Tenebrae - Blu-ray Review

'Argento’s Tenebrae is essentially giving giallo fans exactly what they want from start to finish.'

It would almost certainly be a premature generalisation at this juncture to reach the conclusion that I don’t get on with Italian Horror films. That said, it’s a conclusion that’s well within sight, and that might very well be reached in the near future based upon how my next hypothetical encounter with this esoteric subgenre goes. Last month, I grappled with Ruggero Deodato’s repugnant grandfather to contemporary found footage movies, Cannibal Holocaust, finding little to appreciate and even less to enjoy. Having put Deodato’s nastiness behind me, December then placed in front of me Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, which, whilst considerably less unpleasant than Deodato’s gruesome flick, again failed to ignite in me much positivity. Both Argento and Deodato are considered by many as masters of Horror; the two films I experienced are regularly held up as some of their crowning work. Like I said, maybe Italian Horror and I just don’t gel.

Placing the film in cinematic context, Tenebrae is firmly rooted in the giallo subgenre: a collection of “spaghetti thriller” movies said to combine Hitchcock style whodunnit plots with gratuitously bloody horror scenes. Giallo films regularly reuse standard plot devices, such as a psychopathic killer wearing black gloves; Tenebrae appears to follows the traditions of the genre fairly consistently, with all of the aforementioned elements present and correct.

This was my first experience of a giallo film, and my impressions were decidedly mixed. Giallo films seem somewhat like the Carry On films or Roger Moore’s tenure as James Bond. Fans of these movies don’t watch to see something especially new or challenging; they thrive on the comfort of knowing almost exactly what to expect from each new entry in the series, going in virtually pre-programmed to having their expectations met. Argento’s Tenebrae is essentially giving giallo fans exactly what they want from start to finish.

But like Carry On, like Moore’s 007, giallo films are likely to be something of a “Marmite” subgenre - you’ll either love them for all their over-the-top campness and reliably present conventions, or you’ll wonder how anyone could consider them anything but tedious and cheesy. And whilst I can potentially see the kitsch appeal of Tenebrae and other giallo features, I get the feeling I’m so firmly placed in the latter group I may as well pitch a tent and get the Calor gas stove going.

Tenebrae’s central plot potentially has merit: Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), an American author of extreme horror novels, travels to Italy to promote his latest work only to become embroiled in a series of murders influenced by his book’s plot. There is some entertainment to be had at times in attempting to work out who the killer might be and which plot elements will end up as red herrings. But Argento’s script and direction fails to make the story anything more than a plod through the motions until the final reveal. Sporadic scenes involving a woman in red high heels (which for much of the film’s duration could just as easily be flashback, fantasy or highfalutin artsy metaphor) should add intrigue, but in all honesty just make the whole thing feel a bit of a pretentious mess. The cast range from the satisfactory to the distractingly poor; the most memorable performance for better or worse is Franciosa’s, his portrayal of Neal coming straight from the William Shatner School Of Character Acting.

Blood-splattered scenes of murder and violence might well be part of the giallo genre, but here they regularly feel gratuitous, often adding very little to the story or the experience Tenebrae offers. The film’s values also feel uncomfortably dated, especially in its portrayal of women. I can get past the genre convention of most of the victims being young women; I can even accept that liberal nudity is part of giallo, even if I see it as yet more evidence for the overall cheapness of the genre. But the the fact that every female character here is either a sex object, a snarling feminist, a direct target for male oppression or some combination of these elements just makes Tenebrae all the more shallow and dated.

Tenebrae is horror trash, but then one man’s trash might be another man’s treat. You may enjoy Argento’s decadent-yet-pulpy giallo “masterpiece”, as it has often been cited to be, but for me Tenebrae just provided another good reason to keep well away from Italian Horror films.

Tenebrae is out in the UK on Blu-ray now.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.


  1. Oh, dear.
    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

    I can't even comment on this, because I know we would argue for weeks on end.

    Bless you on your journey, friend Ben.

    1. I'm guessing you're an Argento fan, bettergeekthannever. For what it's worth, I love a good argument about cinema, so feel free to comment further!