If you wish to see one of the most daringly different directors at the top of his game, one who sticks out like a lacerated thumb shot in glorious three-strip Technicolor amongst the usual suspects residing in the metaphorical bargain bin, Deep Red is that experience. Whilst Suspiria is still top dog amongst those polled, and my love for Inferno knows few obstacles which cannot be leapt over or destroyed, Deep Red is the finest film that adheres to the virtues most readily spouted from disciples of the Church of Dario. It's one of those films that just about all his followers can agree on, and I'd be shocked if it isn't in your top three Argento films (probably nesting somewhere between Tenebrae, Opera, Inferno or Suspiria). Put simply, Deep Red is a film to be reckoned with, and I hope this formidable film's virtues justify the length of this review.
In a scenario similar to that of 'Blow-Up', David Hemmings plays a jazz pianist who witnesses a brutal murder, and is subsequently plagued by a suspicion that he may be missing a vital clue to the mystery. Hemmings meets a perky young journalist who arrives at the crime scene (Nicolodi) and soon both are lost and at threat from the killer who appears to be caught between the grips of psychotic madness and a desire to let their terrible secret out into the open.
Set to a Goblin score which is part driving art rock, part sparky and sinister jazz experimentalism, Argento's film is probably his most brutal, yet beguilingly also one of his most beautiful too, often in the same sequence. But then this is a film full of contradictions, not least the unique sensation watching it creates, where I was halfway between fascination and repulsion (something I'm sure Argento was aiming for). The best surrealism or abstract art (whether filmic or otherwise) has one foot in normality and realism, and another in the brilliantly absurd, enhancing the shift and detachment from reality whilst remaining meaning, and Deep Red excels with these virtues. It's a killer thriller with a sinister wink and depraved grin. The camera throughout is at once voyeuristic and flamboyant, swirling through the labyrinth of Rome with a keen eye for the statuesque residents and serpentine architecture, whilst seemingly revelling in the intensity and morbidity of fear and destruction. Genuine atrocity battles with the fantastical, severity with lulls of comedy and Expressionism, and the horrible with the beautiful. In fact, with Deep Red, Argento's oft-quoted mantra that he wants to explore the 'beauty in death' is at its most explicit here. Actually, a more accurate description would be his later quote regarding The Stendhal Syndrome concerning his interest in the idea of 'art being deadly'. In truth, from the beautifully lit Inferno, the sprightly and operatic cinematography in Opera and the debonair film technique of Tenebrae, this has always been a key component of Argento's films, the feeling that the fascist colour scheme, the vertiginous angles, the poised camera and the devilish set-pieces are all out to get you. Whilst watching, part of me was embroiled in a serrated enigma set within seemingly eternal red walls, spookily sombre diners, and twisting avenues, and the other was as if I were strolling through the inner workings and soiled mind of a psychotic killer. The parallel between Rome, a city seemingly apathetic to the state of disorder its in, and this unhinged mindset is striking. The horror is personified within the killer, but also on a much wider scale. So much so that blood is always in the air, on the floor and drifting by the decadent decor.
Argento's opus has a significant and telling early scene involving a telepathic woman who is conducting a lecture with an audience in a typically lavish theatre. A scene which I believe is cinematic genius, something that separates Argento and his universe from Wes Craven, Mario Bava, Tobe Hooper, Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter and all the other modern directors who've tried to mix murder with artistry. This scene is somewhat cut-off from the rest of the film, and appears at first to serve as a mere set-up and exposition. But these minor detractions reveal themselves as gems when the credits roll, or during repeat viewings. Through some red curtains, we interrupt a conference where a woman exhibits her telepathic gift and explains a little about it (one line in particular about insects recalls Argento's later Phenomena). After a while she suddenly throws her head back in shock and declares that there's a murderer in the room, who has killed before and will kill again. A person leaves as these visions intensify, and we subsequently exit again through the red curtains. Whilst this seems like simplistic exposition, I find it incredibly telling. Argento almost cuts off this scene from the remainder of the film through the first-person perspective tracking shots to enter and exit the theatre (reminiscent in fact of the 'red room' dream sequences in David Lynch's Twin Peaks), to fully distance this peculiar moment from the rest. Essentially this scene serves as a little microcosm of the film's world, the sweltering redness so intense its surprising it doesn't melt and drip down the walls, as the telepath describes almost explicitly what this film is about: The lines about 'entering a perverse mind' and that she 'feels death' perfectly evoke the feeling that death is everywhere, and the suggestion that 'none of this has anything to do with magic' is almost as if Argento is suggesting that the psychotic mind of the killer is more unusual, perverse and fascinating than any notion of black magic, voodoo or witchcraft. The episode does however have a flirtation with the supernatural, a trait which the film carries with its bizarre atmosphere (there's often a shot of extreme menace undercut with an almost porcelain placidity about the surrounding people, particularly in bars) and the unimportantly improbable omnipresence and swiftness of the killer, not too mention the undertones behind the central conundrum. The sheer depth, invention and verve of a technique like this, which serves as a cross between a delicious trailer to the proceedings and a damning premonition, is stunning, and the film has many moments and sequences which scream intelligence, ingenuity and dexterity as much as they do horror.
The mention of the dialogue is a moot point many feel mars or even ruins the aesthetic wonderland of Argento. Certainly, character motivation and acerbic exchanges are not immediate virtues of Tenebrae and Suspiria. However, this is simply not the case with Deep Red, each character, and especially many memorable lines simply suck you deeper into Deep Red. Count how many pieces of dialogue could be taken as metaphorical or thematically vivid and spot just how much this increases the surreal resonance and alien landscape, from Carlo's declaration of political incorrectness as he toasts to a deflowered virgin, to such strange, lovingly crafted pieces of the great puzzle as the relationship between the man Hemmings asks about the abandoned house and his little daughter. An extension of this is the complete and utter sense the film makes. Those who complain about 'incomprehensibility' or 'obscurity' simply have their heads tuned to a different film, probably a vastly inferior De Palma 'homage'. Whilst things don't click like in Hollywood and its derivations, the film works on an entirely different basis with each visual nuance (a wounded lizard, a shock zoom-out, close-ups of sweat, piano keys and blood), character trait, plot development and scene operating on a higher level than simple 'common sense' or 'logic'. The film works, everything feels right, and I feel this is better evoked if you look at the title. 'Deep Red' to me suggests what's behind the masks, knives, chasing, blood and insanity, the 'deep red' being the further significance of bloodshed, the convoluted and intricate complications that ensue when blood boils or is spilled. 'Deep Red' is what killing does to people, places and even it seems, films. And that's what makes sense. Who cares if the killer always seems to be fifty paces ahead of everyone, or that certain plot devices are obvious when a film with such a terrifyingly conveyed manifesto works so well? Not me, with relish.
Deep Red is the zenith of what Argento achieved in the entertaining and idiosyncratic (although at times rather repetitive and ridiculous) giallo genre, that is to say a Hitchcockian style suspense thriller involving a disguised killer covering up past or present sins, spiced with some horror-heavy gore and stylised violence. The birth of this strange sub-genre is credited to Mario Bava with his artistic yet slight Blood and Black Lace back in 1964, but what Argento does with the restrictive format is add a sense of charisma, genuine drama, emotional urgency and complexity to the labyrinthine mix of twisted minds, limbs, colour schemes and architecture. Choosing a sinister and decadent atmosphere, resonant characters, sharp dialogue and intelligent character exchanges as the ideal accompaniment to the stylised visual kinetics (as opposed to the other way around, as seen in say, Suspiria and Opera) gives Deep Red that extra mile.
Interestingly, Argento chooses to translate Edward Hopper's famous 'Nighthawks' painting to the screen, in the form of the bar Carlo plays piano at. The feeling of dread, isolation, and distant distilled magic perfectly translates to Deep Red, and would be pretty uncanny if Argento didn't have a palette of all red tones. You have been watching Deep Red, and if you don't think its one of the finest, most artistic and compelling examples of the blurring between art, exploitation, entertainment and insight, you may be better off strolling away from the section in your mental video store marked 'Fucking Unorthodox Classics'. A fearsome and frightening cinematic trip, this is film not exploding with life, but death.