Deep Red (1975)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-06-06 11:39

Directed by: Dario Argento
Written by: Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi
Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, and Gabriele Lavia

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“I can feel death in this room. I feel a presence. A twisted mind sending me thoughts. Perverted, murderous thoughts!
Go away! You have killed… and you will kill again.”

It was 1975 and giallo pioneers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino had welcomed a new kid on the block only a few years before: Dario Argento. He had proven his worth with three very standard, but nonetheless stunning entries in the sub-genre: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat’o’Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Then came what is in my opinion, his greatest directorial achievement: Deep Red. This giallo differed from many of the ones that came before it. Its title was confined to a mere two words. The title didn’t invoke the imagery of an animal nor did the plot involve sexual situations in any way. For better or worse, the film brought the giallo to the forefront of modern horror pop culture. From this point on, if a giallo wasn’t in the same vein as Deep Red, it didn’t get made. In a struggling sub-genre, it was the much-needed second wind that carried the giallo well into the 80s.

Marcus Daly is a pianist living and working in Rome. Walking home one night, he witnesses the murder of a psychic, who just earlier that evening, felt the presence of a murderer in the audience of a conference she was giving. Partnered up with a sassy but sexy reporter (played by Dario’s girlfriend Daria Nicolodi) Marcus takes it upon himself to solve the crime and stop the murderer before more fall victim to his blade. Of course, in true giallo fashion, more victims do pile up, with each killing being more brutal than the one that preceeded it. Will Marcus be able to find the killer before he too becomes a victim? What is behind the killer’s fascination with a strange children’s song and toys?

Deep Red is much deserving of its numerous fan and critical accolades. It is filled with haunting imagery. Through occasional insert shots of marbles and toy dolls, we see a disturbing glimpse into the killer’s mind. The killings in the film are particularly eerie, due to the killer’s insistence on playing a tape of a bizarre children’s song before each crime. The killer’s appearance is stereotypical of the giallo sub-genre, coming complete with a rain slicker, black leather gloves, and a fedora. The film is also, I feel, Dario’s most grounded in reality. There isn’t as much loopy logic to follow, as most of the clues, motivations, and suspects are somewhat plausible. The one scene that goes into the surreal involves a life-size puppet that is encountered by one of the investigators. Suddenly, the puppet comes to life and walks toward him. Did the killer set this up? It appears that way. But, how did the puppet walk on its own? Does the killer have an engineering degree? It really makes no sense, but it does provide the single best jump-scare in the entire film. The “puppet comes to life by mysterious means” plot point was used again with eerie effect a few years later in Class Reunion Massacre and most recently in the Saw movies.

Though Suspiria’s music is legendary in its conveyance of a nightmarish world of the surreal, Deep Red’s is quite good as well. It actually serves as its own character, practically. It really is that important to the film. Utilizing rock guitar, pipe organ, heavy base riffs, drums, and synthesizer, Goblin’s score ranges from jazzy, to scary, to funky, to tense. Dario’s direction is second to none here. He was really on top of his game in 1975. Great use is made of first person point of view (and remember, this was before Halloween was released). The mystery Dario creates is superb, as there are plenty of suspects and clues (and red herrings) to mull over during the film’s running time. Dario knows how to artistically shoot murder scenes better than anyone working today and his suspense in Deep Red is among the best he’s ever created. This is probably the most Hitchcockian of his films, and it’s rumored that Hitch himself actually saw it and was very impressed by this “young Italian fellow”. I do have one question, though: What is Dario’s seeming obsession with shots of water faucets and drains? Here, there is a shot early on of a running water faucet followed by a shot of the drain. Then there is a crash cut to a zoomed close-up of the same drain. Later in the film, there are multiple shots of the bathtub faucet. There is a similar shot in Suspiria of a drain outside the airport, followed by a crash cut and a zoomed close-up of the same drain. I’m not quite sure what the shots are meant to symbolize, but there has to be something there that I’m not quite understanding. I guess that is just the genius that is Dario and we are simply not meant to understand.

True to the title, there is a great deal of red in the film. Not just blood during the murders, but many scenes throughout feature the color. For instance, there are red curtains and seats in the theatre at the beginning of the film. Of course, what you’re wanting to know the most about is the blood quotient. Deep Red has a pretty notorious reputation for supplying brutal deaths in Argento’s typical fashion and it does live up to the hype. The stabbings (more like ‘choppings’, as the deaths are mostly committed by a meat cleaver) are particularly gory, and in what is probably the standout death sequence, a man’s face is shoved into a fireplace mantle, breaking his teeth repeatedly. The vicious nature of the deaths add to the scariness of the killer. This isn’t just someone who will smother you or poison you quietly in your sleep. No. This is a killer that wants to brutalize your body and make you suffer as you expire. This killer is truly insane and is definitely Dario’s scariest creation. My favorite scene was when the killer gets into Marcus’ apartment and from the other side of a locked door, the killer mumbles an ominous threat to him. The murders are so well-shot and tense that each one provides more suspense and tension than most of us are used to seeing in most entire films.

There are at least three different versions of Deep Red that I have been exposed to. The badly edited “Deep Red: The Hatchet Murders” VHS by Thorn-EMI, the uncut Japanese laserdisc, and the Anchor Bay DVD “director’s cut”. Of the three versions, the Anchor Bay cut (and currently only legal way to see the film in the US) is my least favorite. Clocking in at 126 minutes, it’s entirely too long, and drags in many places. Not to mention, the switching back and forth from dubbed English to Italian with sub-titles is quite distracting. The added scenes vary from pointless to obstructive. For instance, the added dialogue to the scene between Marcus and Carlo after the very first murder gives the audience too much information. It’s easy to see why Argento cut it initially. Why this footage was added back by Anchor Bay is anyone’s guess. The chemistry between Marcus and Gianna is greatly bogged down in the Anchor Bay cut. The arm-wrestling scene alone provides plenty enough subtle flirtation and attraction to spark a romance between the two, making the added scenes pointless and excessive. Adding scenes for the sake of calling a release “uncut” and a “director’s cut” doesn’t always work, as this version attests. The version I like best is that from the Japanese laserdisc. It’s got all the blood completely uncut, but none of the added scenes from Anchor Bay’s. Horror films work best the closer they are to the 90-minute mark (though, there are exceptions). In a sub-genre often criticized for being dull, talky, and boring, Anchor Bay’s Deep Red “director’s cut” stands out as quite possibly the worst giallo of them all for these very reasons. If you want to seek out this film (and you should) try to find the Japanese laserdisc or a similar version from another region. Avoid Anchor Bay’s like the plague. It is nowhere close to being the best representation of the film.

Though I suppose there is no definitive home video version of Deep Red, Argento truly knocked the ball out of the park with this one, then bulldozed the park so that no one could ever hit one out quite the same way again. The giallo was forever changed from this point on and future giallo filmmakers would be forced to play by a different set of rules. Gone were the slow-moving giallos of the early 70s, and here to take us through the late 70s and early 80s were a spate of films that were much more slice and dice if perhaps less in the substance area. Deep Red, in my preferred cut, is Argento’s best movie, period. I even prefer this cut to Suspiria, as great as that movie truly is. Anchor Bay’s “director’s cut” suffers, and I urge all to find an uncut version out there that doesn’t also include all the pointless added scenes that bog down the pace and the story. This giallo is as good as they get, folks. It’s a giallo so great and so landmark within the horror genre, that Dario even named a retail store after it in Rome. This one comes highly recommended from me, to all fans of slashers, giallo, and just good horror in general. Essential!

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