Tenebre (1982) ***1/2
Director: Dario Argento
Runtime: 1h 50m
The notion that horror movies are generally misogynistic has always been somewhat baffling to me. Slashers have some female victims, but they also have a disproportional number of female heroes; there’s a reason the trope is called Final Girl, not Final Person. Indeed, by any objective measurement, male victims are both more numerous and more horribly victimized than their female counterparts. However, our society is rather indifferent to male suffering and so conscious of female suffering that this smattering of murdered women feels somehow more objectionable than vast ocean of murdered men. It is a bias that, for the most part, goes totally unexamined, even by the professional critics that make their careers by pointing flashlights at cultural blind spots. Indeed, even when filmmakers call out this very bias directly, most critics willfully fall into the trap rather than examine their own faulty opinions. Take for example, this review, where a critic laments how misogynistic it is that the women in Hostel II (2007) are subjected to the same tortures as the men in Hostel (2005). I have no doubt that Hostel’s director Eli Roth wanted to create just such a response; it is entirely in keeping with his frat-boy/prankster persona. But Roth is nothing if not unoriginal, and indeed, today’s film shows that Dario Argento had a similar idea 20 years earlier. Watching Tenebre again, it’s almost as if Argento was tired of having his films called misogynistic, and decided to show his detractors a film that matched their own criticisms.
Peter Kneal is a successful American novelist, who has penned a series of successful and grisly horror/thriller/mystery novels along the lines Thomas Harris. His latest work, Tenebre (Latin for darkness), is a huge hit overseas as well becoming a bestseller in Italy. So when the audience first sees him, he’s in the process of boarding a plan to Rome for a publicity tour. It’s hear that we get the first indication that something is amiss in Peter’s personal life, when he gets a phone call from an unseen woman. Their relationship is unclear just then, but later on it will be quietly revealed that this is Kneal’s ex-wife Jane, though the exact complications in heir relationship will be kept quiet until the film’s climax. While Kneal is on the phone, somebody swipes his luggage, vandalizes his possessions and then slips it back to him without him realizing what is going on. Evidentially, the divorce was far from amicable.
Meanwhile in Rome, a vicious killer stalks the streets, preying on young women. His first victim is a female shoplifter (presumably she’s a thrill jokey, as later we will see that her apartment is huge and well furnished). However, deciding which one of the creepy, older men that she interacts with that day is the killer is no small task. There’s the odd fellow who watches her intently from outside the department store she’s robbing, the store manager who lets her off with a warning in exchange for a future sexual favor, and the creepy homeless guy who attacks her on the way home. Naturally, none of these men is the real murderer, who is waiting for her off camera with a pair of black leather gloves and a switchblade (virtually the uniform for Giallo killers). What’s really odd is that the killer has brought a copy of Peter Kneal’s Tenebre with him, and in the middle of murdering the young woman tears out pages from the novel and rams them down her throat.
The police immediately question Kneal about the murder, as his novel was the one found stuffed into the victim’s throat. Its obvious that Kneal doesn’t know anything about the killing though, the author demands to know if the president of Smith & Wesson gets a call every time a murderer uses one of their handguns. Since Kneal was stuck in customs at the time of the murder, with witnesses to confirm his alibi, the police are forced to admit that he’s probably innocent. Just as they are about to leave Kneal gets a mysterious phone call from the payphone across the street from his apartment. It’s the killer on the other end, cheerfully praising Kneal for the bold artistic vision that has inspired him to start killing off deviants. Kneal accidentally lets it slip that the police have already visited him, which gives the killer enough chance to beat a hasty retreat before the cops can catch up with him. The proper authorities are back to square one, but Kneal decides that since he’s written a few mystery novels that he’s qualified to play detective, and joins the hunt for the killer on his own terms.
A word on the murder scenes: Argento has always favored ridiculous and meticulously choreographed death scenes in his movies, particularly for the first killing. Just consider the opening murder in Suspiria (1977) that ends with the victim being stabbed trough the heart, pushed through a skylight and hanged, a scene so garish and absurd that I have seen modern day audiences storm out of the theater in disgust. Compared to that high bar, the killings in Tenebre are relatively tame, but they leap out from the film that surrounds them. Part of it is the editing; each death scene is filled with rapid cuts and unnaturally framed shots, while the rest of the film is shot in a much more conventional fashion that does not draw any attention t the cinematography. For example, in one a woman’s garment is slashed and then we see her screaming face between the split seams. The overall effect transforms the murders from mundane slashings into surreal episodes. Stylistically, they feel like they have dropped in from another, much weirder movie.
Tenebre sits at an odd place in Argento’s career. The director’s earliest forays into horror, Cat of Nine Tails (1971), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and Four Gray Flies on Velvet (1971), were all formulaic, if visually striking giallos. But, by the 1980s Argento (along with the rest of the Italian film industry) had largely abandoned the old genre in favor of horror movies with more supernatural, or at the very least exotic, themes. Zombies, cannibals, and demons had mostly replaced the black gloved killers of the giallos. Indeed, Argento’s two films before Tenebre were Suspiria (1977) and Infenro (1980), both films about witchcraft and black magic. His next film after Tenebre, Phenomena (1985), is even more firmly rooted in the fantastic, resembling nothing so much as a grotesque fairy tale. What’s more, all of these films are wildly original in content, plot and style. Later in his career, you could make a case that Argento returned to giallo because of creative bankruptcy, indeed I would say that is exactly what happened with Trauma (1993), but such an argument would be ludicrous to pose in 1982. This is Argento at the peak of his career and at his most wildly inventive. Tenebre is thus a deliberate regression not just in regards to Argento’s own work, but to the industry is general. It’s a chance for the director to look back on his work and settle a few scores in process.
As I mentioned in my introduction, Tenebre has the feel of a movie that has been designed to deliberately play into people’s worst expectations of horror movies in general. Horror movies have long been imagined as bastions of reactionary bile; fantasies of independent or deviant women being violently brought back into the patriarchy’s fold. For the most part this vision of horror movies is absurd, and is not supported by the films themselves. However, in Tenebre Argento seems to have taken inspiration from these critics, and decided to deliberately craft a film that would conform to their worst expectations of the genre and the filmmakers working therein. Argento even clues the viewer in by making one of the victims a critic that lambasts Kneal for his violent, misogynistic art; the very criticisms that have inspired him. The film is deliberately provocative almost from the very start. Not only is every victim in the movie female, they are also all sexual deviants in some way or another. The shoplifter in the film’s intro is portrayed as promiscuous, using her feminine charms to avoid prosecution for her crimes; the female journalist who hectors Kneal on air is a lesbian and her girlfriend is a polygamous bisexual. Argento even plays into the common expectation that a horror filmmaker is giving voice to some repressed, violent desire (though for our purposes here this must go unexamined, as it brings us into spoiler territory).