In the midst of the opening credits sequence for Italian director Dario Argento's 1975 Profondo Rosso (a.k.a. Deep Red), the viewer is treated to a truncated scene appearing to show two figures in shadow in front of a Christmas tree. One pulls a knife and appears to stab the other, the bloody instrument then dropping to the floor where it's approached by shoes of a child. This sequence establishes much of the framework for the rest of the picture: a mystery centered around an English-born jazz pianist named Marcus Daly (played by David Hemmings, best known for 1966's Blow-Up, a picture somewhat similar to this one) who witnesses the violent murder of a clairvoyant woman in his apartment building. While attempting to put the pieces together to solve the murder along with a plucky reporter (Daria Nicolodi in a role that's largely an annoyance), Marc stumbles upon a legend about a haunted house, and after locating the building and digging around its decrepit interior, finds a drawing that seems to represent the Christmas-time murder depicted at the beginning of the film. This all leads to the expected showdown with the murderer, but the guilty party may not be the one the viewer was expecting.
Sometimes titled as The Hatchet Murders in its English-language prints since its killer occasionally uses a heavy butcher's cleaver as a murder instrument, Profondo Rosso clearly displays a mesmerizing, idiosyncratic visual style that would be utilized to perfection in Argento's later, undisputed classic Suspiria. Puzzling montages appear intermittently to provide a glimpse into the mindset of the killer, and the actual stalking/murder sequences are jarring and considerably violent (remember – this film was made before the explosion of slasher films in the early '80s). Clairvoyant Helga Ulmann's murder features several brief but graphic special effects shots of a cleaver being sunk into soft human flesh, and a later murder sequence features a man's face being bashed off the woodwork around a fireplace before a close-up of his teeth slamming into the pointed edge of a table. The final minutes also feature a gloriously grotesque death scene involving an elevator, but the film's best moment isn't so much disgusting as plain creepy. After being startled by noise while on the phone in his study, a man is rushed by a flailing robot designed to look like a smiling young boy. Forget the fact that it's illogical – this is about as unexpected a situation as could be imaginable, and definitely the film's most genuinely unforgettable moment.
Aside from providing unique vantage points throughout the film (the extreme high-angle views of a mysterious figure rushing through an abandoned town square after dark are especially good), Argento's camera frequently seems to “know” more than the characters or audience does, focusing on seemingly inconsequential detail that will shortly be of the utmost importance. Easily the best example of this occurs in a scene where Daly hurries through the Helga's apartment in an attempt to save her from her murderer. As he hastens down a hallway, the viewer's eye is drawn to a series of paintings, one of which looks substantially more life-like and bizarre than the others. Showing a groups of faces, only one of which truly appears to be human, the painting lingers in the viewer's mind even though its only seen onscreen for a second or so. Ultimately, solving the mystery comes down to this fleeting image – Daly's convinced it reveals the murderer's face.
Along with the tantalizing visual clues, Profondo Rosso also offers up a series of strange plot twists and turns. Indisputably, the painting being a key element in solving the mystery is the script's most masterful idea, but I also rather liked the moment when, while combing through the supposedly haunted house, Daly spies a drawing covered up by drywall and proceeds to chip away at it, slowly revealing the picture. That being said, the script by Argento and Bernardino Zapponi seems overlong: running 126 minutes in its uncut version, the picture has noticeably sluggish pace to it, with distracting moments of comic relief and romance interrupting the unfolding mystery. It's not at all surprising that some 22 minutes were hacked from the original Italian version of the film when it was imported to the US.
Profondo Rosso's almost dream-like atmosphere is complimented by truly magnificent sound design. Squeaking shoes, the ringing of phones, blustery wind, cackling birds, wailing childrens voices, and more figure into the ambient soundscape of various key scenes, and it's typically these background sounds that create the dark and unsettling mood which hangs over the film. Especially nifty are a few moments in which Daly attempts to talk on a phone – it seems the man can't get a word out without being interrupted by racket of every sort.
Also worth mentioning is the film's soundtrack. Originally, composer Giorgio Gaslini was attached to the picture, but a disagreement with Argento led to progressive rock band The Cherry Five being brought in to record the music. The band permanently changed their name to Goblin around this time and the rest is history: Goblin went on to provide extremely memorable scores for numerous horror and action-oriented films, and Profondo Rosso became one of the best-selling horror movie soundtracks of all time. The music here ranges from typical '70s progressive rock to more spooky cues. I think the main title is probably the best track – when the rhythm kicks in, the viewer knows something bad is about to happen...
All in all, Profondo Rosso is a worthwhile flick and a prototypical giallo that stands as one of the best of the genre. Still, it's overlong in my opinion, and isn't nearly as much fun as either Argento's best (the very spooky, if somewhat incomprehensible, Suspiria) or my favorite giallos (among which would be Umberto Lenzi's Seven Blood-Stained Orchids and Spasmo, the proto-slashers Bay of Blood and Torso, and the super-sleazy 1972 Delirium). Fans of Argento's work or Italian genre cinema should absolutely check this film out though: its combination of mystery elements with graphic horror violence helped solidify the path that many subsequent horror films (Halloween and Friday the 13th among them) would follow.
Blood & Guts = 7/10
Smack Talk = 1/10
Fap Factor = 1/10
Cult Appeal = 6/10
The More You Know = “But... I'm just trying to understand, because... You know, sometimes what you actually see and what you imagine... get mixed up in your memory like a cocktail... from which you can no longer distinguish one flavor from another.”
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