Halloween Horror: Deep Red (1975)

Horror cinema can be roughly divided into supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror. The history of horror cinema traces its genealogy from the supernatural gothic of its literary forebears—think Murnau’s Nosferatu and the gothic monsters of the old Universal films—to the secular horrors of murderers and psychopaths—most importantly, Hitchcock’s Psycho and later chronicles of suburban and rural disorder in Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Interestingly, the films of Dario Argento can also be said to plot a course along that divide between the supernatural and naturalistic, but following an opposite trajectory, beginning as lurid crime thrillers in the Italian giallo cinema and later trending toward the supernatural horror of films like Suspiria or Inferno.

Deep Red (Profundo Rosso in Italian) marks a turning point in that trajectory. In many ways, it’s a combination of giallo mystery with gruesome and graphic killings and little hints of the supernatural. The giallo genre (from the Italian word for “yellow,” referring to the yellowed pages of cheap pulp thrillers) consists of thriller-slasher horror films made in Italy in the post-war years, including Argento’s early films and the films of Mario Bava. They usually contained an exploitation focus on eroticism and murder, as Deep Red does to some extent as well. But Deep Red’s grand visuals and gruesomely-memorable killings set it a cut above average exploitation fare. It’s easy to see why it is often considered one of Argento’s most successful films.

Deep Red tells the story of a British jazz musician in Rome, Marcus Daly (played by David Hemmings), who becomes embroiled in a set of mysterious murders. Marcus is drawn into an investigation of the murder of a medium, Helga (Mascha Méril), who in an opening sequence senses a murderous figure in the audience of her lecture/demonstration of her psychic abilities. Later, Marcus is out drinking with a friend, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), when he witnesses a black-gloved figure slash Helga’s neck in a window. During the police investigation, a reporter, Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), snaps Marcus’s photo for the newspaper, marking him as the key witness and a prime target for the murderer.

Marcus and Gianna then end up teaming up (and becoming lovers) as they attempt to solve the case. They are led to follow up old folktales, in particular one known as “The House of the Screaming Child,” as well as musical and artistic clues, like drawings on walls, which seem to offer some hint as to the origin of the murderer. These in turn lead to a number of highly-improbable coincidences and result in several increasingly-graphic murders. By combining the spooky stories that are passed down through cultures and locales—including tales of the supernatural and the gothic—with the horrors of contemporary urban violence, Deep Red ends uniting these various kinds of horror stories in its own structure.

Beyond this thematic elegance, the pleasures of Deep Red are in the film’s excellent cinematography and staging, which lend the film a far more interesting visual texture than is common in such exploitation cinema. The plot itself relies on a bafflingly-convenient connection to the murderer, along with a few bait-and-switch moments. While such elements are not uncommon in pulp-thrillers, if carefully-plotted mystery is your key motivation for watching horror-thrillers, Deep Red may not be for you.

What Deep Red lacks in nuance or complexity (apart from the sheer number of details that the case involves) it more than makes up for in visual interest and genre thrills. The killings in particular are masterful horror set-pieces that involve a great deal of inventiveness and are effectively portrayed, in both their special effects and camera work. The killings are all perpetrated by the unseen (until the end) killer in black gloves, portrayed by Argento himself, as he felt he could best perform the complex sequences without too much explanation for an actor. They involve scaldings, beheadings, and the crushing of heads by vehicles. The film doesn’t flinch away from showing these in their gruesome glory, but Deep Red is by no means a gritty and nasty gorefest. Instead, it is the film’s contrast of European thriller conventions with violent incident that makes it so interesting. The film seems to be crafted with an awareness of its own heightened state, lending it a humourous tone at times that makes it fun to watch without tipping into self-parody.

Deep Red remains influential upon films that would come after. It’s interesting that two sequences in the film are directly referenced in films I have just watched or revisited in the past year. Firstly, the opening lecture/demonstration with the medium is a key reference for the most-famous sequence of Cronenberg’s Scanners (though no exploding head in this particular part of Deep Red). Secondly, a death by scalding water in Deep Red serves as a reference point for a similar death in Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel, Halloween II. The killings in the film serve to make it more memorable than it would otherwise likely have been.

As alluded to above, the visual and conceptual complexity of the murders in the film mirrors the complexity of their origin in the past of the plot, in the way that the murders are based on events that draw deep on both local Italian folklore and the character’s family histories. Deep Red seems to suggest that the divide between atavistic supernatural horror and the more mundane violence of modernity is not as great as initially seems. Furthermore, Marcus’s journey in the film is from cultural outsider to insider (both in terms of his involvement in the mystery and his relationship with Gianna) marks a shift from aloofness to investment, from relative safety to the taking on of the dangers that people must live with. It is telling that the killer’s identity is ultimately fairly close to Marcus from the beginning, but only through understanding local folklore and individuals can he see this.

Argento’s film does require you to adjust your expectations to fully enjoy it. Deep Red is arguably a good example of a film that is more formally than narratively significant, but at the same time it shows how form influences content. The elaborate and graphic murders serve as both a raison d’etre for the viewer and the central characters as well, drawing them into the world of psychics, family secrets, and urban myths. It’s an enjoyable ride, and a great example of Argento’s filmmaking and the variety of cinema that can be classified under the horror genre.

Deep Red (Profundo Rosso) (1975, Italy)

7 out of 10

Directed by Dario Argento; written by Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi; starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Macha Méril, Gabriele Lavia.