'Aberrant' Sexuality in Tenebrae (Italy, 1982)


Deep Red brought the theme of male sexual deviancy, hinted at in earlier Argento films, to the fore. In Tenebrae male and female sexual deviancy are central issues, and provide the motivation for the killings. The 'razor killer' punishes those that he considers to be guilty of 'aberrant' behaviour. The murders committed in Deep Red are initiated by the killer's fear of the discovery of an earlier, repressed murder. Tenebrae's plot is more complex; again there is an earlier repressed murder, but there are two killers operating separately.

Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), an American crime writer, becomes involved in a series of killings in Rome; they are influenced by his most recent book, 'Tenebrae'. When he discovers the identity of the 'razor killer' to be the critic Christiano Berti (John Steiner), he devises a plan to murder his fiancée, Jane McKerrow (Veronica Laria) and his agent, Bullmer (John Saxon), who are having an affair. He kills Berti hoping that his death will appear to the police to be just another victim in the same series of killings. The deaths of Jane and Bullmer should then be attributed to some unknown serial killer, still 'at large'. Neal's alibi would be that he was not in Rome when the first razor murder was committed. He plans the perfect murder; the original killer is already dead and included as a victim of his own series. However Neal is insane; he has killed before and Argento provides us with hints to his earlier crime through the use of flashbacks, and a recurring musical motif throughout the film. Like Marta in Deep Red, his crime is repressed, he suffers from nightmares in which the events of the past leak back into his conscious, but he staves these off through the use of pills.

Tenebrae was released around the time when the American slasher films were at the peak of their popularity. In Britain the popularity of these films had led to many of them being placed on the Director of Public Prosecutions banned list; these films became the infamous video nasties. Both Tenebrae and Deep Red were to suffer this indignity. The American slasher films such as Friday the 13th (USA, 1980, d. Sean Cunningham), The Burning (USA, 1982, d. Tony Maylam), and Hell Night (USA, 1982, d. Tom de Simone) all share the same narrative structure. Vera Dika divides the elements contained in this structure into a past event and a present event. The past event occurred years earlier when the killer was driven to madness because of an extreme trauma perpetrated by members of a young community. In the second modern-day section, an event commemorates the past action and the killer's destructive force is reactivated. Members of the young community are stalked and killed until the killer is stopped/castrated by the final girl. (1).

Carol Clover discusses the killer propelled by psychosexual fury; a male in gender distress, a durable idea that has lasted since Psycho, and plays a major role in Argento's gialli. The sleeve notes for the video release of Tenebrae invite us to: "Take a bizarre voyage into the psychosexual…" Clover also comments on the fact that the killer is often never clearly seen; Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) and Michael Myers (Halloween, USA, 1978, d. John Carpenter) wear masks. In the giallo the killer wears a mask as in Blood and Black Lace (Italy, 1964, d. Mario Bava), or hides his/her identity and gender by merely allowing us glimpses of leather-gloved hands, or faces obscured by hats and shadows. (2). The killers in the slasher films often possess superhuman powers, they return from the dead and have to be killed more than once. (3). This appears to be the case at the end of Tenebrae, when Neal cuts his own throat. His body disappears like Michael Myers' at the end of Halloween. But Neal has used a fake razor and false blood; there is no supernatural force at work here, like much of what we see in the film, it is illusion. Dario Argento has his own formula, his narratives are usually set in the present (Although he claims that Tenebrae is set in the future) with a traumatic event from the past being referred to through the use of flashback sequences.

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