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.
by Steve Habrat
When it comes to exploitation flicks and cult classics, I believe that none are more definitive than skin flick director Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. A shameless ode to drag racing, violence, sex, cleavage, ass-kicking, and, yep, you guessed it, go-go boots, this rip-roaring thriller is still just as hip and swingin’ as it was when it was released. When we consider the film now, the influence of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is everywhere and you may not even know it. Anyone who has ever seen Meyer’s romp can’t help but be reminded of it every time you see a dangerous female protagonist laying waste to some male tormentors. In many ways, maybe female action heroes should be worshiping at the altar of Faster, Pussycat! and have the iconic image of voluptuous Tura Satana’s Varla snapping a man’s arm tacked up in their bedroom. While it is hard to defend every single action of the women in Faster, Pussycat!, no one can deny that this isn’t a shriek of female liberation that came right on the brink of widespread female empowerment. These chicks shimmy to their own tune and man, if it isn’t a wicked and groovy ride.
A trio of curvy and snarling go-go dancers by the names of Varla (Played by Satana), Rosie (Played by Haji), and Billie (Played by Lori Williams) are roughing it out in the desert and hanging at a drag race track. While there, the innocent Linda (Played by Sue Bernard) rolls up with her speed hungry boyfriend (Played by Ray Barlow) and he makes the stupid mistake of challenging Varla to a race. “I never try anything! I just do it!”, she growls. After a close call on the tracks, Varla gets into an argument with speed demon and brawl suddenly erupts. During the fight, Varla ends up killing Linda’s boyfriend. The dancers decide to kidnap and drug Linda and flee the scene before anyone finds out. While on the run, they bump into a crippled old man (Played by Stuart Lancaster) and his muscular Vegetable son (Played by Dennis Busch). They soon discover that the old man is wealthy from a past accident and soon, the girls start plotting a way to make off with the Old Man’s money but as it turns out, the Old Man has disturbing plans of his own for the girls.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! begins with a quick cut sequence of Varla, Rosie, and Billie scantily clad and thrusting away to music while a horde of cantankerous, animal-like males hoot, holler, and chant away. Meyer’s rapid fire editing within this sequence mirrors a boiling point before the title blasts across the screen and we see the girls speeding their hot rods down open road. Have they hit a breaking point? Has the male lust run its course? We have no way of knowing if the girls violent tendencies have erupted before, but judging by Varla’s hold on the group and her skills with a blade, she hasn’t hesitated to pull a knife on a poor chum before. Welcome to the off-kilter world of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, where we have images thrown at us that look like they belong in a banned pulp comic book. It’s a world where the law is only mentioned and never seen, girls strut freely in low cut shirts that left me fearful that if one made a quick move, there would be a lot more exposed than what already is. For those who watch the movie for that, you will be sorely disappointed. Meyer has commentary on his mind and not simply putting nudie cuties on display.
The performances that compose Faster, Pussycat! achieve a cult status of their own to match the film’s. You don’t forget your trip through Hell with Varla, Rosie, and Billie. Whether you are hanging on their use of slang or their sudden bursts of bloody beat downs, the girls never loose their underlying cool. They have everything under control even if everything appears to be fishtailing. Varla looks like she stepped out of a pin-up photo and decided to don a threatening black outfit that mirrors her rebel personality. She barks her dialogue in the faces of men who believe that women shouldn’t be running with the male pack. Billie, the blonde bombshell of the group, isn’t so much violent as she is bursting with sexuality that just simply can’t be contained. While she is manipulating, I never feared that she would stick a put a razor to my throat. Then there is Rosie, who appears to be Varla’s lover and sidekick, one who would put the finishing blow to what Varla started. She seems reluctant to get blood on her hands, yet she goes along with everything Varla orders her to do. Together the girls work together to manipulate and dominate, especially strong when their solidarity is firmly in tact.
Then we have the men of Faster, Pussycat!, who are not presented in the best light. The Old Man has a dictatorial grip on his meat-head Vegetable son. The Vegetable does the bidding that the shotgun wielding Old Man cannot, a bidding that is mostly capture and then rape. The Old Man is appalled when he sees the girl’s outfits and vents his old fashioned conservative viewpoint when he says, “Women! They let ‘em vote, smoke, and drive—even put ‘em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for president!” The Old Man represents what women ultimately lashed out and begged to be liberated from. The Old Man is purely the voice of oppression but the Vegetable represents the brute force holding the girls down. He is an empty headed police force for the Old Man, one that only begins to come around when coaxed or encouraged, but never willingly open minded. The Old Man also has another son, Kirk (Played by Paul Trinka), an intellectual who seems to level with all parties when they clash. He is the calm middle between the two towering, roaring forces.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! does have its weak spots. Even at eighty-three minutes, the middle beings killing time by doing doughnuts and just kicking up a bunch of dust. Writer Jack Moran and Meyer work double time to keep things nice and spicy with the animated dialogue and the cartoonish characters. It’s the cartoonish touch that makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the classic that it manages to be today. One look at Varla, with her embellished curves, and you can’t help but think she looks like the work of a comic book artist with a fetish for big breasts. Yet the pulp charm also masks the satire on display, an artistic choice that may put serious viewers off. In the end, if you can’t hang with these chicks, you may as well get out of the hot rod that is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! before the ride hits white knuckle speeds. For audience members who like their films fast, sexy, and death defying, strap yourself in for one hell of an influential ride.