Our review of Deep Red (Blu-ray), published May 13th, 2011, is also available.
Flesh ripped clean to the bone…and the blood runs red…
What is it about the unknown that makes us so afraid? Why does a dark alley or a dimly lit set of stairs leading down into a black abyss of nothingness invite such a sense of discomfort and anxiety? We live in the real world. We know there are no such things as ghouls ready to carve into our bowels or trolls looking to snack on our brains. And yet, as the light grows dim and familiar shapes begin to lose their distinction and form, we feel our nerve endings misfire and the hairs on the back of our neck and along our arms tingle. Why are we unsure of visiting abandoned buildings or desolate rest stops? Is it the idea that anything can happen at any time, good or bad? Apparently it is the sheer size of the possibilities, the infinite realm of the unknown, that causes the most unsettled feelings.
It's this boundless universe where anything can happen to anyone that Dario Argento explores in his classic giallo thriller Deep Red. Long considered by many to be his first true masterpiece, it is effective because everything is up for grabs: the motive, the murders, and even the meaning of what is happening on screen. Like a grand exercise in murder as existential postmodernism, it is a wonderfully evocative film.
Facts of the Case
During a conference on the paranormal, a famous psychic, Helga Ulman, has a powerful vision of a murderous, deranged mind in the audience. Afterward, she tells a colleague that she knows who the person is and what horrible crime they committed. Later that night she is brutally hacked to death. Witnessing the killing is Marc Daly, who lives in the apartment above the murdered woman. The next day the police question him, and thanks to a picture in the paper by reporter Gianna Brezzi, Marc is labeled a crucial eyewitness. This also labels him as the killer's next victim.
Marc goes to visit his gay friend Carlo, a drunk, to ask him about the night of the murder. Seems Carlo was in the alleyway when the murderer left the scene. He remembers nothing. The colleague of the psychic, Professor Giordani, tells Marc of a strange story about a house haunting that Helga was investigating. She thought it might have something to do with the vision she saw at the conference. He thinks it may have something to do with the crime. Marc discovers a book on the house in question. Together with the reporter, who he is now involved with, he tries to contact the author of the book. She is killed before Marc can meet her.
Marc discovers that a rare plant was used to landscape the front of the gloomy mansion. After questioning several gardeners, he discovers the location of the house. Marc visits the crumpling abode and sees a child's strange, morbid drawing under some plaster. Convinced that the house holds the secrets to the crime and to some horrible past event, Marc investigates further. While some clues lead to further confusion, the killer is following close behind, making sure that as many loose ends as possible can be cleared up before the truth is discovered…and one of those ends is Marc.
It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it's a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Many artists faced with this dilemma simply give up, or revisit the circuit of golden oldies, recycling their greatest successes until there is no longer a paying audience. Reinvention, sometimes viewed as the key to continued longevity, can help, unless your experimentation is so wild and uncharacteristic that you lose the core audience who followed you up until this point.
Such was the case with Dario Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the Animal Trilogy of giallo-style thrillers (represented by the titles, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O' Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet). With achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento's use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, and left the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.
As usual, it was a dream—about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath—that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements. And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but an important cinematic visionary. In reality, the film did indeed mark a turning point for the director. It bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red, would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.
Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. It's interesting to note that even when Argento presently returns to the giallo style thriller to keep his name in the genre, the films (Tenebrae, Non Ho Sonno, Opera) all resemble pale imitations of Deep Red. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the killer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin. Because Argento is one of only a handful of horror directors who appreciates and uses the apprehension of the unfamiliar to provide mood for his movies and motivation for audience dread, his films are viewed as disturbing and uncomfortable. But this does not mean they are unsuccessful. Indeed, Deep Red is a terrific thriller.
Argento makes several conceptual deviations that cause Deep Red to stand out. First was the idea of creating isolated vignettes, moments in screen time that would not be explained and simply left for the audience to mull over and formulate their own narrative associations. Argento employs this device from the very beginning of the film. As the credits roll and the wonderful score by Goblin begins to throb like the thrillers engine in idle, we wait for the story to motor out of the starting gate. But then Argento turns down the rock and introduces a nursery rhyme style music box melody, and our first vignette plays out. It is Christmas, and in the shadows near the tree, we see a struggle and a stabbing. A scream echoes across the soundtrack and then a huge knife plunges to the floor. As it rests there, the music continues its cheerful childishness and then, a pair of highly glossed juvenile shoes appear, standing over the knife in a shot so exquisite it's like witnessing the birth of a masterwork by a celebrated painter. Before it all registers, we are back to black and the rock throb of the score. The rest of the credits play, and the movie proper begins.
Along with breaking convention (the second major deviation to discuss), this immediate interruption of the flow of the film shows that Argento is ready to throw out the standard cinematic guidebook on narrative drive and cohesion and begin his journey into the unexplained. A series of questions arise from the opening moments, questions that will not have answers given to them for a long time, if at all. What did we see? Who had the knife? Is someone hurt? Dead? Why is there a child there? Did the child see it? Did the child do it? Argento uses these questions to begin the process of cinematic prestidigitation of creating a story where everything and nothing is important, all things and only a few things have meaning, and each new scene or character will provide more issues than their presence or dialogue will answer. By building layers of inquiry, Argento is creating substrata in his storyline and the characterization. He is also sewing the seed of suspense. Bit by bit he intends to address everything that he will show onscreen, but he is not about to make the connections or explanations easy. The audience has come along for the ride, and they have to do some work in order to get the most out of Deep Red.
He does this time and time again. He offers small scenes, pieces of a larger puzzle, and lets the nagging questions that result haunt the viewer. This is a risky concept. A director runs the hazard of losing an audience if he consistently poses more quandaries than he or she addresses. Further compounding the peril is the fact that this is basically a murder mystery, a whodunit with slasher overtones. Constantly challenging the audience to draw connections and infer meaning is to ask them to be far too interactive within your film. They have come to be entertained, not tested. So it's up to Argento to find a way around this problem, and he does so with his second deviation from the giallo norm: the breaking of convention. Argento knows that a standard detective film has, at its center, a rational man of deduction who draws together clues and peruses leads until the killer or mystery is unraveled. Well, nothing like this happens in Deep Red. The police are buffoonish literal pigs, too stuffed with food to do their job and too prejudiced about artistic individuals to see beyond the obvious suspect written across their temperamental forehead. It is up to the characters to serve as sleuths.
And what an odd bunch of ineffectual characters they are. Marc, the pianist from London, is a stereotypical male, viewing women as the weaker, less intelligent sex even as he relies on them for personal pleasure and criminal investigative grunt work. Not that the reporter Gianna is any better. Her life is one big successful mission for interpersonal irritation, from the obvious disdain her newspaper co-workers show for her to the police who openly despise her. Even her mode of transportation, a broken-down jalopy of a car, causes untold misfortune for those who ride in it (just like being involved with her?). These are supposed to be our seekers of truth, the individuals who walk us through the gathering of facts and the connection of stories. In David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, Argento found his best actors to date, performers who embodied their ambiguous characterization perfectly. Add to the precise casting of Gabriele Lavia as Carlo, the sad drunk, and Argento is clearly twisting the notion here of what a hero can be. He even tests the limits of the anti-hero, especially since he is not playing with normal mystery conceits. Any of our main characters can be the killer. There is no linear indication of action, so maybe Marc is indeed the killer. He even says it himself in the film. He seems to be everywhere a body turns up.
Gianna and Carlo could also be the killer, since each has uncertain and unclear motivations within the story. Gianna says she cares for Marc, or at least she is constantly throwing herself at him like a bitch in heat. But then she turns around and uses his status as a material witness to get her story and grab at personal fame. Carlo is too weak, too withdrawn, to be a vicious killer, and yet, once his inebriation begins to wear off, his anger begins to rage inside. Again, this is Argento playing with convention. Sides are usually drawn, with good guys and bad guys clearly defined. Even if, in the end, a hero is "flipped" to fool the audience, this is really just a mechanism of an overly clever script, and not a characterization cheat. Most everyone has a flaw, but our characters here are nothing but flawed. Their notions of right and wrong, help and hindrance, are all mixed up in a world of personal desires, career ambitions, and haunted pasts. While Carlo especially seems imprinted by a particularly cruel childhood (and when one meets his doting, ditsy mother, it's not hard to see why), Marc also says that playing the piano is like pounding his father's teeth in. Add this to Gianna's wanton ways (usually a sign of adolescent trauma), and you have three characters (there are many more) who could be the killer—or fill the pair of children's shoes in the opening credits.
Convention would not have a killer employ boiling water or windup dolls as killing devices. Convention would not have a child who stabs lizards or hidden portraits of death located in decaying mansion walls. A normal thriller would have a villain, ready to strike at any moment and a hero in hot pursuit of the truth that will set him or her free. Sure, there will be red herrings and false directives, but in the end, everything will add up, motive will be established, and a nice tidy resolution will occur. Well, if those are the customs of the thriller, Argento directs around each and every one. In Deep Red, the killer does try to kill Marc (the eyewitness), but then takes a decidedly different tactic. Instead of continuing to pursue him directly, he or she kills any and every one who could possibly have information on who they are. So the killer anticipates the resolution to the story, and then backtracks to slaughter all who could provide the links on how to get to it. As for those scarlet sardines, since Argento is never playing fair to begin with, everything becomes a clue and everything becomes a MacGuffin. Take the scenes were Argento leisurely tracks over some obscure items (a yarn doll, a switchblade). What are we supposed to make of them? Are they important to the mystery? To the killer? To a victim? Nothing is fully explained.
As for a pat ending with everything wrapped up together nicely? Well, that will not be found in Deep Red. Sure, we learn the identity of the killer, or at least we think we do. Then we learn who the killer really was. As that person meets their fate, we are left with everything that perplexed before: the whys and the hows. We begin to see the convoluted actions of the killer, the outrageous and exaggerated murder methodology and the hero's coincidental stumbling into the truth. Soon who died and why becomes controversial and then downright baffling. Why did the killing start? Because a psychic saw into the unclean soul of a troubled, demented homicidal mind? Was their fear that the secret of what happened years ago would be revealed? Was that the motivation behind covering up informative backtracks? Nothing is truly resolved, and yet somehow it feels complete and satisfying on an instinctual level. Argento does not want to solve all the riddles. This repeats his desire to have the audience as involved as the characters. We are left holding all the facts and making the necessary connections. This could explain the sense of fulfillment at the end, but it is not the conventional way to solve a mystery.
Indeed, this is a very chaotic way to make a thriller. Chaos serves Argento very well in the film. Each killing is an exercise in bedlam and anarchy. The psychic's murder is a series of severe blunt axe chops followed by the impaling on glass. A woman has her head submerged in boiling water, fighting as her face expands with huge, white blisters. A construction truck drags another character for several blocks until their head meets the underside of an oncoming car tire. And still another has their head sliced off by a necklace caught in a descending elevator. Like the constant bashing of the professor's face and teeth into the corners of tables and mantles, Argento employs the disorienting jar of chaos to set up the basic premise he wants to explore. He is interested in the order that can be derived from chaos, be it in the gathering of clues, the removal of witnesses, or the righting of past wrongs. This desire to emphasize confusion over meticulous behavior functions on two levels. First, he wants to sell the reality of how many mysteries exist in life—sloppy, slipshod, and scattered. Second, he also wants to stress the deranged mind at play. Sure, he offers long, careful shots of various "clues," but their random lack of cohesion is again, a symbol of disorder.
Marc never calls anyone from a phone where he can be clearly heard. Booths are near exploding espresso machines or busy highways. Even when calling from his home, the killer's chilling voice speaks from behind a door, its whispered threats covering over Marc's plea for help. Gianna is no better. Her newsroom is awash in the busy sounds of stories being reported and sorted. And her life is a mess, filled with broken cars, hearts, and dreams. The whole point of this characterization is to mimic the plot. In the end, we are supposed to know the mystery, and we are supposed to know the characters. It's this striving for order out of chaos that showcases the final deviation from the standard thriller conventions. Now, many people believe that a suspense tale functions best when we create a linear story out of a jumble of clues and testimony. The detective's final summation is the essence of bringing about stability out of disarray. But since Argento doesn't offer a standard narrative or a proper following of the rules and regulations of crime-based plotting, this final act cannot occur. So how does Argento achieve his manner of order? He does it by letting loose ends remain loose and allowing other aspects to simply fall, and resonate, with his audience. Eventually, everything that is unimportant and unnecessary will be forgotten so that the real terror can be felt.
This is part of the reason why his horror is so potent, but another is the chaos he finds in killing. His death scenes are always filled with half attempts and missed opportunities. When the axe cleaves into the psychic's chest, it lands with a sickening slam. Skin parts and huge amounts of blood flow. But this is not the deathblow. This is just the beginning of the torment. Argento stages murder like a bizarre mechanical device that spins wildly and awkwardly until a rhythm is established. Then once the fatal beats are meted out, the killer becomes proficient, administering the final stab or shot with deadly accuracy. Again, perfect stillness out of total, unbridled madness. Everything Argento strives for blooms in the moments where chaos is reigned in and moments of silence or calm are achieved. Sure, it may be sloppy, leaving a trail of gore and unanswered questions in its wake, but it's in these final, static sections where the fear is amplified and allowed to settle in and take root.
This is why a film like Deep Red is so effective. Argento, as a director, is building his signature style out of the ashes of his previous successes and his desire to try new and inventive techniques. Deep Red is the place where the most outlandish novelties are attempted. Like when the camera tracks the professor's long knife as it is raised, then bluntly lowered into the poor man's neck. Or the use of steam as a means of clue creation and magical eradication. No other director would spend untold minutes exploring a decaying, gloomy house in the dark, our hero and his way lit only by the fading twilight and a single flashlight beam. Yet Argento understands the primal fear that comes from exploring a place, within the context of a murder investigation, knowing that anything or anyone can be around the corner. POV shots, odd angles, overlapped dialogue, and specific musical types (jazz, rock, and electronica) are all employed in the creation of a grand collage, another means of creating order out of chaos. All the random pieces are strung together in such an artistic way that only a true visionary could be responsible. It is his skill as a great cinematic artist that makes Deep Red work so well, and simultaneously ruining it for all who follow.
Argento's work has long suffered at the hands of foreign distributors and video manufacturers. Deep Red may be notorious for being his most outlandish and over-the-top thriller (frankly, Opera deserves that title more than this film), but it is also known as his one movie that has been consistently butchered by reedits. Entire sequences and subplots have been removed, all in the name of running time and censorship. It's arrogant to think that someone without Argento's talent could simply change the film, substantially in some cases, lose a few of those hanging ends, and tighten the tale overall. And yet this DVD presentation is the first time in the history of the film's release to the US public that it is seen uncut. The first clue that this is the case is the following label on the packaging: Portions of the English Soundtrack were either never recorded or lost. Therefore, these scenes are presented in Italian with English subtitles. And after the credits, we see a first example of this fact. Marc is teaching jazz class, and his lines are dubbed in Italian. The big question is why?
Anchor Bay provides the answer. In order to restore Deep Red, they sought out the original print and were 99.999% successful (there is only one missing moment over the final credits that is still gone). When they viewed all the material they had, the realized they could not find the English soundtrack for the cut scenes. So therefore the warning, and their inclusion in the film. Anchor Bay should be congratulated, as the reinserted material strengthens the context of several subplots and points of the film (Marc and Gianna's relationship, Marc and Carlo's friendship, et cetera). These scenes should never have been cut, since they make Deep Red a better, richer movie. As does the stunning widescreen work by Argento that, again, was mangled to meet the mandates of VHS's full screen foolishness. Even laserdisc looked horrible compared to this new DVD picture. Presented in a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, there is only one slight flaw that keeps the image from earning a solid 100. During the night visit to the supposedly haunted house, ghostly sprocket holes can be faintly seen, but only upon close inspection. They last for about four minutes, and then disappear. So the picture is not perfect, but just like the cut, Anchor Bay gets it 99.999% right. Deep Red lives up to its name in color saturation and presentation.
If Dario Argento can be credited for anything, it's for introducing audiences to the marvelously macabre and bizarre musical scoring of the Italian electronica group Goblin. Deep Red was their first exercise together in creating tone and mood for a movie, and Argento plays them, and they he, magnificently. This may have been just a warm-up for Suspiria, but at the same time they create a classic that many fans feel surpasses the witch warblings and discordant noise of the former film. The music does indeed have a driving brute force. Like the edge of an axe or the plunge of a knife, Goblin interprets murder for musical instruments and heightens the haunting sense of dread with tiny, delicate motifs. This is a brilliant score, and Anchor Bay again allows fans and first timers a chance to experience it in a near flawless aural presentation. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is powerful, immersive, and involving, placing you in the middle of many of Argento's chaotic sequences. When Marc is trying to call from a diner pay phone and a deranged espresso machine keeps going off around him, you can feel the direction as the hiss travels across channels and speakers. Dialogue is clear and sharp, and in scenes where there is overlap or whispers, the mix makes them even creepier. As good as the picture is, the sound is perfection. Deep Red is as much a film about sound as it is about visual fury.
There is one place Anchor Bay slips up here, and it's on the extras front. For a title as important in the canon of Argento's work as Deep Red, it would have been nice for a limited edition documentary treatment, a la Suspiria, so that some of the important details could be discussed. Instead, we are treated to a cursory series of interviews with the important members of the production (no actors) and we learn a little, but not enough. Argento is barely featured, and when he is talking, the answers seem like rote repetitions of things he's said about the film thousands of times before. At least in the Suspiria documentary he is questioned long enough so that real insight is derived after the stock answers are given. Along with two weird trailers that sell the film in a series of camera still shots (and even though there is an option to view it in Italian, it doesn't matter since there is no voiceover or dialogue) and some perfunctory talent bios, that's all we get. It's a shame, because so much could and should be explained about the film (like where was that great, gothic mansion located that they filmed the last few sequences in, and what is its history). So much of the film is intriguing that to leave it unanswered is perhaps the sole disappointment about the Deep Red package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Deep Red is a murder mystery as muddled mess. One could not simply sit down with the clues as Argento presents them and solve the case. One also has to suspend a huge amount of disbelief to buy that a killer, once they have been seen, would not make Marc a continuing target of terror. Apparently, after one failed attempt, Marc is never quite in danger again, until the end that is. And what about that ending? While it will not be spoiled, do we have to keep wondering who it is and who it isn't until the last two minutes of the film? And will anyone be satisfied with the motivation behind the crimes? (Let's just say this—if stardom is that important, perhaps the government should regulate it.) Deep Red is a cheap shot from Argento, a convoluted exercise in style over everything else. Sure, the acting is good, even great at times, and Argento does have a way with a death scene. But thespian melodramatics and clots of gore do not make a successful thriller. Indeed, they are all that Deep Red has going for it, and it's not enough to warrant the massive praise it receives.
One cannot help but keep returning to words like "brilliant" and "warped" and "imaginative" when discussing the work of Dario Argento. No other director has shown the fright buried inside the innocence of childhood, or the mundane, everyday face of the insane, better than he. His works are highly regarded because they are intelligent as well as instinctive. He goes for the throat, examines in graphic detail how it is ripped and torn, and then finds the one beautiful or baneful note in the image to focus on and accentuate, be it with music or lighting or scenery. His later works have suffered due to a public's desire to see a true visual stylist constantly topping himself, but he is still one of the most consistent voices of hallucinatory terror to come out of the foreign market. Deep Red is an example of what Argento does best. He takes a simple story of murder by dementia, funnels it through his own ideals about story construction and genre convention, and creates something unreal, and at the same time universal in its horror. Viewed as the waking dream to Argento's later nightmare in Technicolor Suspiria, it is a one-two combination that many directors would sell their soul to call their own. And it all comes down to the unknown: the fear of it, the infinite terror inside and the boundless possibilities in cinematic expression of it. Argento is one of the great directors, and Deep Red is one of his best films.
All charges against the cast and crew of Deep Red are dismissed. Anchor Bay is also acquitted, but is warned to pay a little more attention to transfer and extras issues when dealing with a voice as important as Dario Argento's.
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Scales of Justice
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