Italian filmmaker Dario Argento’s Deep Red begins with a startling murder that is set to a nursery rhyme. It’s an unsettling combination. The nature and significance of this scene aren’t revealed to us immediately and it serves as an appetizer of what’s yet to come. Cut to some other part of Italy where we see an English pianist named Marcus Daly (played by David Hemmings, who has appeared in Blow-Up and Gladiator), whose ability to play the piano well is matched by his ability to lip sync badly to Italian lines dubbed by someone else. (Well, even the Italian actors weren’t spared. Weren’t all Italian films like this back then? Even Fellini’s?) When he witnesses a psychic being brutally murdered, he runs to her apartment to rescue her but fails to do so. Earlier in the day, she was giving a seminar on telepathy and sensed an evil presence in the auditorium. Someone (or something) wanted her dead. Marcus is questioned by the police and his statement taken down.
The actor who plays the cop investigating this case seems to have mastered the art of chewing a sandwich and articulate his lines at the same time. (Again, bad dubbing.) Marcus is not hero material but curiosity gets the better of him and so he decides to investigate. He is so good at this that we not only wonder why he became a pianist but also why the sandwich-eating cop has to be there in this story at all. Someone else is curious too — a sassy and good-looking female reporter Gianna (played by Daria Nicolodi, who was Argento’s partner at the time). It’s their scenes that provide the occasional comic relief. Marcus’ issues with her stupid vintage car, her attempts to get him to sleep with her and their discussions on gender equality etc. provided some lighthearted fun. Marcus seems to recollect a painting that he chanced upon during the inspection of the psychic’s apartment and thinks this is one of the clues that would solve the identity of the mystery killer. With the help of the victim’s colleagues, he starts digging for potential clues. Marcus’ actions tick the killer off and as a result of this, the body count starts to increase. His investigation leads him to a haunted house, which he hopes will provide all the answers.
Deep Red is the other well-received film of Argento apart from Suspiria, which came out two years later. Argento has by now established himself as a master of the Italian giallo genre and this film is one of its fine examples. He makes effective use of innovative camera angles and extreme close-ups to induce a near claustrophobic experience. In some sequences, you feel as if someone is pushing your head from behind and forcing you to go through tight and narrow spaces. It’s as if the camera has achieved the ability to shrink. Brian De Palma has a similar style too and I also noticed Argento’s influence on David Fincher’s films. The film manages to scare you on a psychological level and makes you edgy with its eerie and disturbing imagery. Argento heightens the tension by playing with lights, shadows, ambient noises and a jarring score. There is enough gore to satisfy any horror aficionado and the film seems to be aptly titled as there is ample use of the color red. It may not be “high art” but it’s a chillingly effective and unpredictable film regardless.