- Monthly Theme: Giallo
- The Film: Deep Red
- Country of origin: Italy
- Italian title: Profondo Rosso
- Alternate title: The Hatchet Murders (censored version)
- Date of Italian release: March 7, 1975
- Date of U.S. release: June 11, 1976
- Studio: Rizzoli Film & Seda Spettacoli
- Distributer: Howard Mahler Films (dubbed)
- Domestic Gross: $629,000
- Budget ?
- Director: Dario Argento
- Producers: Claudio & Salvatore Argento
- Screenwriters: Dario Argento & Bernardino Zapponi
- Adaptation? No
- Cinematographer: Luigi Kuveiller
- Make-Up/FX: Germano Natali & Carlo Rambaldi
- Music: Goblin & Giorgio Gaslini
- Part of a series? No.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Italian horror starts Daria Nicolodi (Suspiria, Phenomena, etc.), Gabriele Lavia (Beyond the Door, Inferno, etc.) and Nicoletta Elmi (The Night Child, Flesh for Frankenstein, etc.).
- Other notables? Yes. British actor David Hemmings.
- Awards? Best Director at the 1976 Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival.
- Tagline: “Flesh ripped clean to the bone… And the blood runs red…”
- The Lowdown: Deep Red is considered to be one of Argento’s crowning achievements and, perhaps, the classic giallo movie that exemplies everything the genre is about. The movie is about Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), an English ex-pat living in Italy and teaching piano at a music conservatory, who witnesses a horrible murder. He joins forces with an intrepid reporter (Daria Nicolodi) in order to discover the killer’s identity and motives.
If you haven’t seen Deep Red, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: I was a little disappointed by Deep Red. Going in and knowing it was considered to be one of Argento’s “masterpieces,” I think I expected more.
Sean: I was afraid that might happen. Especially since we’ve already watched The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (which is essentially Argento’s early run-through of his approach to this kind of material, where he’s discovering the themes and techniques he employs in Deep Red). I thought that you might see this and think, Why is this a big deal? Do you agree that this movie and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage have an awful lot in common?
Kristine: Absolutely. I especially noticed the similarities during the conversation between Carlo and Marcus right after Helga’s murder, where Marcus is struggling to understand his own recollections of the crime scene. The instability of memory and consciousness are pet themes in most of the Argento movies we’ve watched – both Sam in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suzy in Suspiria struggle with remembering and interpreting what they have seen, because in both cases there is some repressed meaning that they’re struggling to uncover. Carlo talks about this stuff openly in Deep Red. He tells Marcus, ““Look, maybe you’ve seen something so important that you can’t realize it. You know, sometimes what you actually see and what you imagine get mixed up in your memory like a cocktail from which you can no longer distinguish one flavor from another. You think you’re telling the truth, but in fact you’re only telling your version of the truth.” Isn’t that sort of the perfect thesis statement for what Argento’s movies are about?
Sean: Hell yes. That idea that perception and imagination bleed into one another is very Argentoesque. Argento’s protagonists are always trying to sort memory from invention, truth from illusion. This is what makes his movies so Freudian. He’s obsessed with layers of consciousness and the weird, hazy barriers between our conscious minds, our unconscious minds, and some – usually occult – superconsciousness that our minds overlap with. That’s why there’s so many psychics and clairvoyants in his movies – they are figures who can transgress those barriers and retrieve information that our conscious minds don’t usually have access to. I think it’s significant that Giordani, this movie’s RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority], is both a professor in Psychiatry and an enthusiast of parapsychology. That’s a very Argento archetype, because science and the paranormal are always overlapping in his movies.
Kristine: For sure.
Sean: My own experience of re-watching Deep Red this time was that I still found the good parts to be fantastic, but there’s a lot more filler than I remembered. Do you agree with that?
Kristine: I do agree and I was irritated by the movie’s overuse of red herrings. I also do not approve of mysteries that really don’t give the viewer a fair chance to put the clues together and guess at the correct identity of the killer. However, I do approve of Olga, in all ways and for all reasons.
Sean: I fucking love Olga.
Kristine: Love her.
Kristine: Oh my god, I forgot about that.
Sean: The pin through the lizard?
Kristine: That creepy smile?
Sean: She’s amazing. What did you think about Gianna? She’s played by Daria Nicolodi, mother to Asia Argento, who also played the killer in Phenomena. She actually met and became involved with Argento through making this movie.
Kristine: I wanted to like Gianna, but she was really irritating.
Sean: Dropping the picture of Marcus’s girlfriend in the wastebasket and being like, “Bye bye!”
Kristine: Why is she in instant, obsessive love with wet dishrag Marcus?
Sean: Marcus is disgusting.
Kristine: I loathe him.
Sean: Do you know what that actor who played Marcus would have been best known for at the time this movie came out?
Kristine: That Antonioni piece of Eurotrash, Blowup.
Sean: Right. His melted Paul McCartney-on-acid face? And his limp-wristed sexism?
Kristine: My boyfriend also said he was a Paul McCartney. Marcus was just so stupid. I didn’t care about him at all, which did not help my enjoyment of the movie. Tony Musante was a much more charming protagonist in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Did Marcus’s vocation as a pianist matter to the plot at all?
Sean: I have a lot to say about the movie and him and his piano playing, but can we talk about what we did like first?
Kristine: My favorite setpiece in the movie is, obviously, the decapitation-via-elevator-and-diamond-necklace. I mean, that was insane and brilliant and amazing.
Sean: Agreed. Though I think I was more awestruck by the murder of Giordani, with that insane mechanical child’s doll bumrushing him and then his teeth being smashed against the mantle and the edge of the table.
Kristine: That doll was terrifying.
Sean: Don’t you think that doll is the inspiration for the stupid Jigsaw doll in the Saw movies?
Kristine: Jigsaw doesn’t do it justice.
Sean: In reference to the murder of Giordani, I kept wrestling with the Deep Red‘s attitude towards gender and queerness and stuff. Giordani’s murder felt like a significant moment where the RIMA is destroyed on-screen for our pleasure. That felt subversive to me.
Kristine: The RIMA is no match for full-on female homicidal madness.
Sean: Well, right?
Kristine: Right. What about the brutal murder of Helga, all the slices to her flesh, ending with her impaled on the shattered window (which, visually, reminded me of the very first murder in Phenomena and, also, the lesbian’s elaborate death scene in Suspiriawhere she plunges through the glass ceiling)?
Sean: I also loved the final moments where Marcus realizes that he didn’t see a picture in Helga’s apartment, he saw a mirror with Martha’s reflection in it. I loved that. I loved all of Martha.
Kristine: Agreed. That final moment of remembering was scary.
Sean: It was. I was also creeped out by the story of “The House of the Screaming Child.” This time around, I was really fascinated by how the movie is all about stories within stories, and rooms within rooms within walls. These elaborate Freudian metaphors for repression. When Marcus breaks open the wall of the old Gothic house and finds the murdered father’s body. That felt like an epic moment. I also loved and was unnerved by the child’s doggerel tune that plays before every murder.
Kristine: I agree with all that. All the interiors were great, all the murders were great. We haven’t even mentioned the murder by scalding. That was fucked. But… I hate to be a picker of nits, but how is it that Martha has superhuman strength when she is in killer mode? She can really hold a struggling adult’s head under water with one hand?
Sean: That’s just one of those inconsistencies in the plot that you have to just go with.
Kristine: It is an example of weak masculinity versus superhero female strength. I have another one: how Marcus is knocked out cold by a tiny tap to the head in the mansion, and then when he wakes up Gianna has somehow located him amongst a raging fire and dragged him to safety hundreds of feet away, outdoors, while wearing stockings, a skirt and heels.
Sean: Well this is where Argento flirts with undermining some of Marcus’s male chauvinism. Marcus insists that “women are delicate, fragile.” Yet the movie asserts again and again that Gianna is physically stronger than Marcus (the arm wrestling, the rescue from the Gothic mansion).
Kristine: Argento wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to play with the gender dynamics between Gianna and Marcus, but still have her be this lovelorn little thing who exists only to aid and abed Marcus’ personal growth.
Sean: Agreed. And that idea that women can possess physical strength but still be inferior to men is embodied by Martha, the killer. But that doesn’t make her transgressions any less delightful or provocative. Like that moment when Martha breaks into Marcus’ apartment and whispers, in her androgynous murder voice, “I’ll kill you sooner or later!” to him through the door.
Kristine: That was great. As was how Argento performs this creepy re-staging of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in the street scenes outside of the Blue Bar right before Helga’s murder. I don’t know why Argento did it, but I loved it.
Sean: I didn’t catch that reference at all, but of course you’re right.
Kristine: Are we to assume that self-loathing Carlo is a closeted homosexual (and alcoholic) because he was deeply traumatized by witnessing his mother kill his father? Or is he a homo because his mother dressed him in strappy patent leather pumps and an orange bow tie with pom-poms? Either way, it’s problematic.
Sean: Oh my god, right?
Sean: Carlo’s status as the tragic, self-destructive homosexual was really weird. The movie tries to play it like Carlo is clearly this broken, pitiable thing, but then it really plays up the homoerotic tension between Carlo and Marcus to titillate us. When Carlo pushes Marcus up against the wall and shoves a cigarette into his mouth and Marcus says, ““I have an attraction to madmen. I can’t help it. I have a morbid fascination for them”?
Kristine: For sure. There was way more sexual attraction betwixt Marcus and Carlo then Marcus and Gianna, with her Kerry Von Erich hairdo. Also, Marc’s complete fascination with Carlo’s lover, the transvestite. His staring eyes? I couldn’t shake the suggestion that Carlo and Marcus are attracted to the ‘dark,’ deviant side of human nature, like, GASP, homosexuality, because they are damaged boys. Which I hated. And then the movie dispenses with Carlo in a brutal, horrible fashion.
Sean: I was just going to say, Carlo’s death scene is like, the ghost of a thousand lynch-mobs and Matthew Shepard-esque murders.There is so much sadism in that death scene. It’s like, Argento is motivated to include queers in his movies, but he winds up ridiculing them. Remember Ursula Andress, the cross-dressing prostitute in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? Even though Argento casts a female actor to play the role of Carlo’s lover, he is still playing with and scrambling gender stuff and the “rules of attraction.” Which is cool. But then I was offended when Gianna says she doesn’t have a boyfriend and Marcus jokes, “Me neither” and she’s like, “I should hope not!” I was like, What the f does that mean? “I should hope not?” Really?
Kristine: Yes, Gianna is a problem. She is set up as a kind of feminist hero, but then spoils it with her homophobic remarks and obsessive insta-love of Marcus, which is based on nothing.
Sean: Yeah, even though she beats him in arm wrestling, she’s still sort of an asshole.
Sean: She’s the OG Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Kristine: Yeah, for sure. Quirky car and all.
Sean: I sort of love her naff hair and over-eyelinered eyes.
Kristine: I couldn’t with the hair. Eyeliner = red herring.
Sean: So, can we talk about some of Argento’s patterns? And how they are and are not Hitchcockian?
Sean: Remember at the beginning of the movie when we first see Marcus leading his horrible jazz band practice? And he insists that the music should be “trashier, less formal” because it’s the kind of jazz that comes out of “the brothels”? I saw that as a meta-comment on Argento’s relationship to Hitchcock. That he is saying, my movies are like classic shit, but trashier. It’s a manifesto, a declaration of trash.
Kristine: Also, Marcus is an interloper. He is slumming, right?
Sean: What do you mean, slumming?
Kristine: He’s an intellectual trying to be authentic by ‘acting trashy.’
Sean: All of his shit about “I am an artiste with an artistic temperament” had me vomiting.
Kristine: Oh I know. I hate Marcus. Remember when Carlo gives some speech about how Marcus is bourgeois and Carlo is the real deal?
Sean: I was interested in that moment. The idea that the proletariat is a self-destructive, de-masculinized queer, but the bourgeois is barely masculine himself.
Kristine: I felt like it was a significant statement about appropriating actual pain for art, but I am not sure I totally grasped it.
Sean: The movie is all about a crisis of masculinity, no? Martha is the insane, mythopoetic figure of female madness (like one of the Furies or the Maenads) that strikes out and destroys the father-figure, which sends the whole cosmos of the movie into chaos and crisis.
Kristine: But Martha is also right, no? Her (ugly) husband is sending her off to the loony bin. And remember that she complains that he made her give up her career. That suggests that her madness might come from the loss of her career and her identity outside of the marriage.
Sean: Aren’t we supposed to see Carlo’s dad as perfectly reasonable, offering the help of psychiatry to Martha? And her violent rejection of it as monstrous?
Kristine: I don’t know, I thought his “offer” of the hospital to Martha was at least partially menacing.
Sean: Weird, I thought it was portrayed as reasonable and Martha as wild and impulsive and scary. What about that moment when Marcus uncovers the mummified body of the patriarch, hidden behind the walls of the Gothic mansion? Didn’t you see that as an intentional reversal and subversion of the reveal of Mrs. Bates’ body at the end of Psycho?
Kristine: Oh, definitely. Sean, did your mom ever put you in little boy suit with short pants, strappy leather shoes and orange pom-pom bow tie?
Sean: It is entirely possible. The very first thing we see in the movie are Carlo’s Mary Janes and stockings, and we’re meant to think they’re the legs of a little girl, right?
Kristine: So, Carlo loves transvestites because he was an early cross-dresser?
Sean: No, nothing that schematic. Just that from the very first moment, the movie is scrambling gender cues. That the disruption of the father’s murder is somehow connected to those scrambled cues.
Kristine: What did you think of Carlo’s drawing?
Sean: Lame and ridiculous. It reminded me of the killer’s painting in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Kristine: I love Olga recreating it and pinning it to her wall, and her Dad being scared of her.
Sean: Oh, Olga’s perverse fascination with violence is really awesome.
Sean: I thought the Olga/father pair was meant to recreate and mirror the Martha/Martha’s hubby pair from the backstory – a “reasonable” paternal figure who is menaced by perverse femininity.
Kristine: Oh, interesting. So the thesis statement here is, basically, ‘Bitches be crazy’?
Kristine: I didn’t buy Marcus’s detective work, tracking down Amanda Righetti, the writer lady, and the crumbling mansion (the original crime scene). Did you love when one of the birds flew into Amanda Righetti’s knitting needle? Because I loved that.
Sean: Another Hitchcock shout-out, with that bird-impaling.
Sean: So random and so weird. The role of Amanda Righetti and her book of urban legends, Ghosts of Today and Legends of the Modern Age, really fascinated me. How the movie is interested in these textual bodies like Righetti’s book and Helga’s writings (that the killer murders her for). Remember also that Helga’s writing is all about the attempt to define/identify the psychology of the killer. Remember she tells us, ““I have entered into contact with a perverse mind!” That encounter with female psychosis is overwhelming to her, and she has to turn to written language in order to try and make sense of it. She tells Giordani, “On stage I couldn’t express all the thoughts and sensations crowding my mind, but I’ll write them all down tonight.” That attempt to use written language to catalogue the killer’s psychosis is a threat to Martha, who must kill Helga and destroy her writings in order to keep her identity a secret. So Martha – who is primarily visual – triumphs over Helga, who is textual.
Kristine: Yeah, good point. It’s also noteworthy that Helga’s encounter with Martha’s “perverse mind” is described in highly gendered terms that suggest rape and violation. Helga says that hearing Martha’s thoughts is like “something strange and sharp like a knife entering my flesh” and “like a thorn piercing my brain.” Martha’s very consciousness is phallic to Helga. Later, Helga’s use of metaphor becomes literal – Martha plunges a hatchet into Helga’s flesh. Plus, most of the ladies in the movie are literary, even more so than Helga. The journalist (Gianna), the published author (Righetti)… Whereas the men are all non-literary artistes.
Sean: Yes, and remember that Gianna wants to break out of reporting on the environment and into ‘real’ journalism. Then Marcus lies to one of the gardeners that he’s doing environmental studies as an architect, that’s why he’s inquiring about the rare trees. Another doubling of Gianna and Marcus. Plus, like Martha, Gianna’s a phallic woman. Remember when she first meets Marcus and takes his photo, we are suddenly in her point-of-view, looking through the viewfinder and Marcus is there, contained within the frame of the camera, controlled and fetishized by Gianna. I was really reminded of Peeping Tom in that moment, and the inherent sadism of the camera as a mode of representation.
Kristine: There’s so much gender ambiguity/doubling/blurring in this movie.
Sean: Also, it is the rare tree that leads Marcus to the right location where he can solve the mystery. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the bird was the thing that led the male hero to the answers – so this is another trope of Argento’s, that the natural world often provides clues that point the way to the mystery (like the flower that Suzy has to turn to access the Grand Witch’s secret chamber in Suspiria).
Kristine: Right, right.
Sean: Argento has this weird fascination with Nature being uncanny or paranormal. At the Parapsychology Conference at the beginning of the movie, Giordani tells the audience that butterflies, termites and zebras use telepathy to transmit orders and relay information. A caged butterfly will surround itself with other butterflies that it summons from miles around (Argento would revisit these ideas years later with Phenomena).
Kristine: I still can’t with insect telepathy in Phenomena. I don’t know. Maybe the idea is that the natural world is correct and perfect and it’s humans that are perverse and damaged (like the poor souls in Hopper’s Nighthawks).
Sean: Yeah, because remember that Helga also explains that infants also have these telepathic abilities, but verbal communication drives it away.
Sean: So, language is this ordered system that represses/destroys these primal powers. Thus, the textual bodies are ‘problems’and Marcus and Carlo’s free-jazz is the ‘real’ art form.
Kristine: Marcus is struggling to go back to that ‘pure’ form of expression: music.
Sean: And since we’ve already noted that several of the women in the movie are marked as literary, if language and the written word are problems, then so are these literary women (both of whom are stabbed, one of them fatally).
Kristine: Yes. Also, if music and imagery is true and pure and primal art (as opposed to the overly ordered, overly controlling systems of language and writing) then that makes the murderer’s madness sort of noble and beautiful, right? Because Martha plays that creepy child’s music at the scene of every murder, and her insanity is depicted visually, never textually. Like how she herself is mistaken by Marcus as a painting, or the violent imagery hidden beneath the paint at the Gothic mansion (the same imagery that Olga copies down and fetishizes). In fact, remember that Martha covers her apartment in pictures of herself as a young and beautiful actress. She’s visually fixated.
Sean: Remember that scene of Marcus trying to compose, when the killer infiltrates the apartment and threatens him? That act of composing is, for Argento, “real” artistry. Something that defies language and ordered systems, that is primal and subconscious (very David Lynch).
Kristine: Agreed. I, too, loved when he was cowering behind the door and needs Gianna to save him. Marcus will never get there, artistically, in my opinion.
Sean: Carlo? Is he a real artist?
Kristine: I think the movie says that Carlo is a real artist. But, thus, doomed.
Sean: He’s the one who is playing at the Blue Bar every night, while Marcus sits in his dumb apartment struggling to compose.
Sean: I just want to point out Argento’s obsession with color, and the very basic dichotomy between reds and blues that the movie explores, from the Blue Bar as this improvisational place to the final (I think, amazing) image of Marcus transfixed, staring into the “deep red” pool of blood from Martha’s decapitation, seeing his own image reflected back at him, like the repressed memory of Martha in the mirror.
Kristine: Yes to that. I, also, am still transfixed by Martha’s decaptiation… Jesus Christ.
Sean: Those kinds of bizarro, bonkers death scenes are what Argento excels at.
Kristine: So, does blue represent masculinity and rationality, while red is female irrationality?
Sean: That sounds about right.
Kristine: Speaking of female irrationality, did you like the seashell-and-star-of-David motif in Helga’s apartment decor?
Sean: The lesbian who is murdered in Suspiria also had a seashell motif bathroom.
Kristine: Lady zone.
Kristine: Yep. So Deep Red means that ladies are going at it full tilt.
Sean: Deep Red = menses. Interiority.
Kristine: Bleeding seashells.
Sean: Soft, squishy insides. Both physical and psychic/psychological.
Kristine: Oozing pathos.
Sean: Something I realized by watching this back-to-back with The Lodger is that both Hitchcock and Argento are obsessed with fetish objects, and how psychosis and madness are defined by the act of fetishization. From the killer’s fixation on blonde hair in The Lodger to all of Martha’s little fetish toys in Deep Red: marbles, a miniature basinet, a naked baby doll, a yarn person run through with needles, a devil figure, an armored statue holding a sword, a series of knives…
Kristine: Oh, good point. I laughed out loud at those ominous marbles of doom. But remember when Giordani gives his big speech about the killer’s psychology? That reminded me a lot of the psychiatrist’s monologue from the end of Psycho. Giordani diagnoses Martha as a paranoid schizophrenic who “must recreate these specific conditions which will trigger the release of all his madness. A particular time of day, a particular day of the week, even clothing. Something that recreates the same images that, in the past, were the occasional frame of his provoking trauma.” It’s Argento’s manifesto of fetishization. And I think it’s significant that it’s all about how these fetish objects “trigger” repressed trauma from the past.
Sean: The movie’s most elegant metaphor for the trauma narrative is the folk story told in Amanda Righetti’s book, which is all about how a place can become imprinted with the psychic energy of a traumatic event. This is where Argento goes full Gothic. The folk story concerns a haunted house from which the neighbors “could sometimes hear singing like this little song – the book suggested an act of bloodshed has once taken place in this house.” That repressed and traumatic act of bloodshed – that’s what this movie is about. That’s the Deep Red, the act of violence that is so shocking and so traumatizing that it seeps deep, deep down into the consciousness, that permeates the mind of those people who bore witness to it.
Kristine: Right, which clarifies the difference between Carlo and Marcus. Carlo is the screaming child from “The House of the Screaming Child.” He’s the one who has been stained by past trauma. Marcus has no trauma. He’s the investigator, who operates at a safe remove. He’s normal. Carlo’s homosexuality, in Argento’s hands, is just another “deep red” stain in Carlo’s psychology.
Sean: What did you think of the naked baby doll in the noose in the Righetti’s apartment?
Kristine: To be honest, the menacing, decrepit baby doll thing has been so overdone that it is a cliché. But not so in 1975, so I’ll give Argento a pass.
Sean: When Righetti finds that naked baby doll in the noose, I asked my boyfriend, “Is 1994 Courtney Love hiding in her apartment right now?” and we died laughing. I did like how the baby doll’s head popping off foreshadowed Martha’s decapitation.
Kristine: Oh, good point. I missed that. I liked how all the deaths (except for Carlo, which was not at Martha’s hands) happened in domestic spaces, with domestic weapons – cleaver from the kitchen drawer, scalding water from the bath. Female spaces, right?
Sean: Yes. And Giordani’s death was awesomely anti-patriarchal. Remember how Carlo had said that playing the piano was like tickling the body of a beautiful woman? But Marcus tells Gianna that it’s like smashing the teeth of his father? So we’re meant to read Giordani as the symbolic daddy-figure in that death scene, getting his teeth smashed in. Martha is the force that acts out all of Marcus’s repressed patricidal fantasies.
Kristine: Yes. I still have images of that goddamn mechanical doll in my head…
Sean: That doll is awesomely creepy.
Kristine: I am pretty sure that doll lives on the second floor of one of the antique stores in Bisbee, AZ.
Sean: Or perhaps it is watching you right now, hiding somewhere in your house.
Sean: So for as problematic as Gianna was, she had one line that made me laugh. When she’s lying there, after having been stabbed, and she says, “All this for some shitty article!”
Kristine: Remember Marcus whining about the rules and cheating when she keeps beating him at arm wrestling?
Sean: He is such a turd. What about when they hear Helga’s scream and Carlo is like, Maybe some lady is being raped. And then he says, “I drink to you, deflowered virgin!”
Kristine: That was really, really weird.
Sean: So weird.
Kristine: I mean, I don’t get why this is considered Argento’s masterpiece over Suspiria. I mean, this had some awesome deaths…
Kristine: Good. I liked Suspiria way more. I liked the dark fantasy/fairy tale elements and the lack of Marcus.
The Girl’s Rating: Batshit insanity AND Daddy dramz! AND Totally disgusting AND Serves as a testament to why Saw is such a shitty movie
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Stylistic triumph AND Mamma mia! AND Neo-Hitchcockian gorgeousness