Seeing Red

I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.

But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.

For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.

But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.

To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.

So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).

But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.

While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.

These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.

So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.

*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.

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