Review of "Deep Red (Blu-ray)"

published 13/07/2016 | hogsflesh
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Pro Great blu-ray presentation
Cons Film is the weaker 'director's cut' version
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Characters / Performances
Special Effects

"Profondo Rosso"

That feeling when you come home to find someone has hanged a doll from the light fitting...

That feeling when you come home to find someone has hanged a doll from the light fitting...

This Arrow Blu-ray release is currently £15 on amazon and in HMV.

Dario Argento perfected the giallo – Italian murder-mystery-horror movies – in the early 70s with Bird with the Crystal Plumage. A few years later he returned to the subgenre, making Deep Red, perhaps the most acclaimed giallo of all time. It’s one of Argento’s best films.

Year: 1975
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: David Hemmings
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IMDB user rating: 7.7

Marcus is an English pianist living in Rome. On his way home one night he sees one of his neighbours, a clairvoyant woman, being murdered. Unable to reach her apartment in time to catch the killer, he gets drawn into the investigation, and soon finds himself a target…

That’s more or less the plot of all gialli, which are very formulaic. There are plenty of other familiar tropes along the way, including childhood trauma leading to murder, vital clues in artworks, and the hero seeing something early on that he doesn’t remember until much later. But if you worry about the films being repetitive, then you’re probably better off sticking with a different genre – it’s more the riffs that individual films play on giallo themes that are interesting, rather than the plots per se.

With Argento, the emphasis tends to be on incredible visual stylishness, often at the expense of characterisation. That’s less true in Deep Red than most of his films, which is why it’s one of his stronger efforts. The visual flourishes are all there, but for once we’re given a hero who is at least mildly engaging and supporting characters who aren’t either cardboard cut-outs or dreadfully misconceived comedy characters.

Argento’s heroes are almost always either writers or musicians, and are generally Americans living in Italy. Here he bucks the trend only slightly – Marcus is English, but he’s still a musician living in Italy. The reason for this was presumably that having an anglophone lead would help sell the films abroad. Here he has David Hemmings, probably the most famous actor he worked with in the 1970s. Hemmings had been a big star in Britain in the 60s, and made quite a few exploitation films in Italy the 70s (in the 80s he ended up directing episodes of Airwolf and the A-Team, which was apparently far more lucrative than acting had been). He’s a good choice for this kind of film, with his big, tired-looking eyes. I’m not sure whether he’s dubbed with his own voice (Italian films were always post-dubbed), but it’s appropriate – slightly raspy, kind of like Oliver Reed’s voice crossed with Richard Burton’s voice, if that makes sense.

The rest of the cast are less likely to be familiar, although the notional heroine, Gianna, is played by Daria Nicolodi, who is in most of Argento’s late 70s films (they were a couple). She’s reliably good in most of her films, but here she plays an annoying journalist who is mostly in the film for comic relief. She is Hemmings’ girlfriend, but she doesn’t really serve a plot function – she just has lots of comedy battle-of-the-sexes arguments with him. Argento’s attempts at comic relief are rarely successful, but here they fill up an incredible amount of time – the film is slow and too long at just over two hours. In spite of misconceived comedy, though, the characters are unusually engaging. Maybe it’s just that Hemmings and Nicolodi are inherently likeable actors who make their characters more endearing than they really are, I don’t know.

These comedy scenes are the reason I still don’t quite like this film, even though it’s probably Argento’s best. They generally consist of Hemmings coming out with incredibly crass sexist dialogue purely so Nicolodi can outwit him. This is awkward – partly because it makes Hemmings’s character out to be a bit of an idiot, and partly because it feels like an over-defensive move on Argento’s part (he was often accused of misogyny in his films). If you’re accused of misogyny, having a character spout a bunch of sexist straw man arguments just so a woman can prove him wrong comes across as patronising and a bit desperate.

The rest of the cast fare less well – there’s an annoying mother, the same creepy red-haired little girl who was in a million Italian horror films, and in a weird bit of casting, a woman with a stuck-on moustache playing a gay character. This is a bit like casting a white actor in blackface as a non-white character, and clearly belongs to a different era.

Still, it’s easier to ignore the film’s weaknesses than it is in some of Argento’s movies. It was his first collaboration with Goblin, a keyboard-based prog band, and the main theme for the film is incredible, a thumping bassline, a plinky plonky keyboard bit, and a main theme pitched so high it almost hurts your ears. Most gialli tend to go for more ethereal ‘lah lah lahhh’ type soundtracks which are nice, but could really be used just as effectively in a film of almost any genre (Deep Red has a bit of that stuff, to be fair). The use of Goblin in this and many of his subsequent films is one of the things that sets Argento apart from the crowd.

The other thing is that – when they’re on form – his films can actually be scary, something that’s surprisingly rare in Italian horror after about 1970. Deep Red has a few really sinister sequences that work very well, especially the stalking of a woman in her home by an intruder – seeing an eye suddenly appear in the dark of a closet is as chilling a moment as any I can think of in a horror film. One of the main horror tropes in the giallo is the home invasion – characters are often murdered in what should be a safe location for them – and Deep Red has a few such moments. It contains one of the great, surreal horror moments of all time, too, although I can’t say anything about it for fear of spoilers. Marcus is one of those annoying horror characters who hears noises in his home at night, but then decides there’s no-one there without actually bothering to check the other rooms – people who behave that way frankly deserve whatever they get.

The plot… well, it kind of makes sense, and doesn’t actually cheat by offering an out-of-the-blue unlikely solution to the mystery. The relevant details are all there in the very first murder scene, although you’ll probably miss them, just as Marcus does. I think Deep Red is the first giallo to use explicitly supernatural elements (the first victim is a psychic, and is murdered because she senses the killer’s guilt through ESP), something Argento explored at greater length in his next film, Suspiria, although that’s not really a giallo.

The deaths are appropriately bloody. Argento has been accused of being an amoral gorehound and of being a misogynist, as much of his violence is directed against women. There may be truth in both claims, although I don’t think he’s as bad as some of the less well-known Italian directors of the same era. Probably he’s just more visible than them. But he certainly loves the details of killings, from the way the camera lovingly pans over the killer’s tools, artfully posed on black velvet, to the outbursts of splattery violence. (Some of the pacing is odd, though – one murder scene is interrupted for five minutes of dialogue taking place elsewhere.)

Some of the special effects are dodgy, and you have to ignore the fundamental silliness of the idea that a jazz pianist is better suited to investigating a murder than the police. Apart from that, the main issue is the length of the film. Deep Red was originally released in a shorter, leaner version which lost a lot of the tedious dialogue scenes. The full-length, director’s cut version is a weaker film, I think. This fetishizing of directors’ cuts has to stop. Directors don’t always know best, as the whole Greedo controversy proved long ago.

But even in its overlong version, Deep Red is probably the giallo to try if you haven’t seen any and want to dip your toe in.

This looks good – Arrow, in years gone by, rush-released some of the more famous Italian horror movies, and some of the transfers they offered were frankly abominable. Some of their Argento releases were particularly terrible (including an earlier release of Deep Red that was widely condemned). So there’s always a suspicion they’ll screw up. Happily, this newly remasterd 4K scan looks terrific – the colours are especially good (colour matters in Argento’s films, and often gets screwed up on DVD or Blu-ray). It’s one of the most impressive Blu-rays I’ve seen of an Italian horror movie (and I’ve seen plenty).

There are a whole bunch of extras, none of which particularly leapt out at me (I thjink a few are ported over from Arrow’s previous release). An interview with Argento is quite good, but he talks about plenty of other films. Daria Nicolodi is also interviewed, as is Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti. There’s a commentary I found a bit annoying, and a ‘visual essay’ in which an expert talks over various scenes to illustrate themes etc – that’s quite good. Sadly it doesn’t include the shorter cut of the film, which was only available in a limited edition release that is now absurdly expensive.

I’ve never quite found it in me to like Argento as much as some people do – I fund the rougher edges of other directors more interesting. But Deep Red is a very good film of its type, and is unlikely to turn up in a better quality version than this.

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Comments on this review

  • snow_drops published 02/12/2016
    E review
  • afy9mab published 22/11/2016
    Great review.
  • IzzyS published 21/08/2016
    Thorough review.
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Product Information : Deep Red (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Argento, Dario

Video Category: Feature Film

Actor(s): David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia

Classification: 18 years and over

Production Year: 1975

EAN: 5027035014883


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