Director: Dario Argento
Writers: Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi
Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Méril, and Clara Calamai
In 1970 Darion Argento launched his directorial career five years earlier with The Animal Trilogy (Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tailes, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Those films fit under the Giallo genre, that was massive in Italy at the time, filled with murder mysteries, twist endings and bloody violence. The Animal Trilogy was released between 1970 and 1971, and in the four years following Argento tried to branch out with the comedies Man Called Amen and The Five Days of Milan, but without finding the same success he came back to Giallo with Deep Red, just as the genre was declining in popularity. Deep Red is not only considered to be one of the best of Argento’s filmography but also one of the best examples of the genre all together.
After witnessing the murder of the psychic Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) in her flat, Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) sets out to investigate. As he tries to save Helga, he believes he saw a painting that was missing by the time the police arrive that he thinks would solve the whole case. Marcus joins together with a local reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) to solve the murder, getting deeper and deeper into a mystery that may cost them their lives.
Deep Red is one hell of a gripping mystery, with incredibly tense scenes throughout. There’s a report on the TV that Marcus will be able to identify the murderer and that puts him right in the crosshairs and then there’s a sequence where Marcus is writing music at the piano in his flat and the killer breaks in. Marcus knows that someone else in the building but to not alert them, he continues playing the piano with one hand, while gripping a statue with the other to keep the element of surprise for when the killer comes close. It’s an incredibly tense moment to the point that you’ll be holding your breath the entire time.
There are some extremely horrific and brutal killings in this story, taking everything to the extreme. Without going into too much detail, people are thrown about, held under scolding hot water, sliced up, and at one point someone is dragged through the streets in one of the most squeal-inducing moments ever. The effects are definitely dated, but you still feel it. The film feels like a slasher, years before the genre was popular. It fits the genre with deaths that are all unique and memorable, there’s also a lot of shots with the camera taking the place of the killer’s eyes as he stalks his prey, and a body count that could rival any Friday the 13th entry. It feels like John Carpenter’s Halloween must have been influenced by the first-person perspective, especially with Michael Myers’s first kill as he stalks around the outside of the house before murdering his sister.
This also marks the first collaboration between Dario Argento and the prog-rock band Goblin, who would go on to make the scores for Suspiria and Tenebre as well as more films by Argento. The score is funky and jazzy, with really loud moments that make everything feel disorientating. It’s heightened further by the moments of quietness between the killings where there’s long periods of silence in the background as the investigation. The score is wild and works as a stand alone piece as well. It’s not quite as great as Goblin’s score for Suspiria but it’s still fantastic in its own right.
If you watch Dario Argento’s films in chronological release order, then one of the first things you’ll notice is that Deep Red follows the formula that he first established in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Marcus witnesses a murder, believes he saw a vital clue at the scene of the crime, follows the clues and ends up confronting the killer. Both the protagonist from Crystal Plumage and Marcus are foreign artists who have moved to Italy and find themselves the centre of a serial killer investigation. While the outline is definitely similar, this isn’t a copy and paste film. Instead, it’s darker, more twisted and completely engrossing compared to what came before. Crystal Plumage was the original, but Deep Red is the perfection of that template.
Yes, almost fifty years on the film is very dated in places. Some of the effects don’t stand the test of time, the music if full-on prog rock that’s a little jarring from more subtle scores you’d expect from a dark thriller, some of the acting is barely passable, but none of those things matter. If you ignore that and imagine you’re watching it in 1975, then the film completely gets under your skin, with a tense atmosphere, squeal-inducing deaths, and a phenomenal twist and finale.
There’s also a really interesting undercurrent of deeper themes. It’s dealing with gender roles Instead of Gianna playing the damsel in distress, she’s often coming to save Marcus. Her seat in the car is taller, and she’s able to beat him at arm-wrestling which sends him into a childish rant. The idea that family causes trauma that affects people as they grow up is also explored. Marcus is haunted by his childhood, as are other characters. Argento didn’t have a happy childhood and reflects that through the film. There’s also a blend of childhood innocence and brutality. The film’s opening credits are interrupted to show a silhouette of a murder to the sound of a nursery rhyme, and that repeats with most of the killings throughout Deep Red.
Deep Red is widely considered to be one of Argento’s best films and may even be his best. It’s a dark thriller, that builds on his previous works, perfecting the formula he created with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The datedness is probably going to put some people off, but once you start the film, it’s easy to forget and get sucked into the film itself.
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