Still from 1975's "Deep Red."

concentrated quartet churning out the penultimate Beethoven song of the evening. 

 

But Deep Red isn’t that movie. The audience, mostly made up of consumers who seem to be sticking around out of curiosity, not actual interest, is in for a different sort of escapist experience. At the center of the stage sits a bored-looking trio doing its best to set the standard image for the modern Comic Con panel. In the middle is Helga (Macha Méril), a coconut-haired, turtleneck-adorning "psychic." Opposite her are stuffy psychiatrists. They’re here under the pretense of a lecture/Q&A session. But what it really is is one of those goofy acts where Helga calls out a row and a seat number and then impresses the audience by telling them the name of the ticket holder and a fun fact about them. It’s all telepathy, you see, though the cynic in us says Helga’s a phony and a victim's actually just a plant. At this point in her career — she’s between 35 and 40, as revealed later on — Helga could probably sleepwalk through the routine.

 

But this night’s different. Just as the psychic starts looking like an everywoman about to fall asleep in front of the TV set, she screams, “No … NO!” At first, we’re certain she does this every evening — maybe it’s hot fudge atop her sundae of classy conning, a dusting of drama. But then the camera zooms into a tight close-up. We’re unnerved: Authentic fear has suddenly overtaken the once-glassy look in her eyes. “I can feel death in this room! I feel a presence, a twisted mind sending me thoughts!” she wretches. “Perverted, murderous thoughts ... Go away!”

 

Suddenly, Helga regains her composure. She stares ahead, her mouth stiff. Wiggling her pointer finger at an unseen figure, she hisses, “You have killed — and you will kill again!” We’re still partially convinced that this is just part of the performance. But a few ghastly images and sounds later, not to mention a couple POV shots from the supposed presence themselves, we’re no longer so skeptical. Especially when, at the other side of midnight, Helga is brutally murdered, presumably by the person who made the mistake of attending the lecture.

 

The crime scene is bloody, and perhaps would otherwise become all news corporations’ favorite murder of 1975, a one-off deal. But unfortunately for the person who broke into the psychic’s apartment with a meat cleaver, there was a witness who saw enough to fuel his fires. That witness was Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), a British musician in Italy who happened to be walking to his apartment as Helga got sliced. Daly’d be smart to mind his own business. But he saw too much, and is troubled by the feeling that he could have saved Helga’s life had he been closer to her door when she started crying for help. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, he decides to embark on his own investigation of the death — with preppy girl reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) tugging at his arm — and discovers that this tale of madness goes far deeper than the death of just one.

 

And Deep Red also goes far deeper than most horror movies of the era. An elaborate and visually vigorous giallo thriller, the film marked a period of transition for its co-writer and director, horror maestro Dario Argento. In 1975, Argento was still a relatively new filmmaker. He had made his directorial debut with 1970’s well-received The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and had made four movies over the next four years, two of them textbook examples of giallo (The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, both 1971). 

 

Deep Red, almost too-perfectly released at the literal middle of the ‘70s, hints at the direction Argento was slowly moving toward. It resembles the director’s earlier films in that it is an optically, and aurally, breakneck whodunit featuring slasher movie characteristics before they became the big craze in American horror a few years later.

 

But in contrast to his prior features, Deep Red’s plot is more than just serviceable. Its storyline aims to push past the rigid surface of the precursive Grand Guignol gloss, first of all, and it also more noticeably makes an effort to develop characters and rapports, and to underscore the pities of the disparate line-up of deaths. It was the most considerable movie Argento had made until that point, and, because of its fluid, pulsating camerawork, became a fitting transition into what would become the more famous half of his career, in which he started to indulge his stylistic preferences and lean into the supernatural as a carousel of frights.

 

Because Argento is much more comfortable a visual stylist than screenwriter, though, Deep Red runs into some problems as an effect of the then-newfound reliance on plot. Every time a grandiosely shot death scene makes way, and every time a jarring twist in the neck of the plot comes out of left field, the movie briefly convinces us that it’s a masterpiece. Indeed, Argento has a license to thrill and is sometimes as masterfully manipulative as Hitchcock. When the suspense sings, it belts with the bravado of a soprano.

 

But between these violent interludes, Deep Red barely circumvents monotony. It’s as if Argento made a bulleted list of all the major set pieces and how they’d be followed by a lead in the whodunit, but all but forgot about the foundational middles. When not flying above an aggressive outburst, the movie is a snooze, ridden with iffy dialogue, uneasy stabs at lighthearted comedy, and halfhearted attempts at fully realizing the relationships between the characters. Daly and Brezzi have the potential to be a fun odd couple, but Argento both overstates the clear Roz Russell undertones of the Brezzi character and eventually forgets to include her in much of the action. And that’s a drag, given her being the movie’s most entertaining character. 

 

But the final twist’s a knockout, and so are the movie’s kill-offs. The introductory murder of Helga is an unforgettable explosion of Sherwin Williams-approved gore, and the later death of one of her associates (Glauco Mauri) is ingenious in its incorporating of devil dolls and door hinges as secondary weapons utilized by the black-gloved, knife-wielding maniac. And one cannot forget the bone-piercing Goblin soundtrack, which seamlessly moves from baroque ghostliness to ominous funk.

 

Deep Red’s endlessly original and ceaselessly brilliant in its artistry — it was arguably the first stylistic tour de force Argento ever made. But I hesitate to call it a masterpiece: its too-long running time and tendency to drag when not immersed in carnage curbs so much of what it does well. Argento would make his magnum opus just two years later with 1977’s Suspiria, the rainbow-palleted tormentor that remarkably married beauty and horror. But Deep Red is notable for improving on Argento’s previous films, and for hinting at the greatness to come. And such makes it a must-watch — what an event it is to see one of cinema's most singular artists coming into his own. A-

DIRECTED BY

Dario Argento

 

STARRING

David Hemmings

Daria Nicolodi

Macha Méril

Clara Calamai

Gabriele Lavia

Eros Pagni

Giuliana Calandra

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1975

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs.

Deep Red October 9, 2017        

arly on in Deep Red (1975), a red curtain is drawn. We half-expect to step inside the Black Lodge, the famed purgatory of Twin Peaks (1990-1991). But instead we enter a theater, one of those old-fashioned, faux-aristocratic joints where everything is soft and satin and regal. In another movie, we’d be walking in on tired-eyed onlookers watching an obscure movie from the Hollywood Golden Age for aesthetic purposes, or a

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