For the first entry in our hidden gems series, in which writers offer their case for reappraisal of lost masterpieces, Alex Enaholo takes on Giallo with Dario Argento’s Deep Red.
When I was 13 years old and watching Scream for the first time, everything about it called to me. The excessive violence - I mean, who uses a comically large knife in the kind of place where literally everyone owns a gun? - the mystery, the race against time. It was just like Scooby Doo. Above all, I was enthralled by the fundamental campness of it all; the over-the-top costumes, the litres and litres of obviously fake blood, the overstated music, the camera angles, and even the plot. After I finished it, I watched Scream 2, 3 and 4. Then I watched I Know What You Did Last Summer, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. I watched all of their sequels and remakes.
They got bad. Quickly. I saw Jason Vorhees cut about outer space; I discovered that Michael Myers had been cursed to kill certain people each year in order to save the universe (this was swiftly forgotten by the next movie); I even saw Freddy v Jason starring Kelly Rowland, which I actually quite enjoyed. What I didn’t enjoy was the repetition. The thrill was gone, the movies got lazier and worse over time. So, instead of waiting for Halloween Kills (which is both Halloween 2 and Halloween 12 all at once), I decided to turn to the birthplace of slasher horror, which (along with the rest of western culture) was Italy.
Before John Carpenter supposedly invented slasher cinema with 1977’s Halloween, there was Giallo; an Italian sub-genre of crime films involving disguised killers, mystery plots and unashamed ultraviolence. The name, stemming from the yellow covers of the pulp novels which preceded the genre, doesn’t really define much apart from the vague tone of the films, and the fact that they were made in Italy roughly between 1960 and 1980. This means there is a Giallo for everyone: if you’re only interested in the sex and violence of Friday the 13th’s endless stream of sequels, try films like Death Knocks Twice; if you prefer arthouse cinema, try the beautiful yet borderline unintelligible Death Laid an Egg. If you enjoy more psychological thrillers like Gone Girl, then you’ll enjoy The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. But, the essential, and arguably the best Giallo is Dario Argento’s 1975 effort Deep Red (Profondo Rosso in Italian).
The film centres on an ex-pat pianist (David Hemmings) living in Rome, who witnesses the murder of his clairvoyant neighbour (Macha Meríl), and when the story is put on the front page of the newspaper by a journalist (Daria Nicolodi), they decide to work together to solve the murder, fearing either one of them could be next. What makes the film stand out is the combination of vivid characters - so often absent in horror - with deft plotting and experimental, eye-catching cinematography. The film was shot in technicolour, which leads to intense, hyperactive colour à la Wizard of Oz. The score, a prog-rock masterpiece by the Italian band Goblin (who would also provide the music for Argento’s most famous film, Suspiria) is full of eerie jazz-organ themes and sharp metal influences.
The film is worth watching for the costumes and makeup alone. Repeated closeups of eyes show off Gianni Morosi’s craft, with striking eyeliner and heavy mascara serving as a recurring motif on multiple characters. The costumes exemplify 70s style and Italian glamour with plenty of flowing skirts, boxy shirts, and countless leather belts, bags, and shoes, with each character having a distinct aesthetic - although there are a couple of quite questionable pairs of white chinos. Costumes in Argento’s later films would be designed by the likes of Giorgio Armani, but Deep Red’s outfits retain a D.I.Y charm. The best thing of all? It’s camp in the extreme. The movie is full of slapstick moments, overacted death scenes and the fake blood we all love.
More interesting than the cosmetic appearance of the film, however, are its themes and remarkably progressive attitude, especially considering that it was made in 1970s Italy. Daria Nicolodi’s character, Gianna, is a successful journalist and is shown on many occasions to be stronger, braver, more intelligent, and more rational than Marc, the male lead. In one scene, Gianna repeatedly beats Marc in an arm wrestle and in another, she pulls a male colleague’s hair to get his attention and then steals his notepad. Though small acts, they show a genuine interest in portraying a multi-faceted female character with her own agency. Gianna is not left as a damsel in distress for the male lead to rescue, a trope the film deftly reverses.
Another way in which the movie is quietly progressive is its portrayal of a gender non-conforming, effeminate gay man as just that. No agenda, no commentary on the evils of homosexuality, no Silence of the Lambs-esque suggestion that gender non-conforming people are psychopaths in waiting. This positive portrayal of LGBT+ individuals is preceded by Argento’s 1973 film Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
This isn’t to say that Deep Red, or Giallo as a genre, is without faults. The film perpetuates a dangerous stereotype of schizophrenia, and many Gialli revolve around plots which involve alarming portrayals of mental illness. The genre also comes under fire for being voyeuristic and taking too much delight in the violent death of young women - a cogent criticism which could also be applied to Anglo-American slashers of the 80s. The plots and production design of the films are very much of their time, yet the preeminent entries in the genre are still worth watching to this day. So, next time you are looking for a slasher film to watch, or a thriller, before you resign yourself to another episode of Scooby Doo, try a Giallo. Best of all, try Deep Red - I promise it doesn’t need subtitles.
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