Film Archive: 80s horror Tenebrae is a troubling, but strangely captivating, gore-fest


As a cinephile and complete HD-whore, I spend most of my free time watching old films from yesteryear that have been remastered in high definition. I am also a horror fan, so Arrow Video’s expertly curated selection of old horror movies – which ranges from genre classics to little-known masterpieces to low-budget trash – is a feast irresistible to someone like me. I recently wrote on this website about one of their 2011 releases, Tobe Hooper’s 1981 film The Funhouse. It wasn’t a great film, but Arrow’s release of it was beautifully presented, transferred to blu-ray and lovingly packaged. This week, as I continue to feast on the further delectable 80s delights of Arrow’s catalogue, I discovered a movie from Dario Argento’s filmography of gory horror flicks, the controversial 1982 shocker Tenebrae.

Tenebrae is about a bestselling novelist who travels to Rome on a book tour. He is publicising his recent novel (which carries the same title as the film) and becomes involved in a series of murders. The start of the film shows him giving interviews about his work. One young woman asks him why he writes misogynist books. He chuckles and says he doesn’t think they are misogynist. The irony of this statement will be apparent to anyone who has seen director Argento’s previous films. He was frequently accused of being guilty of misogyny because his pictures closely dwelt on women in fear, pain or being brutally murdered.

This film isn’t that much different in that respect. True, it does feature men being brutalised too (an axe is put to pretty good use in one scene) but they are usually fully clothed. The women get to splash around in blood on the floor in revealing little numbers which often get ripped so her flesh is exposed.

Tenebrae is not a masterpiece, and there are things about it that are troubling. Although the sexist attitudes of Argento’s stories are self-consciously referenced, the camera sill lovingly lingers on female trauma in the violent scenes a little too much. Pastiche? Homage? Misogynist? These things are still up for debate.

The film had to be cut for an 18 certificate back in the 80s, but in 2003 the board decided it was acceptable for it to be released uncut on DVD. The film was also part of the “video nasties” furore and was kept out of shops and rental stores for years due to the Video Recordings Act.

To some viewers Tenebrae will feel like violent, exploitative trash, and that is understandable, but I cannot help but be captivated by Argento’s style and passion for blood. He presents the viewer with a beguiling festival of intrigue, fake gore and beautiful women. It’s not a particularly wholesome mixture, but it never bored me.

A note on the disc: Tenebrae is not one of Arrow’s most pleasing releases transfer-wise. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p high definition, but it isn’t wonderful to look at. The grainy image is inconsistent and the colouring sometimes a little odd, although this may be due to the source rather than the transfer. However, it’s certainly a step up from DVD quality. The extra features are typically excellent, with extensive interviews and commentaries.

Tenebrae (1982), directed by Dario Argento, is distributed on blu-ray disc by Arrow Films, Certificate 18. 



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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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