Tenebrae (1982)

aka UNSANE


Nastiness Rating:

Directed by: Dario Argento
Written by: Dario Argento

An American author named Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is in Rome doing publicity when a serial killer starts using his latest book, Tenebrae, as a blueprint. The killer is ridding the world of “aberrant behavior.” First he offs a kleptomaniac. Then a pair of lesbians. Who could be next?

Dario Argento has always been my favorite of the Italian horror directors, probably because his films are more Hitchcock than outright gore. This, of course, doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a “style over substance” director. Of course he was. His movie still don’t make a whole lot of sense but, to me, they’re always more fun than Fulci’s films. They certainly make more sense, but there’s still a certain amount of dream logic to them.

Dream logic prevails in Tenebrae. There’s a set of weird-ass dream sequences that the killer (played, as always, by Argento until the killer is finally revealed) is apparently having. Most of them deal with a group of shirtless boys attacking or being attacked by a stripping hooker in white. It’s all sort of like a circa 1970s pants ad, complete with the girl looking longingly at the guy’s crotch.

Really, I think most of this film was made as an excuse to show women in various states of undress getting killed. (That and to allow John Saxon, who plays Pete’s agent, to ham it up…a LOT.) Other than that, there’s really not a lot happening. The kills are what this is all about, from the first girl who is slashed to death to another character getting her arm chopped off. All about the axe murder.

The centerpiece kill, though, is of the two lesbians, one of whom proves that it is perfectly legal to show some aureola in public. Just before the kills, Goblin’s score gets particularly loud. The camera leaves the living room where one girl is, goes out the window, up the wall, over the roof, seemingly all around six other houses, then finally into the bedroom of the other girl. It’s a two and a half minute tracking shot that does nothing for the plot, but makes the kill all that much more suspenseful. It’s amazing, disorienting and so perfect that the American distributor wanted it cut. Argento, of course, refused. Good for him.

The other striking thing about the movie, besides the blood flowing like wine, is the constant random acts of aggression throughout the film. Not always from the main characters, but from the extras. Arguments, fights, tiffs…all kinds of stuff happening in the background everywhere.

The American title of the movie was Unsane. That’s actually a pretty good title considering the film’s assessment of humanity at the time. It’s actually probably a pretty fair assessment, too.

This isn’t Argento’s best movie, but it is probably in the top 10. It’s definitely in the top 1o of the Nasties. It may be over the top, weirdly acted and super silly…but isn’t that what we ultimately want from an Italian horror film?

This is the British poster. Stop that! It's too silly.