Tenebre marked Dario Argento's return to the "giallo" form (or the Italian mystery-thriller) after having made two films with supernatural themes back to back: Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980).
It would prove to be a fitting companion piece to his excellent Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975).
The film starred the American actor Anthony Franciosa and Argento's girlfriend
Daria Nicolodi. Once again, the pounding score was composed by Goblin, but due to legal
difficulties, they recorded under their names: Simonetti, Pignatelli and Morante.
The director of photography was Luciano Tovoli, who had done such a marvelous
job on Suspiria.
Argento based the film on an incident that happened when he was in Los Angeles. A fan had gotten his phone number and started making threats on his life. The episode, along with several other violent incidents he had seen or heard about, was emblematic to the director of city life in America.
He deliberately set Tenebre in a Rome
bathed in sunlight, inspired by the many cop shows of the '70s based in L.A., such
as Charlie's Angels. (Ironically, tenebre roughly means shadows or darkness.)
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. He had broken the most deep rooted taboo
and found not guilt or fear, but freedom. Every humiliation which stood in his way could be
swept aside by this simple act of annihilation: Murder.
And so the film begins with a passage from a mystery novel called Tenebre, written by the author Peter Neal. Based in New York, Peter is headed towards Kennedy Airport to catch a flight to Rome to promote the book.
As he is about to board the plane, he hears his name called over
the speakers. There is a phone call for him from his ex-wife Jane (Veronica Lario), who's upset because Peter hasn't seen her in six weeks.
He promises to get in touch with her the next day. Peter is unaware that Jane has placed the call from a phone booth just a short distance from him. While speaking with him, a friend of Jane's manages to sabotage the contents of Peter's travel bag that was left unattended. Jane then watches as the plane takes off.
In Rome, an attractive young girl named Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) is browsing through a shop. She comes across Peter's book and slips it into her handbag. There are two people watching her:
one is an unseen presence, and the other is the store manager (Enio Girolami), who promptly hauls her into his office for questioning. Although Elsa has a history of shoplifting, she flirts with him and he lets her go.
While walking home, Elsa is menaced by a homeless man. He chases after her but she makes it to her building and locks the gate to her apartment complex. Safely inside, she realizes that someone has cut the power. Just then, the homeless guy knocks on the window and frightens her.
She backs away, only to find herself in the grip of a black-gloved stranger inside her home. He holds a razor up to Elsa's neck while he stuffs pages from Tenebre into her mouth. Then with one swift move, he takes the razor and cuts her neck. Elsa falls to the ground and the killer takes snapshots of his work.
Peter arrives in Rome and is greeted by a group of reporters, including an old friend of
his named Tilde (Mirella D'Angelo), a magazine writer. They have known each other for a decade and Peter is surprised when Tilde accuses him of penning a sexist novel.
Peter's agent Bullmer (John Saxon) cuts short the casual interview and whisks Peter away.
He informs his client that his book is a bestseller and has been number one for twelve weeks.
Peter wonders about a fellow who was silently standing around with the other reporters and
who didn't speak a word.
Bullmer tells him the man is Christiano Berti (John Steiner), a book reviewer for a local television station - and that Peter is booked on his show that week.
The two men are met outside of the airport by Peter's secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and Gianni (Christian Berti), Bullmer's assistant. Peter tells Anne he has a gift for her...but when he opens his travel bag, he finds his clothing slashed and her present broken.
Peter, Anne, and Gianni to to Peter's hotel room, where Detective Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) await them. They inform the trio that a girl was murdered a few hours earlier - and that pages from Peter's books were found inserted in her mouth. This detail (and the fact that Tenebre involves a killer who uses a razor) is
what has brought the detectives to Peter.
Germani hands Peter a note he found in the room addressed to him. There is a quote from his book: "There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him." Peter is told to keep in touch and to let the authorities know if he receives any further messages.
Before the inspectors leave, Peter remembers to tell them about his travel bag. The phone rings and it is the killer, calling from a booth outside and threatening to kill again. Before Germani and Altieri can get to him, the stranger disappears.
Someone is having a nightmare. A girl (Eva Robbins, a transsexual) is frolicking on a beach with some young boys. One of them strikes her in the mouth, causing her to bleed. The boy runs
away but the girl catches up to him and sticks the heel from her red shoe deep into his
At a local bar, Tilde is out with her girlfriend Marion (Mirella Banti). Marion is flirting with a man and takes him back to their apartment. Tilde shows up later in the evening and finds Marion drunk and
bragging about the sex she had with the guy.
Furious, Tilde throws a glass at her and goes to her bedroom. (An amazing tracking shot is shown - going around the apartment complex, in and out of the rooms. Terrific!)
We see a black-gloved intruder enter
the ladies' pad. While Tilde is changing into her nightgown, the stranger calls her a "filthy, slimy pervert" and strikes her with the razor. Marion hears the sound of breaking glass and heads down the stairs of the duplex to see what happened.
She catches a glimpse of Tilde's body and tries to run away. The killer is right behind her and cuts her in the back, before slitting her throat. Again, he takes photos of the corpses.
The following day, the hotel manager's daughter Maria (Lara Wendel) goes to Peter's room to fix the water heater. She flirts with him, much to Anne's amusement. Another note is slipped under the door that says, "So passes the glory of lesbos." When an autopsy performed on Tilde and her girlfriend reveals they were killed by the same razor, Detective Germani phones Peter to inform him of the murders.
Peter is scheduled to be interviewed by Christiano Berti. Before the taping, they have a short discussion in the studio lounge. Christiano gives Peter his take on Tenebre. He says that the book "is about human perversion and its effects on society" - and wonders how the author sees these effects of "deviant behavior on our lives."
Peter disputes this assertion, as well as the notion that any of his characters are "deviants." It's a friendly disagreement and the men head into the studio to tape the show.
Bullmer spots Detectives Germani and Altieri...and steers them away from the interview. Germani tells the agent that his client holds the key to the case and that the murders are a tribute to Peter Neal.
Peter sees Jane in her car outside of his hotel window. He phones New York but gets her answering machine. Anne tells him that Jane probably came to Rome to apologize for destroying the contents of his travel bag.
Night falls and the killer plans another murder. He pulls out a file with photos of a
hooker and heads out to pick her up...but unwittingly leaves a key in the backdoor of his house.
Meanwhile, Maria has spent the day riding around with Gianni on his motorcyle. They get into a fight and Gianni lets her off in the middle of a street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. As she's walking home, an angry Doberman Pinscher suddenly chases her through a park.
Maria finds refuge in a huge house in which she finds a key in a door. She searches the place for help but finds something horrific...photos and articles about the murdered women. Realizing she
has entered the domain of a killer, she puts some of the photos in her pocket.
The homeowner returns and interrupts Maria as she is about to make a phone call. The young girl catches a glimpse of a razor and runs out of the house. The killer picks up an ax and goes after her. Maria trips and is struck repeatedly in the chest.
Peter and Detective Germani receive yet another note that reads, "I grieve for this child...her death was the only way I could go on." This time, Peter's life is directly threatened.
While trying to put the pieces together with Anne and Gianni, Peter remembers Christiano's comments about perversion and realizes that he lives a few blocks away from
the hotel. He drives out to the reviewer's house with Gianni...and together, they observe Christiano through huge glass windows.
Gianni leaves Peter to go around the home and get a view from another area. Gianni watches as someone cuts the power and Christiano is struck in the head with an ax.
Frozen in fear, he is suddenly frightened by the killer, who throws a sculpture through the window and shatters the glass. Gianni runs and finds Peter on the ground, apparently knocked in the head with a rock by the same person who murdered Christiano.
Gianni didn't get a good look at the killer...but it seemed to him as if the victim knew his attacker. Peter washes his head wound and when left alone with Anne, the two share an intimate kiss.
We see another dream with the "girl" wearing the red shoes. In this one, she is walking with a young man as someone watches her. Left alone, the stranger leaps out from the bushes and stabs her in the stomach.
Peter visits with Bullmer in his office and tells him he wants to leave Rome. When Peter
departs, Jane emerges from a closet and we see the real reason she's in Italy. She is having
an affair with Bullmer. The two agree to meet later that afternoon.
Gianni drives Peter back to Christiano's house - where investigators are pouring over
the place. The evidence they find shows a clear obsession by Christiano of Peter and
Peter quotes a passage to Detective Germani from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles. It says, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." He also tells the officer he's going to leave town, out of fear for his safety.
When Jane arrives back at the apartment she's renting, she finds a gift she believes is from Bullmer. Inside the box is a pair of red shoes - which she wears to her rendezvous with him. As she approaches Bullmer in a busy square,
someone stabs him in broad daylight. Jane turns and heads in the opposite direction.
Gianni offers to drive Peter to the airport for a flight to Paris and tells the writer that he's
trying to recall something about the night he saw Christiano murdered. After dropping
Peter off, Gianni goes back to the murder scene and remembers that Christiano yelled out, "I killed them all" before his death.
If Christiano killed the four women...then who killed him (?) he wonders. He rushes back to his car but before he can drive away, he's strangled with a rope by someone in the backseat.
Jane calls Peter's hotel room but Anne answers and tells her that Peter has left Italy.
Jane wants to confess to something she did wrong...presumably her affair with Bullmer...and Anne tells her to stay put. Anne gets the directions to her apartment and is on her way.
Jane is terrified and sits at a table holding a gun. There's a fierce thunderstorm outside as she waits for Anne. Suddenly, an ax breaks through the window next to her and slices off part of her arm. Screaming in agony, Anne sprays the white wall with her blood before falling to the ground.
The killer strikes her several more times with the ax. (One of the all-time great horrific scenes, so much so that it was cut out of most American prints.) Cut to another dream sequence of the "gir"l with the red shoes being stabbed. This time, we see her killer take the shoes off.
A woman arrives at Jane's apartment. As soon as she enters, she is hit in the head with
the ax. We finally see the killer...it's Peter Neal himself. However, the person he's murdered
is not Anne - but Inspector Altieri. Detective Germani turns up and Anne follows.
Anne cannot believe her eyes...as she tries to make sense of what's before her - her friend slumped on the floor next to the savagely slaughtered woman.
Germani has figured out a motive. Peter became aware that Christiano was the killer and when he found out Jane was having an affair with his agent, he killed all three. The murders would be blamed on some unknown maniac.
Peter is told he is under arrest but as he is about to surrender, he has a surprise up his sleeve. He turns around and sticks a razor to his neck, slashing himself from ear to ear.
The inspector helps Anne to his car, where he further explains to her how Peter could have
been the second killer.
When Peter was a teenager, a girl he knew was brutally murdered. It's believed that Peter committed the crime although he was never charged. When Christiano's killing spree began, it triggered something in Peter he had suppressed all these years.
Inspector Germani goes back into the apartment...but doesn't find Peter's body. He discovers that the razor was actually a trick, complete with fake blood. Before he can react, Peter strikes him with the ax, knocking him towards the door and knocking over a huge sharp-edged sculpture.
Anne hears the commotion and decides to go back in just as Peter is exiting. When she opens the door, she accidentally impales Peter with the sculpture. Realizing she has just killed a friend she thought was already dead, all Anne can do is scream...
Viva Italia! Tenebre is one of Dario Argento's three strongest films and also one of his most fun to watch. It's a ride of atmospheres, taking you from the silliness of the quarreling lesbians, to the starkness of Jane's brutal murder, to the revelation of *two* killers, to the rawness of the climactic ending.
Whereas Suspiria swirls with breaths of dark sorcery and Deep Red simmers in its own childhood trauma, Tenebre is pure slasherdom done Italian style.
It was Argento's intention to put on film a "gory rollercoaster ending full of fast and furious murders." He certainly succeeded.
There is an interesting anecdote about this movie from the director that might not be obvious to most viewers. It certainly wasn't to us.
Referring to the setting, Argento claims: "Tenebre isn't based in the present but about five years in the future. It was never meant to be a story about something that is happening now and it doesn't contain one shot of typical tourist Rome.
It isn't exactly my Blade Runner but nevertheless, a step into the
world of the future. Watch the film with this in mind and it will become very apparent. The film occurs in a world inhabited by fewer people with the result that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded."
Tenebre is also known as Unsane.