Dario Argento's 1977 film Suspiria became a massive international hit and cemented in the minds of the greater movie-going public the Italian filmmaker's visual prowess, penchant for elaborate and gory murder scenes, and use of loud progressive rock music to disorient his audience. But we can't underestimate how popular Argento's prior films had been, in the early '70s with his trio of gialli, which reinvigorated the sleek and sexy Italian slasher genre. After his first three movies, made between 1970 and 1971, Argento would wait close to four years before releasing a horror movie. When he did, it was 1975's Deep Red, which may be his true masterpiece.
The above trailer doesn't show or explain much--as was the way of Italian genre trailers of the era--but it gave you the overall mood. One of the first inter-titles says "Dario Argento torna al Thrilling," meaning "Dario Argento returns to thrillers." This was a huge deal in 1975. After his 1970 debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the giallo became popular enough to take the place of the flagging spaghetti western. Between 1970 and 1975, no fewer than 100 gialli were made by directors like Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, and Umberto Lenzi. After Crystal Plumage, a movie which was incredibly successful in America, Argento followed it with two more gialli, both in 1971, the slightly more "Hollywood" The Cat O' Nine Tails and the nearly experimental Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
In all three of his earlier gialli, known collectively as the "Animal Trilogy," the elaborate murder sequences are brutally violent and feature otherwise strapping American men in positions of impotence, unable to actualize either their career, their relationships, or their self-appointed task as murder investigator. The first two films feature a writer as the protagonist, a stand-in for Argento himself, but Four Flies' main character is the drummer for an avant-garde music combo. When Argento would return to the giallo with Deep Red, his protagonist would again be a jazz musician, and the film would again place him in the emasculated position of would-be crime solver, this time with even more emphasis on changing gender norms.
A psychic named Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) is giving a demonstration in a theatre, and says someone in the audience is guilty of a heinous murder, in fact the very murder we see a snippet of during the opening credits. The murderer leaves the theatre but stalks Helga to her lavish apartment, breaks in, and hacks Helga with a meat cleaver. In her final moments, a bloody Helga bangs on her window overlooking a small piazza and only Marc is there to see it. The killer then pushes Helga's head through the window where the glass cuts her throat. Marc makes his way into the apartment and as he walks to the window, he sees something which he tries the entire length of the movie to remember.
Right away, the movie begins playing with gender stereotypes; Marc dashes in like the hero he ought to be, but fails to save Helga, and indeed fails to catch the murderer who's still in the apartment. After speaking to the police, he teams up with a local reporter, Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) and the two almost immediately spark off one another like bickering children, with the smart and capable Gianna constantly poking fun at Marc's failures. He's not quite smart enough to put everything together on his own, and it's Gianna he calls for help when the killer begins stalking him, subverting the damsel-in-distress trope inherent in most gialli of the period.
All four of Argento's first thrillers fall soundly within the "m-giallo" or male-centric giallo mold. These are usually exemplified by a male protagonist--often a troubled outsider/tourist/foreigner-- trying to solve a string of murders and finding themselves always a few steps behind. The killer almost always reveals themselves to the protagonist, rather than him discovering the truth on his own. However, Deep Red, while certainly m-giallo in basic set-up, places Marc in the role of the damsel in distress protagonist found in f- or female-led gialli. F-gialli deal much more heavily with the female lead's state of mind amid the killings, and often their frustrated sexuality. Marc does solve the mystery, eventually realizing the missing piece of information he's been seeking, but all along the way his masculinity is tested, and even the realization of the truth and final confrontation with the killer inverts the usual roles of hero.
Deep Red not only plays upon established norms of character, but explores the perversion of innocence found in childhood trauma. The opening murder fragment features a creepy lullaby sung by a child which is later played on Marc's on record player when the killer has him trapped in his house. After surviving the ordeal, Marc tries to find the piece of music and learns of a tragedy that befell a child many years earlier in an old, now-abandoned house. There, behind plaster, Marc finds a child's drawing depicting the murder, clearly something witnessed that led to the string of deaths now plaguing the city. This theme is made especially horrific during murder of Helga's psychiatrist friend, Dr. Giordani (Glauco Mauri), where a terrifying mechanical doll breaks in to his office, but is merely a distraction for the real killer.
Deep Red is in many ways a redux of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with much of the same basic outline and character types in place, but it was Argento saying that he'd come fully into his own as a director and the true father of the genre, no longer a newcomer trying to make his mark but a maestro plying his trade to a genre that was already five years into its Argento-started boom. Though he'd used giallo tropes in his later fantasy horror films, and in several more late-period gialli (the clear best of which is 1982's Tenebrae), Deep Red has earned its reputation as "the giallo to end all gialli."
Deep Red is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video in its uncut, original Italian version which retains the all-important gender politics scenes that were cut for the initial international cut. It features the beautiful and essential video essay by Michael Mackenzie and a thoughtful and thorough commentary by film professor Thomas Rostock. If you've only know Argento for Suspiria, or haven't seen Deep Red in a while, I highly recommend this release.
Images: Arrow Video/Rizzoli Film