Deep Red Review
This new release of Deep Red from Arrow Video is strikingly similar to their last one. That already seemed like a definitive edition, plus its design fitted on the shelf really neatly as one of a series. So is it worth upgrading, especially if you're one of the nerdier collectors like me, wrestling with the trauma of spoiling your shelves?
In a nutshell, yes, absolutely, find somewhere for this to fit. The extras are the same as before (but for a new video essay, plus an Italian/English hybrid soundtrack) as are the two versions of the film: the Director's Cut and the shorter Export cut. Both though are brand new transfers and they look stunning. They actually make the last transfers look rather poor.
Newcomers to the film are in for an extraordinary treat. Deep Red is an audacious and eccentric horror classic. Director Dario Argento has had a career of varied success, but his early Giallo find him at the height of his talent, making films that define much of what we understand about modern horror.
Argento takes inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock, albeit with more overt themes of sexuality. This description could also apply to Brian De Palma; Deep Red shares the disturbing sense of perversion that so identified Dressed To Kill five years later. Argento’s film was surely an influence, as so it must also have been on John Carpenter.
The film stars David Hemmings (Blow Up) as pianist Marcus Daly, who witnesses a vicious murder. He cannot resist investigating for himself, but soon becomes a target of the killer. With help from reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) who wants to get a scoop on the case, he uncovers clues to the murderer's disturbing childhood.
This was a recurring idea of Hitchcock’s; the normal guy drawn into a murder mystery, something Argento has used several times. Hitchcock also often had a theatrical theme, which Deep Red uses literally. Following a brief and disturbing opening image of murder during a Christmas scene (setting up a motif of childhood innocence and violence), we are pulled through heavy red curtains into a theatre. A psychic (Macha Méril) is on stage and senses the troubled mind of the killer amongst the audience. Her dialogue is part monologue, part exposition and all performance.
The film already has an air of the dramatic and will continue to do so throughout; barely controlled, yet all by design, with a delicious sense of macabre. Argento’s previous film, The Bird With Crystal Plumage, seems far more routine by comparison (excellent, nonetheless). Still his indulgence here isn't without precedent in Italian cinema. I recently wrote an article exploring Sergio Leone’s effect on Quentin Tarantino’s style; suggesting that Leone's approach was a mix of Realism and Hollywood romance into a method that was aware of the audience (Why we should indulge Quentin Tarantino).
Michael MacKenzie’s video essay demonstrates Argento was doing something similar, also with “narrative in service to spectacle” and “violence by numbers”, following a theory that the intricate set-pieces are the real film, similar to how a musical is really about the songs. The essay also considers that the camera is a character in itself.
You're never not aware of the camera's presence, in particular when used as the killer’s point of view shot, something taken for granted now. Peeping Tom was probably the first thriller to do that, but it was supported by the plot (Carl Boehm’s killer would film while using a camera tripod as a weapon). Black Christmas used it more casually in 1974, which Deep Red follows with another level of confidence altogether. The murder scenes are excessively violent. Not visually so by modern standards perhaps, but there is an inventive, almost fetish delight in despatching each victim. Eli Roth’s Hostel movies helped create the dismissive ‘Torture Porn’ term, but Argento shows how it should be done properly. He may love his set-pieces, but the rest of the film doesn't suffer.
He employs a Film Noir approach and his work has so much more integrity than the casual violence of later horror. His mise en scene is wonderful, every scene wrought for potential. Look out for the cafe modelled on Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting, also to be an influence on Blade Runner. Argento appears to approach composition like painter too; all the sets have striking colour design, complemented or contrasted by costume. The sound design is also exceptional; while alone in his apartment, David Hemmings plays his own suspense music!
Maybe the plot is secondary to the spectacle, but the spectacle is the real plot with much that can be learned about relationships of characters and their motives merely through the composition and design. It can be quiet, almost routine, but then switch to an assault on the senses, made even more potent by Goblin’s soundtrack.
Goblin have worked with Argento several times, perhaps most memorably on Suspiria. They are also well known for their score in Dawn of the Dead; they have a melody here that is just as much of an ear-worm as their zombie tune! In Deep Red they could be the undoing of the film if you don’t invest in the approach entirely. Occasionally it comes close to feeling dated by the music, a 70s funk beat feeling out of tone with the scenes of murder. But then again there is perhaps no better assurance of Argento’s confidence! Watching Deep Red is a singularly unique experience and I defy you not to be drawn in.
David Hemmings had a varied career (though a small role, Gladiator was the most recent thing he did prior to his death) and he is perfectly cast playing a typical Argento lead role (loner artist implicated in a murder he investigates himself). Perhaps the fact he is a calming British influence against all those rowdy Italians helps sell the film! His chemistry with the charming Daria Nicolodi is great fun, even more so in the director's cut.
Overall there is light, even naive tone. Another contrast in a film full of teasing contradiction. Maybe that’s why Argento’s symphony of violence is so enticing. Being disturbed shouldn't be this much fun.
Colour and contrast are excellent. Slightly soft, with a noticeable grain. By comparison, the previous release was over-sharpened and harsh. As with the best Blu-Ray transfers, it is hard to imagine the film looking much better.
The sound for Italian films of this era were typically recorded separately. Poor quality dubbing can undermine a great film and make it uncomfortable, but thankfully there is no such problem here. As can so often happen with restored work though, there is no perfect version available. The correct soundtrack is English, but it is only available on the shorter Export cut of the film (at least it is 5.1). The Director’s Cut was pieced together and so the only available audio is a dubbed Italian mono track. It’s perfectly watchable, just frustrating that it isn't as good as the Export audio, losing David Hemmings’ voice.
On this release Arrow have made an effort to address this with an Italian/English hybrid track. Wherever possible the cast will be heard speaking English. Considering the history of the film, this is very welcome and gives us the best possible choice.