Release Date(s)1982 (September 26, 2023)
Studio(s)Titanus (Synapse Films)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Tenebrae was Dario Argento’s return to the world of gialli after dipping his toes into more overtly supernatural territory with the first two of his Three Mothers films, Suspiria and Inferno. While the former had been widely acclaimed, the reception to Inferno was far more muted, so Argento retreated back to safer territory with Tenebrae. The slasher boom that followed the release of Friday the 13th in 1980 was still in full swing at that point, so offering a conventional knife-wielding killer was a more reliably commercial choice. Argento being Argento, however, nothing in Tenebrae is quite that simple—or particularly safe, for that matter. It’s arguably his most brutal film (it would end up being branded as a “Video Nasty” in Great Britain), and the narrative could charitably be described as a trifle confusing, especially on a first viewing. All of the clues to solve the central mystery are clearly visible throughout the film, but deciphering them requires some patience, as well as a willingness to accept a twist that may seem like a bit of a cheat at first glance—though again, it’s not a cheat if you’ve been paying close enough attention.
Tenebrae’s tale of bestselling horror author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) being stalked by an anonymous serial killer was inspired by two events in Argento’s own life. A couple of years previously, he had received threatening phone calls from an obsessed fan while he was staying in Los Angeles, and so he eventually fled back to Italy. He was also struck by the randomness of two different fatal shootings that had happened in the vicinity, and he wanted to evoke the horror of senseless killings. Of course, given the nature of the story in Tenebrae, it’s pretty clear that one of his unspoken influences was the occasionally hostile reaction that his own films have received. During a reception for Peter Neal’s new novel (also titled Tenebrae), a journalist denounces him for his apparent misogyny, which is an accusation that has followed Argento all throughout his career. It’s a scene that obviously must have resonated for Argento, and yet he clearly didn’t intend Neal to be his doppelganger. There are so many layers to Tenebrae that it can never be treated that reductively. Argento plays games with viewer expectations and viewer identification all throughout the film, and in the biggest twist, he even plays games with himself—and with his own reputation.
Tenebrae is filled with the kind of bravura filmmaking that has been a hallmark of Argento’s entire career, but there’s a self-referential quality here that takes things to a different level. The film’s most justifiably famous centerpiece is an elaborate single shot that used a Louma crane to circle a house and swoop in on the two characters inside. Yet while those characters are indeed about to meet their fates, it’s not a shot taken from the killer’s point-of-view. Rather, it’s Argento’s POV, making viewers complicit in a very different way than typical slasher movie shots that place them in the killer’s shoes. To drive that point home, the scene has the expected musical accompaniment, yet unexpectedly, it’s not part of the score, but rather a record being played by one of the characters. The use of diegetic music in this sequence reminds audiences that everything that they are watching is a construct, and nothing can be taken at face value.
Argento also wore his influences on his sleeve in Tenebrae, much more openly than usual. That’s most obvious in a scene where Peter Neal’s agent Bullmer (the late John Saxon) sits on a park bench in broad daylight, with the world slowly closing around him. Argento wanted to do something different with Tenebrae, so most of the scares take place in brightly lit environments rather than under the cover of darkness. With that as a guiding principle, what better way to do so than to emulate the way that Alfred Hitchcock slowly built menace behind Tippi Hedren as she sat on a similar bench in The Birds? It’s yet another sign that the thrills in Tenebrae are as much intellectual as they are visceral.
Unfortunately for North American audiences, Tenebrae never made it to these shores in its original form. It finally appeared two years after its original Italian release, recut and retitled as Unsane. That version rendered the story even more incomprehensible, and it quickly sank without a trace under the weight of negative reviews. A film that could have happily thrived during the height of the slasher era was never given a fair chance to do so. Fortunately, it’s the original cut of Tenebrae that’s the most widely available today, and so audiences now have the chance to experience it at its best—even though they still may have to watch it more than once to figure out what’s happening.
Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shot Tenebrae on 35 mm film using Technovision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. For this version, the original camera negative was scanned at 4K resolution by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, and graded for HDR at Silver Salt Restoration in London (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision are included on the discs). There’s a small hair at the top of the frame during the titles, and a few of the title shots look a bit soft and grainy—the final closeup of the text before the book is thrown into the fire appears particularly grainy. That’s the sum total of any and all negatives in the entire transfer. Aside from those trivial quibbles, this is as close to perfect as a restoration can get. There isn’t a trace of damage anywhere else, not even a speckle, and the level of fine detail is significantly improved over previous versions. Stability is rock-solid. Textures such as skin and clothing are beautifully resolved—even the texture of the carpeting looks amazingly precise in the closeup when the letter is stuck under Peter Neal’s door. Once the titles are over, the grain remains even for the rest of the film, with no encoding issues whatsoever. Remarkably, despite the large quantity of extras on the disc, the bit rate remains at a consistent 90-115 Mbps throughout—David Mackenzie at Fidelity in Motion strikes again.
Tenebrae utilizes a much less stylized lighting scheme than Argento’s previous collaboration with Tovoli (the one and only Suspiria), so everything looks crisper and clearer. Yet in terms of production design and costuming, it’s stylized in its own distinctive way. It’s still a great candidate for the wide color gamut offered by HDR, as this grade proves in dramatic fashion. The colors here are simply gorgeous, ranging from bold primaries to subtle pastels, and all possible points in between. There are more variations of blue here than in most other Argento films, especially in the costuming, and it provides striking contrast to the reds, greens, yellows, and whites. (Even the blue track suit worn by Franciosa during the opening scenes looks unexpectedly dazzling.) The contrast range is excellent, with deep blacks, but plenty of delicate gradations to the shadows. It’s a nearly flawless grade, on top of a nearly flawless restoration.
Audio for Tenebrae is offered in English and Italian 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. These soundtracks were remastered from the original elements by L’Immagine Ritrovata and Bad Princess Productions. They’re both selected from the main menu, rather than from an audio menu, as there are actually two slightly different versions of the film on the disc. Closeups of text like in Peter Neal’s book and the notes from the killer were filmed separately in English and Italian, and both are included here via seamless branching. Selecting a version from the main menu will play that soundtrack with the appropriate inserts.
Like most of Argento’s international productions, Tenebrae was primarily filmed in English, with the Italian actors dubbed into English later. The dialogue in the English version made use of some of the production audio, so it often integrates better than in the Italian version, which was entirely post-synced. There are still some slight sync issues, however, even with the production audio, though that doesn’t appear to be consistent for all viewers. There may be problems for some combinations of players and displays, perhaps due to the seamless branching. Viewed with a Oppo UDP-205 feeding a JVC RS2000, the sync was loose at times, but not consistently so. Others have reported having to adjust the delay on their receivers or processors in order to get things to match properly. Your mileage may vary. Otherwise, the dialogue is clear, though it’s a bit harsher and more sibilant in the Italian version. Like most Argento films, the score is real the star of the show, and the memorable soundtrack here from former Goblin members Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante leads the way splendidly.
Synapse Films and Arrow Video have partnered for the 4K Ultra HD releases of Tenebrae, with Synapse handling North American distribution, and Arrow taking care of the UK. Previously, they both offered various 3-disc Limited Edition releases that are now long out of print. This new Special Edition release is a 2-disc set that omits the second UHD with the Unsane cut of the film. Otherwise, the discs are identical to the previous ones. (Arrow also offers a Special Edition with the same content but different artwork.) Disc One for this set is the UHD, and Disc Two is a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. The extras compile nearly everything from the prior Synapse and Arrow Blu-ray releases, with one newly-edited interview, new stills galleries, and one newly-included archival Anchor Bay featurette. All of the extras are available on both discs:
- Audio Commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman
- Audio Commentary by Maitland McDonagh
- Audio Commentary by Thomas Rostock
- Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo (HD – 89:24)
- Being the Villain (HD – 16:22)
- Alternate Opening Credit Sequence (HD – 2:14)
- Unsane End Credits (HD – 1:51)
- Voices of the Unsane (Upscaled SD – 17:16)
- Out of the Shadows (HD – 12:20)
- Introduction by Daria Nicolodi (Upscaled SD – :13)
- Screaming Queen (Upscaled SD – 16:05)
- The Unsane World of Tenabrae (Upscaled SD – 15:14)
- A Composition for Carnage (Upscaled SD – 10:05)
- International Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:14)
- Japanese Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:09)
- Italian Promotional Materials (HD – 9 in all)
- German Promotional Materials (HD – 38 in all)
- Spanish Promotional Materials (HD – 8 in all)
- US Promotional Materials (HD – 3 in all)
- Miscellaneous Images (HD – 9 in all)
The first commentary features Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic, as well as author and critic Kim Newman. It was originally recorded for the 2011 Arrow Blu-ray release. They call Tenebrae the most “Eighties” of Argento’s films, and describe it as a film that’s about its own style (which is pretty much true of most Argento films, but fair enough). They’re definitely admirers of the film, though they’re still willing to point out some lapses in logic and a few technical errors (such as the misidentification of an Arthur Conan Doyle quote). It’s a lively, conversational track (if a bit scattershot), and their enthusiasm can be infectious.
The second commentary features critic Maitland McDonagh, author of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, and it was originally recorded for the 2016 Synapse Blu-ray release of Tenebrae. She refers to Tenebrae as a film about insanity, and it’s hard to argue with that. (Although she does call the alternate title Unsane “one of the worst titles ever.”) Since McDonagh clearly planned her commentary in advance, it’s more focused than the freewheeling track with Jones and Newman, and not necessarily always screen-specific. It’s far from dry and academic, however, as she also provides many interesting personal details, such as relating what it was like to be a fan of Argento back in the days when his films had to be experienced via bootlegs.
The third commentary features filmmaker and Argento expert Thomas Rostock, and it was originally recorded for the 2011 Arrow Blu-ray. Rostock says that Tenebrae is his own personal favorite out of Argento’s entire filmography, and he states up front that his intentions are to examine the visual and aural aspects of the film, and to analyze its themes and aesthetics. He does just that, placing the film into context in Argento’s career, analyzing its themes and the convoluted plot, and also looking at the compositions and camerawork. There’s a small issue with this track, as the film’s audio is mixed in at too high of a level, and it can occasionally be a little difficult to distinguish everything that Rostock is saying. (Oddly enough, it’s the Italian soundtrack that’s playing, even though Rostock talks about the English dub and its sync issues.) There’s always going to be some repetition whenever a disc offers this many commentary tracks, but all three of these complement each other nicely.
Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo is the biggest extra in this package: a feature-length documentary on the history of gialli in Italy. Produced and directed by Calum Waddell, it was originally created for the 2016 Synapse Blu-ray. It features interviews with directors including Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Luigi Cozzi, and Ruggero Deodato; screenwriters like Dardano Sacchetti; and writers including McDonagh, Jones, Newman, Mikel Coven, and Shelagh Rowen-Legg, among others. Actor Barbara Bouchet and filmmaker Richard Stanley also offer their thoughts about the genre. They trace the evolution of gialli from Mario Bava through Argento, and also look at modern homages to the genre. (Newman makes the important point that while Alfred Hitchcock was an obvious influence on the genre, Michelangelo Antonioni provided an equally important foundation.) There’s a natural emphasis on Argento, with Tenebrae getting plenty of attention, but other filmmakers also get their due. The interviewees eventually devolve into an unproductive “they don’t make films like they used to” diatribe, but taken as a whole, this is a useful overview of the genre.
The rest of the extras consist of archival featurettes and interviews. Being the Villain is a newly-edited archival interview with actor John Steiner, who gives an overview of his entire career, including Tenebrae. The Alternate Opening features different footage than the theatrical cut, while the Unsane End Credits is the version using the Kim Wilde song Take Me Tonight. Voices of the Unsane features interviews with Argento, Tovoli, Daria Nicolodi, and others. It was originally included on the 2008 Anchor Bay DVD, but hasn’t previously been included on any Synapse or Arrow releases until now. The Introduction by Daria Nicolodi is an all-too brief extra from the 2013 Arrow Blu-ray. Screaming Queen is an interview with Nicolodi, originally from the 2011 Arrow Blu-ray. (It’s the same interview session as the one used for the introduction, so it’s not clear why it wasn’t included on the earlier release.) The Unsane World of Tenebrae is an interview with Argento, and A Composition for Carnage is an interview with Claudio Simonetti, both of which are also from the 2011 Arrow Blu-ray. The various Promotional Materials stills galleries collect different posters, lobby cards, and other publicity items from around the world.
It’s certainly a comprehensive collection of extras, but it’s still not all-inclusive. The biggest omission is the Unsane cut of the film that was offered with the out-of-print Limited Edition versions. That also means that the “Take Me Tonight” Stereo EP from that disc isn’t included, either. The only other thing that seems to be missing from previous Synapse or Arrow releases is the Goblin: Tenebrae and Phenomena – Live from the Glasgow Archives performance video. (The 2016 Synapse Limited Edition also included a CD of the soundtrack album.) However, Tenebrae is one of those films that’s had myriad releases around the world, so there are many extras from those that aren’t included here. One of most noteworthy is the original commentary track from the 1999 Anchor Bay DVD, which featured Argento, Simonetti, and journalist Loris Curci. It’s never seen the light of day on Blu-ray outside of Japan, so there must be rights issues involved.
So, if you have any of those other versions, you’ll want to hang onto them for the sake of completeness. Of course, if you already own any of the Synapse or Arrow Limited Edition releases of Tenebrae, then there’s nothing to see here. If you couldn’t catch them before they went out-of-print, then this is the version to own. Even without the Unsane cut, there’s plenty here to keep fans of the film busy for many, many hours. Most importantly, there’s no other version that can hold a candle to this outstanding 4K presentation of the film. If you’ve never seen Tenebrae, it’s the only way to fly. If you’re already a fan, you’ll want this disc in your collection, no questions asked.
- Stephen Bjork