Deep Red is one of the few Argento movies that I’ve seen in a theater. I’m not sure what the audience expected, as it was on what was presented as a grindhouse night. I think they wanted something like the modern interpretation of the term, all fast moving action and laughs. I don’t think that many of them were happy with what they got from this film — a movie that started with a 500-page script that even Dario Argento’s family felt was too cryptic and continues with not just one, but two references to American painter Edward Hopper. This isn’t just a movie about murder. This is a movie that transforms murder into art.
The movie begins at Christmas, as two shadowy figures battle until one of them stabs the other. Screams ring out as a knife drops at the feer of a child.
Fast forward to Rome, as a medium named Helga Ulmann is conducting a lecture about her psychic powers. Within moments, she senses that one of the people in the theater is a killer. Later that night, that killer kicks in her front door and murders her with a meat cleaver (which is probably why this movie got the boring American title of The Hatchet Murders).
British musician Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, Barbarella, Blowup, Harlequin), who fits the giallo mold of the stranger in a strange land thrust into the middle of a series of murders that he must solve, is returning home from drinking with his gay best friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, Beyond the Door, Inferno) when he sees the murder that we’ve just witnessed from the street. He runs to save Helga, but she’s thrust through the window and her neck is pierced by the broken glass of her window in a kill that has become Argento’s trademark.
As he tells the police what has happened, he notices that a painting on Helga’s wall is gone. That’s when Gianna Brezzzi (Argento’s wife at the time, Dario Nicolodi, who met him during the filming of this movie) takes his photo, which ends up on the cover of the newspaper the very next day.
Unlike most giallo women, Gianna is presented as more competent and even stronger than our hero — she sits high above him in her Fiat 500 and continually bests Marcus every time they arm wrestle.
Marcus isn’t your typical hero, though. When the killer attacks him, he doesn’t stop them by daring or skill. He locks himself in his study to escape them. He does remember the song the killer played — we also have heard it when Helga is murdered — that psychiatrist (and Helga’s boyfriend) Professor Giordani believes is related to some trauma that motivates the killer.
Feeling guilty that she’s caused the killer to come after Marcus, Gianna relates an urban legend of a haunted house where the sounds of a singing child and screams of murder can be heard. The truth lies in House of the Screaming Child, a book written by Amanda Righetti, which tells the truth of the long-forgotten murder. Marcus and Gianna would learn even more, but the killer beats them to her house and drowns her in a bathtub of scalding hot water (directly influencing the murder of Karen Bailey in Halloween 2). As she dies, the writer leaves a message behind on the wall, which our heroes find. They’ve already assumed the investigation — again, in the giallo tradition — and think the police will assume that Marcus is the murderer, so they don’t report the crime.
Marcus follows the trail of the killer from a picture in the book to the real house, which has been abandoned since 1963. As he searches the home, he uncovers a child’s drawing of a murdered man and a Christmas tree, echoing the flashback that starts the film. Yet when he leaves the room, we see more plaster fall away, revealing a third figure.
Marcus tells his friend Carlos all that he’s learned, but his friend reacts in anger, telling him to stop questioning things and to just leave town with his new girlfriend. At this point, you can start to question Marcus’ ability as a hero — he misses vital clues, he hides instead of fighting and he can’t even tell that someone is in love with him.
Professor Giordani steams up the Righetti murder scene and sees part of the message that she left on the wall. That night, a mechanical doll is set loose in his office as the killer breaks in, smashing his teeth on the mantle and stabbing him in the neck.
Meanwhile, Marcus and Gianna realize that the house has a secret room, with Marcus using a pickaxe to knock down the walls, only to discover a skeleton and Christmas tree. An unseen person knocks our hero out and sets the house on fire, but Gianna is able to save him. As they wait for the police, Marcus sees that the caretaker’s daughter has drawn the little boy with the bloody knife. The little girl explains that she had seen this before at her school.
Marcus finds the painting at the young girl’s school and learns that Carlo painted it. Within moments, his friend turns up, stabs Gianna and holds him at gunpoint. The police arrive and Carlo flees, only to be dragged down the street and his head messily run over by a car.
With Gianna in the hospital and his best friend obviously the murder, Marcus then has the Argento-esque moment of remembering critical evidence: there’s no way Carlo could have killed the psychic, as they were together when they heard her screams. The portrait that he thought was missing from the apartment was a mirror and the image was the killer — who now appears in front of him.
The real killer is Martha (Clara Calamai, who came out of retirement for this role, an actress famous for her telefoni bianchi comedy roles), who killed Carlo’s father in the flashback we’ve seen numerous times after he tried to commit her. She chases Marcus with a meat cleaver, striking him in the shoulder, but he kicks her and her long necklace becomes caught in an elevator which beheads her. The film ends with the reflection of Marcus in the pool of the killer’s blood.
While this film feels long, it has moments of great shock and surprise, such as the two graphic murders that end the film and the clockwork doll. The original cut was even longer, as most US versions remove 22 minutes of footage, including the most graphic violence, any attempts at humor, any romantic scenes between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, and some of the screaming child investigation.
This is also the first film where Argento would work with Goblin. After having scored Argento’s The Five Days — a rare comedy — Giorgio Gaslini was to provide music for the film. Argento didn’t like what he did and attempted to convince Pink Floyd to be part of the soundtrack. After failing to get them to be part of Deep Red, Goblin leader Claudio Simonetti impressed the director by producing two songs in one night. They’d go on to not only write the music for this film, but also for plenty of future Argento projects.
A trivia note: Argento’s horror film museum and gift shop, Profondo Rosso, is named after the Italian title to this movie.
Deep Red is the bridge between Argento’s animal-themed giallo and supernatural based films. While its pace may seem glacial to modern audiences, it still packs plenty of moments of mayhem that approaches high art.
Want to see it for yourself? Sure, it’s on the Chilling Classics set, but for the best possible home experience, get the Arrow Video blu ray. You can also stream Deep Red on Shudder and Amazon Prime for free with your membership.