Deep Red is one of the director’s most probing meditations on violence.
Having emerged fully formed with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and maintained his streak of quality over his next few films, it may have seemed that Dario Argento had plateaued out of the gate, immediately mastering his style with nowhere left to go. With Deep Red, however, Argento progressed radically. His earlier films, much as they were clearly made by a man with a specific vision, could nonetheless at least be tied into a Hitchcockian tradition, particularly the proto-slasher vein of Psycho. Deep Red marked the moment where Argento, still nominally working with the relatively grounded evil of mysterious, blade-wielding villains, leapfrogged into areas that defy easy description, using settings that shatter any remote notion of plausibility to sink entirely into mythical and nightmarish realms.
And who better to head up this modernist, abstract horror that David Hemmings, who had performed so memorably as the existentially unmoored photographer in Blowup? Hemmings plays Marcus Daly, a musician working in Rome. As in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Marcus is drawn into the plot when he happens to walk past a window where a woman is being visibly killed. Now a potentially incriminating witness, Marcus must fend off the unknown murderer who comes after him to tie up loose ends. As he did in Antonioni’s masterpiece, Hemmings plays up the alienation of Marcus, not only as a Brit in a foreign country but as a man whose grasp of reality starts to slip as he becomes more enmeshed in the mystery.
All of this initially is par for the course for Argento, but as Marcus investigates the killer and, more specifically, the strange song that the villain sings as a kind of calling card, things start to slip further out of tangibility. Argento’s pre-existing use of bold colors reaches a new level here, with relatively sedate outdoor shots contrasted with vivid interiors rendered in greens and blues with streaks of red that precede the copious letting of blood. These interiors also take on a fairy tale like quality, if decidedly of the Perrault fashion. A grotesque folktale book, House of the Screaming Child, even becomes a key plot point when the killer’s song is traced to the storybook and, later, Marcus finds a house that looks exactly like the one from the tale. Inside, he finds portraits of bloody children within walls that crumble like those of the House of Usher. At one point, Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri), the psychiatrist assisting Marcus on his amateur sleuthing, is confronted in his office by a mechanical doll that is one of the most nightmare-inducing creations ever put to film, an animatronic child that marches toward the man with a porcelain face frozen in a ratlike grimace. There were hints of this aspect of Argento’s filmmaking even in the clashing arcana and modernity of the director’s debut, but it is here that Argento truly matures into a master of creating baffling realms outside of geographic space and linear time, places defined by dream logic and littered with hiding spots for heroes and villains alike.
As in other Argento films, there are mistaken identities and red herrings leading up to a giant twist. At its heart, though, Deep Red is one of the director’s most probing meditations on violence. The bloodletting here is severe, and Argento sells each slash with ragged editing and a swell of Goblin’s score to further emphasize the brutality visited upon characters. Characters are plunged into scalding water, stabbed in the throat and otherwise mangled in ways that make even the excessive gore of Argento’s earlier work seem tame. The violence is repulsive, but it is also pointedly so, emphasizing the soullessness that takes hold of Marcus as he becomes so obsessed with catching the killer that he becomes a monster himself. Argento’s love of reflective surfaces, of mirrors and glinting knives, is deployed here not only for aesthetic purposes but to constantly turn Marcus’s quixotic quest back on him, revealing the garish distortion of his former self. Indeed, the final image, of Marcus dispassionately staring into the pool of blood oozing from a decapitated neck, is among the most literalized, savage portraits of a man becoming what he sought to stop ever put to film.