By Cleaver Patterson.
Anyone taking it upon themselves to comment on a film by the master of the giallo thriller Dario Argento is, to some extent, staking their reputation as a critic and writer. No-one will ever get it one hundred per cent right. Aficionados of his work — of which there are many — will take umbrage if you dismiss his often violent excursions as mere excuses to join grisly set-piece murders within often seemingly convoluted storylines. On the other hand if you defend his films as mind altering trips, hiding disturbing truths and subtle meanings beneath visually arresting and highly stylised imagery, there are those who will argue that this is simply an excuse to gloss over what is in fact highly gratuitous and exploitative material. Looking at his films objectively however, one can begin to appreciate each side of the argument.
An example which plays perfectly to both parties is his disturbing yet mesmerising 1975 chiller Deep Red. In this, Argento’s fifth film as director, many elements now synonymous with his work are evident, creating a masterful blend of violence, realism and psychological depth seldom seen in modern film. Though the viewer is left drained by the end with the relentlessness of the twisted imagery which plays out over the film’s two hour plus running time, they can also not help but be impressed by Argento’s skill as both director and writer at bringing together what often seem disparate strands, in a clever, cohesive and ultimately satisfying conclusion.
British jazz musician Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) is working in Rome when he inadvertently witnesses the violent death of a woman in the apartment block where he is living. Realising that his own life is in danger he sets out – with the help of a female investigative journalist called Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) – to find the person behind the horrific murder, a person now prepared to kill and kill again in order to keep their identity, and the reasons behind their depraved act, a secret.
Deep Red marked a break — for a brief period — of Argento’s work which dealt with more realistic (though still farfetched) situations, before his films began to play heavily on elements of the supernatural during the late 1970s and 1980s with films like Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and Phenomena (1985). Here the story, as in several of his films, revolves around a central protagonist with artistic traits — in this case a musician — who teams up with a journalist, to track down the perpetrator of a murder which he has accidentally seen. As with much of Argento’s material, this innocent bystander soon becomes the focus of the killer’s attention, with the resultant game of cat and mouse forming the main narrative of the remaining film, as well as providing an excuse for the imaginative and gruesome murders of anyone who knows more than they should, or gets in the way of proceedings.
It is of course these set piece murders for which Argento is widely renowned and which, rightly or wrongly, attract many people to his work. In Deep Red we have someone’s face scalded off in a bath of boiling water and another person’s teeth smashed out against a marble fireplace, along with several knife and machete attacks and a grisly road accident added to spice up proceedings. Argento’s films – Deep Red being the perfect example – are not for the squeamish, and even those of a strong disposition may find themselves looking away from depictions of murder which are haunting in their graphicness. There are those who will say that Argento’s obvious delight in dwelling on the gruesome details of death – here is a director who clearly doesn’t believe in the less is more mantra of filmmaking – and his use of intense realism, is unnecessary. However it does add an extra degree of authenticity to proceedings, and can be perhaps understood to a degree, once the motives of the killers in his films are finally revealed.
In Argento’s favour, films like Deep Red could never be accused of being light weight: intricate plots frequently coloured, as here, with deeply seated psychological reasoning, rooted in disturbing childhood incidents, simmer beneath outwardly innocent yet edgy surfaces. Often set against bohemian European backdrops imbued with a sense of otherworldliness, and soundtracks of discordant rock music frequently provided by Argento’s favoured collaborators, Italian progressive rock band Goblin, the results though seldom pleasant, are never anything short of memorable.
Argento’s work – as epitomised in Deep Red – is frequently dismissed by serious film-scholars, as pandering to the most base level of terror cinema. Whether or not this is true is – as said earlier – open to debate. One thing never in doubt however, is the ability of his films to provoke debate and controversy amongst successive generations of fans and critics alike.
Cleaver Patterson is a film journalist and critic based in London. He is the News Editor of Flickfeast website, and regularly writes for various publications and websites including Video Watchdog, Rue Morgue, Scream and Film International. He recently contributed to the book 70s Monster Memories, published by We Belong Dead magazine in December, 2015.
Deep Red was released on Blu-ray special edition by Arrow Films. The 3-disc limited edition boxset included stunning new 4k transfers of both the international cut (105 mins) and director’s cut (127 mins). Other additions included an exclusive booklet, postcard set and a 28-track original soundtrack recording.