Italian horror maestro, Dario Argento, made a string of giallo and supernatural horror masterpieces in the 70’s and early 80’s. While Suspiria (1977) remains his most famous film, commonly touted as one of the scariest films ever made, it is of my opinion that Deep Red (1975), the focus of this Five Star Films feature, is his greatest work. David Hemmings (Blowup) stars as Marcus Daly, a pianist and music teacher living in Rome, who investigates the shocking murder of a psychic medium, who lives in Daly’s apartment building. After his desperate attempt to save her fails, he becomes obsessed with finding the murderer. The killer strikes several times, eliminating people who have learned something about their identity, but as Daly digs deeper into the complex web of affairs, he uncovers a sinister secret inside a deserted old house.
Argento’s excessive violence can often be too much for viewers, and the killings in Deep Red are bloody and R-suitable brutal. But Argento’s willingness to take his horror to the next level ensures that his films break new territory. The killings may be distressing to watch, but they vary, and are accompanied by lengthy build-ups of suspense. One brilliantly directed scene plays out in familiar fashion, but this time there is an extraordinary misdirection, which in-turn gives the audiences this false sense of relief. Since his directorial debut, which also happens to be one of his best films, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), Argento has been developing his craft, but here his genius becomes fully realized.
Deep Red has been called “one of the most beautifully shot horror films ever made” and such a claim is understandable. In addition to be terrifying, it is also visually stunning. There are some great interior set pieces used – Helga Ulmann’s apartment, Dr. Giordani’s house, the old abandoned mansion and the Da Vinci School are some examples – and the lengthy hallways and large spacious rooms ensure that Argento has plenty to work with. The way his camera sweeps around the rooms, cutting between the character in danger, and the POV of the killer lurking in the shadows, creates mounting tension. The exterior widescreen compositions are brilliant too, with the streets often close to being completely empty, the lighting casting high shadows.
Deep Red’s wonderful score was composed by prog rock band Goblin (who would become Argento’s primary collaborators, following a disagreement with Ennio Morricone on Four Flies On Grey Velvet). Though Suspiria’s main theme is more famous, perhaps, I don’t think Goblin ever again matched this work. Phenomenal. Here’s a sample of the main theme:
The Amateur Detective
What I love about this film, and Argento’s other giallo classics is the fact that the sleuth protagonist is not a detective, but a regular person caught up in the mess by either being indirectly involved initially or becoming obsessed. Marcus is a music teacher and he finds colleagues in an attractive reporter and a doctor. He is convinced that the police have missed something, and begins to investigate. Hemmings is terrific, and with Argento’s films usually not renowned for the great acting, this is a rare exception.
There is a lengthy sequence quite a bit into the film where Hemmings’ character is exploring an old house (under torchlight of all things). He is just walking around – but because we have come expect that anything could happen in this film, we hold our breath. The eerie house – one of the great horror set pieces, I think – is made to feel threatening, purely through Argento’s use of the camera. When Daly arrives, there is a shot from one of the high windows of the house. Is it a POV shot from someone inside watching him? It could be. We don’t know. The score accompanying this scene works perfectly, and how this extended sequence ultimately progresses the story is why this is Argento’s smartest and most attentive screenplay.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22