Monday, June 01, 2009

Film Review #198: Deep Red
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Clara Calamai

In the first scene after the opening titles of Italian horror master Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975), jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) stops the group of musicians he’s rehearsing and tells them they were great, maybe too great. He’d like it more “trashy,” since it’s music inspired by brothels. That they’re playing on the central altar of an ancient Roman church is a nice establishing touch.

Soon after, this ex-pat Englishman, who insists his hyper-alert “jumpiness” is only artistic temperament, becomes obsessed – like most Argento heroes – with an image he can’t quite recall or understand from the scene of a violent murder, in this case one he’s glimpsed through a window from the street below. (Hemmings, who starred as the photographer in Antonioni’s thematically similar but more well-behaved Blow-up a decade earlier, brings those rich echoes to this role.)

A little while later, the professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) – an associate of the initial victim, the “Lithuanian psychic” Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) who was also Daly’s neighbor – surmises that the murderer must cue himself with a certain piece of child-like music, evidently on cassette, to create the conditions of psychic release necessary for killing. It’s with a certain witty pleasure that one realizes Argento cues us musically too before each murder, with the progressive rock group Goblin’s score, but first visually with silent montages of empty hallways and corners where a killer might lurk. For that matter, there in the seat of Old World European culture – with its brooding cathedrals, halls of learned scholars, streets crammed with massive Renaissance-era sculptured fountains, and ornate old mansions – one need only scratch a little way beneath nearly any crumbling surface to find what’s beastly and what modern life’s advances can only tenuously, intermittently manage.

As represented by the arm-wrestling feminist reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s frequent lead, co-writer and mother of their force-of-nature daughter Asia) and her clunky jalopy, modern life survives, though barely. Seeking knowledge is dangerous and arriving too quickly – say, through telepathy like the luckless Helga – deadly.

Some call Deep Red Argento’s best film. He is not terribly concerned with credible narrative. Besides the eye-rolling coincidences, you’ll lose track of how many times you tell these people, “Don’t go back up there!” Our own stereotypes as much as Argento’s unfolding plot keep the killer secret for so long. Nor are his films really character-driven in the usual way, though certainly concerned with the psyche. Instead, Argento’s movies take us straight to cinema’s wild and mesmerizing heart, the moving image and the search it incites within us for what’s illusion and what’s real. In Deep Red this plays out largely in terms of appearance – from the transvestite Ricci (Geraldine Hooper), to Daly’s sudden flash of memory that his friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) was with him in the street during the murder, to Carlo’s mother Martha (former diva Clara Calamai, star of Visconti’s steamy 1942 Ossessione) and her wall-full of photos from her by-gone acting career. Luigi Kuveiller’s cinematography matches this, full of disorienting angles, meticulously composed frames, heart-stopping pans and high contrast. It may be trashy, but it's not accidental.

Deep Red (also Profondo Rosso and, in its heavily censored version, The Hatchet Murders) was a box office hit when it first came out during the hey-day of Italian giallo film (based on erotic horror pulp fiction) and has enjoyed numerous resurrections here and abroad. Re-released theatrically in the US in 1980, it went to video in 1991 and – part the larger surge in horror cinema that’s followed the World Trade Center attacks – has had five separate DVD editions in the US just since 2001.

Central New York has a large and literate audience for horror films, which also occupy a sizable share of local filmmaking, so it’s no wonder the Shaun Luu Horror Fest is in its fifth year, now with a full day of films and a second day devoted to live bands. Deep Red was a wonderful choice.

This review appears in the June 4, 2009 Syracuse City Eagle print edition & is posted on the paper's website at See Deep Red on the big screen in 35 mm next Saturday evening, June 13th, at the Eastwood Palace, 2384 James St. The Shaun Luu Horror Fest is a two-day fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society and Golisano Children’s Hospital that includes a day of music on Sunday across town at the Westcott Theater. Deep Red screens in the evening segment of adult programming (16 years and over) that starts at 5:00 PM, after local shorts and the feature Black Devil Doll. For the full line-up go to – click Entertainment.