In this series I’m taking a look back at the films that, in the early 1980’s, were caught up in the Video Nasties moral panic in the UK. When video first arrived in the UK it was not covered by our censorship laws, and that, combined with the reluctance of the studios to embrace the technology, meant that many of the early releases were lurid, uncensored, horror films.
The tabloid press mounted a campaign against the films, and with a new right wing government in power and the growing influence of pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the Director of Public Prosecutions was instructed to draw up a list of films liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. I’ll be looking at every one of the 74 films that made this list, giving you a snapshot of the controversy around each film before watching and reviewing it.
Dario Argento’s films are (not unfairly) known for their graphic depictions of violence against women, and while that is far from all there is to Argento’s cinema, it’s no surprise that two of his films came up against the DPP in the video nasties panic. If anything it’s a surprise that only two of his films were DPP listed. Tenebrae was already cut by 4 seconds for its cinema release (the scene in which Veronica Lario’s arm is cut off, also, incidentally, the reason you can’t see this film in Italy at present, as Lario’s husband, one Silvio Berlusconi, has stopped it being shown). It was this cut version that Videomedia released in 1983, but the film still fell foul of the DPP, and became one of the 39 titles that remained on every version of the nasties list.
BBFC finally passed Tenebrae on video in 2000, but still in a compromised version. They not only added an extra second of cuts to the arm scene, but censored the poster too, replacing the blood dripping down the woman’s throat with a red ribbon. The film was finally passed uncut (and with original artwork) in the UK 20 years after its initial DPP listing.
Note: I saw Tenebrae at a special screening at the Empire Big Screen weekend, with an introduction and Q and A with Profondo Argento author Alan Jones. Thanks are due him for much of the background detail that follows.
Tenebrae tends to be regarded as one of Argento’s finest films, and with good reason. Coming off the back of the commercial failure of Inferno (his other DPP listed film), Argento went back to the Giallo basics of films like Deep Red and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. The film focuses on novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), who is in Rome on the book tour for his latest thriller; Tenebrae. When Neal arrives a series of brutal murders begins, and notes delivered to him suggest that the killer is obsessed with Neal and his novels.
Tenebrae seems to be a personal work for Argento. As the film begins he has Neal confronted by a hostile reporter who accuses him of misogyny, and Neal’s response to that criticism would seem also to be Argento’s argument about violent cinema “Let me ask you something? If someone is killed with a Smith & Wesson revolver… Do you go and interview the president of Smith & Wesson?” Unfortunately it never quite fully develops the copycat crime angle, with Argento content for most of the running time simply to deliver another slickly violent giallo, which is fine. The storytelling is sometimes a little weak (though the resolution of the plot is reasonably clever), but Argento is a visual filmmaker, and on that level Tenebrae is an unqualified success.
Though not so visually startling as Suspiria, Tenebrae has an incredible aesthetic eye. Argento shows us a contemporary Rome; none of the tourist sites are on display here, and while there are still striking buildings and streets on show this is a Rome where people live and work, rather than one to gaze in awe at. Argento makes it striking with his use of camera and colour. There are several bravura sequences here, but none more so than the two and a half minute tracking shot that goes in and out of a house shared by a lesbian couple (Mirella DiAngelo and Mirella Banti) before the sequence that ends up in their slaying; one of the great murder set pieces of Argento’s career, and source of one of his most memorable images; a straight razor slicing though a T-Shirt as DiAngelo lifts it over her head, exposing her screaming face. The use of colour is also something to marvel at, particularly the frequent use of vividly red blood against white (that T-Shirt, and most strikingly the arterial spray from Veronica Lario’s arm against a white wall).
Tenebrae is an exciting film. The set pieces are both tense and brutal (Argento’s trademark first person stalking scenes continue to work well) and the mystery is reasonably engaging, even if the dots connect in a slightly haphazard manner. What really makes the difference though, the thing that tips Tenebrae from engagingly slick and brutal giallo into something that really lives in the memory is the score by the members of Goblin (credited individually here because of a contractual issue). Driven by keyboards, pounding synth drums and, in key moments, the distorted repetition of the word ‘Paura’ (fear), it accentuates the horror and the excitement of Argento’s every set piece. The repetition of the theme over that tracking shot, and the use of ‘Flashing’ as Lara Wendel is chased by a dog are especially striking moments.
The cast do what they can here, but given the fact that the film is entirely dubbed (sometimes quite badly) it’s hard to tell much about the performances. At the very least the young and delicate looking Wendel makes for an ideal Argento victim, there’s fun to be had for exploitation fans thanks to the presence of John Saxon, the women are all suitably gorgeous and vulnerable, as the genre demands and Daria Nicolodi puts in another of her many appearances for her then partner (and gets to scream the house down over the end credits in another moment that really lingers in the memory). There is an apparent problem though, in that Anthony Franciosa seems rather unengaged a lot of the time, and that, plus the dubbing, doesn’t really help the story play.
Dario Argento has made more satisfying films than Tenebrae, but not, in my experience, many of them. On the whole this is a stylish, exciting, gory ride of a movie and any real horror fan owes it to themselves to check it out. The flaws are readily apparent when you take a step back, but while you’re watching Tenebrae they really don’t matter, so it gets an 8/10.
Bonus: Here’s the opening title theme from that great score