When Dario Argento made Deep Red in 1975, most horror fans got to see a cut down version, exported to the foreign market with hefty cuts to the characterisation. Now, forty years later, the film has been lovingly restored to its full running time of just over two hours, and a brand spanking new blu-ray release that allows us to look again, at what many consider to be the finest example of the Italian slasher genre known as 'giallo'. So, is this intact version of Deep Red the great masterpiece of Italian horror many proclaim it to be?
David Hemmings plays an American living in Rome who witnesses the gruesome murder of his psychic neighbour (yes, she kind of did see it coming) and, convinced that there's a clue locked away in his memory of the event, sets out to investigate what's going on. Along the way, he has a relationship with a feisty journalist who is investigating the crime, watches the Italian police force do very little, and manages to be present as other characters meet grizzly ends. By the climax, the wandering plot comes to a conclusion. Of sorts.
Argento's style takes some getting used to. Plot is secondary to technique, visuals and theatricality. Indeed the film astounds with its camera work, its jump cuts, its extreme close ups. Even the opening credits get interrupted for a brief prologue before resuming again, and he uses an almost imperceptible technique, which is very unnerving – the lights on a set going out just before we fade to black. It's an odd touch but a genius one. Hence, some have suggested that Argento is a cinematic poet. But for every Milton there are a thousand crap limericks.
The pace feels uneven and there's little sense of tension or fear. Partly it's because of the bizarre music, much of it by the group Goblin, which comes across like outtakes from the soundtrack to The Italian Job, making a walk down a dark corridor as threatening as an episode of Loose Women. The film can be enormously atmospheric – Rome seems to be sparsely populated only by people who stand around like showroom dummies – but it's ruined by scenes of almost farcical comedy and behaviour of huge horror film stupidity, for example when a woman finds sinister dolls hanging in the room she's just stepped out of, she locks the door and stays inside where the killer clearly must still be rather than running like hell.
Argento's usual themes of gender politics, male emasculation, female emancipation run throughout, bringing depth to a plot lacking in surprises, and sterling work by Carlo Rambaldi, who just a few years later would bring us CE3K's Puck and the Alien, makes the not very frequent gore shocking. But Deep Red too seldom reaches the poetic heights it aspires to. For that, see Argento's later Suspiria and see what a poet really can do.
DEEP RED / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: DARIO ARGENTO / SCREENPLAY: DARIO ARGENTO, BERNARDINO XAPPONI / STARRING: MACHA MERIL, DAVID HEMMINGS, DARIA NICOLODI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW