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“.

Francesca Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Rome

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This review is in part a preview of the 2016 Popcorn Frights Festival in Miami, FL to take place over 12-18 August at the O Cinema Wynwood. The subject of this review Francesca will be playing on the 15 August at 7 pm EST. More information on the festival can be found at their website and Facebook. Tickets for the festival can be ordered here.

There are two opening gestures within the first ten minutes of Italian/Argentine horror production Francesca (it should say the most promising things to the movie that I had a lot of troubling squaring that it wasn’t a purely Italian production, in a manner that will be obvious by the first frame of the film and the end of this review) that bring attention to themselves in the most obvious manner and make clear what director Luciano Onetti (who pulled multiple duties as cinematographer, composer, editor and co-wrote the film with his brother Nicolás) intends to do both in style and storytelling. The immediate first gesture (after a dedication “A Mama” that takes a particularly ironic tone after the fact) is to actually have the frame of the film open itself up slowly to reveal the source of a windy soundscape of a dark sky until it reaches an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 – the preferred frame for anamorphic 35mm film in the 1970s.

Which seems like something absolutely disposable and hardly noted by a casual viewer of movies except as a slimmer wide frame than the US standard, until you realize that it is a ratio that is favored in many works of giallo pictures (an exclusively Italian genre Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries with a particular flavor for bloody knife deaths that had its great run between the mid-1960s to the late 70s), particularly by giants to the genre as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. It’s a subtle stylistic move that clearly announces the intentions of the movie to sit comfortably alongside the greats of those artists from the very first frame – Don’t Torture a DucklingDeep RedThe Bird with a Crystal PlumageThe New York RipperOpera (it is also an aspect ratio shared with Suspiria, arguably Argento’s most famous feature, and while I personally am quite peeved by the idea of categorizing it as a giallo – it has supernatural story elements you will never find in any of the “grounded” giallo films – it is nonetheless considered one by enough people to at least receive a nod).

If that is missed by anybody, the second gesture I allude to is a big enough deal that it literally stopped me in my tracks and made me decide to really strap myself in for the movie I was watching. After a chilling moment of sadistic child-on-infant violence with credits overlayed on top of it, the movie proper feels ready to begin with a completely giallo-esque presentation of the unknown killer in bright blood red attire including raincoat, gloves, and later in the film a wide-brimmed hat, prepares to murder its first victim with a ritualistic atmosphere provided by the cuts Onetti gives in rhythm to the worshipful dark recitation of Canto III from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a piece which is continuously reference directly throughout the film (I also get tickled by the direct quotation of “Gate of Hell”, bringing to mind the OTHER great Italian horror subgenre). It’s a hypnotizing scene that draws you in with absolutely no trip in its deep pace – even the screaming of the gagged victim matches up to the magnificent rhythmic soundscape – before being absolutely thrown off that trance with a savage stab to the mouth, blood dribbling from the tape that bounds our victim so messily that we suddenly remember that we’re watching a horror movie. But that’s not what pulls me back.

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What really did was the fact that the credits – which, maybe I do not speak Italian, I was meant to believe were concluded – actually commence only after this woman has been murdered and the killer is now preparing her body for the daylight discovery of a witness walking her dog (Antonieta Bonarea) and the subsequent involvement of our investigating Detectives Bruno Moretti (Luis Emilio Rodriguez) and Benito Succo (Gustavo Dalessanro). Our detectives will come to discover that the disappearance of a young girl named Francesca from 15 years ago may have something to do with these murders. In any case, Francesca‘s concern with willing to completely pause its credits to dole out a very well-crafted scene that kickstarts all the plot tells me three things:

The first is a more overt announcement of the film’s giallo intentions, forgiving me for reading into the aspect ratio now that it’s willing to really put some blood and garish color (especially in the killer’s costume, absolutely the brightest color element in the whole film). The second is an intention to announce that this movie is not going to bother slowing things down and will absolutely run through its mystery with the briskest efficiency, regardless of the layers it may introduce to the plot. This is a promise the 80-minute feature makes very well good on, running so fast into moments that it’s willing to introduce the Detectives’ investigation of crime scenes, cut into a flashback of a witness’s memory, and then cut straight from that flashback to the scene chronologically AFTER the witness is being questioned even while his or her narration continues. Editing gestures like these simply want to move on to the next big kill moment and only leave the Detective’s untangling of the convoluted pattern of kills for the function of the genre and it shows a very delicate ability on Onetti’s part to make sure the audience is not in the slightest bored while telling them “if you’re lost, it doesn’t matter! Here comes the really good stuff, anyway” on to a moment where somebody gets a knife through the throat or an iron press to the face.

Which leads to the third and most telling thing about this move – Onetti is willing to stop the movie from properly starting because he’s really damn proud of his craft and wants you to see it. It is in itself an attitude of the film that is well-deserved in my opinion. What Onetti has done is built up a time capsule of a film from the ground up, using whatever budgetary and lo-fi limitations he has to simply add to the 70’s Italian aesthetic while being mindful of more modern visual language as to allow the genre more accessible to people who simply aren’t as familiar with the movement (though I can’t imagine anybody walking into this film without an idea of what it is) and invite their interest, anyway. This twist on lo-fi filmmaking is especially prevalent in the soft focus and lighting give that grimy old picture feel, accented by a subtle blue color tone (most obviously in interior sequences) that add to the bloated dead feel of the picture, before the presence of the killer’s red dress cuts into that soft tone and another throat. The editing is easily the most modern part of the film, though it favors using canted angles that give the film a 60s hallucinatory vibe, by matching up to the rhythm of the moment like that opening kill promised. Neither of them are the perfect work of a master with either dodgy cuts (a one-second cut at the very beginning calls way too much attention to a fake baby, even if its blink or you’ll miss it), somewhat alienating effects that are so outside the realm of the sort of sophistication Onetti mostly displays that I think it’d be an injustice to call them deliberate goofs (an establishing shot of a church tower warps and distorts like a cartoon manner that you’ll never find elsewhere), and a few completely out-of-focus shots that don’t work outside of the hallucinated moments of the killer’s presence. Still, that Onetti can single-handedly construct a genre picture that works in all the places where it matters AND keep a swift pace is impressive enough.

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And that’s without mentioning how the sound design is easily the most enjoyable thing about the movie to me. Either simply because Onetti wants to match up with the historical habit of Italian productions during that era overdubbing EVERYTHING (giallo or otherwise) or because Onetti knows the true value of a good horror soundscape or maybe both, the point is that Onetti announces before any visual alarm an insistence that something is wrong by heralding a trapped claustrophobic interior tone (sort a muffled form of the opening exterior noise) before really utilizing all the Creepy Sound Effects 101 to great effect: canned baby sounds from a doll (especially with the phrase “Mommy wants to play with you”), piano, all the sort of perfect things to get under your skin and get you ready for when the killer comes out. That these moments are usually preceded by mundane investigation scenes only allows our ears to really pipe up once we hear it coming and that Onetti’s score – while not exactly original – plays well-enough into the time period the film consciously sets itself in pulls double-duty on recalling the dark audial violence of Fulci and Argento and letting it pulsate through the spine-chilling moments prior to a stab.

The plot is of such limited concern to even the film itself that once it ties itself up, it gives the viewer no room to square its final twists and moves right on to the crimson-backgrounded credits (and slowly closes off that aspect ratio in the very same manner). To its credit, though, I think it ties itself up a lot cleaner than pretty much most giallos (certainly Twitch of the Death Nerve and StageFright, amongst my favorites of the genre) and Rodriguez and Dalessandro doing a better job than you’d expect establishing the complete fatigue in their detective characters coming from their stressful line of cases previous to this doozie. And just as well, because what we truly have here is simply a lovingly sincere attempt to not just function as “homage or love letter to the giallo” but to outright insist upon itself as a new entry into the canon.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t see myself having a problem with giving it that. Nothing about Francesca is cynical or throws itself as a cunning wink to the genre as a parody, which might not make it more interesting than a great straightforward genre film, but sometimes that’s all you need and the giallo movement has been in such a drought (I mean, Dario Argento HAS NEVER MADE A MOVIE SINCE OPERA AND ANYBODY WHO TELLS ME THERE ARE ARGENTO MOVIES AFTER THAT IS LYING). All its flaws are to my mind honest mistakes, made by a pair of brothers on their sophomore feature with limited resources or a stifling in creative decisions who worked on this with the whole of their hearts, and all its successes are enviously impressive that leave me with more than just a feeling that anybody who comes across this movie is liable to enjoy it as a fan of good enthusiastic horror work. It also leaves me insisting that anybody who has as much an eagerness to consume giallo works like yours truly actively seek this out and leave me to seek out the Onetti brothers’ first feature Deep Sleep. And that’s not even talking about my excitement for what’s to come in the future for them. New blood was exactly what this genre needed and we got it.

(P.S. stay after the credits for one more special moment – besides the fact that the frame closes itself in the same fashion as it opens.)

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