by Steve Habrat
Italian giallo filmmaker Dario Argento is most known for his collaboration with zombie godfather George Romero on 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and for his eccentric 1977 supernatural horror film Suspiria. While Suspiria may be his most popular work, perhaps his best film is Deep Red, a pulpy and off the wall serial killer thriller that packs somersaulting camera work, gallons of bright red blood, and a scene involving a puppet that would make Saw’s Jigsaw wet his britches. Now, you’re probably wondering what the term “giallo” means. Giallo, which is Italian for yellow, was the nickname for any suspense thriller, crime, or mystery tale that tended to be a bit pulpy. This term could refer to any thriller from any country but in Italy, it really took off and the film critic turned filmmaker Dario Argento was one of its frontrunners. The Italian giallos tended to be operatic, extremely gory, loaded with stylish camerawork, and huge amounts of gratuitous sex and nudity. The term refers to pulp novels that began in 1929 and featured distinctive yellow covers.
Deep Red begins with the murder of pretty German psychic medium named Helga Ulmann (Played by Macha Meril) just hours after she picks up the thoughts of a serial killer. Simultaneously, an English pianist named Marcus Daly (Played by David Hemmings) is chatting with his drunken friend Carlo (Played by Gabriele Lavia) outside the apartment where the murder is taking place. Suddenly, Helga’s body smashes through a window and in all the excitement, Marcus dashes up to the apartment to help Helga out. Once inside the apartment, he begins to realize that something is different about the crime scene. Teaming up with a peppy and self-assured photojournalist named Gianna Brezzi (Played by Daria Nicolodi), Marcus begins investigating the murders and attempting to solve what was different about he crime scene. As the investigation continues, the body count begins to rise and Marcus finds himself the target of the mysterious killer with a fetish for dolls and a spine-chilling children’s song.
Unshakably disturbing and unique, Deep Red is Argento at his absolute finest. Everything from Argento’s camera work, to the performance from David Hemmings, to Goblin’s funky score mesh to create something that still stands out today. It’s a special film that seems like something Alfred Hitchcock would have made while he was under the influence of a psychedelic drug. Deep Red also enjoys getting us in on the action and allowing us to play detective along side Marcus. Argento, however gives us one clue that he doesn’t give to Marcus: an eyeball with caked on eyeliner. Because of this tease, I found myself focusing on the eyes of every single character that wore eyeliner from there on out. But Argento is just toying with us and getting amusement out of our detective work. Every time I spotted the thick eyeliner, I would convince myself that I had figured out the identity of the shadowy menace and when the killer is finally revealed, it was the last person I expected it to be. This clue also gives Deep Red a white-knuckle unpredictability. The killer could be anyone and strike at any moment. It generates a colossal amount of dread throughout the course of its runtime. Argento, you clever cat!
Deep Red’s style doesn’t end with its standout score or Argento’s sumptuous touches. He molds the film into a full-blown opera that brings the chandelier down on the viewer. His camera sophisticatedly dances with the death on screen, making us fidget due to his restlessness. When Argento does remain motionless, he springs a creepy doll on us that sent me about three inches off the couch I was sitting on. Argento doesn’t skimp on filling his tracking shots with opulent colors, flamboyant backdrops, echoes of discreet sexuality, and soft melodrama. The finished product is distinctly European with images that belong in a gaudy gold frame.
David Hemming as the protagonist every-man Marcus is another victory for Deep Red. He certainly is the furthest thing from a masculine protagonist! At times, when we really pay close attention to his reactions to the horror playing out around him, he conveys the scared-for-life terror that an average person would in the situations he finds himself in. He was just a man going about his business when his world came crashing in on him (symbolically and literally). At one moment, the killer stalks him in his own apartment and his trepidation makes your arm hair stiffen. He leaps like a flailing madman at his door to slam it shut. Sure that is what most people would do in a situation like that, but his frozen anticipation is what really plays with us. Did he just hear that creak? Is he really hearing that faint music? Is someone really out there in the hallway? It is moments like this that Deep Red flirts with the supernatural. Ghost stories are whispered, superstitions are discussed, and the killers prolonged stalking of their victims are imperceptibly ghost-like in nature.
Deep Red becomes a classic case of style over substance, but this is not to say that the substance isn’t well done. While the plot is bursting with the spirit of Hitchcock and you will find yourself immersed in the whodunit, its Argento’s approach that overshadows the story. The style sticks in your head long after it has ended. But Argento also seems hellbent on playing with the conventions of a masculine hero, one who is bumbling and imperfect trying to operate in a world that is controlled by strong women (get a load of the arm wrestling scene). Baroque, chic, and glamorous, Deep Red is an undisputed classic among horror films from the heyday of the genre. It stands out because it lacks a gritty approach, which was how most directors were approaching the genre at this time. But Deep Red is polished and squeaky clean, then rolled in a whole bunch of glitter and handed a meat cleaver.
Deep Red is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.