Deep Red: Gulp down some deep-red Chianti and prepare to be stunned

Deep Red directed by Dario Argento horror film reviewsDeep Red directed by Dario Argento

Following his so-called Animal Trilogy — 1970’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and 1971’s The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Gray Velvet — and immediately before creating what turned out to be his most popular picture as of this date, 1977’s Suspiria, Italian director Dario Argento released, in March 1975, one of his most critically acclaimed films, Deep Red (or, as it is more sonorously known in Italian, Profondo Rosso). All these decades later, the picture is still considered, by fans and critics alike, to not only be one of the most impressive in Argento’s still-growing oeuvre, but one of the finest gialli ever made; the excellent reference book DVD Delirium even goes so far as to call it “one of the highlights of Italian cinema as a whole.” And now that I have finally caught up with the film, I can see what all the ballyhoo is about … to a degree.

In the picture, a string of grisly murders begins with the slaying of a beautiful Jewish Lithuanian clairvoyant (played by Macha Meril, who many viewers will recall as the depraved, sophisticated woman in Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders of that same year), who had sensed the presence of a killer at a recent parapsychology demonstration. The homicide is witnessed from afar by jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who most will recognize from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blowup), who tries to track down the killer with the assistance of feisty news reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, in her first of six films for the director). But with a maniac as seemingly omniscient as this one is, this turns out to be quite a risky proposition indeed…

Deep Red is a remarkable film on several fronts. It features typically impressive camera work from Argento — although his mobile, sinuous camera tricks would be emphasized even more in later films, such as 1988’s Opera — as well as superb editing AND gripping background music (largely from the rock group Goblin, whose work on Suspiria would prove so memorable). Typical for a giallo, stylish murders are highlighted, although, despite that sanguinary title, the film is not nearly as bloody as some of Argento’s others (particularly 1982’s Tenebre, one of the goriest gialli ever). Still, gorehounds should be pleased by the various knifing, cleavering, tub scalding, teeth bashing, head banging and decapitation sequences that the film dishes out, although animal rights activists might be appalled by the violence, real and simulated, done to dogs, lizards (lizards, strangely, also figured in two other Argento films that I recently watched, Opera and 1980’s Inferno) and ravens (skewered ravens would be a major plot point in Opera, too). Assorted bits of weirdness in the film include a shot of the killer’s unblinking eyeball, deep in the recesses of a dark closet (an homage, perhaps, to the similar shot in the classic 1946 thriller The Spiral Staircase?); that odd little girl, Olga; the creepy children’s lullaby that the maniac plays before slaying (you’ll be humming it for days afterward); and, most especially, that hideous walking doll. Hemming and Nicolodi are wonderful in their leading roles, and their bickering romance provides the film with what little humor it has to offer. As detectives, though, they are mediocre at best; though hot on the correct trail, they never DO figure out the killer’s identity … and, I have a feeling, neither will you.

Unlike many other gialli that I have seen over the years, Deep Red hangs together logically and makes coherent sense … especially after a repeat viewing. Still, some questions remain: Why was the killer at that parapsychology conference in the first place, and how did the killer get on the trail of the writer living in the country? Still, these are quibbles. Deep Red really could be one of the finest, classiest and stylishly constructed gialli ever made, although this viewer might still prefer Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970) and Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) (but this might have something to do with the exquisite presences of Edwige Fenech in the first and Barbara Bouchet in the second!).

The DVD that I just watched, incidentally, from Westlake, features the full-length, 126-minute print and looks terrific, but with nary an extra to be had, other than a skimpy photo gallery. From what I hear, the DVDs from Anchor Bay and Blue Underground would be better options. But seeing the film is a must, as it turns out, for all fans of Italian thrillers and even horror in general. Gulp down some deep-red Chianti and prepare to be stunned!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. This movie is one of the best products of the cinematic art in existence, and I’m so glad that a film like this is still getting attention. I used to show this in my horror cinema course-I miss the days of visceral student shock!

    • sandy ferber /

      Surely, one of the finest gialli ever made. And I’ll say it again, Kathryn: I would have loved to have been a student in one of your classes!

      • It was pretty cool for me too, getting to share some of the most awesome, and sometimes underappreciated cinema. Whatever you’re in the mood for any given night, I’m all to happy to make recommendations!

        • sandy ferber /

          Thanks, Kathryn. A friend of mine was just raving about a giallo film he’d just seen called “Strange Shadows in an Empty Room.” I’d never heard of this one previously. Have you any knowledge of it?

  2. It’s no one of my favorites, but it does star John Saxon, who was also put in a great performance in Mario Bava’s Evil Eye. It does have plenty of falling hallmarks, including the foreign actor and the strain between the police and a private investigation. From a scholarly avenue, I’ve done research on stylized horror cinema in postwar years-from the German krimi films, which influenced gialli, and gave birth to North American slashers. There are global issues about sexuality, womanhood, and modernity in each of these that blur national lines as they establish “genre” that’s very telling. Ive presented preliminary work at conferences and hopefully will do a full length study in the future. Needless to say, seen practicallg every krimi, giallo, slasher, and noir out there. Even archival ones no longer in public circulation. Sometimes, being an academic can be fun!

  3. Sorry for the typos in that my phone hates me.

    • sandy ferber /

      You should write a book, Kathryn. I would certainly be interested in reading it. On the home front, I recently just watched “Alice, Sweet Alice” again, which I feel is the closest that any American film has ever come to approaching the qualities of an Italian giallo. Would you agree? Also, this past weekend I also watched an ’80s film called “Bloody Birthday,” which I suppose must be categorized as a slasher film, but one that rises above the usual fare with some surprising set pieces and unusual situations. Finally, a few days back, I watched the 1937 classic “Night Must Fall,” in which Robert Montgomery gives a tremendous performance as a psycho killer, and deservedly copped an Oscar nomination for himself. Wonderful films, all!

    • sandy ferber /

      (By the way, I just noticed that the name of your blog is Bathory’s Closet. Have you ever read Ray Russell’s story “Sanguinarius,” which tells the story of Elizabeth Bathory from her own point of view? I am reading a book of Russell’s Gothic fiction now and hope to have a review of same posted here on FanLit next week….)

  4. All great choices-I guess what comes “closest” depends on what you feel is essential to the definition, which does have some fluidity to it. There’s a “I know it when I see it” quality that is hard work to qualify. So yes, the short answer is I’ll eventually get around to that book. Nonfiction about Spiritualism (SUNY Press 2017) and high fantasy with vampires seems to come first at the moment. I have not read Sanguinarius. From her own perspective? That sounds awesome, I’ll look for your review. I have Linda Lafferty’s fictional account of her on my list, and I recently reviewed The Bloodletter’s Daughter by her, but yours might shift up in the pile.

  5. I just looked up Russell and realized the book you’re reading is in my list. Great minds!

  6. sandy ferber /

    Hmmm, well, in the case of “Alice, Sweet Alice,” I suppose that it WAS indeed a case of a giallo being something that “I will know when I see it” (similar to noir, I guess). What made it feel like a giallo to me was (a) a masked killer on the loose using a knife to slay his/her victims (b) a creepy score incorporating an almost childlike lullaby (c) a borderline incomprehensible plot that adheres perfectly once things are wrapped up (d) the inclusion of priests and a church setting (e) violent and imaginative homicidal set pieces (f) the culprit’s identity coming as a complete surprise (g) numerous red herrings (h) the inclusion of some grotesque characters (memorably, that morbidly obese landlord) and (h) the yellow raincoat that the killer wears, harking back to a similar one in 1973’s “Don’t Look Now.” As for that Russell story, the thing that impressed me the most about “Sanguinarius” is the language that the author employs to tell his tale. It SOUNDS as if it were written in the 16th century. A most impressive piece of work that I have a feeling you would enjoy!

  7. I’m salivating already. And I really like your giallo checklist-can I use that?

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