Finishing Blindspot 2016 #3: Deep Red
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
One thing I love about Dario Argento films: their stories slot easily into other genres. He then drags them into horror, kicking and screaming with buckets of thick, red blood. Suspiria is essentially a gothic fairy tale, for example. It was inspired by tall tales that the grandmother of co-writer Daria Nocolodi told her as a child. The result is a film that has the trappings of something comfortably familiar, told through set pieces of operatic violence.
Deep Red is a whodunit in its heart. The plot and story beats aren’t too far removed from Agatha Christie. But in Christie novels, murders are simply plot devices. The likes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are unflappable in the face of death. Murders are an excuse for them to showcase their brilliance at solving them. But when the killings happen in Deep Red, they aren’t a means to advance the plot; they are Argento’s arias, thrusting violence and horror to the forefront, forcing both the audience and the film’s obligatory amateur investigators to recoil from the carnage.
Deep Red opens with a murder and segues into another soon thereafter. In between, we meet a psychic named Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), who gives a lecture in Turin about her abilities and initially wows the audience by pointing to a random man and correctly saying that he is fiddling with his keys. She is then overcome with a vision of murder and begins to panic. Later, she is murdered in her apartment by an unknown assailant.
Helga’s murder is witnessed by a pianist named Marcus (David Hemmings), who runs to investigate and finds her dead, and the assailant fleeing the scene, wearing a distinct leather raincoat. He becomes obsessed with investigating the case himself, teaming up with a journalist named Gianna (Nicolodi, who starred in five Argento films in addition to co-writing Suspiria with him). Their relationship is strained but playful. Marcus voices some dismissive sexism to Gianna, which seems rooted in his own self-consciousness about masculinity. In response, Gianna challenges him to arm wrestling, beats him, and he complains that she cheated.
Scenes like that aren’t simply Argento awkwardly addressing feminism and masculinity; as Deep Red unfolds almost every scene hints toward answers without giving anything away. At the end of the film, I realized that the answers to the plot’s questions were all laid out before me, in suggestion, in the mise en scène, in the character’s writing. There is a crucial scene where Marcus has a conversation with his best friend Carlo, also a pianist, but far less successful. Carlo is drunk, and they talk across opposite sides of a huge Roman statue. The dialogue, the conditions in which it is spoken, and even the statue itself all play a part in piecing together the mystery, even though none of that is spelled out in the scene.
All of this is simply to say that as a murder mystery, Deep Red works splendidly, which means that as horror, it works splendidly, because horror is always best, the scares more resonant, when it’s motivated by something more than simply scaring you.
Dario Argento is a master of grisly, horrifically beautiful horror set pieces. The violence in this film is bloody, yes, but as always with Argento there’s a choreography to it. I think (and this is not simply the setting of Suspiria talking) that Argento films would translate easily into ballet without becoming comical. When the killer strikes in Deep Red, there’s a sense that everything in the frame is exactly where Argento wants it, but the scenes also never lack for energy or chaos.
Deep Red plunges into its mystery head on, and much of the fun is in the surroundings, the sets, and the characters Marcus runs into along the way. Unlike an Agatha Christie novel, however, Marcus often seems deep in over his head, needing Gianna on more than one occasion to survive, never mind solve the murders. He’s an unusually well-rounded horror protagonist. He’s not entirely likeable, but his flaws are recognizably human, and Argento builds the case he’s pursuing into such an intoxicating fever that we understand why he keep pursuing it even after the killer whispers a promise to kill him through a closed door. Terrified, he calls Gianna for help. “There’s someone in the house, absolutely trying to kill me, you know?” he says, his voice rising in alarm.
As a horror fan, Deep Red was a delight, a prime example of the bloody delights of both giallo and whodunits. But Argento’s direction will also demand future viewings, just to study the visuals and admire the craft. It’s damn good entertainment, yes, but like a great painting there is something to admire on every inch of the frame.