4. Deep Red
“Deep Red” is Dario Argento’s first horror masterpiece. Now why is that, since the film really isn’t all that different then the three murder-thrillers he previously made? The movie caters heavily in the themes and concepts used throughout the Animal Trilogy. The central premise borrows heavily from “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.” An innocent man, a musician, witnesses a murder. (Played by David Hemmings, very nearly reprising his role from “Blow-Up.”) Something he glances fleetingly during that moment turns out to be the key to the identity of the murderer. Soon, the killer is stalking him and he has to solve the mystery, for his own life’s sake. If you’ve seen any of Argento’s previous films, this should sound familiar.
What separates “Deep Red” from the Animal Trilogy is that Argento has come completely into his own as a stylist. This is a film that, at its best, is committed to creating a serious sense of dread. From the opening frames, the opening credits, Goblin’s deeply atmospheric music supplies an unsettling mood. The first scene of the film proper is a bright red curtain parting. Like Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace,” this is a film that both begins and ends with images of red. The parting of curtains also invokes the stage, the theater of the Grand Guignol. The previous set of films certainly had horror elements but were more interested in solving a mystery. “Deep Red” is established as a horror film right from the beginning.
The inventive camera work hinted at previously is put on full display here. The first-person perspective, putting the audience behind the eyes of the murderer, is employed extensively here. The technique is sometimes criticized for prompting sadism in the viewer. This ignores the main purpose of the style, which is to create a personal sense of dread. Yes, we watch the killer strike with hatchet or boiling water, but the victims also look over their shoulders. There’s very little room between attacker and attacked. Argento’s very wide frames shrinks to an intimate level. The voyeurism slices both ways. The idea is to make it seem like you, the viewer, are the one being attacked. It’s a bristling effective way to create terror.
Argento’s camera prowls, from around walls, down from floors, up staircases, putting the viewer in the role of both observer and observed. A couple of time, he seems to be simply playing with us. Extreme close-ups are used fantastically. The camera strolls up a line of musical notes on a piece of sheet music. We see the hammers working inside a piano. When the movie gets really creepy are in sequences of intense style that serve little story purpose. While Goblin pounds away on the soundtrack, the camera moves around baby dolls, children’s toys, and knives, in such close-up you almost can’t tell what everything’s suppose to be at first. An eye, painted in black, appear out of the darkness. Odd upside-down angles are used, intentionally disorienting the viewer. There’s no plot reason for any of this. It’s here simply to creep the hell out of the viewer. And it’s hugely successful.
Important themes are brought to the forefront here. Childlike images appear again and again. While this does work as a hint to the killer’s identity, it does suggest something deeper. The killer uses dolls and toys, most notably a cackling, walking dummy automaton, as a calling card. The creepy singing of a children’s choir proceeds the murderer’s appearance both in-story and on-film. The juxtaposition of childish behavior and gory murder is disquieting. Childhood trauma is directly linked with homicidal tendencies. Later on, a strange little girl, who likes to pin lizards on needles, appears. Ghost stories of a haunted building, the kind passed around in elementary school cafeterias, play a major role. Little kids drawling gory or creepy scenes in a coloring-book style is a horror cliché these days. “Deep Red” uses it briefly too, mostly as the penultimate hint to the killer’s identity, but also because it works into the film’s obsession with a disturbed childhood. I’m not exactly sure what Argento is getting at here, but it makes the film richer and scarier.
Argento is sometimes accused of misogyny, and not always without good reason. Gender conflict definitely seems to have been on his mind during the making of “Deep Red.” A lengthy subplot in the film involves our musician protagonist falling for a gutsy reporter girl, played by Dario’s muse of the time, Daria Nicolodi. The two frequently argue over gender equality, about which sex is superior. After the two arm-wrestle, the man jokingly claim that woman are less intelligent than men but more physically savage. I didn’t catch it at first but this definitely sets up an important plot-point near the end. A slow-pan up Daria’s face, bathed in oranges from a near-by fire, is sometimes accused of setting up an awkward red haring. While the shot doesn’t lead anywhere, it does play into the story’s theme.
The main character’s best friend is alcoholic Carlo. Around the forty minute mark, Carlo is also revealed to gay. He’s having an intimate relationship with a rather feminine looking man… Who’s played by a woman with a dubbed over voice. An easily overlooked piece of dialogue reveals early on that the mad slasher’s desire to kill steams from gender oppression, from marriage cutting careers and dreams short. None of this is likely to convince people the director doesn’t have some issues with woman, but he definitely seems to relate with their plight. The hatchet-killer is ruthless but ultimately sympathetic.
The reoccurring fetishes of Argento show up too. Roman architecture is prominently displayed several times, especially a large statue of a reclining Jupiter. An abandoned old house isn’t just a creepy take on a much older horror style, but the flowers that were potted around it and the layout of the house furthers the investigation. Artwork is naturally a plot point. Edward Hopper’s famous painting “Nighthawks” is visually quoted for not much any reason at all. The layout of people’s apartments even tells us about the characters living in it. The psychic, the killer’s first victim, has her apartment built around pentagrams. (Didn’t I mention the psychic? There’s a psychic in this too.) And when the hatchet-slasher does speak, the voice is a quiet, craggily, threatening whisper, as it would be before and after. A little bird shows up again too, simply because Dario likes them.
I haven’t talked yet about the set-pieces of the films, the murder scenes. There’s a reason the movie’s called “Deep Red.” It’s bloody, gory, intense, and startling. The kills here are cringe-inducing. Co-writer Bernardino Zapponi built each murder sequence around everyday house-hold fears: Broken glass, scalding bathwater, bumping into jagged edges, stepping too soon off of sidewalks into busy traffic, and elevator doors slamming shut on body parts. This roots the operatic carnage in common concerns, making the death scenes very relatable.
It’s gnarly stuff too. A body is pushed through a window, the neck sliced upon on the shattered glass. Teeth are knocked out on wooden desk corners. A man is dragged behind a garbage truck, slammed into curves. The music builds, while Argento’s intimate camera peers on. The long attack scenes are topped off with a tracking shot of a rising and falling knife blade, or a speeding car splattering a head like a ripe melon. This is the kind of stuff gore hounds and horror enthusiast live for. And then there’s that cackling running dummy that appears out of nowhere and apropos of nothing. Brrr…
The movie doesn’t work on every level. The full 126-minute director’s cut is too long. The romantic-comedy scenes, showing the love story between David Hemmings and Nicolodi, are long digressions. While Hemmings and Nicolodi have nice chemistry, the scenes don’t add much to the story. Clownish moments of her rickety car, with its permanently locked doors and falling seats, feel like they’re from a completely different movie. Further comic relief scenes, such as both ends of a telephone conversation being muted by near-by ruckus, or the stock giallo police detective yelling at a vending machine, further stick out. I’m fairly certain there’s a cut of the movie that leaves all of the gore intact but excises these distracting moments. If that does actually exist, it’s the ideal version.
(The heavily edited U.S. cut, called “The Hatchet Murders,” isn’t it. It’s butchered. It’s also in the public domain, which makes it unfortunately the easiest variation of the film to find.)
“Deep Red” really scared the crap out of me on first viewing. It one of the few films to deeply frighten me. (Along with fellow Italian horror, Saovi’s “Stagefright.”) I knew just about nothing going in and all the shocks and surprises hit me just right. It doesn’t play as well on second viewing, when you know where the shocks are. These days, it’s a film I admire on a more technical level then on an emotional one. But it’s still Argento at his peak, the first time his style and obsessions really came together to make a cohesive whole. It’s a brilliant exercise in surrealistic style and scares. [Grade: A]