film grain and making the movie look unnaturally sheeny. They then seem to have added artificial film grain to try to make the film look better, but in fact made it worse.

      This is a disappointingly cack-handed transfer - I only bought it because it was dirt cheap anyway, so I'm not too irritated, but it could look great and doesn't.

      There are a few nice extras. There are two commentaries by film historians - the one featuring Kim Newman and Alan Jones is pretty good. There are shortish interviews with Argento, Daria Nicolodi, and Claudio Simonetti of Goblin. And there's footage of Goblin playing live in recent years - they do the main theme from Tenebrae and another track (Phenomena, which is another classic piece of horror music). Weirdly, though, when they play Tenebrae, clips from Dawn of the Dead are projected behind them. This is a bit like when Mayor Quimby says 'May the force be with you' to Leonard Nimoy in The Simpsons. Not just wrong, but crassly wrong!

      It also has the usual Arrow features - a booklet, a reversible cover and a flimsy poster.

      Anyway, the extras are nice, but the main reason to get this - improved picture quality - simply isn't there. It's one of the Argento films I quite like (I'm generally not a fan), but I can't recommend the Blu-ray at all. Three stars for the film and extras, but the picture quality knocks it down to two.

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