While it might be a mistake to suggest that Tenebrae was Dario Argento's last decent film, it does have a narrative clarity and purpose that most of his subsequent work has lacked. Opera and The Black Cat (his Two Evil Eyes segment) are hugely entertaining but messily executed thrillers, and while Tenebrae does replay many of the themes and ideas the director had explored throughout the 70s, it has a cold, bloody heart all its own.
Anthony Franciosa plays Peter Neal, an American thriller writer who comes to Rome to promote 'Tenebrae', his latest novel. The book seems to have inspired a killer to start offing those he considers 'deviants' — a prostitute, a pair of lesbians — much like the villain of the novel itself. And so Neal is drawn into the mystery and finds himself conducting his own investigation, as the bodies continues to pile up around him.
Tenebrae is on one level Argento's way of addressing those critics who constantly pick him up on his attitude to women and the level of violence in his films generally; Neal is accused early on of misogyny by a feminist writer, while his agent (John Saxon) is only too aware that it's the gory nature of his client's books that have made him a rich man. Unfortunately Argento doesn't have that much of an answer to such charges, and the stylishly messy, half-naked death of said feminist writer hardly furthers the argument.
But taken as a straight murder mystery, Tenebrae succeeds admirably. Along with Deep Red, this is easily the most plot-driven of Argento's films, and there's a terrific twist that genuinely surprises. The lavish camerawork and striking set design (white and metallic) are still what the director is most interested in, but for once he doesn't sacrifice the story for visual fireworks; only during the louma-crane stalking of the lesbians' house do you really become aware of the man behind the camera. It's also his most bloody film, with most of the splatter kept for the still-shocking climax.
The actors have fun — Franciosa may play the thing like an episode of his 70s TV show Matt Helm, but Saxon is always entertaining, but there are good roles for Italian genre veterans Daria Nicolodi (then Mrs Argento), John Steiner and Giuliano Gemma. And the actress who loses her arm so spectacularly at the end is Veronica Lario, now wife of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Ex-Goblin members Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli and Claudio Simonetti supply a suitably edgy synth score.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.