A psychic, Helga Ulmann, is about to give a lecture, but senses that a person in the audience is mentally disturbed and has murdered someone long ago and will kill again. Before she has finished a letter containing the person’s identity, she is killed in her apartment. Her neighbor, jazz musician Marcus Daly, witnesses her murder and is convinced he has seen an important clue, but can’t figure out what it is, though it may be related to one of the paintings in her apartment. Reporter Gianna Brezzi decides to help him (sort of against his wishes) when the police prove ineffectual. He also tries to get his troubled friend Carlo to help, because Carlo may have gotten a glimpse of the murderer. Soon Marcus narrowly avoids being killed himself and tracks down Ulmann’s associate, a psychiatrist named Giordani, who tells him the story of a local haunted house that may be related.
Marcus finds a book on the subject written by a woman, Amanda Righetti, but she is murdered before he can reach her. Giordani visits the scene and learns that Amanda has left a secret message on the wall, but he is brutally killed before he can reveal the murderer’s identity. Marcus finds the house from Righetti’s book and begins investigating. He discovers a disturbing child’s painting on a wall, which was covered by plaster. Later, he returns to the house and finds a strange walled up room with a corpse in it. Someone knocks him unconscious and though Gianna rescues him, the house burns down. Clues lead them to a nearby school, but can they figure out who the murderer is before they are both killed?
Profondo Rosso (1975) aka Deep Red aka The Hatchet Murders is notable for being Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s first collaboration with the band Goblin who would go on to score several of his later giallo films. Deep Red also marks a turning point in Argento’s career. He had recently completed his first few films, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, now known as his animal trilogy. Deep Red kicked off a series of popular classics – Suspiria, Inferno, and Tenebre – and it marked a new level of confidence that allowed Argento to explore a more vibrant visual style and more poetic, dreamlike narrative structures.
Deep Red is one of Argento’s most accessible films and is a great introduction to his career as well as giallo films in general. There are elements lifted directly from Mario Bava’s seminal giallo films The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, such as the protagonist being a foreigner in Italy, the killer wearing a raincoat and black gloves, POV shots, the color red injected into many of the set pieces, etc. As with many Western horror and mystery films, there’s a plucky reporter responsible for comic relief, and as with Hitchcock’s Pyscho, there are numerous shots of water running in a drain before and after murder is committed.
Above all this is a highly visual film with key set pieces often having a higher importance than the actual plot. Deep Red is the most visually confident of his early films, with some excellent cinematography from Luigi Kuveiller (New York Ripper) that captures bold colors and eye catching sets, as well as an almost anxiously roving camera that seemingly can’t keep still. This also represented a heightened level of violence and more creative death scenes using every day, household objects as instruments of death bolstered by some great special effects from Academy Award winning Carlo Rambaldi (E.T.). Though people are stabbed to death, someone has their throat cut on a window, another is scalded and drowned with hot water in a bathtub, and another person has their teeth bashed in on an innocent looking mantlepiece. And so on. There are also a number of strange, surreal, and poetic visual elements, including a completely unexpected attack by marionette, disturbing children’s drawings of murder, and close ups of children’s toys.
Though there are some disjointed plot elements, overly long scenes, and somewhat unbelievable dialogue, the characters are likable enough and there are some good performances. David Hemmings is enjoyable as the pleasant but anxious Marcus Daly. He played a similar role in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and was in a number of horror and suspense films, such as the similarly themed Fragment of Fear (1970) and the British horror film Eye of the Devil (1966). Argento’s regular collaborator and baby mamma Daria Nicolodi is adorable as desperate and nosy journalist Gianna Brezzi and she actually helps make Marcus more likable and human. Gabriele Lavia (Inferno, Beyond the Door) gives what is probably the best performance of Deep Red as the sympathetic and interesting Carlo. Macha Méril (Night Train Murders) and classical Italian actress Clara Calamai (Visconti’s Ossessione) round out the female-centric cast.
Though he hinted on it with his earlier films, sound is of key importance in Deep Red. In several of the scenes there is a relationship between the score and sound effects that relates directly to the characters and the violence. Argento uses this regularly in some of his later films, for example in Tenebre, when two of the characters are listening to one of the soundtrack songs at home before they are murdered. In Deep Red the murderer brings along a tape recording of a disturbing child’s song for victims to listen to before they are killed. Possibly a strange and ludicrous element, but certainly an effective one.
This was Goblin’s first score for Argento and signaled the beginning of a successful collaborative relationship that would last throughout some of his most beloved films. Composer Giorgio Gaslini was originally hired to compose for Deep Red, but Argento was allegedly unhappy with his work and fired him. Some of these jazzy themes remain, but Goblin wrote most of the proggy, harpsichord-heavy score that Argento fans know and love. Originally known as the Cherry Five, Goblin’s early line up included Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, Massimo Morante, and Walter Martino. Their score for Deep Red is mostly a prog rock affair, no doubt inspired by bands like King Crimson, but includes both pop and jazz elements and as menacing as it is catchy. In addition to keyboards and the harpsichord, Goblin uses acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, and has some very bass heavy songs on tracks like “Death Dies,” “Profondo Rosso,” and “Mad Puppet.” This is certainly one of their finest scores for Argento and the complete score can fortunately be found on CD.
Deep Red comes highly recommended, as does the Goblin score, though I am somewhat biased because it was my first favorite Argento film and the first I had the pleasure to see. Over the years there have been a number of Deep Red releases, including a restored DVD from Anchor Bay, a Blue Underground Blu-ray, and a two-disc special edition Arrow Blu-ray.