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After creating the dreamy masterpiece Inferno (1980), filmmaker Dario Argento returned to the giallo genre that he had popularized in the late sixties. But the film that Argento made, Tenebre (1982), was far more than a retreading of familiar ground for the artist. Tenebre is Argento’s definitive statement on his work in the cinema and his relationship, as an artist, to that medium. One could say that Tenebre is Dario Argento’s (1963); a self-reflective exercise in reflexive cinematographic strategies.

The mystery of Tenebre is the identity and motives of the killer who is imitating the crimes in novelist Peter Neal’s (Anthony Franciosa) fictions. Argento, by using an abundance of POV shots, keeps the killer’s identity a mystery while suggesting that the spectator as witness is culpable. In essence Argento adopts the reflexive formula of Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom (1960) to locate the intersection between perspective, the camera, and the passive gaze. By doing so, Argento suggests that these three types of voyeurism, two abstract and one concrete, are as inherently destructive as the imagined fantasies being enacted for their sake.

The character Peter Neal is a stand-in for Argento. Tenebre cuts into Neal’s dreams and memories in order to disorient the audience with abstract spectacles of misogynist horror. But their use as abstractions falls away in the final moments of Tenebre when they are contextualized. This act of presentation followed by contextualization suggests the apparatus of writing/filmmaking itself. When the plot twist arrives and it is revealed that there are two killers in Tenebre and that the second is Neal, life has finally imitated art which had already imitated life.

Tenebre is founded on cyclical concepts of causality. The compulsion to kill or destroy is matched only by the compulsion to create. A creator like Peter Neal may have turned his ingenuity and inventiveness to destructive acts of revenge, but only as part of Argento’s own creative process. The relationship between Argento and Neal mirrors that of Neal’s relationship to his novels which in turn have been inspired by the guilt of his own adolescence. Argento’s controversial spectacles of misogynist violence are addressed this way as a byproduct of an imagination formed by personal traumas.

Argento has never been more conceptual than he is in Tenebre, but that does not stop him from creating one of the finest giallos of his career. The spartan and sprawling Roman apartments create an eerie stillness in which the blood of violence is cast in stark contrast. The ploddingly deliberate pacing builds and builds in Tenebre until it reaches its bombastically gruesome climax. Argento’s craft as a master of suspense is on full display in Tenebre.

Paradoxically, the compelling aesthetic concepts are what keeps a top tier giallo like Tenebre from finding the same popular following as Suspiria (1977). For all of its stylistic accomplishments, Suspiria is not one of Argento’s greatest achievements. It is, however, his most accessible. Tenebre is ultimately a film that is best appreciated in the context of the numerous films that precede it in Argento’s filmography.