Known in its native Italy by the equally impressive sounding Profondo Rosso, Dario Argento’s Deep Red is arguably the pinnacle of the sub-genre known collectively as Giallo. Taking its name from the yellow-paged, pulpy crime books from the 30’s, Giallo cinema are lodged somewhere between stylish whodunits and full on slasher movies while never technically being one or the other and the undisputed king of these movies is the aforementioned Argento.
But what sets Deep Red apart from its peers that includes some incredibly ornate titles such as Lizard In A Woman’s Skin, Blood And Black Lace and Argento’s own Bird With The Crystal Plumage, is that it manages to be the Goldfinger of an entire sub-genre and encompasses everything the movies became known for in its seventies heyday.
During a lecture on telepathy in Turin, a psychic medium has somewhat of a funny turn while giving a demonstration when she manages to read the mind of someone in the auditorium who is responsible for an incredibly brutal murder in their past. The figure leaves only to stalk the psychic at her house later (funny she didn’t see that coming) and despatches the “witness” with a cleaver in a murderous frenzy that’s seen by pompous jazz musician Marcus Daily as he watches, horrified from across the street and he rushes to help.
When the police question him later, however, a couple of things simply don’t add up; no one else seemed to spot the figure in a black rain mac leaving the scene and a specific painting Marcus remembered seeing earlier has now seemed to have mysterious disappeared which seems to suggest that the killer took it with them when they fled.
Latching onto the case is charismatic reporter Gianna Brezzi who spices up her investigative journalism by playfully teasing Marcus about his macho opinions and the two try to get to the bottom of this bizarre case. However, the deeper they dive, the more the killer chooses to strike again, slaughtering anyone who could possibly offer them a workable lead in an effort to use homicide in order to checkmate their findings. Thankfully, the killer seems to have many trigger points, all of which provide arrows into their madness which should eventually expose their identity; there’s the missing painting, a distinctive nursery rhyme that’s played by the killer before they attack and a child’s drawing that spells out the viscous murder that may have kicked everything off in the first place.
But will any of this actually be of use when the killer seems to constantly be one step ahead of Marcus and Gianna and will certainly at some point finally set their rage upon both of them.
An incredibly engrossing murder mystery that hits you with wave after wave of stunning visuals, horrific murders, innovative characterisation and arguably the greatest score in all of Italian cinema, Deep Red may be somewhat of an acquired taste (Italian horror cinema is, by definition, wonderfully fucking weird), but if you’re in tune with its impressive delights, you’re in for a freakin’ treat.
While Argento has put out movies with more overtly hallucinogenic visuals (Suspiria and Inferno are eyeball searing experiences quite unlike no other) and startlingly nasty murders (Tenebre and Opera really puts the work in to be as vicious as possible), Deep Red is the perfect balancing point to all the many aspects Giallo has to offer. The murder scenes are intricate and memorable with the standout being a poor schmoe first being attacked by possibly cinema’s most disturbing doll before have his teeth graphically smashed out by the killer against various surfaces in his study, and the use of the camera gives us a macro view of the items the black-gloved killer uses to get themself into the zone. However, what truly sets Deep Red apart from other titles in the genre is that along side its exemplary set-piece work and cinematography is that it has some incredibly rich script work going on that gives it an edge that primarily takes form in the chemistry between the two lead characters.
David Hemmings’ Marcus Daly isn’t your usual square jawed hero-type and spends the whole movie with a look on his face that he’s a little piano-playing worm on a big fucking hook, which does the movie a huge favour by making the interesting choice of make its male lead incredibly vulnerable to whomever is lurking in the shadows. Acting as an aid to this is Daria Nicolodi’s powerhouse performance as the boisterous Gianna who goes out of her way to puncture the lead’s ego every chance she gets by constantly launching endless attacks on his fragile masculinity. Be it beating him at an arm wrestling contest or insisting that she drive him around in the tiny little car with the busted passenger seat which means he can barely see over the dashboard, it not only makes their relationship hugely endearing but it also impressively challenges the gender balance in horror cinema.
Of course, all the tried a true aspects of the Giallo are in full effect and some may find the painstaking efforts of the script to crack the various puzzles linked to the killer’s motive a bit much, but it’s all part of the massively stylish wall that Argento builds around his players. Also, it gives prog rock band Goblin plenty of space to bang out a magnificent score that’s both insanely atmospheric as it is an impressive earworm that may well have you scurrying to Spotify once the movie is finally done to look up the magnificent main theme.
The passing of time may admittedly cause some to rub uncomfortably with the use of an LGBTQ+ characters and mental illness is famously and aggressively misrepresented in Giallo basically as a rule, but these are all admittedly all some of the many aspects that make this notorious genre tick.
Loaded with memorable moments (the final shot of Hemmings’ traumatised face reflected in a growing pool of crayon coloured blood is an utter banger) and characters who you actually want to make it to the end in one piece, Deep Red is a watershed moment for not only for an entire sub-genre but is also arguably a career best for an eccentric auteur obsessed with black gloves and overcomplicated murder.
Colour me Deep Red.