Deep Red (US - BD RA)
Gabe has updated this review with comparison screencaps from the Blu-ray
It’s difficult to choose writer/director Dario Argento’s best film. On Argento’s strange and ambitious terms Suspiria is the obvious frontrunner, and it’s certainly the one film in his oeuvre that has had the longest lasting effect on cinema. But if we’re judging based on more conventional terms, like performance, screenwriting, direction, and cinematography, I’m thinking Deep Red (aka: Profondo Rosso) is the better choice. In fact, if we’re going to talk about the best Giallo (Italian murder mystery/stalk and slash thriller) of all time, I’m also going to pick Deep Red above all Argento’s other Gialli, all Sergio Martino’s Gialli, all Antonio Bido’s Gialli, all Lucio Fulci’s Gialli, and even all of Mario Bava’s Gialli. Deep Red embodies all of Argento’s defining tropes – an artistically inclined protagonist trips into the position of junior detective after coincidentally witnessing a murder (murder attempt), and is then targeted, along with his loved ones, by the killer (would-be killer) for extermination – and features plenty of ferocious, yet balletic violence. But Deep Red doesn’t sacrifice character relationships, comedy, or plot in telling its ostentatious and single minded mystery. Though I’m a huge proponent of the genre, I tend to recognize its limitations, especially its general skewing towards style over substance (in The Official Splatter Movie Guide author John McCarthy refers to Gialli as ‘stylish and colourful – and about as involving as a party at which you’re the only guest’). Deep Red is scary, thrilling, and mysterious, but it’s also affecting, funny, and engaging on multiple levels.
The plot goes a little something like this: English jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings) lives and works in Italy. One night while walking back to his apartment following a rehearsal, Marc witnesses his downstairs neighbor Helga Ulmann’s (Macha Meril) brutal murder from the street level, and is not fast enough to rescue her before she bleeds to death. While discussing the attack with Italian police, Marc meets reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who takes his picture, and sticks it on the front page of the local paper. Marc confronts Gianna, who charms him into joining her in an amateur investigation of Helga’s murder. The team meets Dr. Giordani (Glauco Mauri), who explains that Helga was a psychic medium who experienced premonitions of violence during her latest exhibition (the opening scene of the film). Assuming someone in the audience was her killer, Marc, Gianna and Giordani delve into research, while a black gloved killer continues a bloody killing spree.
Argento doesn’t quite have a screwball comedy in him, but he does an admirable job introducing Howard Hawks’ trademark brand of amusingly romantic back and forth to the camera obsessed, violence-around-every-corner Giallo genre. Daria Nicolodi and David Hemmings make pretty good Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant stand-ins too. These semi-screwball elements are the major reason the longer 126 minute version of the film is the better overall experience. The 105 minute cut (avoid the 96 minute cut altogether) is taut mystery thriller, but it’s lacking the novelty of the funny character stuff, not to mention a romance that’s not built out of sultry sexy glances (the director’s relationship with sex was rather chaste all the way up to Tenebre). Argento didn’t whip out his comedy card very often following Deep Red, save a few odd, usually out of place moments, or unfortunate bouts with unintended comedy, but up to that point Four Flies on Grey Velvet was his only particularly po-faced movie. Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O’ Nine Tails both slide plenty of giggles between the thrills, and Five Days of Milan is more or less a straight slapstick satire (which is precisely why most fans tend to ignore it). Argento even ended up recycling some of the best jokes from this script, specifically one where the police detective innocently implies he doesn’t consider being a pianist a ‘job’ (the director revisits this in Inferno, where a nurse innocently implies she considers music and poetry to be ‘strange jobs’). Later Michele Soavi would pay homage to one of Deep Red’s running gags in Cemetery Man ( Dellamorte Dellamore), by having a reasonably incidental old lady continuously and mistakenly describe the main character’s profession as that of ‘an engineer’.
Sexual politics have a huge place in Deep Red – from Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), Marc’s tortured piano playing friend’s sexual preferences, to hilariously literal battles of the sexes between Marc and Gianna. Besides an impromptu Indian (arm) wrestling session, which Marc loses, and blames on elbow placement (leading to my all time favourite line reading in Argento’s catalogue: ‘It seems there are just some things you which you just cannot do seriously with liberated women’), Gianna’s car emasculates him with its broken seat, and ridiculous scale. Strangely enough the shortest US cut, under the Hatchet Murders title, doesn’t only cut most of these scenes, it cuts one short to make it appear that Marc has won the argument, which could, I suppose, be read as sexism on the part of the editors. Concerning Carlo’s sexual identity, Deep Red was not the first time Argento had dealt with homosexuality, but it was the first time he treated homosexuality as more than a good natured punch line. Along with Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (my second favourite movie of all time, and one also released in 1975), Deep Red features one of the earliest respectable mainstream film representations of gays. Some could argue that Carlo’s sexuality is a symptom of his damaged emotional state, but Gabriele Lavia doesn’t play him as a stereotype, and his preferences aren’t seen as a problem by anyone but himself, which itself is a clearer symptom of his mental problems. Carlo’s boyfriend, who is presented as sympathetic, is actually portrayed by a woman in man-drag. Seven years later Argento would employ a transgender actress to play a ‘dream woman’ in Tenebre.
With Deep Red Argento also manages to distill ideas that permeate in all three films in his ‘Animal Trilogy’ ( Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet). Most Gialli that followed the success of Bird with the Crystal Plumage deal with the concept of killers being victims of emotional or physical trauma. This concept can be traced back to the Godfather of all Gialli, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but most early Gialli focused more on their Agatha Christie whodunit aspects, and most early villains were either greedy bastards, or simply psychopathic, murderous assholes. Argento’s mysteries have rarely played fair with his audience (the killer is usually the last person you’d suspect, but only because you weren’t given any real clues), but his best Gialli deal deeply in fractured psyches, and imaginative motivations. Bird with the Crystal Plumage features Argento’s best twist, but Deep Red features a murder mystery that permeates the fabric of the entire story, all the way down to its very meta subtext (like many of the best movies, Deep Red is a movie about movies). A synopsis of the entire film’s plot would likely read as overly simple, but the placement of the clues, and the places the clues lead create a rich and rewarding tapestry that supports Argento’s incredible visuals, rather than being ruled by them. This is yet another reason the truncated American release doesn’t work as well as the longer Italian cut. The ‘destination is greater than the journey’ perspective, along with the presence of David Hemmings, has lead many critics to consider Deep Red Argento’s answer to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Blow-Up, by the way, could be read as Antoniono’s answer to Gialli (he was a fan of Bava’s), and was semi-remade by Brian DePalma (who some might consider Argento’s American counterpart) as Blow Out.
In her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (which has been recently been re-released and updated) fellow Argentophile Maitland McDonagh directs our attention to Deep Red’s most obvious and easy to miss repeating thematic element, that of the doppelganger. Besides noting examples of mirror images (the protagonist’s biggest clue, the final image), McDonagh points out that Carlo is a pseudo-twin to Marc that is damaged by emotional trauma as a child. While making her point, McDonagh discusses the difference between the traditional ghostly doppelganger relationship found in films like The Student of Prague, The Man Who Haunted Himself or Hatchet for the Honeymoon, and the relationship Argento crafted.
Quote: “In Deep Red the doppelganger relationship of Marc and Carlo is of a different order: each character is contextually real, and they don’t bear a conventional doubling relationship to one another – they aren’t siblings, lovers, namesakes or dead ringers to on another. But they’re linked by circumstance and detail in a number of ways, and the linkage is so obsessive and pervasive that it demands structural resolution.”
In his suffering, Carlo misses out on all the good things in life Marc’s cultivated with similar talent (Sam and Ted Raimi and Alvin Sargent did something similar when they adapted the Venom character for Spider-Man 3, based loosely on ideas explored by other Venom revisionists like Brian Michael Bendis). Carlo himself puts it best when we first meet him drunkenly languishing beside a fountain – ‘The difference between you and me is purely political. You see, we both play good piano, right? (laughs) But I’m a proletarian of the keyboard, and you’re the bourgeoisie. You play for art, and enjoy it. I play for survival. (wags finger) That’s not the same thing…’. McDonagh also notes that, of course, the majority of moments that illustrates Marc and Carlo’s doppelganger relationship is missing from the truncated cut.
On many levels Deep Red is Argento’s most accessible film, behind perhaps Bird with the Crystal Plumage (I know I once said that about Tenebre, but have since been proven wrong). As mentioned, the story is well constructed, the characters are well rounded, and there’s a solid sense of humour at the center of it all. Unfortunately for the fans hoping to bring their more squeamish friends into the wacky, colourful world of Dario Argento, Deep Red is also quite graphically violent. The violence isn’t so much gruesome as it is painful, and wince inducing. The graphic frequency of violence on display here was actually not par for the course in the Giallo genre at the time, and was certainly a first in the Argento canon, well, unless we’re counting his under-seen attempt at historical satire in The Five Days of Milan. Argento’s Animal Trilogy was certainly violent by early ‘70s standards, but didn’t languish in chunky hatchet wounds, or play end credits over a pool of freshly spilled claret. The major exceptions to this ‘rule’ are Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, which is less of a Giallo, more of a satire of Gialli, and Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, which features one of the most shocking and brutal sequences of violence in the genre’s history.
It’s easy enough to gross an audience out with messy wounds (if Jesus Franco and Joe D’Amato can do it, anyone can), but here Argento takes effort to make his violence hurt, a practice he started around the climax of Cat O’ Nine Tales, when a character scorches his hands sliding down a metal cable. The key here is that Argento chooses modes of grievous bodily harm that anyone can relate to, not just the murder victims among us. Most of us have scalded ourselves with hot liquid, stumbled into a wooden corner, skinned a knee on the asphalt, or caught a sliver of glass in our finger, so when we see victims with their heads plunged into steaming bathtubs, their faces slammed into wooden mantelpieces, their bodies dragged behind moving vehicles, or their femoral arteries severed on broken windows, we can sympathize with the sensation on a personal level. The actual gore effects are certainly dated – the blood is too pink and orange, the wounds are obviously rubber appliances (though that burn make-up does stand up rather well) – but the sentiment is still quite raw. Critic Kim Newman notes in his seminal tome Nightmare Movies (which has also recently been partially re-written and rereleased) that some of the more violent bits are even foreshadowed, in keeping with the murderous intent discovered by Helga the clairvoyant at the beginning of the film. Newman’s examples include a discussion between Gianna and Marc where he jokingly says he plays the piano because it represents a need to bash in his father’s teeth, prefiguring the mouth on the mantelpiece kill, and another comedy bit where Marc is scalded while standing next to an espresso machine, prefiguring the boiling bathtub kill (which, by the way, was borrowed by John Carpenter and Rick Rosenthal for the original Halloween II).
My personal experience with Deep Red has run possibly the largest gamut of quality of any movie. First, I found a full frame VHS from a company that picked up the apparently copyright free international cut (under the horrible title The Hatchet Murders) and put zero effort into, well, making the print not look like grimy, smeared chunks of boar crap. I’m not sure if anyone here has ever sat through Deep Red in full frame, but it’s by far the worst of all of Argento’s films to see outside its natural 2.35:1 framing. Even worse than Suspira. The full frame transfers weren’t pan and scan, so some scenes would feature discussions between characters that were entirely out of shot on either end of the original frame. Later, I discovered a bootleg recording of the long Italian version of the film in widescreen for rent at a local video store (Casa Video, you are the best thing that could ever happened to a horror geek), likely taken from the Japanese laser disc release (they were always taken from Japanese laser disc releases). This allowed me to see the entire image, but the bootleg quality created an occasionally indiscernible blur. Being an obsessive completest, I of course made my own bootleg VHS from this bootleg VHS. Finally in 2000, Anchor Bay, with the help of a pre-Blue Underground Bill Lustig, brought Deep Red to DVD, and included the Italian cut, in beautiful widescreen. Most of us assumed this was as good as it would ever get. Now, after re-releasing the DVD under their banner, Blue Underground is back with a 1080p, full HD transfer mastered from the original camera negative, and I need to reevaluate my personal definition of ‘as good as it would ever get’.
Things start with the cleanliness of the incredibly vibrant reds, which were more like semi-brown blocking parties on the DVD release, but the general increase in detail is also very impressive for fans like me that haven’t ever had the option of seeing the film on a big screen in 35mm. At one point in preparing this section of this review I paused the film to gather my marbles (super secret Deep Red reference!). Usually a paused frame will give away a transfer’s largest shortcomings, revealing grain, artefacts, and blurry edges you hadn’t noticed while the image was moving, but this frame, that of Helga lying on the floor, face down after being axed in the shoulder. In this frame I noticed not grain, not artefacts, but incredible detail I had missed while the image ran forward at 24 frames. I could practically count the hairs on Macha Méril’s blond head. Then, shortly after, I paused again on a random frame to jot down some thoughts on the soundtrack. In this frame the killer is scanning Helga’s documents with his black gloved finger. I realized that for the first time ever I could read the actual script on the white page (well, kinda, it's in German), see the creases on in the leather of the glove, and even the intricate, interlacing pattern on the desk the pages sat upon. Other easily missed and more important elements are made clear. Another good example is the scene in which the killer interrupts Marc as he writes music. On earlier releases, it wasn’t clear that plaster falls from the ceiling onto the piano, that a shadow is cast across the room as the killer enters the villa, or that a large bead of sweat pours down Hemmings’ temple. On the DVD these details aren’t necessarily obscured, but they’re a little confusing.
Colours are incredible, and stretch the image beyond the DVD releases’ capabilities, especially the overwhelming red of the theatrical curtains towards the beginning of the film. The richer green elements, specifically ferns decorating some of the sets, stand out quite nicely against the otherwise warm environments, but it’s the profoundly red (title pun!) elements set against innocuous backdrops that really pop, and do so without bleeding or blocking. But let’s not get too excited, it’s not a perfect transfer, it just looks impossibly good considering most expectations (this is not a VHS to DVD jaw dropper). The major issues are the overall colour quality, which runs slightly yellow, and the slightly blown-out nature of the image. Both of these may be intended effects, but are among the more common ailments of older transfers. The black levels and overall contrast is mostly impressive (check out the arm wrestling scene, where Hemmings and Nicolodi’s black wardrobes cut sharply against the nearly white backdrop), but some blacks tend to skew towards brown, while some dark blues tend to skew towards black. The clarity isn’t always consistent either. Grain thickens and fades, often along the edges of what appear to be reel changeovers (the ‘searching the villa’ sequence is almost overwhelmingly grainy at times), and artefacts are definitely present, mostly small white flecks, but there on occasion a hair floats into the gate, or a tracking line smears the frame. The sequences missing from the English cut are sometimes noticeably darker than the rest of the print, and some frames shake a bit, again, on what appear to be changeovers. I’d say City of the Living Dead is still Blue Underground’s most impressive HD transfer, but at some point this one gives it a little run for its money.
Update, May 21, 2011: I can see from the comparison caps now available on this page thanks to reader Jonathan Hogberg that my notes of the yellowing and blown-out quality may have been understated (look specifically at the mirror and broken doll shots for glaring examples of both). Clearly when comparing the images back to back there is a sizable difference in the contrast and warmth of the palette between this release and the original Anchor Bay DVD. I have blown the DVD caps up to the same size as the Blu-ray caps, however, and strongly suggest readers click on one of the images, then scroll through to compare the massive upgrade in sharpness, and the lack of digital compression artefacts. This is still a very good transfer, but I now admit Blue Underground could've done better in some areas.
I usually end the audio section of my reviews with discussion of a film’s musical soundtrack, but Deep Red demands attention to it’s score, and the score is the only element Blue Underground has really tampered with in remixing the sound into a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 (frankly speaking all the extra channels are pretty unnecessary). I own a couple different versions of the soundtrack on CD, and it sounds to me like these stereo versions of the songs were used in an effort to widen the scope of the originally monaural track. A good example of the stereo track’s superiority is the hammering piano of ‘Death Dies’, which starts discretely in the left channel before the guitar, drums and bass fill out the middle and right of the layout (for whatever reason this doesn’t seem to apply to all uses of this particular track, however). The rich and warm quality of Bruno Perivale’s bass is perhaps the best reason for the upgrade, though the fact that Claudio Simonetti impossibly aggressive keyboard noise on ‘Deep Shadows’ doesn’t distort at its highest volume is another big plus. The more abstract elements of the music, like the wind and whisper sounds preceding the death by scalding water sequence, also sound fuller, louder, and more frightening. My only real issue with the remixed music is the reverb and echo added to the drum tracks, which already sound plenty gigantic.
The sound effects, which are, to my ear, almost entirely centered (as is natural), are less about stereo impact than dynamic impact. Argento does great things with sound by contrasting utter silence with deafening noise, usually in the form of a stab scare (which the music mostly does not do), like a screaming myna bird. Some of these still croak out a bit and turn to fuzz, but comparing the compressed Dolby Digital EX and DTS-HD tracks back to back it’s clear that there have been improvements in this arena. But I knew Blue Underground would get this part right, based on previous experience, and previous DVD releases, my fears were related to language option. Clearly I’m partial to the longer, Italian cut, which happens to be in Italian (I know, crazy). Unfortunately, the Italian track dubs lead actor David Hemmings into Italian, and the performances are just different. When Anchor Bay first released the film on DVD they included the English track, which would briefly switch over to Italian with subtitles during the scenes that never featured an English language track (like most Italian films of the era, Deep Red was filmed without sound, and included actors speaking to one another in different languages). I liked this option best, even if Daria Nicolodi’s English dubbing voice is a little goofy (most of the time Nicolodi is clearly speaking in English, so it’s disappointing she never dubbed her own performance in English as well). The press release for this Blu-ray implied that the film would be sharply divided into the English and Italian language cuts. The truth is that the Italian cut does feature the mixed language track, though unfortunately it is presented in a compressed Dolby Digital EX. The dialogue track is a bit tinny no matter what language you listen to the film in. The English DTS-HD track (presented only with the International cut) tends to be a little more natural, but sometimes too quiet, while the Italian DTS-HD track (presented only with the Italian cut) tends to be louder, but a bit canned. In the end I recommend switching between the tracks to experience the music in fully uncompressed DTS-HD.
Unfortunately there isn’t much here in terms of special features, and the extras we do get are either old news, or, well, kind of silly. Things start with the 25th Anniversary interview featurette with Argento, co-writer Bernardino Zapponi and Goblin (Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli and Agostino Marangolo) (10:50, SD). For those keeping record we’ve actually passed the film’s 36th Anniversary this year. The interviews are pretty brief, but cover some of the more interesting facts of the case. Zapponi is actually the most astute contributor, as he points out the fact that the peripherals of the film are teeming with threat and discomfort (he points to the shot of two dogs fighting that is cut in between two rather innocuous scenes). He also takes credit for discovering Nicolodi and coming up with the show stopping elevator gag. Dario mostly continues his tradition of saying weird stuff that almost makes sense, and briefly discusses his odd habit of acting as the gloved hands in all his films. Next up are the US and International trailers, which are presented in HD, but not at all cleaned up. The US trailer is full of spoilers. The disc is completed with two music videos – Goblin’s ‘Profondo Rosso’ (produced in 2010), and Daemonia’s (Simonetti’s early ‘00s band) ‘Profondo Rosso’. These would be the silly extras I spoke of earlier.
As a fan I’m ready to call this new release an early frontrunner for Blu-ray of the year, despite its lack of extras, and a few issues with the soundtrack (I wish the mixed language track was presented uncompressed). The 1080p, remastered from the original negative transfer, is not perfect by any means, but as a fan that has struggled through some of the worst home video releases imaginable I’m awestruck and very, very happy. If you haven’t experienced Deep Red, or Argento, or better yet you have seen other Argento films and given up on him, this is a great place to start or reevaluate opinions. Folks that have seen the abridged cut also owe it to themselves to experience the 126 minute version.
*Note: Thanks to reader Jonathan Hogberg (Hogaburger) for supplying me with screencaps. These caps have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Larger captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not representative of the full quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 17th May 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English and Italian, Dolby Digital EX English and Italian mixed track, Dolby Digital Mono English and Italian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, English Pop-Up for English/Italian Mixed Track
Extras: 25th Anniversary Interviews, US and Italian Trailers, Goblin and Daemonia Music Videos
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Meril, Glauco Mauri
Genre: Comedy, Horror, Mystery, Romance and Thriller
Length: 126 minutes
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