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TENEBRE (director/writer: Dario Argento; screenwriter: George Kemp; cinematographer: Luciano Tovoli; editor: Franco Fraticelli; music: The Goblins/ Pignateli/Claudio Simonetti/Elsa Morante; cast: Anthony Franciosa (Peter Neal), John Saxon (Bullmer), Giuliano Gemma (Detective Germani), Daria Nicolodi (Anne), Christian Borromeo (Gianni), John Steiner (Cristiano Berti), Lara Wendel (Maria), Carola Stagnaro (Detective Altieri), Veronica Lario (Jane McKerrow), Mirella D’Angelo (Tilda), Eva Robins (Myster Girl on Beach); Runtime: 100; Bedford Entertainment-Film Gallery; 1982-It.)
If it looks like trash and smells like trash and photographs like trash, then it probably is trash.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

If it looks like trash and smells like trash and photographs like trash, then it probably is trash. Dario Argento’s exploitative but stylish slasher horror film is fascinated with all the unpleasant knife and ax murders it is able to squeeze into its 100 minutes of running time, which nearly kill off the whole cast in the bloodiest way possible. There’s not much of a plot or much of a story, and what the story tries to do above all else is conceal the murderer’s identity. All we ever see of the killer is his black gloved hands (actually the hands of Dario Argento). But what the story can’t cover-up is all its holes and how asinine it is. It seems unfair to say this is an intellectual thriller after all the gratuitous violence used throughout, even though it draws worthy parallels to Argento’s own personality as a creative filmmaker.

Mystery best-selling novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) jets from New York to Rome to promote his new book Tenebre. A killer obsessed with Neal begins a brutal series of murders that are just like in the book. They are followed by cryptic notes taken from the book that are addressed to the author. Homicide Captain Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and his woman partner Inspector Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) question Neal in his luxury hotel suite after a woman shoplifter lifts Tenebre from a bookstore and is caught and released, but who is followed home by the killer and sliced up with an old-fashioned razor and left to die in a pool of blood with pages from Tenebre stuffed in her mouth and photos the killer takes of his vic (I guess she deserved what she got for wanting to steal this book!). Germani is a fan of Peter’s books but has not read Tenebre yet, but when he does he is proud to tell the author that he figured out who the killer was by the time he reached page 34 (Of course, you know he must pay for such arrogance!).

Also in Rome with Peter are his obnoxious literary agent and publicist Bullmer (Saxon) and his attractive loyal assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi), and a local youth Gianni (Christian Borromeo) who acts as his guide in Rome.

Soon another copy-cat killing takes place, and this time it’s a lesbian couple who get brutally murdered with a razor while almost undressed. One of the lesbians is Tilda (Mirella D’Angelo), the daughter of an old friend of Peter’s who thinks his books are sexist. At the airport interview, she asked Peter “Why do you despise women so much?”

Another murder soon occurs. Peter’s hotel manager’s sexy 17-year-old daughter, Maria, is out on a date with Gianni but leaves him suddenly for no apparent reason and is soon chased in her mini skirt by a mad Doberman until she runs coincidentally into the slasher’s house and gets slashed to death by the killer after a couple of good screams.

After Peter goes on a TV program with a noted book critic, Cristiano Berti (John Steiner), he puzzles over what the critic privately told him about the book — that it’s about human perversion and its effect on society. The critic indicates that the book’s aim is to eliminate the pervert from society. That’s enough for the savvy Peter to figure out ahead of the nice but not too bright detective that Berti is the copy-cat killer.

Peter and Gianni watch Berti’s house to get proof that he is indeed the killer. Berti’s house is nearby Peter’s hotel and is where all the murders have taken place. When they hear a disturbance, Gianni investigates and watches as Berti gets an ax in his head after recognizing the killer. Peter gets knocked out by an unseen assailant on the vic’s lawn and Gianni never sees who killed Berti. When questioned by the police Peter states his theory of the crime, a theory which he steals from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hounds of Baskerville: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This is the heart of Sherlock Holmes’ inductive theory.

Bullmer is revealed to be having a secret affair with the author’s bitter ex-fiancée Jane (Veronica Lario), who is supposed to have been in New York but secretly comes to Rome to see her secret lover and make obscene calls to Peter. Bullmer and Jane both become obvious suspects, but soon Bullmer is knifed to death in the street and Jane is brutally murdered in her room. Meanwhile Gianni is beginning to think of something strange that Berti said before he was killed, but he’s strangled to death in his car before he figures it out.

The police captain suggests that Peter leave town, and Anne arranges for him to go to Paris. But before Peter can leave Rome the film’s last 15 minutes becomes a bloodbath, as the surprise is that there is more than one murderer.

The film’s failure beside its many plot holes is that it aims more for the blood and gore, and fails to capitalize on its premise of depicting how the creative mind of the filmmaker can make such a violent work artistic without hating women or without the artist being deranged or exploitative. The critic and the book writer are viewed as murderers and corrupters and egotists. But the self-reflective part of the auteur theory presented is not fully realized in this ode to madness. Nevertheless, there might be enough interesting fodder to intrigue horror film buffs — those who can see brains spinning instead of just blood spilling.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”