Updated: Nov 27, 2022
Old films aren’t scary. If you agree with this, you’re clearly unfamiliar with the ultra-stylized, savagely gory and vehemently terrifying Italian slasher genre known as “giallo.” These Euro-horror pictures boomed overseas in the mid-sixties to the early-eighties due to their provocative, unrestricted and unforgiving nature. Regarded as the best of this genre is Dario Argento’s magnum opus, “Deep Red” (1975).
Kicking off the action, a clairvoyant woman is slayed in her apartment after having seen a vision of a horrific crime. The only coherent witness to the murder is jazz pianist Marcus Daly, played by David Hemmings. What does he see? A shadowy figure escapes the scene, but can’t be identified, and Daly claims a haunting painting from inside the apartment has vanished. Having his own life now at risk, Daly is propelled into a thrilling investigation for the killer, with only the help of an attractive, fiery reporter named Gianna Brezzi, played by Daria Nicolodi. As bodies start to pile up, the two attempt to unmask the maniac at large and connect the dots, while also keeping themselves from being offed.
It's rare to find true terror in a film with much of today’s horror genre being comprised of jump scares and cheesy thrills. “Deep Red” is surprisingly able to evoke real blood curdling fear from its elements. Viewers find themselves terrorized by abandoned houses with ghostly secrets, murderous lullabies and strange hanging dolls that are usually the last thing you ever see. Fear in “Deep Red” is a product of perfectly built suspense counterbalanced with sleek-yet-brutal violence. Scares come when you least expect it, and violence is handled so artistically it’s surreal.
Hemmings was a phenomenal lead, playing the character of Marcus with the artistic sensitivity, obsessiveness and personal frustration of a believable musician. His character’s depth and dialogue were consistently captivating, as well as his spunky female sidekick. Gianna epitomizes female empowerment, while also hinting at physical strength and cunning making her suspicious at times. Other shady characters include Carlo, a drunk who never fails to give his friend Marcus outlandish advice, Supt. Calcabrini the buffoon policeman/messy eater, Marta — Carlo’s mother who has received dementia with her old age, and Professor Giordani, an intellectual who attempts to become an amateur sleuth himself.
Tension in “Deep Red” was exceptional with its slow-burning terror in the foreground and cool, groovy Goblin soundtrack in the background, creating an aura that was completely unique. The film takes place in Rome, being able to capture the city as a distant, lonely shell of itself painted in moody landscapes as if by Edward Hopper.
Although pacing was fairly balanced, my strongest criticisms draw from how easily some clues were found. Both protagonists were immensely lucky when it came to revealing pieces of the puzzle when all they had were pretty general leads. However, it was certainly not enough to dampen the unpredictable final twist. Normally, giallo films suffer in this category, usually having a weak twist. Nine times out of ten, the killer is the schmuck in the background whose name you immediately forgot. “Deep Red’s” twist is deeply calculated and complex, surprising the audience while also making sense within the story. Argento tests his viewers with red herrings here and there, making it a struggle for the audience to decipher the murderer’s true identity. Isn’t it the best feeling when a film can genuinely surprise you at the end?
As far as technical aspects go, editing and cinematography were stellar. Creative camerawork prevailed with some beautiful steep shots and scenes in the killer’s perspective. As the maniac prepares themself to kill, the camera beautifully slithers through a clutter of creepy children’s toys and up to a glinting set of knives, the weapon of choice. Again, the groovy Goblin score perfectly sets the tone of these scenes before horror occurs. The theme is striking, although I do feel they misused it in some scenes.
Although its original release is in Italian, an English cut of “Deep Red” is widely available. The English version of the film is unfortunately shorter than the Italian, choosing to sacrifice character development for thrills. If the opportunity arises, and closed captions aren’t a bother, the original 126-minute version is the best to watch.
From its array of characters and chilling scenery to its nail-biting death scenes, “Deep Red” is surely a fitting face for the giallo genre. Aside from small criticisms such as the easy-to-find evidence and some underused characters, the film still stands high in being a brilliant horror. Argento directs with all the sick, twisted, sleazy passion he can muster, creating what is truly his most magnificent work. “Deep Red” is currently available for free on PlutoTV and Vudu. Tubi has more Argento giallo films available as well such as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1970), “Cat O’Nine Tails” (1971), and another massive hit “Suspiria” (1977), which all possess the same untamed flare.