August 10, 2020

It’ll Put You in Deep Shock: What I learned from Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’ (1975)

At least once a month, my mother and I have the same conversation: Why do I like Horror movies? We repeat this little chat because I’ve yet to entirely understand it myself. I didn’t like being scared as a kid. As I’ve gotten older and ingratiated myself in the genre, I find that I still don’t get a charge from a restless night’s sleep. Guillermo del Toro, in an interview with “q on cbc”, once described his relationship with the Horror genre as, “I love the image of the genre but I’m not interested in the mechanics. (…) I’m not interested in the scares but I’m interested in the atmosphere.” If you’ve ever seen a Guillermo del Toro movie, that makes a lot of sense and I (while not daring to remotely compare myself to the man) relate to it.

But we’re not talking about a del Toro movie today (don’t worry, he’ll be back later). Rather, I want to look at a horror movie that truly DID terrify me and continues to wriggle under my skin every time I watch it: Dario Argento’s 1975 Giallo classic Profondo rosso aka Deep Red. Here’s a movie that preys on many fears: shadowy corridors, creepy dolls, abject madness, dark secrets, and ghastly murder. And JESUS is it potent.

You may have some questions at this point: Who is Dario Argento? What’s Giallo? Why am I reading this? Dario Argento was and is an Italian filmmaker (though his more recent work is *ahem* infamous) whose catalog includes such Horror/Thriller staples as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Suspiria (1977), and Phenomena aka Creepers (1985). Suspiria is widely (and rightfully) considered his masterpiece: A surreal, electrifying roller coaster of terror, throbbing with sound and mesmerizing color. But Deep Red is a close second.

As for the Giallo (pluralized, Gialli): The Italian word for “yellow”, Giallo is best described as violent, sensual Italian murder mysteries. Why yellow? For the yellow spines/pages/binding glue (accounts vary) of the cheap pulp novels that informed them. They are known for being vibrant, sleazy (if not downright trashy), convoluted, and WILDLY inventive in their camera work and lighting. Argento didn’t start the sub-genre (again, accounts vary, but that’s usually attributed to Mario Bava’s 1962 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much) but damned if he didn’t perfect it. Deep Red is a chilling, moody mystery that follows a musician (David Hemmings) and a reporter (Daria Nicolodi) and their unlikely involvement in and delirious investigation of a murder with deep dark roots. And it’s about as stylish as they come. From the ever moving and/or perfectly composed camerawork to the creepy, memorable score; Argento is in top form here. So much so in fact that we completely forget that the story is, charitably, ridiculous.

The major lesson to be learned from Deep Red (and all of Dario Argento’s work) is don’t be afraid to lose your mind. Since his directorial debut with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento has made it clear that he defiantly doesn’t care about wild leaps of logic. As Guillermo del Toro (I told you he’d be back) described Deep Red for the web series Trailers from Hell, “It creates a true ecology. It’s own ecosystem. Some of the stuff-or MOST of the stuff, like in most Argento movies, doesn’t make logical sense but it makes lyrical sense.” For the same program, Karyn Kusama said of Argento, “He is more interested in beauty and incoherence and irrationality than he is in narrative precision.” When crafting a mystery, it’s important to maintain a level of coherence in your plotting. What’s not important is what level of coherence it is. Deep Red‘s narrative immediately makes sense as the movie plays but to think twice about it would be catastrophic and missing the point.

But to call Argento a style over substance creative would be unfair. There are myriad fascinating readings of his work. Specific to Deep Red is Michael Mackenzie’s video essay from the recent-ish Arrow Video re-release that suggests the film is all about the generational guilt instilled in the children of formerly fascist countries. But to simply watch an Argento sans analysis is an experience in and of itself.

There’s a scene in Deep Red where a man is stalked and murdered in his home office. We know the killer is there, HE knows the killer is there. What ensues is one of the more iconic moments of the film but there’s a brief shot in the build-up to the attack that has always floored me. Here’s a scenario as old as time: Wolf stalks lamb, wolf eviscerates lamb. There should be no tension because we know what’s going to happen. But that sure as shit doesn’t dissuade Argento. The doomed man’s office is surrounded by patterned frosted glass. The shot I’m arduously getting to only lasts three or four seconds. It’s a mid-shot from the other side of said glass, where the man turns around and his eyes are perfectly framed between the frosted patterns. It’s not necessary, the danger quickly makes itself present, and yet it’s there. It couldn’t have been easy to set up, taking a lot of time and energy for a seemingly throwaway shot. And yet it’s there. Argento went the extra mile to drag out the audience’s nerves just that little bit more. Immediately we know the danger and isolation of the subject and we are laser focused on the situation. It’s a brilliant visual way of telling us, no matter the story or build to this point, that this man is 100% screwed. And boy is he.

This is what del Toro and Kusama are talking about. Deep Red could almost work without dialogue or exposition. It doesn’t need logic to scare you, it needs style. Argento is a master stylist. He knows when to cut out and ramp up the soundtrack, change focal perspectives, and reveal danger so as to drum up as much terror as possible. But he’s not just a great horror director. The Italians have a wonderful sense of visual humor (see: the ending of the Italian language cut of Bava’s Black Sabbath) and Argento is no exception. There’s another famous shot in the film where two characters part after a night of drinking. As they walk further away from one another, they continue to loudly discuss the nature of memory. The camera doesn’t cut, rather as they walk away from each other, it precisely pulls back to follow them and document their growing distance (much like the processing of memories). I don’t know if I explained it properly but it’s fucking funny.

There are plenty of movies with plots that, when held up to a modicum of reflection, crumble to pieces (*cough* Looper, Us *cough, cough*). The key is to not lean on it. Deep Red is a visceral, fierce, tense movie. It zips along on set pieces driven by emotion rather than sense. It’s a perfect example of visual storytelling that arrests the senses. In truth, I don’t find many horror movies scary. Why do I keep watching them then? Because I am addicted to observing the craft that goes into making them. And Deep Red is prime for observation.

Freeman Fletcher

Having graduated in 2018 with a BA in Filmmaking, Freeman Fletcher is a perhaps hopeless but well-meaning aspiring filmmaker. When he isn't watching movies with his dog, he's talking about movies with his dog. A big fan of 1940's screwball comedies and 1970's Gialli slashers, Freeman strives to maintain diverse cinematic sensibilities. How well he does is not for him to say but he hopes you enjoy (or at least tolerate) his generally coherent ramblings.

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