How Dario Argento’s Tenebrae were inspired by his stalker
A legend of horror cinema, director Dario Argentoperhaps the most famous film is Suspiria, but he made a name for himself in the giallo, the Italian thriller genre. His 1982 film dark was more than just a return to classic giallo themes of serial killers and detectives – it was born out of a terrifying encounter with a deranged “fan” that inspired Argento to make his best thriller ever. darkAmerican novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) travels to Rome for a literary tour while a serial killer is on the loose. The murders are clearly inspired by Neal’s work, and when he begins to receive letters from the killer, the writer turns into an amateur detective. It’s a classic setup for a giallo – the word means “yellow”, the color of the covers of the cheap Italian crime novels that started the genre. While giallo films were popular since 1963 by Mario Bava The Girl Who Knew Too Much (as the title suggests, Alfred Hitchcockthe influence of comes through in form), in the 1970s Argento took the genre to new heights of style and explicit violence in films such as The bird with crystal plumage and Dark red.
After the release of Supernatural Horrors Suspiria and Hell, Argento was staying at a Los Angeles hotel when he received a series of disturbing phone calls. As the director’s autobiography tells, To fear, the unidentified caller was initially quite engaging and obviously very knowledgeable about his movies. Argento took him for an avid fan or “some kind of crazy journalist”. However, things took a very dark turn when the caller started referring to himself as “The Great Punisher”. The police got involved and the caller abruptly broke off contact, but not before promising that the happiest day of his life would be when he killed Argento. Although the filmmaker found the incident terrifying, it also inspired him to start writing a giallo about a crazy fan, originally titled Under the eyes of a killer. It was the story that would become dark.
The parallels between Argento’s real-life experience and the film’s plot are only too apparent. Like Argento, Peter Neal is a giallo specialist (albeit as a novelist) whose latest book is also called dark. During the film, Neal is attacked by critics who claim his books are sadistic and misogynistic, one of which is both knowledgeable and repulsed by the material. This critic, Christiano Berti (John Steiner), ultimately turns out to be a killer. He is on a Puritan mission to purge the city’s “human perversion” through murder. In a series of anonymous letters delivered to Neal’s hotel room, Berti calls the author “The Great Corruptor” and in one scene stuffs pages of his book into a victim’s mouth. Berti is clearly an echo of “The Great Punisher”, but he’s also a classic giallo killer – possessing a secret basement where he develops photographs of his murders and a workbench covered in cut-out letters for the mail of poison pens. Argento’s films lovingly focus on the details of a killer’s job, particularly the rituals and skills. Was this how he had imagined his own executioner?
In Giallo earlier, Argento had taken form to new levels. The bird with crystal plumage opens with a stunning murder sequence that plays tricks on audience perception. Four flies on gray velvet features a credulity-stretching plot device (a scientific procedure that scans the last image of a deceased person’s retina) to reveal the killer. In dark, Argento is still playing with the form he helped develop. The first half of the film sets up the type of giallo audience expected from the director, featuring a killer driven by sexual obsession (masked in ultra-conservative distaste). His elaborate kills use the usual fetish elements, including black gloves and a straight razor. However, this psychopath is sent halfway and replaced by a second murderer who kills more roughly with an axe.
Giallo’s protagonists often turn to amateur sleuths to find a killer and clear themselves of wrongdoing. Here, Argento sets Neal as such a lead, though he is ultimately revealed as the second psychopath. The two-killer plot cleverly deflects suspicion from Neal as the first murder occurs in Rome before his plane lands. Neal’s subsequent detective is a disguised attempt to take the killer’s place and set up a revenge plot against his agent, Bullmer (John Saxon), who is having an affair with her ex-lover (Veronique Lario). It’s not uncommon for giallo to have labyrinthine plots, but dark goes even further by taking the public on the wrong foot. Neal is a replacement for Argento due to his profession and the way he is attacked for his material, but the director also examines the director’s role as a manipulator.
Neal ends up mocking the lead sleuth (who admits he never guesses the killer in giallo), saying he found out the killer’s identity very easily and planned his own series of murders “like a book”. Like the director, Neal shares a love of artifice and acting that mirrors Argento’s highly stylized approach. dark features one of Argento’s most technically brilliant scenes – a continuous shot around the exterior of a house as Berti kills two victims. A later scene, where the soon-to-be-killed Bullmer stares at the people around him, knowingly references Hitchcock’s voyeurism. rear window.
dark remains with a doubling theme throughout the film. There are two killers and two sets of murders with different motives. Many characters have doubles or are confused with each other at key points. When Neal thinks he killed his personal assistant (Daria Nicolodi) in the film’s final massacre, he turns out to be a female detective (Carola Stagnaro). Neal’s double is Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) and, after a fake suicide, he appears directly behind him – literally taking his place as Giermani kneels out of frame. Just as the characters of “The Great Punisher” and Argento himself are reflected in the film, so are the other characters and structure, which are split when Neal kills Berti and resumes the slaughter.
With its violence and conventions, the giallo is one of the most playful, stylish and deliberately contrived genres. Argento is a master of form and dark represents it at its most inventive. He was clearly inspired by his stalker, but he also addresses his more conventional critics in the film. In his autobiography he describes dark as “a bit of revenge” on the critics who regularly attacked the violence in his films. Ironically, it does this by dubbing the explicit content. Located mostly in daylight and brightly lit modernist apartments, darkNeal’s brightness leads to an explosion of blood against a white wall in Neal’s most brutal murder. Tenebrae means “darkness” in Italian, but Argento’s film is all about the inner shadows of its characters, as he repeats in his autobiography. It can also refer to a religious service that takes place in growing darkness (by extinguishing the candles) until the darkness is pierced with a loud noise (the “strepitus”). Argento’s film is marked by increasing darkness, until its bloodbath of an ending, which ends in a piercing scream at the last moment. Take that, critics!
Argento never discovered the identity of “The Great Punisher” and it’s clear from his book that he was only too happy that the disturbing individual had simply disappeared. dark is the legacy of that moment, easily the director’s best film of the 80s – although 1987 Opera (another killer fan story) is getting closer. It is also Argento’s declaration to his detractors that he would not back down, producing a film that surpasses his previous peak giallo, Dark red. For fans of cinematic thrillers and killers, or just horror in general, dark remains an unmissable event. Just don’t like it too much.