Slasher Saturdays: Deep Red

Deep Red, Official Trailer, YouTube, 00:45

My fellow slashaholics, we made it to the end of Gial-ly! This has been an interesting month of slashers we’ve looked at. From Argento’s Opera to Fulci’s extreme The New York Ripper, we have covered quite a few heavy hitters. Part of me didn’t want to do another Argento film while the other part of me had no clue what to cover for the final giallo film of July. After scrolling through many lists I noticed one film that many called the greatest giallo of them all: Deep Red. Like with Opera, I was sold from the cover alone. Out of all the giallo covers there seemed to be something really special about this one. Upon viewing it I realized, this giallo is unlike any other one. Remember how at the end of The New York Ripper I discussed how I wanted to end this month on one that really broke the mold? Looks like I found it!

Helga confronts the crowd at her conference as she reveals there is a killer in their midst
Deep Red, Official Trailer, YouTube, 00:18

Also known as The Hatchet MurdersDario Argento’s 1975 film Deep Red is considered by many to be one the best giallo films of all time, as well as one of his best. Deep Red follows pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who finds himself in a unique position as he attempts to discover who murdered famed telepath Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril). With help from journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), Marcus must do everything in his power to make sure the black-gloved killer does not strike again. Things soon take a dark turn when Marcus finds out the killer might be one of the people closest to him.

One of the more interesting angles of Deep Red is how it plays with the trope of male and female stereotypes in these types of films. Typically we find ourselves following a female protagonist who is tormented by a black-gloved killer, while the people closest to them are picked off one by one. In Deep Red, the main protagonist is a male, Marcus, while he is goaded and pushed by Gianna. Marcus starts the film off by trying to save Helga’s life, but he fails, and she is guillotined by a broken window. Gianna even messes with Marcus by taking his photo at the crime scene and makes him the headlining photo in the newspaper regarding the murder. When Marcus tells Gianna that women are naturally weaker and couldn’t handle the investigative work, she challenges him to an arm wrestling contest and absolutely destroys him. It was so nice to see this change of pace, but it kind of falls apart. Gianna is seen to be even more powerful and charismatic when she is in the news office when she stops someone walking by, grabs them by the ear, rips off a piece of paper from their notebook, jots down a note, and sends them on their way. From here Gianna basically falls by the wayside for the majority of the film after that. I was hoping there would be more of a back-and-forth, but she pretty much disappears until the third act.

Now, I think Argento did this purposefully, and whether it worked is up to interpretation. The ideas behind Deep Red feel fairly progressive as it talks about things like mental health, possibly domestic violence, and flipping gender roles. My thought from the arm wrestling scene forward was that Gianna was going to be the killer, and this is alluded to more in one of the final scenes of the film where Marcus and Gianna are at the school. There’s a lot of setup and misdirection about whether Gianna is the killer or not, the actual reveal kind of deludes all of this. This was a similar feeling I had towards The New York Ripper with their misdirection, but it does feel like it works better in Deep Red because the ideas and visuals were more captivating.

The black-gloved killer grabs a wire fence
Deep Red, Official Trailer, YouTube, 00:25

Does the killer reveal work? Again, this is completely subjective. I can see how it would work for some and not for others. The reveal that Martha (Clara Calamai) is the killer really feels like it comes out of left field, but it all kind of feels justified. This means Martha would have been in attendance at Helga’s telepathy conference. Remembering back to the opening, there is a childlike song playing when Carlo watches his father get killed. So Helga bringing up the song when she is reading minds at the conference is probably what spurred Martha into her killing spree. And when Marcus starts investigating the murders, Martha realizes she has to do everything in her power to make sure he doesn’t get to the truth. When Marcus finally finds out the truth we get the false killer reveal of Carlo. Out of all of the giallo films I have seen, I think this is one of the few twisting stories that actually makes sense.

Unlike a lot of giallo films, there is no sex, and only a frame’s worth of nudity. Seeing someone like Argento take such a restrained approach with his eccentric storytelling makes it feel as if he knew that he struck oil with this script. Rather than the usual hack-and-slash nudity-filled films of this subgenre, Deep Red takes more of a character study approach where the kills act more as a conduit for the storytelling. It’s impressive to see someone who made a film like Opera and Suspiria, two films in the same subgenre, make such a critically respectable film.

The kills in Deep Red are significantly bloody and brutal, but far more reserved than any other giallo film of the time. If I had to pick a best kill I would probably have to say the opening kill of Helga is the most brutal, while the murder of Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra) is more extreme and cruel. What I appreciate about Deep Red is how it really isn’t about the killings. As I said earlier, the kills are more of a conduit used to tell the story, so while we do get a handful of kills, they are nowhere near as bloody and nasty as they could have been. This enhanced my enjoyment of the film as we spend more time on the intricate story, rather than every scene being another setup to get us to the next kill.

There is one thing I don’t understand. Maybe I missed something, or maybe it’s just used as symbolism. In quite a few scenes there is heavy doll imagery. We get a doll hanging from a noose in Amanda’s house, and we also get an animatronic doll that startles some people. I tried taking some time to think this over, and I didn’t want to look up what the dolls mean. If it is symbolism for something I couldn’t pick up on it. Does it stand for Carlo’s loss of innocence? Or is Martha just obsessed with dolls? All I do know is it was pretty creepy and added another level of horror to the story.

Marcus looks at the body of Amanda, after she's been drowned in scolding hot water
Deep Red, Official Trailer, YouTube, 00:35

Deep Red was a film that had been on my list for quite some time, and I’m glad I waited until now to watch it. It’s a deep film that stands out from the plethora of giallos. Argento is known to be one of the kings of the giallo subgenre and with a film like Deep Red, it shows he was never afraid to completely flip the idea of a giallo film on its head. It takes a true understanding of the craft to make a film like this. Argento somehow took a three hundred page script and turned it into one of the highest-rated giallo films of all time. If there’s one thing I learned through a month of giallo films it’s that I really need to watch more of them.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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