Opening with a scene set at Christmas, in a family room decorated with holiday trimmings and a tree, the shadows of two people entangled in a struggle fill the empty spaces on the wall until one is stabbed to death. A child screams and the bloodied knife drops to the floor. It’s a scene that gives a peak behind the curtains of the killer’s motivations before the narrative jumps ahead many years later. Though the main narrative and mystery has no affiliation with the holiday, Christmas is deeply ingrained in the killer’s psyche, making now a perfect time to revisit Dario Argento’s critically beloved film. Not that any reason is needed, of course.
After a trio of giallo films released between 1970-1971, Argento took a break from the genre to direct a comedy film. Deep Red marked his return, and with it came international success, critical acclaim, and a firm grasp of style. It’s not the director’s goriest film, but the kills are gruesome and memorable. The murder of celebrated psychic Helga is slow and excruciating; the final moments that has the killer impaling Helga’s neck on broken glass is demonstrative of Argento’s flair for fetishistic and intimate violence. Helga’s death was witnessed by jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), and he becomes obsessed with solving the crime.
Marcus teams up with reporter Gianna Brezzi, played by Argento’s partner at the time and frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi. Nicolodi would appear in many of Argento’s horror works during their relationship, and co-wrote Suspiria with him right after this film. During the investigation of Helga’s murders, Gianna and Marcus eventually fall for each other, heightening the stakes. Between their investigation and budding relationship, it takes a while for Deep Red to circle back around to the body count. That’s how well Argento has crafted the story; it’s not until around the 50-minute mark that the killer strikes again.
Luckily, the third act is filled with great death sequences. From a gruesome face boiling to a brutal face bashing against cornered edges, the kills are creative. The crowning glory being the character who gets hooked on a rebar, dragged down the street by a truck, and then has their head squashed by a car. It also helps that the killer has an affinity for toys and a calling card in the form of a children’s song. The mechanical doll that pops out at Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) as a distraction tactic is effectively creepy. The special effects were handled by Carlo Rambaldi, a renowned special effects artist who would go on to win Academy Awards for his work on Alien and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. In Deep Red, Rambaldi had to create several mechanical limbs and severed heads.
With vivid red hues, a mysterious trench coat and gloved killer, and creative deaths that brought the pain, Deep Red became a formative entry in giallo. The saturation of intense reds, camera work that refuses to stay static, and visually stunning set pieces, this film played an influence on notable horror directors like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Don Coscarelli. Argento explored childhood trauma, on Christmas no less, with crimson puddles of blood. Suspiria may have hogged much of the discourse on Argento’s career, but Deep Red is a masterpiece.