****/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Clara Calamai
screenplay by Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi
directed by Dario Argento
***/**** Image A- Sound B Extras D
starring Eleonora Giorgi, Gabriele Lavia, Veronica Lazar, Leopoldo Mastelloni
written and directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw Deep Red is a transitional film from the middle of Dario Argento's most creative period, one that sees the Italian Hitchcock (better: the Italian De Palma) building surreal temples on Hitchcock's meticulous foundations before abandoning them--disastrously and without explanation--following the release of 1982's Tenebre. With little scholarship on Argento that's current and/or comprehensive, and with the director himself seldom asked about his steep decline, what's left is this notion that Argento wanted to escape the Hitchcock-derivative label (only to return to it after the spark had fled or, more likely, proved illusory all along), or that he wanted a psychic divorce from De Palma, whose career Argento's paralleled for a while in theme and execution. Whatever happened eventually, Argento in 1975 seemed to be casting about for a new direction. He'd just completed his "animal" trilogy of gialli (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O' Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and nursed a belief that the genre had, if not run its course entirely, at least run its course for him. He dabbled in a failed period piece (Five Days in Milan), the function of which appears to be to demonstrate that Argento is no Sergio Leone (though to be fair, almost no one is Sergio Leone), and he contributed to a portmanteau for Italian television--a format to which he'd one day return with buddy George Romero and Two Evil Eyes.
And then he did Deep Red: one part giallo in its whodunit mystery and elaborate kill scenes; one part Mod in its casting of Blow-Up's David Hemmings as another artist involved in another existential knot at a cultural crossroads; and one part cross-eyed badger spit. There's a spirit of exploration in the picture that's new to Argento, a sense of liberation from the expectations of a genre already defined--maybe perfected, certainly never to be surpassed--by countryman Mario Bava, and it exudes a caution-to-the-wind confidence that would carry Argento through the next seven years and a quartet of films. Three masterpieces and a really good try (rank Inferno with stuff like Opera as second-tier Argento), as it happens, is enough to cement his legacy for all time despite the attempt of every Sleepless and The Card Player to demean it. Ultimately, I think it's fair to wonder whether Argento has as much to do with the success of the four movies (Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebre) he made during this time as some divine (and brief), Rilke-ian wind. Fair to wonder, too, how it is that the means towards artistic rebellion so often take the form of violent surrealism.
Deep Red sinks its fishhooks in from the start, baiting us with archetype in a Christmas tableau that's invaded by shadows in conflict, a stabbing motion, a knife dropped into extreme foreground, and a child's stockinged legs entering from right, suggesting that the perp is a little girl. It's a knife John Carpenter picks up three short years later in the prologue to his own salvo into the slasher genre, Halloween, this idea that the unseen antagonist--murderer, in fact--turns out to be a kid. (The truth is more oblique here.) The main titles draw to a close, and we're deposited in a theatre, watching a panel that includes a psychic (Macha Meril) who, after doing a parlour trick or two, freaks out and senses a murderer in the audience. Argento, because he's in control at this point and knows it, literally drops a pair of red curtains (vaginal lips as stage affectation) on the scene before inexplicably cutting away to water circling a drain, an image that will never again be innocuous post-Psycho. We see a table full of relics: a child's drawings of mayhem, marbles, dolls punctured with needles, clay figurines. Then a switchblade cuts into to an eyeball in extreme close-up. If you're keeping score, so far it's Psycho, Stage Fright, and a small, not-insignificant detour into Un chien andalou, maybe. Suddenly the psychic, with whom we've likely sutured as the presumed star of this show, is dispatched with a meat cleaver, in what will be one of several elaborately-staged, exquisitely gory death scenes. There are similarities, stark ones, to Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill, from fashion of murder and garb to, if you must know, identity of killer; De Palma's film comes out five full years after this one.
On the late-night Roman street, we're introduced to the real hero, Marcus (Hemmings), who's soon standing in front of a broad borrow of Hopper's "Nighthawks at the Diner" painting. It's a reference that reveals Argento's self-consciousness--you could say pretentiousness (he'll do it again when Det. Gianna Brezzi introduces herself taking snapshots)--and paints in no uncertain strokes the film's obsessions with paintings and graven images as catalysts for (if not replacements of, or phantoms of) memory. The identity of the murderer, in fact, is revealed right there in the beginning, when Marcus rushes to the crime scene, although we won't know it until almost the end of the picture. It's the first of several moments in Deep Red where tricks of perception are being played--and a good example of why Argento became saddled with the "Italian Hitchcock" label.
Played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento's muse and lover in their first celluloid collaboration, Brezzi is one of the auteur's women investigators--woman racionators bridging the traditionally feminine role of intuitors (like our graphically-dispatched psychic) with the traditionally masculine role of perpetrator and discerner/judge/punisher. (It's a role that will be filled, in an uncomfortably Freudian turn of events, by daughter Asia in latter-day Argento.) Marcus immediately challenges Brezzi's gender's ability to do what she does, precipitating an arm-wrestling match that Brezzi wins (castration). Underscored by Marcus's visit to an actress's apartment (her wall of photos a dedication to her career in...why, pictures, of course) and then to her son, who's living with a beautiful transvestite, gender is a slippery thing in Argento, charges of misogyny being something he's had difficulty dodging to the point of appearing at the end to concede. But in this series of four films, Argento's vivisection of beautiful women and castration of men (he'll knock out a man's teeth in this one) serve a more subversively political purpose. At play in Deep Red are notions of identity tied with gender. It's no wonder that Carpenter took this film as chief inspiration, coding a virginal girl as the avatar for an audience of just-pubescent boys. The questions here are of spectatorship and power, n'est-ce pas? Explanation, then, for why we see the killer applying a thick outline of eyeliner before his/her acts. If you're still keeping score, this is the Vertigo moment; as Robin Wood described in his remarkable prologue to the last edition of Hitchcock Films Revisited, the way Wood continued to evolve in his reading of Vertigo corresponded with his own awakening to his sexuality. Eureka.
Deep Red brings the moment of sexual awakening to childhood, and Argento, as was his wont during this period, literalizes the motion with a child's nursery song. Throughout, too, symbols of penetration (knives, glass, knitting needles in a scene where a woman fends off an attacker--but not before she kills a pet bird (The Birds!)) merge with images of water, submersion, saliva, and, yes, menstruation. The second murder set-piece, taking place in a bathroom (Psycho), contains an especially brilliant bit involving condensation that initially comes off as one of those complex giallo knick-knack throwaways but plays directly into the leitmotif of uncovering things, unmasking others, and unearthing what was buried. Marcus describes the aspect of the second victim as "unnatural" and "pointing at a mirror," leading to something almost as tricky: Marcus's exhumation of a child's mural in a house identified by a guidebook ghost story. Argento after Tenebre (with arguably only moments of Opera the exception) could be accused of not knowing where to point a camera--of not being surreal so much as disorganized, some would say clueless. But it's thematically tight moments like this in Deep Red--like Marcus's suffering an eye injury immediately following his discovery of the hidden mural; like the set-up for the concluding death-by-necklace--that explain to some extent why so many fans forgive Argento's descent into cloudiness.
Jump from Deep Red, past the balls-brilliant Suspiria, to Suspiria's "sequel," Inferno, the second in a trilogy finally completed by 2007's Mother of Tears that seeks to document the influence of three witches on the world, gathering their power in a trio of cities: Freiberg, Germany in Suspiria; Rome, Italy in Mother of Tears; and New York in Inferno. Mater Tenebrarum, the youngest and cruellest of the "Three Mothers," has taken up residence in a house occupied by Rose (Irene Miracle). Upon making this discovery, Rose fears for her life and sends for her brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey), who's studying music in Italy. He has a kinship in this way with Deep Red's Marcus (a pianist), a man in a pursuit coded as feminine, and there's the intimation early on that the central tension of the film will again be a race between a masculine means of detection (effected (affected) by a woman, Rose, who reads a book about the Mothers as prologue to the film) and a feminine means of intuition (swooning Mark's maybe-encounter with the beautiful Mater Lachrymarum--the mother of tears--in the middle of a music class). Yet it deviates.
Suspiria's neon colour scheme, lurid and obscene, returns along with Argento's dazzling way with a set-piece. In the first ten minutes of Inferno, Rose finds the "key" to the witch's house in a cellar antechamber that reveals itself as a flooded ballroom, completely furnished and absolutely inexplicable. Her investigation arouses suspicion, leading to her murder before Mark's arrival. The sets are incomparable and the effects delightfully obscene. Argento takes the attic attack from The Birds and substitutes cats beneath a carnal moon as a crippled caretaker succumbs first to rats, then to a butcher's cleaver. There's nothing like linearity in Inferno--it is fully an artifact of the unconscious. Mirrors play a role (the shattering of them, in particular), while walls of pictures again remind that memory and perception are aided and perverted by the mementos mori we use to line our boxes.
There are more screens in Inferno, more moments projected against other moments, more diaphanous curtains that remind of, sure, Rear Window, but Cocteau as well--particularly in a sequence of Mark incapacitated, a beautiful girl incapable of saving him (an Argento trope, usually reversed). The close-up of the eye this time around is of a cat's eye, terrifying and yellow and slitted. I wonder if I can trace my dislike of the animal to this film or to the fact of their being nature's assholes. Hard to say. The picture is gorgeous, an exercise in unsubtle subtleties. Mark collapses because of a "heart condition" before a panel of figures who declare that he must need "heart medicine"--Mark's failure is one of heart, it seems. His surrender is to the uncanny. He slides through red panels to witness, in a Mario Bava-engineered effect, Tenebrarum crashing through a mirror. His agent of destruction is fire. Inferno isn't in the same conversation as Deep Red, Suspiria, or even Tenebre, but it's a singular work by an artist almost finished making singular works.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Blue Underground outdoes itself with its negative-sourced, 2.35:1, 1080p presentation of Deep Red on Blu-ray Disc. Despite a few stubborn pinholes and a very slight waxiness that seems to affect shadow detail more than fine detail, the image is a revelation, lush and filmic and seductively colour-timed. The blood is candy-apple red as usual but newly lurid somehow, and there's a gratifying level of texture and depth that gives Marcus's close inspections of clues another layer of interactivity. More or less equally impressive is an elegant 7.1 remix of both the English and Italian dubs--each paired with its respective cut (more on that momentarily)--offered in DTS-HD Master Audio. I accidentally sat on the volume control during one late scene of shattering glass and was surprised, and delighted, to leave part of my brain on the couch. And though I love Pink Floyd (really I do), I'm glad that initial plans to hire the group to score the picture fell through, leaving room for Goblin to contribute gorgeous, groundbreaking prog-rock music in support of the manic goings-on. I've not heard it sound as rich or as complex as it does here.
Argento, co-writer Bernardino Zapponi, and various members of Goblin sit for separate talking heads in an information-dense piece (11 mins., HD) that confirms a few myths about the film, such as that it all began with the image of the psychic conference and that the elevator/pearl death sequence was inspired by a lift in Zapponi's building. Interesting for me is the tetchiness with which Argento addresses the issue of his critics. He makes it clear that he never looks back and never reads anything written about him ever--and if he did, he'd never hang onto it. Never ever. Argento doth protest too much, methinks. He also confirms that he plays the murderer's gloved hands in the film (he always plays the hands, he says), underscoring its gender shenanigans and pinging pleasurably off the recognition that Hitchcock pulled many of the same stunts with "Mother"'s shadow and voice in Psycho. As for the two different cuts available on the disc via seamless branching, the English or "export" version, 21 minutes shorter than the Italian alternative, is overall superior, a slimmer, sleeker beast that plays better across the cultural barrier--most of the "lost" scenes are actually, I think, meant to be screwball, with Nicolodi the Rosalind Russell to Hemmings's squirrelly Cary Grant. (Argento's a lot of things--funny isn't one of them.) Rumours of the Italian cut restoring great gouts of graphic violence are unfounded, though its end credits do have Hemmings reflected in a pool of blood for longer before freeze-framing. Whatever my viewing preference, it's nice to have the option to watch both, as until now the only way to view the English rendition in widescreen was via Japanese LaserDisc. U.S. and international theatrical trailers, in standard definition, round out the platter.
Inferno is a similar triumph on the format. What really comes through in this 1.85:1, 1080p incarnation is the Bava-esque interplay of bright, bold colours, great pools of blue and red light that intermingle without bleeding, smearing, or, for the most part, banding. Grain is healthy but unobtrusive, and fine detail is exceptional. Tim Lucas once wrote that star Miracle must have "the loveliest manicure ever filmed," and that was never truer. Blacks are robust, albeit the lone significant problem area, as they sometimes dip into crush territory. That the accompanying 7.1 DTS-HD MA track fails to live up to the precedent set not only by the video transfer but also by Deep Red's soundtrack is somewhat surprising, considering Inferno, unlike Deep Red, was originally mixed in Dolby Stereo. While Keith Emerson's score thunders like never before, there's a slushiness to the dialogue and effects that disappoints. Extras-wise, "Art & Alchemy" (15 mins., HD) interviews the titular veteran of TV's "Dallas" (oh, what Inferno could've been had James Woods, as planned, gotten to do it instead), a hunk of wood with little to say about the film besides the standard glowing platitudes. "Reflections of Rose" (13 mins., HD) catches up with a nicely-preserved Miracle, who reflects on a difficult shoot with tact and diplomacy. It's a holdover from Blue Underground's DVD, a featurette alternating interviews with Argento and figlio di Mario, AD Lamberto Bava (8 mins., SD), however, that provides the most insight into the making of Inferno. Argento has few fond memories of the production, plagued as it was by illness and the pressures of anticipation created by the success of Suspiria. The film's theatrical trailer (in HD) closes out the package. Originally published: October 31, 2011.