Dario Argento's fifth film is perhaps the most famous giallo of them all, but in hindsight it emerges as a transitional effort. Bridging the gap between excellent but ultimately meat-and-potatoes gialli and the surreal fever dreams Argento directed in the late seventies and eighties, Deep Red (Profondo rosso) flirts with the supernatural without ever quite losing its mind in the manner of later films.
At a 'scientific' conference in Rome, Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) attempts to prove the existence of telepathy with the help of German medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril). The presentation goes awry, however, when Helga is overwhelmed by the evil presence of a murderer somewhere in the room. Disturbed, she returns home, but not before announcing that she knows the killer's identity, unaware the scoundrel is lurking in the shadows of the red-curtained theatre.
Cue the inevitable: Helga is murdered by a figure wearing a dark raincoat in a scene that pays homage to Hitchcock's Psycho, but plays Italian cinema's permissive attitude towards gore to the hilt. From the street below, the killing is witnessed by Marc Daly (David Hemmings), an English jazz pianist. Marc struggles to remember a painting he is convinced the murderer has removed from Helga's flat, while the police devote their time to mocking him for being a penniless artist instead of solving the case. He's aided in his investigation by his depressed alcoholic friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a self-proclaimed 'proletarian of the pianoforte' who performs for bored society types wearing 1920s fashions at a local bar. He also teams up with extroverted reporter Gianna Brezi (Daria Nicolodi), and the two begin an affair.
After remembering a children's song he heard during the murder, Marc is told about a book describing a past murder connected to the same piece of music. He tracks down the author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra), but the killer gets there first, stabbing Righetti in the spine and killing her by scalding her face in the bath, because in Italy the taps apparently run boiling water. (This death was ripped off, with similarly terrific make-up effects and preposterous logic, by Halloween II.) Marc is nevertheless able to identify the haunted house pictured in Righetti's book and goes to investigate...
Deep Red has a pretty terrific plot, but it's the central conceit I like best. The murder spree is kicked off by Helga's public telepathic discovery that somebody in the room has killed before; if it were not for that single coincidence, the past would have remained buried and the killer wouldn't have had to bump people off to protect his secret. It's much better than the standard 'psycho killers kill because they are mad, and also because of sexual perversion' the giallo favours, and it grounds the film psychologically even as Argento incorporates elements of the supernatural.
Then there's the fact that Argento is a stylist of genius: not as compelling in his use of colour and contrast as Mario Bava, but his eye for space, blocking, and utilising the frame surpasses that of the father of the giallo. And Deep Red doesn't disappoint. There are plenty of creepy props (terrifying children's dolls, dead birds, etc.), but the greatest scares are derived from the Baroque stylisation in Argento's arrangements, using his actors' faces to the greatest effect while creating plenty of negative and off-camera space where threats might lurk.
Where Bava made his way from Gothic horror to inventing the giallo, Argento moved from screenwriting to directing films in a subgenre that was already fully formed at the turn of the seventies. To the giallo at its height Argento brought a keen focus on the corruption of Italy's social elite: the side-by-side of luxury, high culture and murder - blood and art, blood as art - distinguishes his work. It's unsurprising, then, that Deep Red touches on controversial or risqué subjects like homosexuality, women's liberation (Marc is a fairly chauvinist hero), and the impact of politics on the police (who seem to be on strike when they're not busy bungling the investigation).
Beyond its focus on lurid subject matter, Deep Red is also really damn gory. Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve had opened the floodgates in that respect, but let it never be said Argento was not a keen student. With the brutal death of Righetti, mentioned above, special effects wizards Germano Natali and Carlo Rambaldi outdo themselves. Their work on other scenes - including an infamous decapitation - is less brutally realistic, but Argento more than picks up the slack with unflinching direction. When Giordani is repeatedly smashed face first into walls and sideboards we keep expecting Argento to cut away, but he never does.
It's not a perfect film: even in the Italian original there is plenty of irritating overdubbing, suggesting the director's dissatisfaction with some line readings. Then there is the soundtrack, which improbably seems to have a cult following. Argento fired composer Giorgio Gaslini half-way through the job and replaced him with musical collective Goblin. Their progressive rock score isn't bad per se, although it suggests Goblin spent too much time listening to Tubular Bells and In Search of Space. It's just not very giallo: I want screeching strings, damn it, not space rock.
But those flaws can't damage Deep Red's status as one of the best and arguably the most famous giallo. As a giallo with supernatural elements and a mid-point in Argento's oeuvre it isn't a great introduction to the subgenre: that honour belongs to the director's own Bird with the Crystal Plumage. But, importantly for a horror film, Deep Red is no less terrifying than it was in 1975. Gialli, after all, age more gracefully than slashers because of their psychological themes and the general lack of stupidity.