I wonder how many of you claim to be die-hard Dario Argento fans, but haven’t even seen his 1975 masterwork, Profondo rosso (Deep Red). Or even 1982’s Tenebrae. I’m sure you’re aware of the Italian slasher sub-genre, Giallo. And the likes of Mario Bava, Tolomeo Bacci, Dino Tavella, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi. And the countless filmmakers this essential portion of cinema’s history has influenced in so many ways. Yes, Halloween, you too.
Likely Argento’s first, real major work, Deep Red came just two years before Suspiria – the go-to classic in any mention of the Italian maestro. His elaborate, disorienting, gory, vividly executed fingerprints are all over Deep Red. A sinfully undiscovered great, provocative, ground-breaking, and a must-see for all horror fanatics.
The title, Deep Red, must surely have been bookmarked for Argento’s use. Packed with innovative, and now renowned, horror tropes, Deep Red displays the colour of its title big and bold, or enclosed and subtle. Argento surely can’t be accused of overdoing it, anyway. The sparse decor, whites, grays, as well as reds, but also, of course, the vibrant blood red from, say, a knife plunging into the human body.
The picture opens with a blood-glooped knife dropping to the floor. Accompanied by a child singing la – la – la, an eerie kind of lullaby. This becomes a motif for the upcoming murder scenes. For now, the audience are imprinted with the mystery of a murder, and the red herrings along the way.
To the modern-day, a red curtain shrouded theater full of people, as special guest, and psychic, Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) has the folk gasping when she plucks someone from the crowd and correctly announces his name. When she stuns herself with the next subject, “You have killed, and will kill again”, the chilling side of clairvoyance surfaces.
Later, conversing unsuccessfully with a drunk fellow, a gay friend, on the street, English pianist turned investigator, Marcus (David Hemmings), witnesses a rather gruesome incident. A murder which has a woman’s head crash through a window, as the shards of glass pierce her throat. Typical Argento, sure, but even in a death foreseen earlier, it is still a captivating shock.
Marcus is approached by local journalist, Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi – Argento’s real-life partner, and Asia’s madre). And in this, the story not only demonstrates the genre’s strategies, but also the power balance of men and women. There’s flippant banter between the two, a jousting of wits. Then, an arm wrestle, where Gianna takes the upper hand (pun intended), and Marcus becomes the sensitive soul. The strenuous challenge on the male pride becomes “silly games” to him, and he does not want to play any more – spitting his dummy out.
Deep Red is a gripping directorial achievement in story terms. There’s a real edge, a genuine intelligence, to the progression of the narrative. The murders are staggered sensibly between bouts of compelling investigative sequences, serving the plot to inform or build tension. The gruesome drawings from a child, close-ups of toys – like a doll, marbles- and then knives, a black gloved hand, suggest such brutal actions and childhood trauma.
And the observations, in particular from Marcus, seem to have more weight than any police work. Early on, he comments that there was a man in a raincoat, “He could be the murderer. I dunno.” Ah, but you do. Or at least, you’re on the right track. Often, it is like Argento’s characters know they inhabit a horror formula world; not camera-conscious, but rather culturally aware, in sync with the realm of the genre.
When Marcus sees his picture in the local newspaper, he sarcastically says it’s always good to let the murderer who you are. A frightful truth, but here it is a funny moment. And Deep Red has a few of those. Hemmings’ dry sense of humor comes in handy throughout. When he is trying to have an important, investigative conversation on the telephone with Gianna, while a coffee steamer relentlessly hisses behind him, and two men squabble at the pinball machine, is appropriately comical.
The terror set-pieces are what make Deep Red a classic. Marcus hearing the killer is in the house, he continues playing the piano so not to alert them of his knowledge. That’s a frightening set-up. Especially when the mumbling voice threatens him through the door. Another character, later, finds a doll hanging from a noose in her house. Still rocking slightly, the breath-skipping realization this was assembled moments ago.
The woman trapped in the house tool is a common one, which Argento masters here. The lights go out, the bird in the cage turns frantic, and escapes, knitting needles become an impulsive weapon. And when she decides to confront her predator, the fedora-clad figure creeps up behind her. So many clever horror signifiers utilized in one head-spinning sequence. A doctor (of psychology) encounters a terrifying mechanical mannequin heading towards him, again, merely a decoy for the teeth-shattering reality.
Technically, too, Deep Red is a marvel. Uneasy camera-work, and a fluid, imaginative scope from cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller. The film looks both macabre and vivid, Armando Mannini’s set design plays a huge part. As does the precise, snappy editing from Franco Fraticelli. Deep Red was also the first collaboration Argento had with Claudio Simonetti, and the atmospheric, rock gurus Goblin.
Nothing is forgotten in the quest for suspense and scares. The sweat on one’s face, the texture of the skin, especially when emerged in scalding water, of course. Hemmings and Nicolodi make for alluring on-screen pairing; he has the stranger in a strange land vibe down, and she is more than his match in the intellect department. There’s also a convincing, non-showy turn from actress Geraldine Hooper, here playing a man who has the appearance and mannerisms of a woman. The homosexuality aspect of Deep Red, although left well alone, is still something of a breakthrough for its time.
Deep Red expresses both the lucid and the murky, both in its story world and cinematic prowess. The violence marks the landmark moments, we’re still able to look back and absorb the inventiveness. One man flees, steps back onto a road, where a garbage truck hits him, and the trailing steel rod him several blocks and turns. His head cracks into a sidewalk curb, and as the truck halts, Argento doesn’t, as there is an oncoming car approaching. Crunch.
Even a pearl necklace can cause an obscure fatality. The blatant artificiality of the specials effects may seem cheap to few, but really these very same techniques work to slap the terror right in your face. Latex, plaster, whatever is used, the penetrating gore almost exhibits the frailty of the human body, muscle, flesh. The ease of which it can be sliced, ripped apart, burnt, Argento feeds your psyche, that we are made from perishable materials. Which is a very scary concept indeed. The closing shot reflecting Marcus’ vacant stare through a puddle of deep, red blood, seems authentically apt.