Dir. Dario Argento
Released in the US: June 11, 1976
One of the interesting, and potentially problematic, aspects of film studies is that the movies we tend to hold up as exemplifying genres are often the exceptions rather than the rules because in order to stand out, they have to intervene in a way that tweaks the genre’s formula. This may demonstrate the organic nature of genre films, or that there are no pure examples of anything. However, Deep Red is both the pinnacle of the Italian Giallo filmmaking and displays nearly perfectly the rather specific traits of the entire genre as a whole: the alienated outsider who witnesses something he shouldn’t; the POV shots from the view of an unseen, glove-clad killer; the gory kill scenes; the pop psychology borrowed in part from gothic novels and Hitchcock; the proximity of psychic supernatural phenomenon. In addition, almost all of Argento’s trademarks are on display: birds (related warning for some: the Italian cut features a real mutilated lizard and a dog fight), mirrors, broken glass, garish lighting, painterly blood.
There is another key attribute of Giallos in particular and most Italian genre films of this era in general, that may take some getting used to: the sound. Aregnto’s films, as famous as they are for his moody, gorgeous visuals are as effective as sound works. Partially this was the result of economics: Italian films of this era did not use sync-sound (sound recorded “live” on set), but rather recorded all sound in post-production. This was a practical way to later re-dub the dialogue for foreign markets, and how they could get relatively famous American and British stars who didn’t speak Italian to be in films with Italian speaking casts. But this non-sync sound creates an otherworldly, dream-like effect at times, and allows for interesting foley work. For me as a viewer, there is something about this method that separates the audio and video tracks, allowing for a unique appreciation of both. This is aided by Goblin’s virtuosic score, their first in a brilliant series of film scores with Argento, which includes one of the creepiest themes ever put to film. The use of sound in Giallos, and by Argento, suggests how these films should be appreciated. Argento’s films were initially criticized for their lack of coherence, though compared to his other films, Deep Red (in it’s 126 minute Italian cut) may suffer from an abundance of attempts at coherence (the 1st draft of the screenplay was 500 pages long). Still, the films work best not as attempts to make realistic thrillers but more operatic, atmospheric mood pieces. As much as any filmmaker in history, Argento is a painter perhaps more than a storyteller and the story of Deep Red, in which two key clues in the murder involve paintings, foregrounds the art (as does an overt Edward Hopper homage). While not as flamboyant as Suspiria, the spatial composition. color, and use of angles is equally as masterful in Deep Red.
And that’s where the reliability of the Giallo aids the viewer. Perhaps a reason why some viewers can appreciate Suspiria more easily than Deep Red, is that watching Suspiria one can attribute any confusion to dream logic (though this can also work for Deep Red), but in order to fully understand Giallos you need to have seen other Giallos. In the film, Marcus (David Hemmings, who seems to have spent the 1960s and 70s trying to solve murders) is an American jazz pianist who is living in Rome and sees the murder of a psychic. After his identity as a witness is disclosed in the press, he, and a reporter, attempt to discover who killed the psychic before they themselves are the next victims. I don’t think Hemmings’ character’s profession is an accident. Jazz is a music of theme and variation, and some of the more abstract styles take more knowledge of the themes to appreciate the variation. That may be the case with some of Argento’s films. What that also means is that in rewatching Deep Red, I realized that I had misremembered the film, confusing it with Crystal Plumage, Inferno, Tenabre, and even non-Argento Giallos like The House with Laughing Windows.
The Giallo formula does have some problems: the killer POV shots that accompany the killings of (mostly) women, the importance of voyeurism in many plots, and that so many killers have psychosexual issues with problematic explanations. However, the Italian cut of Deep Red complicates these issues. Gianna, the reporter (played by Argento regular Daria Nicolodi) continually challenges Marcus’ views of gender and masculinity. The character of Carlo, Marcus’ friend who is outed as gay during the investigation, seems to first challenge, then reinforce the homophobia and transphobia that appears in some giallos, only for it to be challenged again in the film’s twisty ending. However, these observations are largely based on the Italian cut. Like most horror-adjacent films in the 70s, there are multiple cuts and versions of Deep Red in existence. The American cut is only 106 minutes long. The Italian cut (usually referred to by its native title Profondo Rosso) is 20 minutes longer, mostly including character development in the films first hour. What’s interesting is that while the Italian version is a more coherent and arguably a more interesting film, it’s also much slower and the attempts at humor feel change the overall tone of the film. I think the American cut is a far better horror film even though the Italian version contains most of the gore cut for US audiences (I’ve read that a European version which apparently splits the difference between the two version exists and is the preferred version for some aficionados).
Until about 15 years ago, the Giallo was a rather under-appreciated genre, extolled by some horror fans but seen mostly as a bridge in the slasher genre between Peeping Tom and Psycho and the teen-kill-a-thons of the 1980s. But seeing the Giallo as only an evolutionary step in the slasher genre may be the wrong way to look at its legacy, especially if we look at the contemporary films that seem to have been influenced by Giallos the most. The films of the Splat Pack heavily quote Giallos, especially Argento films: Saw borrows several key elements, and lifts one scene, from Deep Red, and Eli Roth’s films have Argento references all over the place; however, this is perhaps because Giallos had the right transgressive reputation in the home video circles in which the Splat Pack filmmakers grew up. In addition. Tarantino, the patron of the Splat Pack filmmakers, himself was influenced by Argento. Another area of influence is farther from the slasher film, in a series of impressionistic, dream-like, psychological thrillers made over the last 5 or so years. Films like Biberian Sound Studio (which is actually about a foley artist making a Giallo film), Beyond the Black Rainbow, and the works of Ben Wheatley. I think that often when people see dream-like, painterly sequences they tend to use Lynch as a go-to reference (too many things are Lynchain nowadays that aren’t really Lynchian), but often Argento is perhaps the more accurate influence.
Deep Red serves as an excellent introduction to a whole other world of filmmaking, not just to the Giallo genre (though Argento’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might be a slightly more accessible film) or the weird and sometimes wonderful world of Italian exploitation films, but also a tradition of filmmaking that privileges sound and visuals over analytic understanding; a kind of sensual, experiential filmmaking (as cross-reference to an essay I realized that I have been rather unconsciously and tangentially touching upon in several points here see Steven Shaviro’s “Film Theory and Visual Fascination” in The Cinematic Body, which mentions and extolls the potential political importance found in this kind of cinema exemplified by Argento).