After witnessing the brutal murder of psychic medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Méri) in the upper storey of a stylish Turin apartment block, music teacher Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) can’t but help feel that he’s seen something very important at the scene of the crime – he just can’t quite remember what it is! With the help of ambitious but fancy-free journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) he launches his own investigation. This soon brings him to the murderous attentions of Helga’s killer, who makes a frightening attempt on his life, but in doing so provides him with a new clue in the form of the haunting lullaby the deviant leather-clad maniac uses to rouse themself into a frenzied state of excitement just before their attacks. Playing the LP version of the same musical refrain leads Ulmann’s associate Mario Bardi to refer Marcus to an old book of folklore and specifically a chapter inside it entitled The House of the Screaming Boy (a wonderfully gialloesque title if ever there was one!) by one Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra); but the killer is already one step ahead, seemingly determined to kill anyone who might get even close to revealing the demented secret they are so desperate to have remain hidden in the shadows of a derelict villa, deep in the Italian countryside …
If you’ve never before managed to check out the work of the illustrious Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, and if you were wondering which of his many movies might be the best one with which to start on the job of making your acquaintance with this rather unusual and unique filmmaker, then may I humbly direct you towards Arrow Video’s new all-region, double disc Blu-ray release of the maestro’s superb 1975 film “Deep Red” (or “Profondo Rosso” to use its more elegant-sounding Italian name).
Dario Argento’s first film,”The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, roused a popular trend in the Italian film industry for the sub-genre known as giallo (named after a brand of once popular yellow paperback crime novels), and embellished the innovative and stylish lustre of its forerunner Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” with a potent brew of Argento’s own design concocted from lashings of pseudo Freudian psychology and kinky leather fetish, with a sheen of sleek arthouse chic on top. The director’s third film, “Four Flies on Grey Velvet”, planted a small seed that seemed to point the way towards the experimental route the giallo might one day explore more fully, but it was “Deep Red” that took everything – both thematically and visually – that was attractive about the young director’s handling of a sub-genre he’d already claimed as his own, and raised it to the next level, while other Italian journeymen filmmakers had seemed content merely to let the giallo drift off into lazy sexist exploitation, self-parody and cliché.
Whether or not you come to share in the opinion that this film is -- all-round -- probably the best of Argento’s career so far (in any case its only real rival is surely either “Suspiria” or “Tenebrea”), it most certainly marks the moment when this talented (then-) thirty-five-year-old director’s muse somehow found an extra jolt of life, furnishing him with the inspiration and the momentum to dropkick an increasingly moribund genre into the stratosphere, just as it (and Argento’s career after the recent failure of his historical epic “The Five Days of Milan”) appeared to be on its uppers.
Let’s not forget that without this amazing film and its particular vibe of bohemian seventies experimentalism, without its lavish dressing of ornamental baroque and its unsettling infusion of daringly extravagant visual codes, its restless editing rhythms and peripatetic camera movements (and not forgetting those strange, jarring, disruptive tableaux which frequently inject themselves into an otherwise standard murder mystery mix of ingredients), there probably wouldn’t have been any “Suspiria” or “Inferno”; in fact, it’s uncertain what kind of future in the Italian film industry Dario Argento could have maintained without the mesmerising influence wielded by this ground-breaking film and its Über-clever trick of linking together a smattering of rather localised Italian thriller motifs with some powerfully compelling traits borrowed from the modern horror genre.
After “Deep Red”, Argento’s previous successes in Italy and abroad, such as the aforementioned “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, were suddenly intensely magnified in the glare of the resulting hero-worship, bestowing him with a semi deified status equivalent to a filmmaking rock god -- a process aided no doubt by the film’s precipitous usage of the talents of prog-rock hipsters Goblin, who scored its most memorable and bloody sequences with grooves generated from the group’s trademark repetitive, pounding, bass-heavy riff-making. This is also the film in which a director not exactly renowned for possessing a natural capacity for eliciting compelling performances from his actors facilitates two stand-out ones from leads David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, whose charming chemistry illuminates the screen in a way not really repeated anywhere else in Argento work. It’s one of the peculiar quirks of “Deep Red”, that, sandwiched between the stylish visuals and violent murder scenes, Hemmings and Nicolodi find time for some interrelationship sparring in comic banter that has all the light and peppy ambience of a screwball comedy. It shouldn’t really work but it does, subtly underlining the masculinity issues the film dabbles in, not just in its portrayal of Marcus Daly as an ineffectual protagonist, but in that of his confused alcoholic best friend, the jazz pianist Carlo (a striking performance by Gabriele Lavia).
Another –much lesser -- consideration is that this new UK Blu-ray release probably amounts to the best representation Argento’s blood-drenched oeuvre has yet received in the high definition format. The elements from which this transfer was struck might not quite be up to the same standards as those that formed the basis of the recent UK “Suspiria” Blu-ray, but the results suffer from none of those glaring and annoying contrast issues which plagued that release, and it also looks considerably better than the recent Arrow release of “Inferno” (which I still thought looked rather fine, despite heavy criticism in some quarters). I remember first being blown away by the Italian version of “Deep Red” nearly twenty years ago, simply on the basis of a blurry, rather faded pan & scan VHS release by Redemption sporting an aspect ratio of 1.33:1! Now to see it as it looks here is little short of a revelation. The sequence in the theatre near the beginning (when Helga Ulmann gives her fateful public psychic demonstration) with those dazzlingly luscious, thick red curtains as a backdrop and the intricate gold filigree framing the theatre and the upper boxes -- all of it now looking as sharp as a newly minted tack; I envy the viewer getting to see the film for the first time in this glorious incarnation. This is a beautiful HD treatment of a film that has always found it almost impossible to hide its visual splendour whatever the state of its source transfer; now it looks quite ravishing in places, and probably as good I think as we’re ever going to see it; although, of course, this is a thirty-five year old film whose original elements haven’t been cared for as we would have wished they were, and will probably never look as good as it originally would have in cinemas back in 1975.
This transfer highlights like no other version before though how cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller’s rich yet often naturalistic lighting works so beautifully in tandem with Argento’s penchant for painterly, frame-filling compositions and unusual camera angles, producing an appealingly stylish mise-en-scene capable of switching from that of ravishing opulence to menacing shadows and off-kilter angles in a split second. Turin is visualised here as a city of empty piazzas at dusk, filled with looming oversized statuary and trendy city bars whose denizens seem always strangely static; here the elegant art deco apartment buildings are windows into a world of dark secrets; the corridors of a semi-lit school depict a hideous crime in a disturbed child’s scrawl; the countryside harbours crumbling Gothic villas with hidden rooms and macabre frescos rotting behind discoloured plaster walls. One cannot underestimate the influence in the evocative art design of Giuseppe Bassan in all of this (who’d return for the psychedelic frenzy of “Suspiria” to weave a similar magical spell of decedent opulence, that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of both films). Argento and his co-writer Bernardo Zapponi’s wandering mystery narrative is enlivened with the odd accoutrements and bric-a-brac found to litter the apartments and menacing buildings we see throughout the film, adding an unsettling sense of foreboding in scenes embellished with such macabre sights as the form of the creepy plastic doll hanging from its neck in Righetti’s house, or various other children’s toys placed alongside hideously magnified flick knives for the purpose of being lovingly examined by the leather-gloved fiend. Together such images underline the theme of childhood secrets, repressed memories and murderous mental instability.
The specific look of the film is very unique in Argento’s oeuvre, and though it is undoubtedly of its time (part of its appeal today lies in it having a lot to do with nostalgia for a lost era of ‘70s European retro cinema of the fantastique), even in 1975 few other films looked anything like it. “Deep Red” represents one of those rare instances in which all the principals involved – director, writer, costume designer, cinematographer, and production designer, were in total harmony with one particular (and in this case) very individualistic vision, and the results continue to speak for themselves thirty-five years later.
One thing that noticeably marks “Deep Red” out from the legions of gialli that had been proliferating in Italy since 1969 up to that point is its unusual use of supernatural subject matter in the plot. In a way, the approach the film chooses to take toward the subject is far more radical than was that of “Suspiria” several years later (a film that revels in its total rejection of rationality for a pattern of fairy tale dream logic), endowing the film was a uniquely strange, unsettled quality that’s a world away from Argento’s previous films, which (along with most other gialli at the time) relied on the standard logico-deductive framework of conventional detective fiction.
“Deep Red” instead thrives on a sense of uncertainty and rational instability. Like Marcus Daly with his faltering memory and his imperfect perception of events, and the ill-fated Helga Ulmann who psychically unmasks a killer but cannot foretell her own death, the viewer is constantly taunted with potential clues dangled by Argento in the form of images that foreshadow coming events in the narrative but which cannot be easily interpreted despite begging to be slotted into some kind of rational framework. Even when the classic methods of detection do appear to work, as in the scene when Professor Giordani discovers the name of the killer at the site of Amanda Righetti’s death ( a sequence which, by the way, fully justifies Argento’s ‘Italian Hitchcock’ moniker through the way in which he makes Giordani’s thought processes completely transparent to us with just a skilfully edited sequence of shots and no recourse to any dialogue whatsoever), is followed by a gloriously bizarre and irrational build-up to the professor’s own date with the killer, which seems to mock our previously ill-placed relief that the normal rules of deduction had at last been resumed.
Working once more with his usual editing partner Franco Fraticelli, the director compounds the strange twists of the narrative with jarring shifts of perspective and unusual editing rhythms. Coupled with his daring use of the camera to represent a multiplicity of viewpoints without always making it clear from whose perspective we are meant to be observing events – indeed, even shifting perspective from the subjective to the objective mid-scene without an edit in at least one instance – Argento crafts a masterpiece of skilful manipulation – a thrilling, scary whodunit that’s also a meditation on memory, spectatorship and perception and the untrustworthiness of all three. These themes and the visual language of the film owe an awful lot to Michelangelo Antonioni of course (as does the casting of David Hemmings who is playing a slightly more accessible version of the photographer he plays in “Blow Up”), but Argento melds the intellectual and the popular in a unique blend of flamboyantly executed murder scenes, edited to harmonise with the punchy rhythms of Goblin at their catchiest, and subliminal subtexts suggested by outré camera technique and fleeting visual rhymes and puns, along with a sense of the Gothic exuberance to be found in the decaying, fusty interior of the old villa location central to unveiling the ancient family secrets which lie at the heart of this modish piece of ‘70s Italian genre cinema. It’s a masterpiece, and the total summation of the giallo up to that point – until Argento made self-reflexive use of the genre once again in “Tenebrea”, which is perhaps the last great giallo ever made.
Dario Argento scholar Thomas Rostock provides an excellent commentary track for the IItalian 127 minute version included on disc one of Arrow Video’s 2-disc Blu-ray edition (which they term the director’s cut). Lone commentary tracks can often be dry and tedious affairs, but Rostock pulls of the difficult task of talking for the entire two hour-plus running time without ever outstaying his welcome, regaling us not only with the expected well-researched facts and figures about the making of the film and the people involved in it, but also providing a fascinating scene-by-scene close reading of it that examines Argento’s unusual and innovative use of the camera and how it relates to the themes and ideas with which the film’s narrative is primarily concerned. He comes up with a number of interesting theories and points out one or two ideas that I’d never really even considered before, especially in relation to how the buried memories motif central to the narrative relates to Italy’s chequered past under Mussolini, which Argento references symbolically with the historically evocative visual cue of a white telephone. It’s an engrossing commentary that reveals new hidden depths to Argento’s great masterpiece.
The Italian audio for the ‘director’s cut’ is present in the form of two options with 5.1 Surround Sound and 2.0 stereo both being made available. An English audio track is also included but comes in only a stereo option. Back when the now legendary dubbing engineer Nick Alexander was placed in charge of creating the English language dub of the film, he was disturbed by its two-hour plus running time and so edited it down to 105 minutes for International markets. It appears that a full English language dub of the film was never made, and so the English stereo track included here reverts to Italian with English subtitles whenever necessary. Thus, if you want to hear Hemmings’ own voice performance and also watch the uncut Italian version of the film, you have no choice but to put up with this patchwork of English and Italian. Disc two is devoted to that cut-down English language print and it looks mostly comparable in image quality to the Italian version apart from the opening titles, which are a little damaged and come with quite a bit of speckling. Once again only a fairly quiet and not too dynamic stereo audio option is available with this version of the film. Most of the material that was cut to make the more theatre-friendly running time, centres on the scenes between Nicolodi and Hemmings, but there are snips here and there throughout, tightening up dialogue scenes and cutting exposition. The film actually flows quite nicely, but a lot of the more quirky elements have hit the cutting room floor, resulting in the film losing a little of its eccentric charm. Nevertheless, viewers now have a choice of versions, both in a comparably good looking form, although only the Italian version on disc one has any kind of 5.1 option, and even that isn’t quite up to the standard of most HD Blu-ray audio tracks. This all comes down to the materials not being available I guess.
The two discs contain a number of special features between them, all produced by High Rise productions, and most of which appear on disc one -- while a 15 minute featurette also appears on disc two. A brief introduction by composer Claudio Simonetti appears automatically after you start the Italian cut of the film (on disc one). Elsewhere on the first disc you get three featurettes.
The first, “Lady In Red: Daria Nicolodi Remembers Profondo Rosso” (1080p) features the former partner of Dario Argento and female star of “Deep Red” Daria Nicolodi talking with great passion about her career during the period in which she made the film; the influence her family’s background in art and literature had upon Argento’s films after the two began their relationship; the importance of music on the atmosphere of the film and the difficult relationship between David Hemmings and the director during the shooting. She’s also very candid in her assessment of Dario’s character, without sounding particularly bitter about his tendency (as she sees it) to take all the credit for the ideas that find their way into his films, even when other people (i.e., herself!) may have had a hand in coming up with them, she nevertheless goes on to give a fairly rough picture of Dario as an egocentric, paranoid loner! All of the featurettes mention the claim that George Romero is supposedly to direct a remake of “Deep Red” in 3D. Daria speaks as if the project is all Argento’s idea (although he claims to know nothing about it on another interview on this disc), and, not surprisingly thinks it is a pretty lousy idea too. This runs for 20 minutes.
“Music To Murder For! Claudio Simonetti on Deep Red” features the composer talking about how he and Goblin came to be involved with Argento; his early history playing in a band in London (lots of old photos of a teenage Simonetti from the period) and the influence of the Deep Red soundtrack on, for instance, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” theme. He also talks about a live open air concert he gave in the very square in Turino that is featured in the movie, with the film playing on a giant projector in the background. And there is Simonetti’s verdict on the Deep Red musical he participated in recently. The interview runs for 15 minutes.
“Rosso Recollections – Dario’s Deep Genius” is a 13 minute interview in which a rather downbeat sounding Argento reflects on the negative attitude towards the family that is often expressed in his films, particularly in “Deep Red”. He considers how he once believed families to be the route of all psychological trauma and mental illness and speculates on his own upbringing and the influence it may have had on his views. There is an air of wistfulness in his talk on the subject that suggests he’s been thinking about his own role as a father recently in relation to this theme. When it comes to talking specifically about the film, the director mentions the censorship and the cutting the film has suffered in various versions around the world, claiming he finds it painful to accept such a thing goes on; and he appears surprised that some critics interpret David Hemmings’ character in the film to be a closet homosexual. It’s actually not a completely outrageous reading, but Argento isn’t having any of it! Finally, he claims total ignorance of the various remakes of “Deep Red” (in 3D) and “Suspiria” that have been mooted over the years, claiming to have never been given any information about any of them and never to have seen any script or treatment.
The spoiler-heavy US theatrical trailer is included as is the much classier and creepier Italian trailer.
On the second disc, we also have a 15 minute tour of the Deep Red shop in Rome with long time Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi. Cozzi prefaces this with an account of how the shop first came into existence, envisioned by Argento as an Italian alternative to the Forbidden Planet. Most of the featurette then consists of Cozzi pointing out props from Argento’s films (and others he has produced such as “Demons” and “The Church”) which are housed in cages in the shop’s museum section, which is laid out like a dungeon in imitation of a chamber of horrors at a waxworks museum. It’s a superficial but amusing piece which reveals how many of the effects we’ve become familiar with over years of re-watching these films (such as the sawn-in-half woman at the beginning of “The Black Cat”) don’t actually look too convincing off screen.
The two Blu-ray discs come packaged, with Arrow Video’s now customary flair, in lenticular slipcase housing with the Blu-ray case inside providing a home to a choice of four covers. All of them are pretty cool looking, even the Arrow commissioned artwork painted by Rick Melton, which does at least fit the character of the film this time. You also have a choice of the American poster art, the French poster art or a cover featuring the Italian poster – all excellent designs. The fold-out, two-sided poster also included with the package features Melton’s newly commissioned work on one side and the attractive American poster on the other. Finally a small and perfectly formed eight page booklet with a very nice essay by – who else – Alan Jones on what makes this film such a masterpiece, rounds off a very good start to the new year for all fans of cult Italian horror and gialli on Blu-ray.