Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Thrills, Chills, & Spills: DEEP RED (PROFONDO ROSSO)

by JB
For me, the giallo films of Dario Argento are like potato chips—they’re delicious, and I can’t stop at just one. Also, I witnessed these potato chips get murdered and I feel compelled to find their killer. I am going to need a lot of help with my investigation because I am merely an American writer… and not very familiar with potatoes.

Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece Deep Red, besides being the best of that particular genre, was the inspiration for almost every 1980s American slasher film. It’s that influential. Watching Arrow Video’s new 4K restoration was like discovering the treasure trove that all the filmmakers from my misspent youth plundered to make their own scary scary pictures.
The Plot In Brief: Talented pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) witnesses the murder of his neighbor, famous psychic Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril). The police arrive to investigate, along with newspaper reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). Gianna wants to pool resources with Marcus to investigate the murder, but Marcus is reluctant.

Marcus follows some possible leads alone. He visits his friend, alcoholic fellow pianist Carlo (Gabriele Lava) and his lover Massimo (Geraldine Hooper, playing a man). Marcus also meets Carlo’s eccentric mother, ex-actress Marta (Clara Calamai). A series of clues lead Marcus to a mysterious book and a mysterious mansion. Can Marcus and Gianna discover the killer’s identity before the killer commits another murder?
Dario Argento in general (and this film in particular) influenced 1980s horror films in ways that are almost too numerous to list. Deep Red features a repetitive progressive rock synthesizer score by Goblin that, though obviously influenced by Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist, becomes a sort of template for John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween score and dozens of others that came after. Deep Red has a loose plot that sometimes seems to exist as a “laundry line” on which to hang a series of gory murder set pieces; this trope later became the plot of choice for most 1980s slasher films. The original trailer for Friday the 13th explicitly sells the film as compendium of thirteen bizarre and bloody murders.

Deep Red features frequent sequences of first person “Killer POV,” a subjective camera, and long forward tracking shots, all used by the filmmakers to hide the murderer’s real identity. Carpenter later perfected this trope with his groundbreaking use of the Steadicam in Halloween. One of the many pleasures of Deep Red is its intriguing, convoluted “who-dunnit” structure, which many 1980s slasher films later adopted as well. (Combine these two tropes for the most archetypal shot of ’80s horror: long subjective camera tracks over to JOHN. JOHN looks up and exclaims, “Oh, hi! What are YOU doing here? I never expected to see YOU out here!” STABBING NOISE, STABBING NOISE, AND SCREAMING) Trying to guess the killer is a fun game that teenage viewers played between bloody, explicit murder scenes. The revelation of the killer’s identity in the original Friday the 13th seems particularly indebted to Deep Red.
In Deep Red, Argento continues his lifelong interest in obscure murder methods. In the disc’s supplementary materials, Argento and co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi explain that they favored forms of violence to which audiences could relate (few people have been shot, but most have been burned by something hot.) Deep Red features murder and attempted murder by hatchet, broken windowpane, fireplace mantelpiece, marble table edge, long sharp sword, scalding bathwater, drowning, arson, an ornate necklace/old fashioned elevator cage combo platter, and a distracting and creepy little mechanical doll, who may just be the inspiration for our tricycle-riding friend from the Saw franchise.
I think it would be great fun playing one of the eccentric secondary characters that Argento always introduces to liven up the interminable second acts of his gialli. In his debut film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, he introduces us to Mario Adorf as crazy, cat-eating painter Berto Consalvi; Cat O’ Nine Tails features a character named GiGi the Loser (Ugo Fangareggi) who is specific, endearing, and funny. In Deep Red, the eccentric weirdo chores fall to Clara Calamai as Marta, a once-famous actress in the mold of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. One of the minor pleasures of Argento’s films is to see what rich inner lives many of his secondary characters seem to have. In Deep Red, Argento even finds a way of making this eccentricity integral to the plot.

In his insightful video essay included on the new Arrow disc, Michael Mackenzie suggests that giallo horror films and classic movie musicals are very similar. Their core audiences are not so much interested in plot, but rather in the elaborately staged set pieces for which the plot is only a pretext. This insight might make it easier for the casual viewer to weather the tedious plot contrivances and padding of the average giallo; it really made me look at these films in a different way. Mackenzie also discusses Argento’s magnificent use of shot composition, camera movement, and locations to craft his films, as well as Argento’s then progressive take on sexual attitudes and gender roles. Giallo’s archetypal “impotent male” protagonist is on full display in Deep Red; by the film’s end, we are left wondering how David Hemmings can even tie his own shoes without assistance.
Film lovers around the world owe Arrow Video a debt of gratitude for all of its restorations. I have never seen a better video transfer than the 4K scan here of the original negative. The package Arrow has assembled for Deep Red is impressive, but we have come to expect nothing less. The attractive slipcase holds a keepcase with reversible art, a small booklet of critical essays and a double-sided poster. The keepcase holds two blu-ray discs—the director’s cut and the shorter export version—and six lobby card reproductions.


(Argento does a masterful job of keeping Marcus in harm’s way for the entire film. Deep Red is the secret blueprint for most American horror films made between Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street.)

CHILLS: 100%
(All the shots of kiddie toys and crayon drawings are beyond creepy. Just look at that drawing on the wall!)

SPILLS: 100%
(Ingenious and explicit murders, served with a side order of loud prog-rock.)


  1. I caught a screening of this 4K restoration over the weekend at a local University. I wasn't sure about going at first because 1.) I have the DVD, and have seen it a handful of times, B) it's not exactly one of my favorite movies and ♤) NBA playoffs baby. But I ended up going....right choice. The restoration truly is remarkable, it played better than it has ever played. I'm really happy that so many of Argento's classics are finally being treated so well.

  2. i'm still waiting for my Arrow disc. f***ing amazon.ca.

    i haven't seen this one in years, but i remember loving it

  3. You are plenty familiar with potatoes.

  4. great read! my favorite Argento.