Deep Red, easily horror maestro Dario Argento’s masterpiece, hints at the hysteria of repression from its very name, which probably contains half a dozen meanings and cuts to the very core of the horror film’s potential for sexual/violent confusion. The title is obviously a reference to the considerable blood that’s spilled over the course of its two hours, while also indicating the madness of the killer, as well as the ultimate folly of the quest the hero ultimately undertakes.
This is one of a series of thrillers made over a 15-year period (including Blowup, The Converstion, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out) that explored the futility of the solution of a central mystery. In these films, the heroes strive to exert a level of control over their lives that ultimately saves no one; the wrong people always die and the hero is always left disconcertingly exposed to the truths of the uncontrollable and the incomprehensible.
The hero in Deep Red is Marcus Daly (and don’t think it’s accidental that he’s played by Blowup’s David Hemmings), a bored, glib American pianist eking out a living teaching music abroad in Italy. Argento establishes Marcus succinctly in the first few moments: We grasp the ennui, the superiority, and the self-loathing of the classic failed artist immediately. These early moments, in Marcus’s classroom, have a jazzy, nearly improvisatory feel, and this is a tone Argento will continue to contrast with the surreal dream atmosphere of the shocks that will follow with ruthless precision.
Marcus is invited to see a beautiful female psychic (Macha Meril) perform that night—a show that quickly turns ghastly when she’s seized with panic, claiming to have channeled the thoughts of someone among the audience who has killed and will kill again, prompting a figure, unseen by us, to rush out of the auditorium. Later, Marcus is chatting on a street corner with Carlos (Gabriele Lavia), a gay friend who, as inferred in their conversation, may or may not have a drinking problem. (He’s certainly smashed when Marcus finds him nearly passed out by a bar.) Marcus lectures Carlos on his habits and begins to make his way home only to stumble upon the psychic as she’s slashed to ribbons and impaled on shards of a broken window that overlooks the scene of Carlos’s nightly debauch.
Marcus is plunged into the search for the killer as he continues his or her spree, in a manner that recalls many heroes similarly thrust into the wrong place at the very wrong time. (Deep Red and Dressed to Kill really would make for a brilliant double feature.) And there are, of course, a number of seemingly unrelated clues: an eerily “innocent” children’s song that’s played as accompaniment to many of the murders, a fascination with child-like trinkets, a picture stolen from the psychic’s apartment for murky reasons, even a superstition surrounding a house that’s said to be cursed.
The mystery is executed with a clarity and coherence that marks Deep Red as one of the most satisfying whodunnits the horror genre has produced. Argento, a brilliant stylist who sometimes sacrifices even emotional logic for the sake of an image, outdoes himself here with terrifying images and set pieces that deepen the meaning of the story. The murders are icky, sexual, and disturbing, and they comment upon the killer’s escalating fury and madness while also pressing a number of fears and pressure points, such as the killing that finds an unfortunate policeman nearly impaled on the corner of a table (a bit David Lynch used years later in Lost Highway).
Argento’s films are often concerned with the unfathomable differences between the genders, and in Deep Red the filmmaker scores repeated points on the confusion the movement then derisively referred to as “women’s lib” has caused both men and women. A key to the ultimate resolution of the killer’s identity is revealed in the contrast between two subplots: the tentative romance between Marcus and Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), a reporter who inadvertently places Marcus in the killer’s crosshairs and the strange, somewhat suffocating relationship between Carlos and his diva mother, Marta (Clara Calamai). In both relationships, the women are portrayed as aggressive, mysterious creatures who emasculate their men, which mirrors the explicitly sexual imagery of the murders. The mystery itself is seemingly impenetrable because men and women, time and again, are unable to comprehend things that are literally right in front of their face.
The film uses shifts in tone as a red herring that further discombobulates the viewer, and you can be forgiven for finding much of the Marcus/Gianna subplot expendable upon your first viewing of the film. Their moments are broad to the point of being near slapstick, but that’s a diversion that allows Argento to lead you astray from the picture’s truth. The comedy of the Marcus/Gianna scenes is the rare movie red herring that doesn’t so obviously announce itself, as the tension between Marcus, the somewhat effeminate artist, and Gianna, the more traditionally masculine careerist, exists as a subtle parallel to the dashed dreams and resentment that have created a killer.
Residing deliberately uncomfortably with the comedy is an atmosphere of heightened, surreal unease. The film, particularly with the Blue Bar set that’s clearly modeled on Hopper’s paintings, continually reminds you that it exists in an imaginative realm inspired by our deepest anxieties. Argento is particularly apt at conveying a very specific human response: the paralysis of fear that inspires so many nightmares of being unable to move to elude a pursuing danger. A scene in the middle of the film, in which Marcus is almost murdered by the killer, brilliantly expresses the sensation of being frozen by panic. Argento achieves a feeling of intrusion by jarring his beautiful, rapturous aesthetics: A number of purposefully amateurish shaky cam shots, which simulate the killer’s movements, interrupt the otherwise graceful camera work. These wobbly shots are juxtaposed with prolonged medium shots of Marcus on the piano—the frame open to all sorts of possible attacks.
And that’s what a great horror film does to you; it opens you up to the chaos of the everyday that we must blind ourselves to in order to moderately function as inhabitants of this planet. A great horror film is more than a series of well-orchestrated scares; it must have subterranean truth. Horror films play on the fear of death, obviously, as any moderately versed slasher junkie can tell you, but truly great horror films normally explore a larger, perhaps even more primordial fear: that society is an illusionary construct that simultaneously fortifies and weakens us. The great horror film is about the freeing, destructive (or perhaps ironically constructive) madness of acknowledging animal limitations that polite society pretends to have transcended. And Deep Red, which literally fulfills its title in a big, disgusting final visual flourish, is a great horror film about a weak man who, gazing into a vibrant pool of freshly spilled blood, learns just how little he ultimately knows.
This Blu-ray does full justice to the beauty of Dario Argento’s bold, primal color palette. The red and blues pop with the surreal painterly quality that characterizes a number of 1970s horror films, while the darks are rendered with remarkable clarity and detail. The murders, particularly that astounding sequence in the bathroom, have never looked better to these eyes. The sound is equally impressive as the surround work allows us to feel the unease of the hunted characters while also blowing the rafters out with the iconic Goblin soundtrack.
Sadly, not too much. The shortened version of the film originally released in the States, while nice for completist posterity, is also a butchering of a classic that you have no business wasting your time with. The interviews with Argento and the case and crew don’t amount to much beyond typical promo flattery, which leaves you craving a nice meaty documentary. The trailers and music videos are amusing but skippable.
The skimpy extras are disappointing, but this gorgeous transfer of a horror classic is still a must-own.