Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Film Review: Deep Red

"Deep Red"  **** (out of ****)

A jazz pianist turned amateur detective must rely on his improvisation skills to solve a deadly mystery in Dario Argento's "Deep Red" (1975).

Dario Argento was at one time considered one of the greatest Italian horror filmmakers. His specialty was a sub-genre of horror films called giallo (pronounced yellow in English) which is the Italian word for yellow. When his career as a director first began in the 1970s with titles such as "The Cat O' Nine Tales" (1971) and "Four Flies On Grey Velvet" (1971) he was being championed by audiences and movie critics (sheep) as a new emerging talent who understood the fundamentals of the horror genre. He was even being compared to Alfred Hitchcock.

His earliest films showed minimal screen violence, which critics liked. Argento, they said, left the viewer to imagine the horror, which is far more scarier than seeing it. But Argento's films started to switch. He soon became known for staging lavish death scenes of pretty young women. He had acquired a fetish for blood, allowing his camera to linger on it like an animal going after its prey. Soon the Hitchcock comparisons stopped and he had gained a reputation as an ultra-violent filmmaker. "Deep Red" was the beginning of this new direction in Argento's work.

"Deep Red", along with "Suspiria" (1977), his following picture, is often considered one of, if not his greatest, work. It stars David Hemmings as Marc Daley, an English jazz pianist who teaches music in Italy. One night, on his way home, David witnesses a murder, the death of a psychic, who lived in the same building as him. Intrigued and frightened by the killing Marc decides to investigate and discover the identity of the murderer along with the help of a journalist, Gianna (Daria Nicolodi, a one-time companion of Argento's).

In this sense we can see the imprints of Hitchcock as an innocent person plays amateur detective investigating a sinister plot which they have been unwillingly brought into and fear for their life.

What Marc didn't know was prior to the psychic, Helga Ullmann's (Macha Meril) death she was giving a lecture with Dr. Giordani (Glauco Mauri) where she felt the presence of a murderer in the room and recalls the horror of an act of violence which had been committed years ago.

It is after speaking to Dr. Giordani, Marc discovers what may be the killer's calling card, a piece of children's music which is played before each victim's death. The music is believed to serve as an emotional trigger which alters the killer's state of mind and provokes the instinct to kill. Marc also learns of a "haunted house" where legend has it a a child was heard singing followed by screams of a person being murdered.

This leads Marc to find the house where the legend is to have taken place and discovers it may provide a direct link to a series of recent killings including Helga's.

When I first saw "Deep Red" I thought it was a masterpiece. After watching it a second time I see it more as a mixed bag that ultimately works. The first forty minutes to an hour of the movie are very confusing. The viewer doesn't understand the time frame of events happening. There is a rushed romance between Marc and Gianna and there is no sense of danger. Is anyone after Marc? But, once the investigation begins everything changes and the movie greatly improves though it still ends on a confusing note which raises questions the movie does not have answers for.

What works best in "Deep Red" are the death scenes. Argento and his co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi, have come up with some very gruesome scenarios. One involving a truck at the end of the movie is perhaps the most disturbing I have ever seen in an Argento movie. Others causalities involve someone getting their teeth bashed in and someone is killed by a meat cleaver.

While I am not someone that enjoys watching slasher movies with serial killers gutting people open, "Deep Red" is a little more than that to me. The killing scenes can be gruesome but they are also an exercise in genre film making. Argento's movies as a whole don't struck me as violent. I admire the craft of his story telling. That is what I appreciate about the death scenes in his movies, even the gruesome ones.

The death scenes do what they are supposed to do however and create suspense and heighten the viewer's interest to figure out who is the killer. This is the other element of "Deep Red" which works. I enjoy watching the "police procedural" of Marc hunting down clues, investigating different locations, learning more and more about the legends and tying it all together. This brings the audience into the story.

But the movie also has its flaws.

One of Dario Argento weak spots in all of his movies is psychology. He is never able to truly develop fleshed out characters and provide a decent motive for the killer. He works at an amateur textbook level of psychology. The majority of his films deal with a traumatic incident in a person's life from childhood which causes them to kill. You can't always blame your parents for your problems! Geez!

"Deep Red" doesn't have strong acting either. David Hemmings doesn't give much of an energetic performance. He looks tired and worn down. He is simply going through the motions. Though his appearance in this movie makes us think of "Blow-Up" (1967), another movie where he believes he has witnessed a murder.

On the other hand Daria Nicolodi seems to be acting in another movie entirely! She is lively and a bit campy in her performance. Her scenes with Hemmings are meant to be humorous but it comes off more forced than natural. There is not a lot of chemistry between the two. It is a bit of a stretch to ask audiences to believe these two are attracted to each other.

I also disliked the cinematography. The movie takes the approach of doing a lot of point of view (POV) shots from the killer's perspective, which is standard in horror movies. But the camera movements aren't fluid in my opinion. Many sequences are clumsily filmed and edited at best. Some of the best camera work I have seen in an Argento movie was in "Opera" (1987) where he also does POV shots. There the camera is almost dancing.

Still, I must go back to the point, when the movie works, it works! Once we are settled into the story and understand the characters Argento is able to hold our interest and delivers a few scares along the way and make us turn out heads away from the violence. "Deep Red" effectively plays on our emotions, mostly our fears.

Some wonder why "Deep Red" is considered to be one of Argento's best and quite frankly, why it is considered a good movie by any standards. The reason I feel is because it is pure giallo. It contains several of the classic elements which comprise the genre. It is a thriller mixed up with elements of a detective story combined with a bit of eroticism and sexuality. Based on that critieria the movie does what viewers expect it to do and it does it competently enough to sustain an audience's interest.

Viewers that aren't familiar with the work of Dario Argento are definitely encouraged to either start here or with "Suspiria" as their first venture into his films. "Deep Red" contains all of the classic elements fans association with Argento. It is one of those movies that can still make you sit on the edge of your seat and have you look over your shoulder when it is all over.