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The Form and Function of a Cult Film: Deep Red by Alexia Kannas

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A Book Review Essay by Jeremy Carr.

Alexia Kannas’ Deep Red (Columbia University Press, 2017), her contribution to the Wallflower Press Cultographies series, in which she takes a deep dive into the making, reception, and legacy of Dario Argento’s 1975 giallo masterpiece, is an ideal meeting of author, subject, and publishing premise. Sold as a series “dedicated to the weird and wonderful world of cult cinema,” this collection has comprised eclectic titles ranging from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988) and Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978). And just as each author approaches their respective film from a unique perspective, so too does Kannas establish an overriding theme to her text, which distinguishes it as the unabashed and enthusiastically personal analysis that it is.

Getting to the dominant heart of what defines the fluid category of “cult cinema,” she begins this single film exploration by sharing memories of her early exposure to such fare. This primarily came by way of Australian television, which transmitted assorted genre oddities and features from the likes of Jesús Franco (Vampyros Lesbos, 1971) and Ngai Choi Lam (Erotic Ghost Story, 1990). These televised showcases were often introduced by Des Mangan, a host, Kannas notes, who “routinely performed the rhetoric of cult cinema taste formations,” celebrating these films “precisely because they were not to everyone’s taste” (3). Indeed, this is why these films are so unique and so worthy of attention; it’s why they have such a profound impact on young people and budding cinephiles. It’s also an idiosyncratic appeal that clearly informs Kannas’ examination of Deep Red.

Deep 02Nearly every facet of Argento’s film is discussed over the course of Deep Red’s succinct 114 pages (which counts notes, a bibliography, and index), starting with the placement of Argento himself, and this film specifically, within a broader horror/thriller context. Kannas then canvasses the more rigorous genesis of the giallo, as a distinct hybrid of these two antecedent forms, subsequently surveying Argento’s early career in view of this fusion, beginning with his 1970 directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a quintessential realization of emblematic themes and visual motifs. As Kannas points out, however, this path, mirroring the conventions of the genre itself, is seldom without its share of ambiguous twists and blind turns. Deep Red, she writes, “was not conceived in a single moment of clarity. In fact, the origins of some of the film’s most renowned moments are, in true cult film fashion, hard to pin down” (11). Hard to pin down, maybe, but Kannas does her avid best to ascertain the particulars of the film’s production, tracing its origins from Argento’s 500-page treatment, which he wrote in just two weeks, to an eventual name change, scrapping the working title of “The Sabre Tooth Tiger” (which fell in line with the director’s previous “animal trilogy”). Finally, the stage set, Kannas outlines the steady expansion of this horror-thriller amalgam, an evolution still central to Argento’s resilient modus operandi.

As Kannas combs through the fundamentals of Deep Red’s production and its prominent attributes, several topics stand out. One is her focus on the actors and the film’s familiar character types. While acknowledging the generic consequence of Daria Nicolodi’s inquisitive reporter, Gianna Brezzi, as a classic giallo “helper” (15), Kannas also disconnects Gianna from the norm as an unusually strong woman in her own right, additionally emphasizing the playful relationship between she and David Hemmings’ protagonist, Marc. Though less relevant to Deep Red itself, Kannas similarly spotlights Nicolodi for her importance as Argento’s romantic partner and mother to daughter Asia, born the year of the film’s release. Predictably, though, star Hemmings receives most of the attention. Nearly ten years removed from his iconic work in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), his performance as that film’s snoopy, swinging photographer, Thomas, was still his most recognizable role, and it’s one to which Kannas draws several notable parallels, even going so far (too far?) as to suggest a persona reprisal of sorts. There are certainly similarities – as Kannas notes, Hemmings is in both films something of an amateur detective with a side occupation – but this connection is rather strained when one considers the respective filmmakers’ dramatically different narrative intent, something to which Kannas does partly concede: “While the strategies may differ, each film questions the authority of the image in a reflexive exploration of the conditions of modern life” (82). Between Blow-Up and Deep Red, that question is posed in drastically different fashion, to widely varying degrees, but it’s a commonality, like many observed by Kannas, that raises a fair enough point. It’s also worth noting Kannas’ most intriguing comparison between Deep Red and another famous film, that being Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Discounting some initial skepticism, the case for resemblance is effective, hinging on the likeness of Italian screen legend Clara Calamai, as Amanda Righetti in Deep Red, and Hollywood luminary Bette Davis, as the titular Jane Hudson, but also the shared impetus of “childhood trauma” (88).

Deep 03Moving beyond specific characters, Kannas turns toward Argento’s use of location. Though set in Rome, and in many ways capitalizing on that city’s cultural, historical, and cinematic connotations, Deep Red was largely shot in Turin, which was, she reveals, a site selected for its own unique atmosphere and the apparent profusion of Satanists amongst its population (16). Architecture may not define his filmography as it does some of his fellow countrymen (like Antonioni, for example), but Kannas makes a strong argument for “Argento’s interest in architectural ornamentation” (67), pointing out visual allusions to the nocturnal artistry of Edward Hopper and the ambiance of film noir. Her vivid descriptions lend this concentration considerable credence:

Inside the house the windows are closed, broken or draped with threadbare curtains that match the spider webs wound through the chandeliers above…. With the snake-like bass line of Goblin’s score, these undulating lines and coloured glass windows have an intoxicating effect that propels Marc towards the horror that lies hidden deep within the villa’s walls. (68)

That enthralling score likewise receives due reflection by Kannas, as she considers Goblin’s invaluable contribution to Argento’s cinema (and their subsequent productivity beyond Argento), again in a descriptive illustration of the group’s influential and inseparable musical association:

Marc seems propelled by the pulsating bass line that is punctuated with dashes of tingling, shimmering cymbals and tiny cracks of the snare. When he unwittingly steps on some shards from a broken window, the cracking of glass under foot prompts Goblin’s score to stop, but as Marc moves to open a window and a curtain rod crashes to the floor, this new sound prompts the return of the score’s responsive bass line. (73)

Scattered throughout Kannas’ Deep Red, but most prominently in chapter two, “The Cultification of Deep Red,” is a review of the film’s circulation history. This register includes a chronicle of home video options, from Betamax to VHS to DVD, a chronicle that, in effect, presents a corresponding history of Deep Red’s availability and progression. This is an exceptionally detailed section of the book, but it’s entirely necessary given Kannas’ personal discovery of Deep Red and films like it, and given that the irregular distribution of a cult film often proves crucial to its widespread appreciation. Kannas analyzes the miscellaneous versions of the film, its various cuts and editorial iterations, noting releases that vary from country to country, transfer to transfer. Yet even in the face of disastrous alternations – pan and scan formatting that cuts the sides off the image – Kannas notes a prevailing appeal: “Despite all this, the film was mysteriously compelling” (5). This brings Kannas to the marketing of Deep Red, which was sold along the lines of a customary giallo formula but managed to navigate a “saturated market by presenting an intensification and refinement of established giallo tropes, effectively reinvigorating the formula’s waning popularity to combat audience fatigue” (43).

Deep 04Deep Red’s staggered distribution, Kannas observes in one of the more fascinating portions of her book, was also dependent on Argento’s reputation outside Italy; it was retitled Suspiria 2 in Japan, riffing on his popular 1977 film, which was released there first, while in America, it was generally sold as an exploitation release or as an overt Hitchcockian derivative. In England, its notoriety flourished by an association with the so-called “video nasties.” Though Deep Red never appeared on that list of objectionable titles, the link was vital to a movie like Argento’s. Kannas cites video nasty scholar Kate Egan, who “recognizes two significant developments that swell from these historical incidents particularly relevant to the trajectory of Deep Red” (28-29). There is, first, the reconfiguration of what is termed the “context of origin,” that is, how these films altered the normal mode of production and exhibition, but perhaps most importantly, Egan “sees the limited availability of these video titles as a catalyst for the generation of a particular taste culture built around a penchant for forbidden films” (29).

And that leads to Kannas’ keen visual scrutiny of the film. Chapter 3 especially, “Reading Deep Red,” includes multiple passages that break down, shot-by-shot, Argento’s brand of visual communication. There is some repetition in these summarizing segments, as Kannas frequently returns to certain sequences, but one facet of the film emerges as its most pervasive, and it’s one directly linked to the film’s distribution: violence. “The giallo film’s ubiquity in canons of cult cinema depends fundamentally on the genre’s characteristically graphic depictions of violence,” writes Kannas (55). This includes the link between violence and voyeurism:

Argento’s style interrogates the possibilities of cinema not by distancing us from the film through disruptive formal techniques, but by defying classical narrative logic to generate a contradictory experience of being simultaneously within and outside a film. (75)

Also within this theme is an imaginative integration of weaponry, selected (Kannas quoting an insightful Leon Hunt), “‘on the basis of their aesthetic merits and capacity for disfigurement’” (56).

Deep 05As Kannas examines the ongoing impact of Argento and Deep Red, she integrates an admirable amount of prior scholarship, attesting to the preexisting, likely undervalued work done on these cult films. She also offers an abundance of sometimes surprising cinematic references, making one of her strongest points by alluding to the 2007 film, Juno. One scene from that Jason Reitman comedy speaks to Argento generally, but it perfectly underscores a larger contention being made by Kannas and others who tout the virtues of alternative cinema. As two Juno characters debate the qualities of Argento versus Herschell Gordon Lewis, Kannas states,

In their competitive parsing of cult film knowledge and tastes, Mark and Juno perpetuate a paradigm that has situated Argento and his most highly regarded films, like Suspiria and Deep Red, on the margins of the mainstream and counter-cultural taste formations. Too artful to be unconditionally canonised by the gorehounds that Jeffrey Sconce (1995) has linked to paracinema, Deep Red’s violence is simultaneously too wanton for it to be considered an art film. (92)

It is indeed a tenuous discrepancy, putting a film like Deep Red (and a filmmaker like Dario Argento) into something of a critical-historical limbo. But it’s also a conflict that makes a book like Kannas’ Deep Red so valuable, and a series like Cultographies so welcome. It’s serious, informed, entertaining, and impassioned, and it cuts through the unnecessary and burdensome bias between cinematic class.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.

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