Argento April: Deep Red (1974)


Deep Red or Profundo Russo (Italian title) is the cinematic equivalent of soaring. It’s a film that illustrates Dario Argento is not merely working within the horror genre, but understands it so profoundly that he can bend it to his will and in the process the audience too.

Much like his debut feature (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Deep Red is a Giallo set in Rome. However, this time the film is about a British pianist- Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who finds himself thrust into a murder mystery, after witnessing his neighbour- Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) being brutally killed through her apartment window.

Watching Deep Red is akin to waking from a long unwinding nightmare at 3.00 am in the morning. There’s a slow and haunting quality that pervades the film as the camera takes on a mysterious omnipresent quality, slowing panning around the surroundings with predatory precision.

In Crystal Plumage, Argento mixed opulence and terror. In Deep Red, the director is concerned with images of innocence that are corrupted and transformed into something nasty. The opening moments (via a low angle shot) depict a seemingly picturesque Christmas display. However, this is soon ruined by a murder (depicted via shadows) and a bloody knife, which falls close to where the grisly act is being witnessed.

Argento brings this quality of corrupting innocence throughout the picture. There are frequent shots that frame toys and strange looking objects as omens of the carnage that’s about to occur. A particularly freaky image is the black gloved murderer picking up a figurine of a baby.

Less impressive are some of the human elements of the story. The relationship between Daly and kooky reporter- Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) is less Howard Hawkes in its charm and more a Punch and Judy show (involving casual male chauvinism and childish antics).

Despite the recurring theme of innocence being corrupted in the imagery, I wish Argento had explored this more in the characters. There’s a tantalising prospect of the theme playing out by the killer being Daly’s friend- Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). This aspect would have made sense, given who we find out is the boy who picks up the knife in the flashback scene. However, the film opts for a far less interesting reveal that feels like the ticking of a plot point then a genuine revelation.

There’s a scene when Daly is talking to Carlo early on. They’re both dwarfed by the scenery as Argento employs a wide angle shot. The moment embodies how the director feels about characterisation and how it’s secondary to the cinematic framing of the experience. Deep Red is flawed in this area along with occasional spots of plotting the mystery.

However, there’s something exciting about Argento finding his voice within the horror genre and melding it to his heightened sensibilities. This is even apparent with his first collaboration with Goblin, who create a chilling rock infused score. Deep Red is the sort of film that coasts on its cinematic verve and technique. For the devout and curious, it’s an enriching exercise in horror movie making. For everyone else, it may be an indulgent chore.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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