Deep Red, 1975.
Directed by Dario Argento.
Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Giuliana Calandra, Clara Calamai and Macha Meril.
After witnessing the grisly murder of a medium, a pianist finds himself on the trail of a mysterious black-gloved killer.
A few years ago, I became enamoured with the Giallo, a uniquely Italian brand of horror known for morbid humour, graphic violence, black-gloved killers and an overpowering sense of style. One such director who became among the Giallo’s most celebrated auteurs was Dario Argento, arguably one of the most stylish filmmakers of his era. This brings me to today’s entry; Argento’s Deep Red, a film often regarded as one of Argento’s best and as one of the best Giallo’s ever made.
As with many Italian horror films I’ve reviewed in the past, the acting in Deep Red is difficult to critique since most of the actors are European actors dubbed into English. Thankfully, most of the dubbed voices match the characters well and rarely do the dub actors overdo their delivery. The exception among the cast is British actor David Hemmings (who dubs himself) as our protagonist Marc, a pianist who decides to have a stab at playing detective. Hemmings does a fine job with the role, although his sexist arrogant attitude doesn’t make for a particularly endearing protagonist. Although Hemmings does win points for his very 1970s fashion sense, spending the entire film in a suit that I think he would later loan to John Travolta for Saturday Night Fever.
The story is a classic Giallo set-up featuring many of the familiar tropes of the genre. We have a hero who, despite his lack of investigative skills, proves himself able to rival Poirot when it comes to sleuthing. Even if his real job should render him about as effective at solving murders as I am at splitting atoms. We also have series of quirky supporting characters who might as well carry huge signs adorned with “Am I the Killer?”, the weirdest, most obviously psychotic among them almost, always being the first to die. And, of course, we have a killer sporting the classic Giallo killer look, the Gucci psychopath collection of a fedora, stylish coat and standard-issue black leather gloves.
The story is an enjoyable whodunit as Hemmings chases down clues and suspects while often narrowly avoiding getting himself killed in the process due to his own over-eagerness. Part of the fun of these films is trying to play detective yourself and try and guess who the killer is before the big reveal. As per usual, I was completely wrong on all my guesses. However, without spoiling anything, the final reveal is… weird and a bit goofy. Regardless it’s a fun mystery to follow and one that could make for a pretty decent betting game.
The real draw of the film is Argento’s direction, which is full of fluid camera movements and careful staging that creatively use light and shadows to maximise tension and atmosphere. Throw in some highly creative and violent set-pieces, and you have Argento at his very best. I can’t express how much I love the camera work in this film, with damn near every scene rendered into a visual treat by it. I particularly like how the camera will sometimes slowly peek around the corner, almost nervously or how it will track in one direction before going back to reveal a hidden secret. It’s all highly stylised and wonderful stuff. Although, admittedly, Argento can sometimes get a bit carried away, such as having a short but dramatic spinning tracking shot just to set up a scene transition.
The violence, while quite brutal, is filmed with enough restraint to stop it from being overly gruesome. Although, one death scene stands out as particularly unpleasant as a man has his teeth repeatedly bashed in with the corners of his fireplace and desk. Also, if you hate creepy dummies, then you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise as the film is broken into by the suited uncle of Chucky. A wooden giggling bastard who keeps laughing even after taking a knife to the head. And the killer’s theme, a lullaby played on a tape recorder, is probably among the creepiest things in the film. Its off-kilter vibe and ominous connotations, leaving you shifting nervously every time the children start singing. It’s not helped that often we hear it right before someone has a knife stuck through their necks.
The musical score composed by the Italian rock band Goblin is also brilliant. A blending of spooky Mike Oldenfield-esque synthesiser riffs (seriously, the opening theme sounds like a deleted track from Tubular Bells) and fast-paced drums and heavy guitars. The score, while something of an oddity for a horror film given its rock-inspired roots, works wonders at creating a suspenseful atmosphere, particularly whenever Hemmings has to frantically avoid a grisly but funky sounding death.
Thanks to its stylish direction, engaging story and toe-tapping musical score, Deep Red stands out as a murderous good time that more than deserves its reputation as among the best of the Giallo genre and as one of director Dario Argento’s finest films.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★