Decades Blogathon – Deep Red (1975)

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It’s day seven of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the singular Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Anna at Film Grimoire. Anna’s voice is very distinctive and you could do a lot worse than to check out her great looking site.

I love giallo films – a genre defined as a murder mystery style of film, generally Italian-made, which contains a lot of blood, guts, and eroticism.

Deep Red Poster

So when it came time for the Decades Blogathon, and I saw that Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) would qualify for it, I knew I had to write about it. Deep Red, along with Suspiria (1977) and Tenebrae (1982), is probably one of Argento’s best known films; and for good reason, as it’s super creepy and probably one of my favourite horror films of all time.

Deep Red, also called Profondo Rosso or The Hatchet Murders, is a brutal giallo with a killer twist at the end that few could predict. Its plot is as follows:

Deep Red

A musician (David Hemmings) witnesses the murder of a famous psychic, and then teams up with a feisty reporter (Daria Nicolodi) to find the killer while evading attempts on their lives by the unseen killer bent on keeping a dark secret buried.

Our film begins with a stabbing murder in front of a Christmas tree, with sing-song, child-like music in the background. We see a child’s shoes and knee-high socks come into view, and the faceless child picks up the knife – did the child kill this as yet unknown victim?

I loved this beginning sequence as it sets the tone for the whole film. It’s such a disturbing thought, particularly as the child-like music from this initial moment is repeated throughout the film whenever a murder is about to occur. Are we watching a horror film where the murderer is a child? Argento excels at these kinds of mind games with his viewers.

Deep Red

It must be said that you cannot fault the direction by Argento. The direction is amazing, with some truly creepy shots where the camera pulls back to reveal a wider scene, with moving shadows that add a new layer of threat. Argento is truly the master of lingering on scenes or objects and making them feel extremely threatening as a result. There were a number of moments that stuck out for me as excellent in terms of their direction; namely, one particular shot that was focused on a single bead of sweat on our protagonist’s forehead, a slow zooming in on the protagonist as he plays the piano as if we are the killer focusing in on him, and overall the camera’s movement steadily throughout the film as if it’s a stalker looking for its victims.

You can say a lot about giallo films being exploitative and cheesy (which most of them are), but Argento’s direction is truly classy; which is often at odds with the film’s gratuitous violence, creating a strange dichotomy within the film. I love it.

As per other giallo films, Argento has made use of cheap actors and then overdubbed them with professional-sounding American and British voices. The dubbing in Deep Red is not as bad as some other giallos I’ve seen and the lips generally match up with the voices, although there were a couple of bad moments. I would say that the performances by our lead actors David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi are not necessarily great; but honestly, that’s part of the fun with giallo films – the performances aren’t Oscar-worthy, but the overall story and art of the genre is what you watch the films for.

Some interesting trivia tidbits about the film – firstly, it was largely filmed in Turin, Italy, as Argento found out that there were more practicing Satanists living there than in any other European city. I love little facts like this as it shows that Argento is looking for just the right settings for his masterpieces on an ideological level rather than just a visual level.

Deep Red

Another example of Argento’s thoughtfulness is the methods of murders in the film, if that makes sense. Argento knew that a lot of people couldn’t relate to being shot, as many victims in horror films are, but could certainly relate to being cut or being burnt by scalding hot water. It’s this layer of Argento’s understanding of and empathy with his viewers that makes Deep Red a truly effective horror film in terms of its ability to shock and scare.

Creatively, Deep Red is a huge success. The music by progressive rock band Goblin is perfect as usual, this film being their first collaboration with Argento. Argento’s favourite colour red is an ongoing motif, with curtains, furniture, and the regular splashes of blood being different shades of red.

There is amazing set design throughout, as Argento seems to love showing his viewers the insides of gorgeous Italian apartments, mansions and villas. My favourite example of the top-notch set design is within the psychic’s apartment – paintings of ghostlike, creepy faces line the hallway, making it feel as if the killer could pop out at any moment. We regularly see from the killer’s point of view and watch his or her gloved hand reaching out to attack their victims, adding to this creepiness.

One really great question with regards to this film is, why did I choose to watch it alone at night-time? Deep Red is profoundly creepy, particularly certain scenes set in ominous-looking houses where the killer could be anywhere.

I love Deep Red because it’s one of those horror films where I would bet that you won’t be able to pick who the murderer is from the beginning. The ending is a big, brutal surprise, and I love Argento’s method of dropping a plot bomb and then going straight to the credits, giving little to no closure for his viewers.

Deep Red is a classic giallo that must be seen by horror film aficionados everywhere. Creatively, it is a stunner. Above all, it’s a very unsettling film, and that’s exactly why I love Argento’s work.


Review – Berberian Sound Studio

There’s something wonderfully outrageous about fruit and vegetables being used by serious, technically-gifted individuals to represent the sound of a body slamming onto the ground or a neck being broken.

It’s a side of filmmaking normally hidden from the audience, a process that takes place long after the cameras have stopped rolling and the actors have moved on to other projects.

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio – “a masterclass in sustained dread”

In director Peter Strickland’s astonishing Berberian Sound Studio, this is turned completely on its head, wherein the mechanics of sound reproduction (known as foley) take precedence. Moreover, Strickland sets the film in the 1970s, when warm and fuzzy analogue equipment like tape recorders and magnetic tape was used, in contrast to the clinical digital apparatus employed today.

Strickland used a modest inheritance and relocated to Transylvania to shoot Katalin Varga, a striking, outré revenge drama that marked him out as one to watch. The writer/director has taken a massive leap forward with his sophomore feature, a head-spinning psychological horror-thriller that plunges buttoned up sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) into a frenzied whirlpool of his own making.

Gilderoy has flown from Britain to Italy to work on The Equestrian Vortex, what he assumes is the sort of nature documentary he has made his stock in trade from his garden shed in Dorking.

Unbeknownst to him, The Equestrian Vortex is in actuality a sadistic, stomach-churning giallo horror film, the sort of supernaturally-charged splatter-fests made famous by such maestros of the genre as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

Toby Jones as Gilderoy in Berberian Sound Studio

As the images of torture, rape and mutilation are projected to Gilderoy for the first time, we see his facial reaction contort between voyeuristic intrigue and disgust. All the audience sees of the film are its opening credits, with its blood-red palette and shots of terrified women.

Sitting alongside the film’s irritable, unforgiving producer Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) in the claustrophobic sound studio, he goes to work recording marrows being hacked to pieces, cabbages being stabbed and radishes having their tops violently ripped off (all of which are left to rot in a none-too subtle moment of symbolism). He also records the bone-chilling screams of several women, in particular the paranoid Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), who is angry for allowing herself to be exploited by the film’s suave, oily director Santini (Antonio Mancino) and warns Gilderoy against making the same mistake.

A homesick stranger in a strange land, he gradually finds himself being dragged deeper into the cesspool of moral filth and degradation that is playing out on screen and clings onto letters from his mother describing the untainted day-to-day mundanities his increasingly fractured psyche is losing a grip of.

Gilderoy allows his work to overwhelm him, in much the same way as Gene Hackman’s suveilance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation, and before long he’s no longer able to differentiate between reality and his nightmarish paranoia where each disturbing sound is amplified and the silence is almost as deafening.

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Psychological horror at its very best in Berberian Sound Studio

Strickland fearlessly takes his protaganist  into a vortex of his own making and nods to David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the way he portrays Gilderoy’s mental breakdown on screen. It’s deeply unsettling stuff, rivetingly played by Jones in a career-best turn. Jones has one of those faces that can exude gentility and cruelty at the same time (if ever a remake of 10 Rillington Place was made, he would be perfect as unassuming serial killer John Christie) and we’re left to make our own mind up as to whether Gilderoy’s experiences have corrupted him or merely held a mirror to the darkness he (and we) fear has always been there.

The process of producing the sounds are as lovingly shot as the equipment on which they are recorded (Strickland holds the camera on tape spools or the analogue sound desk). In spite of the film’s suffocating grip, there are many moments of black humour and scenes of real beauty, in particular when Gilderoy shows his colleagues how he can create the sound of a UFO by scraping a light bulb against a wire brush.

For a film where sound is everything, foley artist Heikki Kossi must get special mention, while ethereal electro band Broadcast provide a suitably haunting score.

Utterly unique, Berberian Sound Studio is a masterclass in sustained dread and the first of what could well be a slew of masterpieces from this vital, gifted filmmaker.