“Aberrant” Sexuality in Dario Argento's 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.

Tenebrae Image

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.

Tenebrae Razor-Murder Image

Argento's male protagonists often suffer from impaired vision, they are frustrated by a missing piece of a puzzle that is within their reach but still continues to elude them. In Deep Red Marcus has actually seen the face of the killer at the start of the film but he doesn't realise this, he thinks he saw a painting that holds a vital clue. In The Cat O'Nine Tails (Italy, 1971), Franco Arno (Karl Malden) is blind, and relies on a child, Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) to see for him. When he overhears a conversation Lori has to describe the people speaking to him. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italy, 1970), Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) thinks he has seen a man attempting to murder a woman. It isn't until much later that he discovers the reverse situation is true; he was misled by the man's traditional giallo attire. In Tenebrae Gianni (Christian Borromeo) sees the 'razor killer' murdered just after he has confessed to being the murderer, but he doesn't realise this until too late. His slowness in solving the enigma leads his own death. Gianni's death results from him not seeing enough, whilst Maria's (Lara Wendel) death is brought about by her seeing too much. In all these cases the inadequacies of the male vision allow the murderers to continue their killing sprees unhindered for quite some time. These male characters share the audience's frustration of being unable to identify the killer.

Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) admits to being unable to solve the crimes in the novels by Agatha Christie, Ed McBain and Mickey Spillane, yet he discovers the identity of the killer in Neal's book by page 30. This list of authors is a reference to the source material for the Italian giallo. There are several references to crime fiction within the film, especially the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and his novel 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. Maria is chased to her death by a dog, in the same manner as the appearance of the hound heralded the deaths of the male Baskervilles. Neal uses one of Sherlock Holmes' schemes when he pretends to leave Rome for New York to provide himself with an alibi for the final killings. This gives him time to tie up the loose ends; the murders of Gianni, Jane and Bullmer. In The Hound of the Baskervilles Holmes pretends to leave the moors for the city in order to lull the would-be murderers into a false sense of security.

The first victim of the 'razor killer' is a shoplifter who has attempted to steal Neal's new book 'Tenebrae'. The store detective checks her record and discovers her to be a repeat offender. She offers him sexual favours in exchange for him turning a blind eye. She asks him, "You're not gay are you?" We can't tell if he was going to accept her offer, but once she has suggested that he might be gay, (homosexuality here is equated with aberrant behaviour), he takes up her offer in order to protect his masculinity. This scene has set up the girl as a criminal who is also sexually promiscuous. Displays of female sexuality within the horror genre are seen as a threat, for which the girl must be punished. After leaving the store she walks home and is accosted by a vagrant. She kicks him in the groin, and continues on her way, but he pursues her into an apartment, shouting, "I'll kill you". He doesn't, but Berti does; he fills her mouth with pages from 'Tenebrae', cuts her throat; symbolically castrating her, and photographs the body for his personal collection. In a similar way the lesbian critic Tilda (Mirella D'Angelo) and her bisexual lover are labelled as aberrant by Berti, and marked for death, a fate shared by sexually active teenagers in the American slashers.

Another potential victim is a prostitute whom he fails to attack due to the loss of his keys. Berti is projecting his repressions onto other people, he is attributing the area of his mind that contains ideas that he cannot live with onto other people, and consequently they must be punished. His choice of victim is sexually driven: "A person who is afraid of his own aggressive and sexual impulses sustains some relief for his anxiety by attributing aggressiveness and sexuality to other people. They are the ones who are aggressive and sexual, not he. Likewise a person who is afraid of his own conscience consoles himself with the thought that other people are responsible for bothering him, and that it is not his conscience." (4). His other victim Maria is killed because she poses a threat to his crusade against perversion. She is different from the other victims because she is not guilty of 'aberrant' behaviour. The only time we see her in the company of a potential sexual partner, Gianni, she is arguing with him. Berti regrets having to kill her. Whilst conducting an interview with Neal, Berti discusses the idea of deviant behaviour, in relation to his strict Catholic upbringing. This conversation is the key to Neal identifying Berti as the killer. Berti appears to be homosexual, and repressing his sexuality due to his Catholicism. He has an effeminate voice and is a loner; he stands apart from everybody at the press conference, whereas Neal is constantly in the company of women. I am, of course, basing this assumption about Berti's sexuality on what Robin Wood refers to as: "Popular (and generally discredited) heterosexist mythology: one is probably gay if one shows traces of effeminacy, had a close relationship with one's mother, or hates and murders women". (5). However, in context with the rest of the narrative, and the fact that this is a giallo by Argento, where finding out the truth inevitably involves discovering a sexual secret, I feel that my assumptions are justified.

Tenebrae Interview Image

Neal and Berti are constructed as doubles. Neal's life influences Berti, then Neal eventually takes on the role of 'razor killer' in order to murder his unfaithful fiancé and agent. However, Neal dispenses with the razor in favour of the more powerful, and masculine axe, which Berti used to kill Maria. Berti expresses regret at Maria's death, and Neal apologises in advance for having to kill Gianni, when he appears to be very close to solving the mystery. The misplacing of sets of keys heralds both of these deaths. Berti aborts his attack on the prostitute as he has left his keys hanging in the door of his house. When he returns home he discovers Maria, and kills her. When Gianni returns to Berti's house to clear up the mystery, his car keys are removed from the ignition by Neal's black-gloved hand. When Gianni tries to find the keys he is garrotted by Neal. The use of the keys can be seen as a reference to the difficulty in finding the key to the mystery at the heart of Tenebrae.

The solution to the film's central mystery is contained within the prologue and flashback sequences. At the start of the film, somebody is reading a passage from Neal's book and burning pages from it. The scene is probably a preview of the scene where Berti is destroying evidence at his home just prior to his death. The passage in question, combined with the flashback sequences, hold the solution to the psychosexual voyage in which we are engaged: "The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Every humiliation which stood in his way could be swept away by the simple act of annihilation: murder." One flashback sequence shows us a girl on a beach behaving seductively before a gang of youths. Another shows the death of this girl as she is stabbed. We witness her murder from the point of view of the killer. The girl (Eva Robbins, whom I will refer to as Eva during this chapter as she has no character name) is a transsexual; Argento is once again playing around with our expectations of gender. In an interview Argento referred to Eva Robbins as a hermaphrodite. (6). In Greek legend Hermaphroditus merged with the nymph Salamis and became neither man nor woman. (7). His use of a transsexual isn't obvious at first, but she does look a little odd, indeed the whole sequence looks odd. "Eva is just a dream, an illusion…she's a strange girl with a hard smile who fits into the dreamy mise-en-scene. In the same way, Carlo's lover in Deep Red is played by a woman. Over and over, false appearances…life is an illusion, a trap, and the cinema must be its image." (8)

Tenebrae Beach Flashback Image

Argento's mise-en-scene has a distinctly European feel, and an unusual atmosphere that is unique to films made in coastal locations. The sequence has parallels in at least two other films made in similar settings. At the low end of the scale is the infamous Island of Death (Greece, 1975, d. Nikos Mastorakis). Also known as Island of Perversion, the film is set on the Greek island of Mykonos, where the protagonist, Chris (Bob Belling) thinks he has a God-given right to punish perversion. Like Berti, his idea of perversion is sexual promiscuity in women, and homosexuality. The only real perversion emanates from Chris himself who, during the course of the film, indulges in acts of sadism, bestiality, and incest. The other film is an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, Suddenly Last Summer (USA, 1959, d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz). Whilst on holiday in Spain, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is used by her cousin Sebastian Venable to attract young men in order to satisfy his homosexual needs. She represses the events of the holiday after the murder and cannibalisation of Sebastian at the hands of the enraged local men. As in Tenebrae we learn about Sebastian's fate through the use of flashback, and Catherine's conversation with a psychologist, Dr Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift). Just what is it about this flashback sequence that is so important to Neal. Did he write about the punishment of perversion in his novel 'Tenebrae' as an act of catharsis; an attempt to stop the bad dreams? According to Berti, Neal's book deals with the punishment of deviant behaviour. It is possible that this last novel of his is autobiographical and based on his experiences as a youth on Rhode Island.

There are three possible reasons for Neal's actions on Rhode Island and the subsequent repression that he undergoes:

a) Heterosexual jealousy, he doesn't know that Eva is a transsexual, he's just jealous of her flirtations with other men. He feels threatened by her sexuality. His masculine pride is injured when she cavorts on the beach and meets other men so he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.

b) Homophobic rage, he had been involved with Eva for some time before discovering her trans-sexuality. He then felt betrayed and disgusted by her, equating transsexuality with perversion, and because of this she had to die.

c) Fear of being identified as homosexual/bisexual. He knew she was transsexual but other people did not. When she began hanging around with other men the risk of discovery became a possibility. She had to be killed before his secret was discovered because his association with her would cast doubt upon his own masculinity.

The latter two possibilities assume that Neal is homophobic. Robin Wood writes about the homophobic nature of some of Hitchcock's films. This is relevant here, as some critics drawing a comparison between the two directors have referred to Argento on several occasions as the 'Italian Hitchcock'. "In every homophobe, the repressed homosexual tendencies are dangerously close to the surface of the unconscious, yet their existence must never be acknowledged. The homophobe's fear and hatred of homosexuals is essentially a projection outward of his fear and hatred of tendencies within himself of which he dare not permit himself to become aware". (9). If Neal is driven by homophobic tendencies, then he has a great deal in common with Berti. The events that he experienced on Rhode Island provide inspiration for Berti who kills and quotes from 'Tenebrae'.

Barbara Creed disagrees with Freud's theory of the castrated woman. Freud states that men fear her because she reminds them of their own vulnerability. Creed argues that it is the fact that the woman is not castrated, and that she is whole that is the source of male anguish. If the man were castrated he would not be whole. Whilst Creed's argument is useful for discussing many films it is presented with a problem regarding the beach scene in Tenebrae. Argento's choice of a transsexual actress provides the unique instance of a woman who really has been castrated. This castrated woman also has the power to castrate; after chasing Neal across the beach and wrestling him to the ground, the youths hold him down whilst Eva forces the heel of her shoe into Neal's mouth. The phallic heel can be seen as symbolic of the power she holds over Neal. "Slasher films present us with a world in which male and female are at desperate odds but in which, at the same time, masculinity and femininity are more states of mind than body." (10).

Tenebrae Shoes Image

The bright red shiny shoes worn by Eva are fetish objects; according to Freud, they disavow Neal's fear of castration. When he stabs Eva to death he removes her shoes and keeps them. Prior to killing Jane, he anonymously sends the shoes to her. In equipping Jane with the shoes he is rendering her powerless by removing the fear of castration. Jane's death begins with a graphic arm-chopping scene, symbolic of castration; a punishment for her sexuality. She attempts to defend herself with a gun, but the gun has no place within the giallo or slasher film, it is no match for Neal's axe. Sharp objects, knives, hammers, pitchforks, razors and axes offer closeness and tactility. Knives like teeth are personal extensions of the body that bring the attacker and the attacked into a primitive animalistic embrace. (11). As we have seen, Tenebrae shares certain themes with the American slasher films, but Argento lays more emphasis on the sexual make-up of his characters; sexual deviancy provides the driving force behind both killers. Neal's actions aren't really explained, he was suspected of a murder on Rhode Island, but nothing is said about Eva. Argento leaves her open to interpretation. In retrospect she can be seen as representing a turning point for Argento. His earlier films featured male protagonists, after Tenebrae his central characters were mainly female.


  1. Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the films of the stalker cycle. Associated University Presses. 1990. p. 59.
  2. Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chainsaws. Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton University Press. USA. 1992. pp. 27-30.
  3. Ibid., p. 30.
  4. Freud, Sigmund, quoted in Hall, Calvin, S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1962. p. 92.
  5. Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. Faber and Faber Ltd. 1991. p. 336.
  6. McDonagh, Maitland. Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The dark dreams of Dario Argento. Sun Tavern Fields. 1991. p. 181.
  7. Rodowick, D. N. The Difficulty of Difference. Psychoanalysis, sexual difference and film theory. Routledge. 1991. p. 66.
  8. Argento, Dario, interviewed in McDonagh, op cit., p. 181.
  9. Wood, Robin, op cit., p. 339.
  10. Clover, Carol, op cit., p. 22.
  11. Ibid., pp. 31-32.

Paul Flanagan Winter 1999/2000