Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Deep Red (Profundo Rosso)



(Profondo Rosso) : Italy 1975 : Dario Argento : 85-120m

Deep Red marks a crucial transition in Argentos career: a move away from conventional giallo mystery-thrillers into more a more experimental mix of art film and splatterfest horror. While the results are often messy, not just in terms of onscreen bloodshed, this is the most fascinating kind of failure, a necessary stepping-stone to his masterpiece, Suspiria.

Waving farewell to giallo, Argento pushes the genre to its limits, piling up spectacular murder sequences around a confusing tale of madness, violence and revenge. Marc (David Hemmings), a jazz pianist and composer, witnesses the murder of Helga (Macha Meril), a psychic who’d previously detected the presence of a twisted mind during a public display of paranormal powers. Though Marc can’t recall seeing the assailants face, he knows he saw something vital – vital enough to attract the attention of the police, shapely journalist Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), and the killer.

In Deep Red, everything is taken to extremes – to the edge of parody. Viewers of the two-hour version may be surprised by the amount of comedy sprinkled among the shock-filled suspense – there can be few non-spoof thrillers with so much broad humour. Argento never tires of gags involving Giannas wonky old car – its defective passenger-seat drops Hemmings down almost to the floor. Everything involving Gianna is played for laughs, right from her absurdly perky entrance, flouncing into the crime-scene at Helgas flat with a cheap flash-camera.

But there’s a point behind everything Argento does: the car-seat slapstick ties in with the serious theme of weak masculinity cowed by dominant women Marc, who regards the case as a challenge to [his] memory, turns out as useless an investigator as Hemmings Thomas back in Antonionis Blow Up.

Nevertheless, many viewers will find Deep Red suffering from wild tonal shifts between laughs and shudders. Its hard to laugh when we’ve just watched a mans head bashed in on the corners of a desk, or a woman scalded to death by being dunked in a red-hot bath (as another critic rather mildly put it, pretty harsh.)

Argento doesn’t need to strain for comic effects – he’s amusing enough when he’s being ostensibly serious. The script is dotted with his trademark deadpan absurdities: at the paranormal display, a professor notes telepathy is common among butterflies, termites, zebras Zebras?! Much of Deep Red operates on this nonsensical plane. Argento and his co-scriptwriter Bernardino Zapponi have cited the old chestnut about attempting to replicate the disorienting craziness of nightmare – with most directors, this is a weak, catch-all defence. But Argento justifies it with the breathtaking audacity of his outrageous ingenuities.

During one tense killer-stalking-prey sequence, a door flies open and in strides a child-sized, cackling robotic dummy: this gadget makes no rational sense, and adds nothing to the plot, but it isn’t half disturbing not to mention entertaining. When Deep Red is good, as here, its great: Argento does some staggering things with the camera, including hyper-real closeups of bizarre knick-knacks in the killers lair.

But when its bad, it can be murder. Even worse than the unwelcome comic relief, Argentos pacing deserts him around the middle, allowing ones mind to drift and pick apart what is, beneath all the virtuouso visuals, a pretty basic plot. As Gianna remarks during a moment of crisis, All this for a lousy story.

Its always best to give Argento the benefit of the doubt, however, and he does know exactly what he’s doing. The film opens with Marc interrupting a rehearsal and asking the musicians to be Less formal it should be more trashy. As Deep Red oscillates between extremes, its understandable that the rough edges occasionally get out of hand. The eclectic score music is generally superb, a radical departure from familiar usual horror-movie music – the way its deployed when Marc and Gianna wordlessly explore a spooky old school is nothing short of brilliant. But the improvisations veer self-indulgently haywire when Marc visits a haunted house, the soundtrack erupting into incongruous, woozy electronica.

Theres much that doesn’t work in Deep Red and it can be, on first viewing, difficult to sit through for several reasons. But stick with it: the climax is simply sensational, much better seen than described. Theres a long, conspicuously music-free tracking shot, then a cut to a final freeze frame. This reviewer defies anyone watching on video (or DVD) to resist immediately rewinding and marvel at the sequence a second time. Critics and aspiring directors will be in danger of wearing out the tape. The preceding two hours unevenness is swept away by a stunning display of cinematic bravado. Only a genius could do it only, in fact, Dario Argento.

24th July, 2001
(seen on DVD, Jul-22-01)

by Neil Young
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