Technically speaking, 1975’s Deep Red (a.k.a. Profondo Rosso) isn’t about the supernatural. That isn’t a spoiler; Red is a giallo, an Italian thriller in which often insane, but utterly solid criminals commit awful crimes. Director and co-writer Dario Argento didn’t get into occult horror until his next feature, Suspiria, and Red serves as an informal bridge between that phase of his career and his early giallo phase, which included movies like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Four Flies On Gray Velvet. Like those early films, Red features gruesome murders, bright colors, and a mystery with a real-world solution. And as with those films, Red doesn’t truck with ghosts, witches, or any sort of inhuman monster. Yet it’s almost impossible to walk away from this story of a jazz pianist on the hunt for a killer without the impression something unusual just happened. After all, a house doesn’t need ghosts to be haunted.
David Hemmings stars as the pianist, an English musician in Rome who sees a psychic murdered in her apartment. The psychic had attracted someone’s ire during a speaking engagement in which she inadvertently got a glimpse of that someone’s mad past, and Hemmings, shaken by the violence of the crime he’s witnessed, becomes determined to track the murderer down and solve the case. It isn’t entirely clear what qualifications a musician would bring to such an endeavor, so he enlists the help of Daria Nicolodi, a reporter eager to make a name for herself. As the two engage in a playful battle of the sexes, the killer offs witnesses in a series of grisly setpieces whose sadism only increases as Hemmings and his girl Friday get closer to the truth.
That truth turns out to be relatively restrained for a giallo, and while Red sometimes stretches credibility, it holds together well, with a likeable, charming center that’s often missing in the genre. In a way, Red serves as a companion piece to Blow-Up, in which Hemmings also played an amateur sleuth in search of a crime, but where Blow-Up dealt in ambiguity and existential despair, Red has nothing so poignant in mind: It paints its themes in buckets of maroon and gore. Argento uses a solid script as a springboard for wonderfully creepy flights of fantasy, from the children’s song that plays before each death to the near-empty night streets of Rome to the scribbled drawings of an innocence lost. Through it all, the Goblin score pulses and jangles, and while it’s hard to find a justifiable reason why Hemmings sticks around as long as he does, in spite of the threats against him, it isn’t hard to sympathize. Who knew death could be this much fun?
Key features: The Italian and American cuts of the film, interviews with Argento, co-writer Bernardino Zapponi, and Goblin, as well as theatrical trailers and two music videos.