One guarantee for viewers of a Dario Argento film is a gorgeous experience. Argento is a master of the visual, with an artist’s sense of palette and a designer’s sense of space. His films take the ordinary streets of urban Italy, or wherever he has chosen to shoot, and turn them almost surreal, or liminal. The characters that occupy these worlds never seem to notice how uncanny their surroundings are. In Deep Red, Argento, along with cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller, takes the bustling city of Turin and turns it into a lonely, cavernous place seemingly built by giants, and now occupied sparsely by their diminutive descendants. Interior spaces are crowded not with people, but art, and none of it is remarkable to anyone who floats through these spaces. To them, the world might as well consist of blank walls. Everything shown on screen is not for them. It’s for us.
All of this has nothing to do with plot, which has always felt like something of an afterthought in an Argento film — or Italian films in general, for that matter. A coherent plot implies predestination, whereas Italian filmmakers, coming from a country millennia removed from the weighty responsibilities of empire, understand that it is much more rewarding to take a look around once in a while, the endless march forward be damned.
From 1975, Deep Red was Argento’s fifth feature in the director’s chair, working from a screenplay by himself and Bernardino Zapponi. The film opens with a murder — one that is left unexplained until denouement. The film then jumps forwards in time, to a conference at the gorgeous Teatro Carignano in Turin, where a psychic, Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), gets a strong impression that someone in the audience is a murderer. Of course, she is having visions of the murder that opened the film. That evening Helga is killed in her apartment by an unknown assailant. The attack is witnessed from the street by British expat pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), who is also Helga’s upstairs neighbor. For reasons known only to Marcus, he can’t help but investigate the murder, following clues which lead to more clues, in the hope that the trail will eventually lead to the killer.
He is joined in the hunt by journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who put Marcus’s life in danger by printing his name and picture in the paper as a witness to Helga’s murder, thus making him a target of the killer. Now his motivations include self-preservation. The two worm all over Turin and its surroundings. Every time they find a significant lead, the killer shows up and murders whoever could provide them help.
Eventually, the clues take them to a place called The House of the Screaming Child (played by Villa Scott, a stunning art nouveau mansion in the hills of Turin just to the east of the River Po), an abandoned villa that is supposedly haunted. From here, one more stop on the trail leads to the final confrontation with the killer.
In real life, it wouldn’t have taken much detective work to figure out who the killer is. There’s little chance Marcus would have had any greater insight than the actual professionals. But that’s neither here nor there. Argento needed a plot for his movie, and he got one. Again, it’s secondary to atmosphere, and also secondary to the performances of the cast. Argento and his cast perform an exercise in world building, one where a bar pianist and a psychic are both able to pursue their passions and live in gorgeous apartments.
Deep Red is a crowning work of Italian giallo, coming right around the peak of the genre’s popularity. It also premiered right around the time gialli transitioned from thriller to horror. The main elements of a giallo film are all there, but Deep Red also has the bloody visuals of contemporary slasher horror. It’s not enough for the killer to murder characters in this movie. They have to be stabbed, slashed, boiled, squished, and splattered. The blood is of the melted crayon variety, but will still satisfy all those gorehounds out there. The blood and the fear do make this a horror film, yet the horror at times does feel superfluous, or, worse, exploitative. The movie did not need this level of gore to have an impact with viewers. It draws an audience in so effectively in other ways, especially with the look and feel I spent so many words on, above.
Today’s viewers might have issue with Argento’s pace. That is our fault and not his. He cannot be blamed for what modern media and smartphones have done to our collective attention spans. The pace is affected by the plot alternating between logical next steps and the occasional leap of faith, though. It all looks so good and wraps the viewer in its world so well that all is forgiven.
Of final note is the score, from the band Goblin. They were longtime collaborators with Argento, and provided excellent music for this film, worth listening to on its own.
Deep Red is essential viewing for fans of horror, fans of Italian cinema, fans of gialli, fans of Argento, fans of film as works of art…one gets the idea. Check it out.