Director/Coscreenwriter: Dario Argento
By Roderick Heath
If there’s a problem with Suspiria, often regarded as the high point of Dario Argento’s career, it’s that the bare-bones characterisations and equally minimal storyline build in off-kilter style to a bit of an anticlimax. By contrast, Deep Red offers a veritable banquet of Argento’s imagination: a Gordian knot of a narrative and an array of interesting characters whose interplay both explicates and conceals deadly clever clues and themes. Argento had taken a brief break from horror-thrillers to make an historical drama, Le Cinque Giornato (1973), and in returning to the genre with Deep Red, offered what is in most essentials a remake of his crisp debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)—a tale of a misplaced foreign artist in Rome who witnesses a murder, and, to solve the mystery of the steadily mounting carnage, must discern an unperceived clue in what he witnessed. Argento overlaid that template with everything he’d ever learnt about cinema in a scant five years. The result was a symphonic classic and one of the great films of the ’70s.
It is also a film where Argento pays several distinct compliments to filmmakers and visual artists who inspired him. The interrogation of the very act of looking, built around investigation and mystery that screws relentlessly toward a point of infantile dissolution, and having David Hemmings as the hero, inevitably evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). The staging in many sequences, with giant close-ups of eyes or the hero’s hand, poised like a gunfighter’s over his weapon, clearly reference his old collaborator Sergio Leone, whose intricate tactics of ecstatic tension/violent release Argento transposed into a different genre. In the film’s middle third, the visuals constantly evoke the crisp art-deco style of another former collaborator, Bernardo Bertolucci, essayed in his great The Conformist (1970), and like that films digs into the problems of gender and the family unit. And the spirit of Hitchcock lurks approvingly in every frame, particularly in one scene utilising birds. Argento also plays ceaselessly with the tropes of the giallo genre’s literary inspirations, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, and Frederic Brown, to the point where in classic tradition, one victim attempts to etch the name of her killer at the point of death, here on the steam-smothered walls of her bathroom; and whether it will be detected becomes a nerve-jangling question. And yet Argento’s visualisation moves far beyond the necessities of the mystery genre, his camera composing operatic fantasias of colour and motion.
Hemmings plays Marc Daly, an English jazz musician teaching conservatory students who delivers a speech at the outset that feels like a kind of mission statement for Argento, reminding his students that jazz “began in the brothels” and can’t be too elegant or clean. The musicians are played by the members of Goblin, the conservatorium-trained prog-rock group that Argento dug up to conjure the film’s nerve-jangling score, which, like the rest of the film’s offered template, would powerfully influence John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the entire slasher genre. Yet, Deep Red is far greater than any of its Hollywood imitations. Argento mixes astoundingly beautiful cinema with volatile, hilariously appalling violence, like any good jazz man appreciating the way grit and glam must entwine. He pays constant homage to the rhythms and flow of music, particularly in one startling sequence in which Marc labours at composition whilst being stalked by the killer. He also tips his hat to artists like Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper in his set decoration and visual compositions.
Argento cuts from Marc’s rehearsal and mission statement to a theatre where an audience listens to the pronouncements on parapsychology by a team of New Age professors led by Bardi (Piero Mazzinghi). Argento’s camera enters and exits the theatre in a flourish of red curtains, immediately announcing his film as pure show business. Medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) realises someone in the audience is a murderer. Soon enough, Ulmann is butchered in her apartment: it’s an amusing touch that she senses the malevolent intent of the person knocking at her door, but isn’t quick enough to escape. Out on the street, Marc and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), an alcoholic, self-loathing pianist, are chatting when they hear Ulmann’s screams. Marc rushes to the scene, misses the killer, and later swears to the police that something was removed from the apartment’s main hallway, suspecting it might have been one of the Munch-like artworks that hang there.
Marc soon hooks up with spirited journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who is covering the case. The two begin flirting a la His Girl Friday by way of Gloria Steinem, Marc’s drolly observed discomfort over his highly unmacho job and shakiness in the face of horror show his proclaimed dislike of women’s lib, inspiring Gianna to challenge and beat him in arm-wrestling. Marc and Gianna’s scenes are pitched as pure screwball comedy, a fascinating divergence for the normally all-business Argento that enriches the film enormously. The lightly handled tensions of sex and equality gives Marc and Gianna’s romance sauce underpin much darker preoccupations of the narrative.
In the opening credits, Argento interrupts the parade of white-on-black titles for a brief, completely bewildering scene of apparent murder—a scream and darting feet in front of a postcard Christmas scene, before blithely resuming the titles. One can only deduce that there’s a victim, a killer, and a young witness. It’s a wicked gambit by Argento, because he has both positioned the scene with intense deliberation and yet also counts on the audience to forget about it immediately. Later, his camera drifts languorously in studying the killer’s weapons, props, and totems of meaning in ultra-close-up, evoking the notion of being too close to something to see it properly. The killer taunts and plays with victims like a child, hanging plastic dolls to frighten the prey; setting a mad, mechanical doll upon one to distract him from where to expect the real attack; releasing birds from their cages; and playing a creepy tape of children singing the same tune we heard in the opening.
As coscreenwriter Bernardino Zapponi explained of his and Argento’s method, things to do with infancy are always somehow scary, and, indeed, childhood motifs—creepy dolls, eerie singalongs, perverted parent-child relationships and decaying family homes—are rife in Argento’s films, as well as in those of his precursor, Mario Bava. In several attacks, the killer pointedly bashes the victims’ teeth out, evoking Freudian theories of prepubescent sexuality. As Marc follows the relentless, inward spiral of clues, he becomes implicated as a suspect, but he continues to peel the layers off the onion, which demands peeling off the layers from how sexual and social personae are constructed, moving closer and closer to a fetid, secreted heart locked within the family home. Marc finally traces a clue to the killer’s background through a book on contemporary urban folklore, and when that book’s author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra) is one of the victims—drowned in a bathtub full of boiling water—it confirms he’s on the right track. The book leads him to an abandoned family villa, cared for by Rodi (Furio Meniconi) and his mean little girl Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), within which he first discovers a child’s rendition of the murder from the beginning buried under plaster and, eventually, a secreted corpse.
Argento’s intricate structure keeps throwing up red herrings that subvert many clichés of the contemporary thriller almost before they were invented. When it’s revealed Carlo is gay, the possibility that his eyeliner-smeared boyfriend could be the killer is hinted, in a homophobic twist a la The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Likewise, when the disturbingly strong Gianna seems to transform in one scene into a darkly angelic femme fatale, even in the act of saving Marc’s life, the film recalls the anxiety over upended gender codes exploited by Basic Instinct. The feet of the child in the opening are sexually ambiguous—high-heeled shoes and high socks could be either boy or girl in old-fashioned dress; so, too, are the killer’s, in modern style. But Argento keeps zeroing in on the concept of familial homicide. When Marc sees the grotesque mural from the house reproduced by Olga on her bedroom wall, he presses her and learns she copied it from an old picture she’d found amongst her school’s art class archives. When Marc and Gianna head to the school to find the original, Argento reveals that the killer seems to have beaten them there through the ominous signifiers of the running taps and the scrawled message on the wall: “Kill Your Father and Mother”.
There, Gianna is near-fatally stabbed, and Marc is confronted by Carlo, who drew the picture: the police, on Marc’s tail, arrive in time to drive Carlo off, and he is killed when he is dragged behind a truck and his head crushed by a passing car. However, Marc, realising that Carlo could not have committed all the murders because he was standing next to him when Ulmann was killed, finally discerns that the memory that haunted him from Ulmann’s apartment was not a painting, but a reflection in a mirror, that of Carlo’s mother (Clara Calamai). A former movie actress, who was forced by her husband, a German writer (one doubts the suggestion of roots of psychosexual trauma in the Axis alliance is accidental), to give up her career; she had many stays in an asylum until she rebelled one Christmas day and knifed her husband in the back, and event Carlo in which was forever implicated.
If the notion of the small Calamai committing the ferocious murders throughout the film is a bit of a laugh, Argento nonetheless ties together the film’s restless ideas and acerbic perspective with radical potency. Before he got stuck playing to the more conservative, misogynistic horror audiences of the ’80s with less and less inspiration, Argento found real delight in toying with expectations over who was doing what kind of violence to whom. He never abandoned his liking for substantial female characters, and here, of course, he found Nicolodi, who became his long-time girlfriend and mother of Asia) provided the vital ideas for the “Three Mothers” trilogy. She delivers a hilariously spry and sexy performance as Gianna, particularly when she gyrates her way out of Marc’s apartment after seeing a sketch of his last girlfriend, mocking him for a previous predilection for “super sexy vamps.”
Horror cinema hardly comes better than this.