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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Tenebrae 4K UHD Review

Synapse Films

Blu-ray Release: September 26, 2023 (following an August 2, 2022 LE)

Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color

Audio: English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Run Time: 101:03 (English version), 101:01 (Italian version)

Director: Dario Argento

Note: I'm recycling the majority of my older Blu-ray review. If you're only reading this to get my opinion on the new 4K UHD transfer, kindly skip to the Video and Audio sections.

American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) has come to Italy on a press tour for his latest thriller, Tenebrae – a tale of bloody murder concerning a killer’s obsession with traditional Christian morality. Just before Neal’s arrival, there has been a brutal murder and the victim’s mouth has been stuffed with pages from his novel. Neal and his assistant Ann (Daria Nicolodi) join Italian detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) in investigating the increasingly violent crimes, seemingly made in homage to Neal’s popular novel.

Warning: this review has loads of spoilers

Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (aka: Tenebre and Unsane, 1982), remains one of the divisive director’s most accessible features, however, despite its flashy imagery, crackerjack plot, and eye-popping violence, a full appreciation requires an established recognition of Argento’s tropes, his obsessions, his strengths, and his endearing weaknesses. Before Tenebrae, Argento tried to move away from the gialli films that made him famous with a historical comedy called Le cinque giornate (aka: The Five Days of Milan, 1973). When it failed to connect with critics or audiences, Argento retreated back to familiar territory to make his most elaborate and celebrated thriller, Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso, 1975).

Deep Red was meant to be his last word on the subject of, at least for a time, and, following its success, Argento was once again free to expand his repertoire with his first fantasy horror film, Suspiria (1977). When Suspiria grew into the biggest hit of his career and the movie that defined his artistry outside of Italy, he followed it up with a semi-sequel, Inferno (1980), and established the promise of a complete trilogy of movies about the demonic Three Mothers that acted as the super-antagonists in his shared fantasy horror universe (which itself was loosely based on Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, published in 1845). But Inferno was a tortured production, a critical disappointment, and failed to turn a profit when Hollywood co-producers at Twentieth Century Fox released it in a limited capacity (Argento made a couple more American co-productions, but never worked with a major Hollywood studio again).

Following this second supposed failure, Argento withdrew again into the familiarity of giallo and made Tenebrae in 1982. In an interview for Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares (Fantasma Books, 1996), Argento spun the story in a slightly more creative light, claiming that he felt “restricted by obligations to make a final chapter” in his promised Three Mothers trilogy. In other interviews, he claimed that he was annoyed by the “derivative and inferior” giallo that had cropped up in his absence and wanted to re-establish his dominance in the genre. Whichever theory you subscribe to (perhaps even all three), Tenebrae is a culmination of frustrating and frightening experiences that grew into the director’s most personal film. This is really saying something, considering his penchant for inserting vicarious avatars of himself into most of his thrillers. Here, a number of autobiographical elements – including the time Argento was stalked and threatened by a disturbed fan and a memories of a number of murders that occurred in the LA area once while he was visiting – are combined with free-floating resentment to create a stylish, long-winded, and sarcastic joke at the expense of resentful fans and the critics that assumed that only a psychopath could possibly make such violent movies.

Tenebrae might not quite be the giallo to end all gialli – though the genre was already on its last legs in terms of popularity in the early ‘80s – but it did set out to put Argento’s specific giallo formula to bed. Beginning with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) and extending through Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971) and Deep Red, Argento’s gialli revolved around an artist type (in order: a writer, a puzzle-maker, a musician, and another musician), usually foreign protagonist who witnesses a murder/attempted murder, becomes a suspect, mounts his own amateur investigation, and becomes a target of the killer when he – and sometimes his friends/family – gets too close to the truth. Initially, Peter Neal fits the mold perfectly. He’s an artistic type (a writer) visiting Italy who is wrapped-up in a murder investigation as a person of interest. When the killer threatens him, he teams up with a couple of different acquaintances to mount his own investigation. The key distinction throughout the early part of the movie is that Neal doesn’t witness any of the crimes firsthand.

The obvious deviation from type is only revealed at the end of the film, when Detective Giermani (portrayed by former spaghetti western superstar Giuliano Gemma) figures out that Neal has actually taken over the role of the killer after murdering the original killer, a journalist named Christiano Berti (cult favorite John Steiner). Unlike the unsullied protagonists of Argento’s earlier films, specifically The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in which a mutual respect develops between the amateur sleuth and his crime solving buddy (usually a law enforcement official, love interest, and/or investigative journalist), Neal only feigns reverence for Giermani so that he can exploit the detective. Like most pulp fiction villains, the author is caught when he baits his nemesis with a few too many clues. He mocks Giermani when confronted with arrest, telling him that planning the ruse was as easy as “writing a book.” Then, after one more trick (faking his own death), he brutally murders the detective*. And, like most of Argento’s protagonists, Neal’s victory is nearly absolute. He is only dispatched in order to fulfill the final part of the Argento formula – the villain must meet with a brutal end. The climax also indulges in one more act of autobiographical irony. The director’s avatar meets his end when the woman he loves (played by Argento’s then real-life spouse Daria Nicolodi) accidentally impales him on an art installation that looks like a tower of sharp metal phalluses.

Argento’s joke takes on an especially sinister tone by implying that the director’s avatar is the kind of psychopath his critics assume he is, that his creative endeavors (writing crime fiction/making horror movies) do make him a more efficient murderer, and that even his fans aren’t safe from his violent behavior. Fortunately for uninitiated viewers (and the fans that aren’t particularly interested in Argento’s personal battles), Tenebrae also works as a hyper-violent, melodramatic murder mystery and the final twist doesn’t require the audience to understand the Peter Neal = Dario Argento joke/analogy. In fact, viewers that are unfamiliar with the Argento formula may actually guess the secondary killer’s identity before the Argento loyalists, who had been conditioned to assume that the central protagonist will eventually be exonerated, even if he isn’t able to solve the crime on his own (in Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red, the mystery killers reveal themselves to the protagonists and explain their schemes). Argento practically spells out Neal’s guilt with a series of dreamy, first-person flashbacks that are almost explicitly tied to the author (he suffers migraine headaches and the flashbacks are framed by images of a mysterious figure taking medication for what appear to be very painful headaches) and doesn’t supply many alternative suspects, once the initial killer is dispatched.

Argento was never one to shy away from sex and violence, but Tenebrae was the first of his films to directly reference the surge of vulgarity occurring in mainstream Hollywood, driven by the wild popularity of slasher movies. The escalation of gore in the set-pieces and the more overt sexual tones (violence tended to replace sex in the earlier Argento gialli) certainly owed a debt to movies like Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (itself ironic, considering how much Cunningham stole from Argento and Mario Bava), but this wasn’t unique to Tenebrae – other ‘80s gialli, including Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (Italian: Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982), Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark (Italian: La casa con la scala nel buio, 1982), and Michele Soavi’s StageFright (Italian: Deliria; aka: Bloody Bird, Aquarius, and The Sound Stage Massacre, 1987), also amplified sex and violence in deference to the slashers. Argento upped the ante by also adopting the puritan implications of the early slashers, in which sinful behavior (i.e. partaking in sex and/or drugs) is punishable by murder. Before Wes Craven’s post-modern slasher, Scream (1996), and before David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) conceived of a moralistic serial killer that based his crimes on religious motifs, Argento conjured the story of a pious madman (journalist Christiano Berti – the first killer) that murders the people he deems aberrant and corrupt, based on his misreading of a popular and (by all accounts) trashy mystery novel.

The first victim is guilty of the most petty crime in the entire film – attempted shoplifting (she doesn’t even get away with it). She is ambushed at her home and has pages from Neal’s book shoved into her mouth before having her throat slit **. Following that, a lesbian couple (one with bisexual proclivities) are sliced in a particularly stylish manner to the disco dance tones of the film’s main title theme***. When Berti feels the heat approaching, he smashes his straight razor in an effort to destroy evidence, forcing Neal to adopt a large ax as his messy murder weapon of choice. He buries the axe in Berti’s head and chops poor Giermani to ribbons, but the real show-stopper is the hyper-baroque murder of Neal’s estranged wife, Jane (Veronica Lario). Jane has her forearm chopped off below the wrist and proceeds to literally paint the whitewashed wall behind her with blood, after which, Neal finishes the job.

As one of Argento’s most violent and sexually-charged films, Tenebrae was the victim of censorship in many countries. The US release (under the title Unsane) was about ten minutes shorter than Argento’s director’s cut, including trims to the expansive Luma crane shot that precedes the lesbian murders, snips to expositional scenes, and extensive cuts to Lario’s wall-painting death (which was almost entirely excised from Italian home video releases in the ‘90s, after the actress married Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi). After suffering similar edits in the UK, Tenebrae was included on the BBFC’s list of banned video nasties, alongside Inferno, and remains comprehensively censored to this day in Germany.

According to interviews, Tenebrae is, in fact, a semi-post-apocalyptic tale that takes place in the near future, which partially explains its pseudo futuristic aesthetic. Though Argento didn’t necessarily intend audiences to recognize the minor sci-fi trappings, he has stated that Tenebrae takes place in a world where the population has been drastically depleted by some forgotten plague (or atomic blast – the story seems to change depending on the interview). His anxious state of mind while writing the script (again, based on his stalker experiences and the random LA tourist murders) led him to imagine a depopulated future world inhabited almost exclusively by bitter jerks. The blood-thirsty murderers are the obvious bad guys, but the non-combative background characters are also constantly embroiled in squabbles and spats. Even dogs are portrayed as wrathful monsters that will chase a girl to the ends of the earth for daring to rattle the fence surrounding their properties. Argento hammers home the overwhelmingly negative attitude in the scene where Neal's agent, Bullmer (John Saxon), waits for his secret lover (Jane) in an active public square, while arguments and other irrelevant discords break out around him. The scene ends when Neal stabs Bullmer to death in full view of the crowd, yet no one notices until the killer has already made his escape.

Argento’s first four gialli embraced ‘70s pop culture in a manner that appears chic in the 21st century, while Suspiria and Inferno take place in a fairytale timeline where medieval and modern aesthetics collide. All of these films end up with a sort of timeless quality. Tenebrae’s fluorescent backdrops, brutalist architecture, modern art-strewn apartments, and early-’80s attire is incontrovertibly tied to the era in which the film was released. On the other hand, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s super-bright photography – which was inspired by televised crime shows, like Columbo and Charlie’s Angels (no kidding), as well as Andrzej Żuławski’s similarly luminous Possession (1981) – serves Tenebrae’s pervasive sense of irony. Stylistically, gialli tend to be visually rooted in German Expressionism and film noir; both of which are largely defined by dark backdrops, moody lighting, and long shadows. When asked about the anti-noir approach, Argento’s official byline was that he was evoking the brighter look of the modern world in literal and esoteric ways (“In the gloom, one can hide what one wants to reject, what one doesn’t dare show. But we are ill at ease in the harsh glare. We have everything right in front of us”).

Of course, shooting a bloody suspense thriller under harsh light is also just generally a subversive act and it fits the film’s M.O., as does the meaning of the Latin word used for the title, Tenebrae (and the Italian word “tenebre”) which literally translates to “darkness” (the Greek and Japanese titles were literally “shadows”). Smarter critics than myself have argued that the “darkness” the title refers to resides within the hearts of the characters or that Argento was playing a trick on audiences that remembered that Mater Tenebrarum was the name of the witch in Inferno, but I like to think it’s just another ironic joke on Argento’s part.

* In her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (University of Minnesota Press, 1991/2010), Maitland McDonagh discusses the presences of dueling identities and doppelgängers in Tenebrae. Neal and Giermani are counted among these spiritual twins. One serves a factual purpose as a police detective that inspires the other’s fictional exploits. By this logic, Neal murdering his would-be doppelgänger could represent more ironic humor on Argento’s part, as his avatar is, in essence, killing the director’s greatest storytelling adversary – real-world logic.

** The shoplifter is portrayed by actress Ania Pieroni actually plays the Mother of Tears during a mysterious cameo in Inferno. Some have theorized that, by murdering her at the top of the picture, Argento is implying that the possibility of a third movie in his Mothers trilogy has died with her.

*** LGBTQ characters made appearances in all of Argento’s first five gialli, ranging from stereotypes (the shop owner and crossdressers of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), to anti-stereotypes (the police investigator in Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and genuinely sympathetic portrayals (Carlo in Deep Red). He also secretly cast a woman in male drag as a gay man in Deep Red and the sexy woman that appears in Peter Neal’s flashbacks was played by transgender actress Eva Robin's.


I’ve owned so many copies of Tenebrae. It’s not even one of my favorite movies – companies just keep releasing incrementally better versions. It all started when Anchor Bay released the first widescreen and mostly uncut version on VHS, followed closely by a non-anamorphic DVD. Dragon Entertainment’s R0/PAL Limited Edition (released under the title Unsane) featured its own selection of exclusive extras, but still wasn’t anamorphic, so I had to get Anchor Bay’s 2008 anamorphic re-release. Arrow released the first Blu-ray in 2011 (based on a scan from French Company Wild Side Films), but that disc had CRT noise issues and was washed out, so it was quickly followed by a 2013 remaster, also from Arrow. Synapse Films released the long-awaited RA/North American Blu-ray debut in 2016 with a different, but not always better 1080p transfer.

In 2022, Synapse and Arrow teamed up for the first ever 4K UHD, based on Arrow’s new 4K scan. This review pertains to the 2023, non-Limited Edition version of that collection, which was released here in the US by Synapse and in the UK by Arrow. I’ve included screencaps from the included Blu-ray copy for illustrative purposes, but, if you want to see a direct comparison, minus the HDR, check out this comparison from the people at

Argento and Tovoli, who had last worked together on the groundbreaking Suspiria, shot Tenebrae on Kodak 300 ASA 35mm film to achieve maximum detail and clarity. The results of their experiment weren’t always effective. Though it was meant to be almost unnaturally crisp and clear, Tenebrae is actually a very grainy movie. There are very few shadows and punchy colors to hide the grain, which originally led some viewers to wonder if it wasn’t actually shot on 16mm. Those earlier digital releases really struggled with this issue, but the previous Arrow and Synapse Blu-rays mostly figured it out. This 4K rescan maintains the natural grain look with smaller, tighter granules, fewer snowy artifacts, and more consistent grain color (the old Arrow and Synapse discs had some ‘tea-stained’ shots throughout). Other textures and patterns follow suit, all without any notable over-sharpening effects. Previous Blu-rays were also slightly zoomed and this transfer corrects the issue to include extra information on all sides.

Color timing is a more complicated conversation. Every home video release over the decades has appeared slightly different in tint and gamma balance. Primary highlight colors aren’t too different between releases, but neutral hues fluctuate a lot. In my opinion, the brightness is a key component, as is the fluorescent tint to the lighting that approximates the made-for-TV and Andrzej Żuławski-inspired photography that Argento described as his inspiration. The HDR/Dolby Vision upgrade (which you can’t see on my page or the Caps-a-holic comparison) boosts the brightest elements without washing out greys, light blues, and tans/browns, while also pumping up the blackest shadows. Overall, the UHD’s neutral hues skew a bit warmer and softer than Synapse’s previous Blu-ray, especially skin tones, but not in a way that overwhelms the bluish tint or downgrades the bloody reds.


Though many DVD versions featured 5.1 and stereo remixes (most courtesy of Chance Digital Sound), Tenebrae was originally mixed in mono sound and that mix has been preserved on all known Blu-ray releases, as well as this Ultra HD disc. Synapse’s release includes both the original Italian and English dubs in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. As per usual, Tenebrae was shot largely without sound, so both tracks are dub tracks – there is not really an original language version. Since most of the actors were speaking English on set and a number of actors (including Anthony Franciosa and John Saxon) have dubbed their own English language performances, I tend to prefer to watch the film in English. Those that prefer the Italian track have the advantage of hearing Daria Nicolodi and Giuliano Gemma's original voices (they were dubbed in English by Theresa Russell and David Graham, respectively). There’s little difference in the tonal qualities or clarity between the two tracks, nor did I notice any major distortion issues. I suppose the Italian track’s dialogue sounds a bit more detached, but that’s the most I can discern.

The one aural element that would have benefited from a stereo spread, had Argento opted for one at the time (I believe that this was the director’s last mono soundtrack, following two stereo soundtracks for Suspiria and Inferno), is the disco-pop, electronic soundtrack. Though credited in shorthand to the Italian prog-rock group Goblin (the same band that scored Deep Red and Suspiria), Goblin had officially broken up sometime before Tenebrae went into production. The soundtrack was technically composed by three core members – Claudio Simonetti (keyboards), Fabio Pignatelli (bass guitar), and Massimo Morante (guitars). While I miss the stereo spread and deeper bass of the album versions of these songs, I have to admit that there isn’t much lost in the more crowded mono mix. The melodies are still crisp, neatly layered, and, most importantly, very loud.

In 2007, Tenebrae’s main theme was resurrected when it was sampled for French techno band Jus†ice’s songs “The Phantom” and “The Phantom Part 2” for the group’s debut album Cross (stylized as †).


Disc 1 (4K UHD)

  • Commentary with film critic and Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh – The foremost expert on all things Dario Argento offers a full-bodied discussion on Tenebrae. McDonagh mixes general background information with behind-the-scenes anecdotes as she explores the film’s subtexts and themes. She speaks with a sense of humor (she has fun making fun of the logical fallacies throughout the movie) and rarely slows down. Viewers that have read her book will recognize some of what she’s saying, but there’s no reason for her not to repeat her extensive research, since Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds is more or less accepted as the scholarly book on the subject.

  • Commentary with Alan Jones and Kim Newman (English Version) – This second commentary was recorded for Arrow Video’s 2011 Blu-ray and features Jones, the Argento expert and author of Dario Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic (FAB Press, 2012), and Newman, the general horror expert and author of Nightmare Movies: Horror on the Screen Since the 1960s (Bloomberry, 2011). As expected, Newman adds larger context to the film, while Jones fills in facts about Argento and where Tenebrae fits in his filmography.

  • Commentary with Thomas Rostock (English Version) – Another track with an Argento expert taken from Arrow’s 2011 BD. It’s difficult to follow up three of the most well-regarded scholars on the subject of Argento and horror, but Rostock’s thematically, historically, and technically focused track offers a surprising number of additional factoids not already covered by the other two tracks.

  • Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo (89:24, HD) – Directed by Calum Waddell, this feature-length documentary chronicles the history of the giallo genre from its origins through its near disappearance in the mid-’80s and pseudo-resurrection in the last decade. This is a very solid primer that should demystify the genre for newcomers and please long-time fans with its one-of-a-kind interviews, including filmmakers (Argento, Luigi Cozzi, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, et cetera – some of which were clearly extended from other Waddell-produced Blu-ray/DVD extras) and a number of respected critics. My only complaint is that the manageable 90-minute runtime doesn’t allow the director and his interview subjects to explore the more obscure sides of giallo. He’s forced to stick to the most popular and celebrated movies/filmmakers (Argento, Fulci, Sergio Martino, Lenzi). There is a brief section where some of the critics/fans discuss their favorite non-superstar gialli, but it zips by so quickly. It also appears that Tenebrae was the only movie Waddell was able to take non-trailer clips from, which makes sense, considering that this is an extra on a Tenebrae Blu-ray. It’s still a little disappointing, though. I am reminded that, somehow, there has never been a definitive and fully satisfying doc about Argento himself.

  • Being the Villain (16:22, HD) – I believe this interview with actor John Steiner is the one new extra exclusive to this release. Steiner discusses his early day job designing clothes for Montgomery Ward, where he met a woman and which led him to move to Italy. After the relationship dissolved he opted to stick around and almost accidentally became a household name in the country, appearing in movies by Argento, Giulio Petroni, Damiano Damiani, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Tinto Brass, Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheriti, Ruggero Deodato; basically every Italian cult director in the book.

  • Alternate opening credits sequence (2:15, HD)

  • Unsane (US Version) end credits sequence (1:53, HD)

  • Arrow 2011 archival extras

    • Introduction by Daria Nicolodi (0:13, HD)

    • Screaming Queen (16:05, HD) – An interview with Daria Nicolodi, who chats about the disappointment of not being able to complete the Three Mothers Trilogy, wishing she had played Veronica Lario’s part, working with the other actors, censorship, her multi-film working relationship with Argento, and some of her non-Argento roles.

    • A Composition for Carnage (10:05, HD) – Composer Claudio Simonetti briefly looks back on the film’s soundtrack, which utilized electronic and dance styles in place of Goblin’s progrock scores, censorship of the soundtrack LP’s cover, and working again with Goblin bassist Fabio Pignatelli and guitarists Massimo Morante, but as Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli, not Goblin.

    • The Unsane World of Tenebrae (15:14, HD) – A 2011 interview with Dario Argento, who discusses the film’s playfully metafictional slant and the true stories he wove into the plot, the film’s queer themes, working with assistant directors Michele Soavi and Lamberto Bava, and Tenebrae’s strange post-apocalyptic element.

  • Other archival extras

    • Voices of the Unsane (17:16, HD) – This 2008 featurette includes interviews with Argento, Tovoli, Simonetti, assistant director Lamberto Bava, and actors Nicolodi and Eva Robins.

    • Out of the Shadows (12:20, HD) – A 2013 interview with Maitland McDonagh.

  • International theatrical trailer and Japanese Shadow trailer

  • Image galleries – Italian promotional materials, German promotional materials, Spanish promotional materials, Japanese promotional materials, US promotional materials, and miscellaneous images.

Disc 2 (Blu-ray)

  • The film and all the same extras

The images on this page are taken from the included Blu-ray copy – NOT the 4K UHD – and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.



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