There are some exceptional buildings and interior set pieces in this film – Helga Ulmann’s apartment, the houses of Amanda Righetti and Dr. Giordani, the old abandoned house and the Da Vinci School. The long hallways (often with doors lining both sides) and large spacious rooms (with lots of wardrobes and hiding places) ensure that Argento has plenty to work with, and the way the camera sweeps around the rooms, cutting between the focus on the character in danger, and the POV of the killer lurking in the shadows, creates near unbearable tension. This is the style Argento has been developing in each of his earlier films (with his debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage utilising it the best so far) but he masters it here in a new level of precision.
The film stars David Hemmings (Blowup) as Marcus Daly, a pianist and music teacher, who investigates the shocking murder of a psychic medium, after witnessing it from the street level late one night. Earlier in the evening, the psychic had stressed during her live reading that there was a figure in the room full of pure evil. A figure in the crowd stands up (presumably our killer) and goes to the bathroom, before lingering behind and following Helga home.
Ulmann lives in Daly’s apartment building, and though his desperate attempt to save her fails, he (like a number of Argento’s heroes before him) becomes obsessed with finding the murderer. Recognizing that a painting he had glimpsed on the way in had since vanished, and likely before the police had blocked off the room, Daly is convinced that it has significance. The killer strikes several times, eliminating people who have learnt something about their identity, but as Daly digs deeper into the complex web of affairs, he uncovers a sinister secret inside a deserted old house.
We are introduced to several other characters in the early going that play key roles throughout – Daly’s often-intoxicated friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), who may have seen the killer’s face on the night, Dr. Giordani (Glauco Mauri), who identifies that the murderer’s calling card (a child’s tune) may have played an integral role in their past, and Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), an attractive reporter who ends up assisting Daly with his investigation. There are some strong performances, especially from Hemmings, Nicolodi and Lavia.
But the reason Deep Red works so well is because of Argento’s style and willingness to take it to the next level when attempting to shock his audience. The killings are brutal, but they vary. A meat cleaver takes down the psychic, while another character meets their demise by being drowned in a bathtub full of scalding water. Another memorable scene plays out as many others have before, but this time there is an extraordinarily unsettling misdirection, which then allows the audience a brief relief, before laying on the horrors again.
There is a lengthy sequence quite a bit into the film where Hemmings’ character is exploring the old building (under torchlight of all things). He is just walking around – but because we have come expect that anything could happen, one holds their breath. The eerie house – which is one of the great horror set pieces, I think – is made to feel threatening, purely through Argento’s use of the camera. When Daly arrives, there is a shot from one of the high windows of the house. Is it a POV shot from someone watching him? It could be. We don’t know. We have to assume it is.
Deep Red’s wonderful score was composed and performed by Goblin (who would become Argento’s primary collaborators, following a disagreement with Ennio Morricone on Four Flies). Though Suspiria’s main theme is more memorable, perhaps, I don’t see how Goblin could ever again match this work again. Truly phenomenal. Deep Red is one of the most unsettling films I have ever experienced, and yes I have already seen Suspiria, but I think this might be the pinnacle of Dario Argento's career so far.
My Rating: A