DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento
PLOT: A pianist witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic and becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer, even though everyone he associates with is being slaughtered.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Not quite weird enough. Deep Red flirts with the irrational, but at this stage of his career director Argento hadn’t fully committed to the bizarre yet.
COMMENTS: Previous to Deep Red, Dario Argento had made three stylish, well-regarded gialli (for those unfamiliar with the Italian giallo genre, imagine a slasher movie with an actual whodunnit plot and a near-Gothic atmosphere, and add bad dubbing). With Deep Red, the director turned up the style meter several notches, and pushed further into his own esoteric brand of the fantastique: the Expressionist flowers that bloom in Suspiria grow from the blood spilled in Deep Red. Still pitched as a traditional mystery, Deep Red does not abandon the primacy of plot, but the story becomes so convoluted, and makes so many concessions to atmosphere, that it begins to bear hallmarks of weirdness. The film begins with a shadow-play prologue that reenacts a Yuletide murder, then segues into a parapsychology conference held inside a scarlet-cloaked opera house. A panel of experts discuss telepathy in zebras (!) and then introduce a psychic, who senses the presence of an evil soul in the audience. During her subsequent brutal murder, a pianist played David Hemmings witnesses the murderer leaving the scene of the crime and becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer (who strikes again several times). Although the tale is intricately constructed and the resolution itself “makes sense,” the movie takes fairly arbitrary steps in its quest for closure. Drive-in film critic Joe Bob Briggs used to have a saying, “this movie has so much plot it’s like it doesn’t have any plot at all,” an adage that fits Deep Red perfectly. The story takes leaps that aren’t always clear to the viewer. Barely introduced to each other at the scene of the crime, Hemmings and a female photographer (Nicolodi) suddenly begin working as a team to investigate the murder. Hemmings is constantly following up on obscure clues, but they always lead to scary set pieces, rather than pieces of the puzzle. A line from the psychic sends him off searching for a haunted house so he can eventually discover horrifying murals; they seek a woman, whose importance is insisted upon but never explained, who is killed off in one of Argento’s tensest and most sadistic kill sequences before she can divulge whatever it was she knew. The murderer’s methodology is ludicrously elaborate: we’re supposed to accept that he creates a scary looking ventriloquist’s puppet, sneaks into someone’s house, sets the dummy up on some sort of hidden rail system, and uses it to distract his victim so he can go in for the kill.
In other scenes, pet birds improbably impale themselves on knitting needles. With all of this exaggerated atmosphere, it’s no wonder an admiring Guillermo del Toro declared that Deep Red “doesn’t make logical sense, but makes lyrical sense.” Fetishistic closeups of dolls, gloves, a mascara-laden eye, phonograph needles, and so on are sprinkled throughout the action. The framing and set design are excellent, the camerawork is fluid and impressive, and the revolutionary score (John Carpenter acknowledges the obvious when he admits that his famous theme for Halloween was inspired by Deep Red‘s arpeggios) by operatic jazz-rock outfit Goblin creates a novel brand of anxiety. The acting, as is usual with this director, isn’t up to the high standards of the rest of the film, but everything else is so assured that the sometimes awkwardly dubbed and delivered dialogue almost becomes just another element of style. The suspense scenes are among Argento’s best and the deaths among his most painfully gruesome. But it’s the uneasy balance created by the movie’s deep evocation of the irrational, hidden inside a detective story—the most ultra-rational of all literary forms—that ultimately buries Deep Red in the viewer’s subconscious mind.
There’s a friendly rivalry between fans and critics who champion Deep Red as Argento’s best film, and those who hold out for the weirder Suspiria. It all depends on what point you believe irrationality should crest to make for the perfect psychological horror; some feel Suspiria goes too far, while others (like us) contend that Red is just a warm-up for the masterpiece to come.
Blue Underground advertises its 2011 DVD re-release of Deep Red as “presented here in the Uncensored English Version for the first time,” but at 105 minutes it runs about the same as previous versions; only a little bit of gore is restored. The original Italian version ran 126 minutes; 22 minutes were cut for the American release, and they were never dubbed (so that the complete English version of the film contains a mix of subtitles and dubbing). Blue Underground’s Blu-ray release (buy) contains both versions. Extras on both releases include two trailers; ten minutes of previously-seen interviews with Argento, co-writer Bernardino Zapponi and Goblin; a somewhat strange music video of the theme song by the band Daemonia (members of the group are killed in the same ways as the characters in the film—as they’re playing the song); and a new music video by a reunited Goblin.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“When Deep Red is good… its great: Argento does some staggering things with the camera, including hyper-real closeups of bizarre knick-knacks in the killers lair.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (DVD)