Terror Beyond Belief!
Horror movies are known for being accessible. So much so that certain film snobs consider the genre to be low-brow fodder for the tasteless masses. It’s true that a lot of horror movies are straightforward, at least on the surface. Killer wears mask. Killer wields ax. Killer murders teens. Repeat. Horror fans like myself are quick to argue that there’s more going on in a lot of these movies than it may appear. Sociopolitical allegory. Exploration of anxieties culturally specific and universal. Even when there’s not a lot beneath the surface — hey. Who doesn’t like a good teen ax murder?
What do you do, then, with horror that isn’t so immediate? Asian horror may take some getting used to, but it’s got nothing on the neural realignment required to embrace the Italian subgenre known as “Giallo.” Named for the distinctive yellow covers of cheaply printed mystery paperbacks from the early 20th Century, these films are detective stories viewed through a singular prism of sex, blood, and dreamy weirdness.
Director Dario Argento made a name for himself with films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red. He built upon the formula established by early Giallo filmmakers like Mario Bava, adding his own signature touches. Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae was a career reboot of sorts, a return to traditional Giallo mysteries after dabbling in the supernatural in his films. It was also a response to criticisms about his treatment of women in his movies. These same charges of misogyny are leveled in the film against author Peter Neal, whose latest novel (also named “Tenebrae”) inspires a string of murders in Rome — drawing Neal and his associates into a grisly and dangerous investigation.
The word “trope” is often used as a pejorative — shorthand for a lack of invention on the director’s part. But genre fans know that tropes aren’t always bad. Shared ideas act as signposts on creative highways connecting filmmakers and fans. They provide a lexicon that allows the experience of watching movies to be a conversation instead of a monologue.
When it comes to Giallo, Italian isn’t the only language barrier. These films have a rhythm and visual language all their own that can be off-putting to newcomers. Tenebrae is an excellent example of the genre’s archetypes and themes. It’s also a great entry point for the uninitiated, full of creative kills, gore, mystery, twists, beautiful design, and even more beautiful women in states of undress.
Tenebrae (Blu-ray) from Synapse makes the entree into Giallo even easier, with a gorgeous new transfer and bonus features that contextualize and champion the genre. On the audiovisual front, the 1080p 1.85:1 image was made using the original camera negative and the result is lush and saturated with color (especially red) in a way it hasn’t looked before. Audio is available in both Italian and dubbed English as 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio mixes that leave ample room for dialogue nestled in with the driving prog-rock soundtrack.
The bonus features begin with a feature-length audio commentary by critic Maitlin McDonagh. As an expert on Giallo, she has plenty of insight into Tenebrae, Argento, and the genre’s place in film history — in particular Italian horror’s rocky inroads to America via the disposable grindhouse theater scene in Times Square. A journey that handed movies to snip-happy editors. The films were repackaged and renamed (Tenebrae was released in the U.S. as Unsane), to grab the attention of audiences whose interest in foreign cinema began and ended with boobs and blood.
“Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of Giallo” is the main attraction in the extras. This 90 minute documentary by High Rising Productions is a fascinating companion to the feature film. Though it focuses more on Argento’s career than other Giallo filmmakers, the combination of archival footage, poster art, and expert talking heads has plenty for existing fans as well as those left spinning by the feature film they just watched for the first time.
The remainder of the extras provide a snapshot of Tenebrae‘s fractured history, including English sequence insert shots that can be viewed as part of the film via seamless branching, alternate main titles, and the alternate closing credits sequence from the Unsane U.S. version of the film.
Giallo films aren’t for everyone, but releases like Synapse’s excellent Tenebrae Blu-ray are here to give horror fans the best possible introductions to these Italian classics — not only with the best looking and sounding versions of movies that haven’t always looked and sounded great in the past, but with bonus features like the feature length Giallo documentary included here.