“You think you’re telling the truth, but in fact you’re only telling your version of the truth.”
It’s the holiday season at ScreenAge Wasteland and nominally I’d be reviewing seasonal horror films, just like I did last year. It seems like everywhere I look, though, I’m seeing tons of holiday horror film recommendations and lists and pictures of Krampus and Santa with an ax and articles with phrases like “Ho-ho-horror!” in the titles. Okay, maybe I made that last one up, but the point is I’m feeling like you’ve got a lot of choices if you’re looking for articles on or reviews of scary seasonal cinematic slayings.
So this year Fear Flashback in December will be a little different, in that I won’t specifically be focused on Holiday Horror. It might creep in, but in general the films we watch for the last month of 2020 will be ones that have only tenuous connections to the holidays – if any. Think of it as counter programming.
This week’s film is a pretty decent example. I actually chose Deep Red because it features one of my favorite Daria Nicolodi roles – the reporter Gianna Brezzi. Nicolodi passed away last week, and I wanted to watch a few of her films to remember her. Suspiria is my favorite – she co-wrote the screenplay – but Phenomena was the first film I ever saw her in. It’s Deep Red and the brash, funny, strong and deeply insecure Gianna that I remember the most clearly, though.
I’d forgotten that the opening scene features a murder that takes place on Christmas, and as the creepy children’s song played over a shot of a Christmas tree, a child’s shoes and a knife covered in crimson I knew I had my paper-thin connection to the holidays.
I have the Blue Underground release of Deep Red from 2011. It looks great and I’m happy with it, though the extras are few. I’ll probably look into picking up the 2018 Arrow release, if only for the features – which include an interview with Daria Nicolodi. I also watched the Italian version, which contains several minutes of footage not available on the US release. Generally I prefer the shorter release, as it’s faster paced and most of the actors actually spoke English, but the extra footage includes a number of character moments for Daria Nicolodi that I like, so I indulged this time around.
For streaming options, Deep Red is currently available for subs on a lot of services, including Prime, Tubi, Shudder and Vudu. I’m not sure which scan the Prime option is from, but it seemed slightly less clear than the Blu-ray to me. It can also be rented and purchased from a few online vendors.
After the opening scene which I briefly described above, we’re quickly ushered through the credits (accompanied by a Goblin score, this being the first film Argento and the Italian prog-rock band worked together on) before being introduced to musician Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) as he conducts a rehearsal. This may remind you of the opening of Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which features a similar jam session. This is one of the scenes cut in the US version, and it’s easy to see why – it’s not a necessary addition, and only slows things down. I prefer the second opening, which starts things off with an actual curtain (red, of course) being pulled aside to introduce us to the presentation of a psychic, Ms. Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril).
Deep Red marks a turning point for Argento. It’s a return to the genre – the giallo – that made him famous, after an attempt at historical comedy with The 5 Days fell flat. It’s also the point at which he begins the turn to the supernatural, with films like Suspiria and Inferno on the horizon. As I’ve expressed every chance I’ve gotten, I prefer Argento’s films that have that touch of the supernatural to them. Deep Red has only that lightest of touches, the hint of psychic powers, the ghost story found in a library, that creepy, nonsense children’s song (not the last time he’d make use of one of those). Argento uses the supernatural in Deep Red as just a minor spice, but it adds to that feeling of weirdness and unease.
Here the ability to read other people’s thoughts proves to be Ulmann’s undoing, as she touches on the disturbed mind of a murderer. None of the people on the stage can see the person, as they rise and quickly leave the room (and there’s a nice touch by Argento later on, when one of the presenters is recreating the moment and the camera pans to the theater only to go dark, so we get an idea of how it looked to them). The murderer knows who she is, though. And where she lives.
There’s a sequence here that’s one of my favorite little bits in the whole film, where the camera – once again accompanied by Goblin’s score – starts on toy cradle that tips over and then proceeds to crawl over a number of other childhood toys and objects before one is selected by the killer. It’s an interesting way of suggesting that something has been started.
That something is, of course, murder. That’s the point of giallo, after all – the killing. We can pretend all we like that it’s about our bumbling investigating heroes, but most of the stylish presentation is lavished on the murders themselves. Our psychic friend has written everything down about what she’s seen in the killer’s mind, but as she so stridently mentions earlier, she doesn’t see the future, so she’s just as surprised as we would be when her door is broken in and a hatchet strikes her down.
Meanwhile Marcus – being introduced to us for the first time or the second depending on the version you’re watching – wanders across an Italian square towards an Edward Hopper bar (looking so much like it was right out of Nighthawks I had to look twice) and finds his drunk friend Carlo (Gabrielle Lavia). They trade comments about playing piano and alcoholism before a scream distracts them both. It’s Marcus who sees the actual murder, though – with Ulmann being forced through the glass of the window of her apartment. Marcus rushes to her aid, but he’s far too late. In the aftermath, with the police questioning him, he can only reiterate that he saw a person in a brown raincoat leaving the building and that there’s something off… something that seems different about the apartment now than when first arrived.
He’s distracted by the arrival of reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) a sprightly, fast-fingered police-beat reporter who latches on to Marcus as her way into the case. She publishes a picture of him with a story calling him the only witness – putting him in danger – but she also volunteers to help him investigate, trying to figure out who the murderer is.
I love Gianna, she’s one of Nicolodi’s greatest creations, and the extended scenes in the Italian version make me love her even more. The interplay of the two characters hearkens back to 1940’s films, with sharp dialogue and smart character bits. That Gianna is mostly smarter and stronger than Marcus (never challenge her to an arm wrestling competition) is great, and it’s kind of tragic that she is so attached to him that she questions herself when the obviously less-capable Marcus treats her shabbily. Of course she spends a significant amount of time and effort questioning his masculinity in 1970’s Italy – there’s no way that passenger seat keeps knocking him down a peg by accident – so maybe my pity is misplaced.
Marcus pursues the identity of the murderer with a singular focus, based at least partly on that niggling element of memory that suggests he’s missing something. This just seems to be something witnesses do in giallo films, though, get caught up in the crimes. Sometimes is because of the bumbling police, sometimes it’s to clear their name, and sometimes it’s just because they’re ‘interested.’ Of course for Marcus there’s that story with his picture in the paper, calling him the only witness. That’s placed him directly in the cross hairs. Only there IS one more witness, his friend Carlos – who may have seen the person in the brown raincoat that night. After a brief stop at Carlos’ mother’s house – where the older former actress can’t seem to understand that Marcos is a pianist and not an engineer – he finally tracks down Carlo at the apartment of his lover. Once again, I’m surprised to find Argento portraying a homosexual relationship with no caveats. Nobody is set up to be a bad guy. No judgements are made. Pretty progressive for 1975. (Though I bet some audiences suspected Massimo to be the killer, given the eye makeup.)
Carlo is no help, though. He was too drunk. He does suggest that things might be getting too dangerous for Marcus – and that he might want to think about leaving Italy. It’s too late for that, however, and the murder arrives at his apartment that night. Only the playing of a child’s song alerts him to the danger in time to lock the door. Gianna calls while the murderer whispers that they’ll kill him “sooner or later.” This is one of the few bloodless suspense scenes in the film, but it’s great, with trademark Argento flourishes like a roaming camera and complex sets with multiple viewing angles. It’s tense and exciting and well done.
Hemmings also played an artist caught up in a self-directed murder investigation in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, a film that plays with the idea of perception and interpretation of what we see and what we think we see. Argento takes some cues from that film, but everything is bigger, louder and brighter. While Blow Up is a masterclass in ambiguity, Deep Red is more about misdirection, about expectation and what’s hidden in plain sight.
A case in point. As Marcus runs down leads, desperately trying to find the killer before they find him, he discovers a story about a house where the song that was played while the murderer stalked him is sometimes heard. The woman who wrote the story is brutally murdered – another fantastic set piece involving Mina birds, a doll and a bathroom full of steam and boiling hot water – as the murderer tries to kill anyone who could identify them. The poor victim manages to scrawl the information on the mirrored wall of the bathroom… only to have the message disappear as the temperature falls and the steam dissipates. The information is in plain sight, but the only way to see it is hidden from Marcus when he shows up.
Other things are hidden as well. There is a villa where the music once played, with a painting hidden behind the plaster on the wall. There’s a hidden room with evidence of a crime (and a skeleton). There’s a school with evidence hidden away in a pile of children’s drawings and, most importantly, there’s something hidden away deep in Marcus’ memory – and even when the police have caught the murderer (after a horrific sequence with a truck and a wire hook) he’s still in danger as long as it remains that way.
Figuring things out – or enjoying how they play out (I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre mechanical doll) – is part of the fun, so I won’t spoil any more of the story.
There’s very little in the way of weak spots in Deep Red. This is the work of a master craftsman working at the height of his abilities. You may want to watch the US cut, which removes some of the comedy and character interaction for the sake of tightening up the pace – but I enjoyed seeing more of Daria Nicolodi and the character work is quite good. The one minor irritation for me is some of the jazz music isn’t quite as on-point as it could be – particularly in a scene where Marcus almost falls off a building and must climb down. It degenerates to almost childish noodling at one point – puncturing any sense of danger you might have had.
The Bottom Line
Deep Red is a giallo, and that means it’s full of convoluted plots, red herrings, dead ends and stylish murders. It’s also Argento, so that means it’s all done at the highest level possible. For once, Argento plays fair, and everything you need to know to solve the murder is provided for you from the outset. It’s up to you to play fair as well, though, and rely on your memory as well as Marcus and his gal Friday Gianna to puzzle things out. It’s a masterclass in Italian thriller filmmaking, and arguably Argento’s best film. (I’ll always love Suspiria more – but Deep Red is an incredible film.)