Deep Red (1975)

*. I’m sensitive, if mostly indifferent, to the fact that I don’t like a lot of the movies I talk about here. I think I may come off as overly negative. So it was with great pleasure that I sat down for a re-watch of Deep Red, one of my all-time favourites. This is a movie that, the first time I saw it, actually made me jump out of my chair in joy.
*. My jump came when Marcus (David Hemmings) registers that he saw something at an earlier point in the movie. This is referring to the “reveal,” and it is so brilliantly conceived and executed that I won’t ruin it for you here. Suffice to say that I saw what he saw. Since then I’ve introduced several other people to the movie but nobody else has got it on a first viewing, so this makes me feel even better.

*. I say the reveal is brilliantly conceived and executed and that’s something I’d echo for most of the script. Not that the story is anything special, though it is a well-tuned giallo that, surprisingly for the genre, has all the elements in place without involving us in any crazy jumps in logic. The red herrings are sensible and effectively registered, and it’s possible to be guessing at the killer’s identity up until the end, though I think it is still adequately prepared for and completely satisfying. Guillermo del Toro says that Deep Red “doesn’t make logical sense but it makes lyrical sense” in its rhyming of images, but I really think that shortchanges the plot, which I found to be pretty tight.
*. What I really like about the script though isn’t the story, or the dialogue, which is only serviceable most of the time and, given its being split between English and Italian, leads to some very odd subtitling on the DVD. A man saying “What, please?” is subtitled as “Sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” There are a lot of moments like this. The subtitles are barely an approximation of what are pretty flat lines.

*. No, what I mean when I say I love the script goes back to something I heard Robert Towne say in an interview once about how a great screenwriters sees the action. The dramatic and visual context is everything (I seem to remember Dan O’Bannon saying something similar, but I may be mistaken). Towne’s example is when, in Lawrence of Arabia, someone asks Lawrence what he loves about the desert and he looks about him and says “It’s clean.” That’s a line that takes some visual imagination.
*. Dario Argento (said to be “a director of incomparable incompetence,” in Vincent Canby’s sniffy review of Deep Red), along with his co-writer Bernardo Zapponi, have this visual instinct in spades. I think of the way they wanted to come up with murder scenes where we see injuries that the audience can relate to, so that instead of having victims stabbed or shot they have someone having their face stuck in boiling water, and another fellow having his open mouth smashed onto a mantelpiece. You can really feel that one!
*. The best example though comes when the psychic goes to open the door to her apartment and stops and screams before the hatchet comes crashing through it. Why? Because she’s a psychic! The scream comes before the jump scare because she senses what’s on the other side of the door. That’s worth a round of applause right there.

*. Another thing I love about Deep Red is its flagrant theatricality. The way the red curtains are drawn to reveal the psychic conference. The empty street that looks like it must be a set, complete with a bar copied from Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks,” complete with mannequins set up inside. This gives the proceedings the perfect blend of trash and art house. Karyn Kusama notes how Marcus’s instructions to his music students at the beginning sets the note for the rest of the film. They have to play jazz trashier. There’s just no cleaning it up.
*. Trashy, violent, and funny too. The reversal of gender roles between Marcus and Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) makes a cute motif, from their arm-wrestling to his being miniaturized by the broken seat in her car. This also serves a dramatic purpose, as despite being the male hero he is vulnerable throughout. As the police like to needle him, he doesn’t even have a real job.

*. Its influence has had a long reach. The psychic conference may have been the inspiration for the mentalist showdown at the beginning of Scanners. Billy the Puppet from the Saw franchise was apparently taken from the mannequin that makes a weird entrance here. And John Carpenter was definitely drawing, consciously or not, from Goblin’s score for his Halloween theme. Less notably, the girl being drowned in a scalding bath in Halloween II was also a steal, or homage.
*. Yes, you’ll probably want to be a fan of the genre to fully appreciate it. But this is the Citizen Kane of gialli and I think it’s a wonderful entertainment in its own right, put across with talent and verve in every department. Everyone has their own list of favourite movies, mixing undisputed classics in with idiosyncratic picks. Deep Red is a title I’d group with the latter, but it still makes my top 10.

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