Wednesday, November 13, 2013

FI: Deep Red

Deep Red / Profondo Rosso
Italy, 1975
Directed and co-written (with Bernardo Zapponi) by Dario Argento

Giallo films are an interesting, influential style that arose in the '60s and '70s from Italian pulp fiction. Blending elements of horror, crime fiction, and psychosexual weirdness with lurid colors and occasional light phantasmagoria, the genre flourished for many years and influenced things like modern day slasher movies. Though he has worked in several genres over the years, Dario Argento might be best known for his giallo pictures, and Deep Red is one of the most famous of those. Starring British actor David Hemmings, best known for Antonioni's Blow-Up, the film examines a series of bizarre, gruesome murders in and around Turin. The killing spree seems to begin when, at a conference, psychic Helga Ullmann (Macha Méril) has a  a fit upon sensing the deranged thoughts of someone in the audience. Soon enough, she's brutally killed with a hatchet and a broken window, and piano teacher Marcus Daly (Hemmings) is the only person nearby who rushes to her aid. From there, Daly meets investigative journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) and the two go about searching for clues among potential witnesses and Ulmann's friends. But has Daly only brought the suspicion of the authorities and the killer's wrath down upon himself?

Argento has a master's touch when it comes to investing screen space with a sense of malice. So often the framing, lighting, camera movements, and on-screen action suggest there's someone or something dangerous lurking just out of sight and, so often, there is. As such, we can rarely rest easily. The murder sequences are somehow both fantastical and realistic, the killer's uncanny planning and competence contrasting with the "use what's nearby" approach the victims force into play. Reds are cranked up beyond belief, the copious spilled blood resembling nothing so much as children's tempera paint as it oozes and pools. The creepy, Rosemary's Baby-esque childhood song the killer utilizes during each kill is both a callback to Beckert's leitmotif in M, and an effective way to imbue the crimes with a messed-up psychological depth. Argento isn't subtle in any way, and his characters are rarely as rounded and empathetic as, say, Hitchcock's, but the overall atmosphere works.

While the scares and murders are effectively staged and presented, Deep Red's story feels a bit all over the shop. After a prologue scene, mostly depicted in silhouette, sets the stage for the killer's motivation, Argento and Bernardo Zapponi's script muddies the water with elements like the psychic and her new-agey friends, a haunted house story, random tangents with a strange father and daughter, and some (admittedly creepy) dolls. The result is a bit like a puzzle with extra pieces tossed in—the solution is still there, it just takes longer to work out which bits you need to reach it. Everything seems to come together by the end, more or less, and I don't think the film's vibe suffers too much from these diversions, though the pacing flags as a result. Still, some of you will have less of a problem with that than with the ultra-'70s score provided by the prog band Goblin. It is distracting, on occasion, but even if you think the music dates the film or turns it too campy for your taste, Goblin's sound does go hand-in-hand with Argento's own theatrics—which might be why he would use them again and again over the years.

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