Deep Red / The Hatchet Murders / The Deep Red Hatchet Murders/ Profundo Rosso (1975/1976) *
You want an embarrassing confession? Well, try this on for size… Not only had I never seen Deep Red until now, but I’d never seen any of Dario Argento’s pure gialli in their entirety. For that matter, I’m not even completely sure which ones I’ve seen in fragmentary form. That’s a huge gap in my cinematic education, especially given my interest in the evolution of the slasher movie, and the weird thing is, I can’t even really explain it. I liked Creepers, I liked Suspiria, and I liked what bits and pieces I saw of whatever those other movies were, so why wouldn’t I make some effort to seek out the rest of the Argento catalog? Deep Red seemed like a good starting point for filling in my Argento blank, for several reasons. First of all, I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen even a single second of footage from it, making it a maximally appropriate subject for the “Shame of the B-Masters” roundtable. Secondly, most of the Argento fans I know single it out as his best giallo, and this has been a pretty grueling update so far in terms of finding things to say about movies for which I have no strong feelings one way or the other. I was really hankering after something either exceptionally good or exceptionally crappy. The decisive factor was much more prosaic than any of that, though— I already owned a copy of Deep Red as part of one of those massive DVD box sets from Mill Creek Entertainment, so I wouldn’t have to spend any more time or money tracking it down.
Now I want you to pay special attention to that last part, because it might go some way toward accounting for the vast disparity between my assessment of Deep Red and seemingly everybody else’s. The source print for my DVD was not in good shape (in fact, I’m pretty sure it was a VHS tape with slight tracking problems), and the disc presents a pan-and-scan version of a film by a director famous for making the fullest possible use of a wide screen. Also, what I watched was the picture’s American edit, which may be even more significant. The original US distributors of Argento’s movies tinkered a lot with them, deleting great swaths of dialogue and frequently reshuffling whole scenes in the hope of creating a quicker pace and a more linear structure. Deep Red lost almost half an hour to this practice, slimming down from 126 minutes in its home country to just 98 over here. Interestingly, the shorter US cut has vocal partisans, and even many fans who prefer the original concede that the American version suffers relatively little from the excisions. Be that as it may, however, Deep Red, in the form in which I saw it, did not impress me. Indeed, it’s been a very long time since I watched a movie this technically accomplished that was simultaneously so utterly stupid and nonsensical.
Before the credits, there’s a murder— but we don’t really get to see it. All we know is that somebody stabs someone else repeatedly with a carving knife, and that there’s a child present, either as a witness or as a participant. Also, the kid might be singing while the stabbing occurs, because the whole scene is overlain with almost indescribably annoying “la-la-la” music. An unspecified amount of time later, the European Congress on Parapsychology assembles in a huge, swank auditorium somewhere for a presentation by Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri). Giordani is showing off his favorite research subject, a Baltic German Jew from Lithuania by the name of Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril, of Night Train Murders and Sins in the Country). Mrs. Ulmann is a telepath, as she demonstrates by telling various members of the audience what they’re thinking or what they have in their pockets. All pretty standard stuff until Helga makes contact with the mind of somebody sitting out past the overhead spotlights (where no one on the stage can see more than suggestions of shadows), and begins freaking out. She doesn’t catch the person’s identity, and whoever it is leaves the auditorium shortly thereafter, but the person with whom the psychic brushed minds had committed murder some time in the past. Helga even caught snatches of conversation from the moment of the slaying (which we can probably assume to be the one we sort of saw a few minutes ago). After everything settles down again, Giordani asks Helga to write down everything that she perceived while in contact with the killer’s consciousness.
Giordani never gets to see those notes. Plainly fearing that Helga learned enough to make a positive ID, the killer tracks her to her apartment, hacks her up with a meat cleaver, and makes off with her written statement. However, the assassin doesn’t land a killing stroke until Ulmann is standing at her window, and the conclusion to the crime is observed by professional pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, from Lola and Eye of the Devil). Marcus had been chatting with his extremely drunk friend, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, of Inferno and Revenge of the Dead), outside the bar across the street, and he happened to look up at just the right time. Marcus lives not just in the same building as Helga, but indeed in the flat directly above hers, and he rushes to her room at once when he sees her under attack. The rescue comes too late, though. Helga is dead and her killer gone by the time Daly makes it up to the building’s penultimate floor, and he can do no more than give a statement to Police Superintendent Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) when he and his men arrive on the scene.
Calcabrini does not inspire a lot of confidence. Like the police in Cry of the Werewolf or Murders in the Rue Morgue, he seems nearly desperate for a conclusion to jump to, so perhaps that’s why Daly latches onto newspaper reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, from Mother of Tears and Shock) the way he does. At the very least, the superintendent’s unimpressive performance at the crime scene is the only thing we get even faintly resembling an explanation for why Marcus suddenly goes all Miss Marple on us. He brings Gianna (who develops an insta-crush on Marcus even less explicable than his emergent passion for crime-solving) along with him to Helga’s funeral, where she points out Giordani and his supposedly clairvoyant colleague, Bardi (Piero Mazzinghi, of The Night Porter and Curse of the Red Butterfly), among the mourners. From those two, Daly learns about the incident at the Parapsychology Congress meeting, providing him with his first clue to the mystery. Another falls into place when the killer hears on the TV news that the police have a witness— a pianist who lives in the same building as the victim— and pays a second visit to the apartment in the hope of tying up that rather serious loose end. For reasons that make sense only if you’re an Italian screenwriter, the murderer feels compelled to bring along a cassette player and a recording of a child singing to set the mood for a slaughter, and although Daly manages to fend off his attacker without ever getting a look at him or her, he hears the song clearly enough to identify it later. And yes, it is indeed the same song that was playing during the pre-credits murder sequence.
Marcus meets up again with Giordani and Bardi after his narrow escape, bringing with him his own recording of the killer’s theme song (which he purchased at a record store catering to children). Giordani opines that the murderer associates that melody with his or her original crime, and might actually need to hear it in order to be psychologically capable of killing. Meanwhile, Bardi reminds the others that Helga said something about a house when she went into her trance onstage, and launches onto a credulity-herniating tangent connecting the song and the house with a folktale he read once in a book called The Modern Ghost and Black Legends of Today. Apparently Bardi thinks the folk legend and the present nastiness both grew out of the same incident, although there’s no convincing reason why he ought to. With that in mind, Marcus looks up first the book, and then its author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra, from Diary of a Cloistered Nun); at first, he seems to want Gianna to follow up that lead, but we won’t actually be seeing her again in any remotely useful capacity until the final act. Nor, in point of fact, do Daly or Giordani ever succeed in touching base with Amanda directly, because the killer gets to her first. Then comes Giordani’s turn, leaving Marcus alone on his hunt for all practical purposes.
Daly does turn up one new clue, however, during what was supposed to have been his interview with Righetti. Among the slain author’s papers was a photograph of a huge old villa, which Marcus decides must be the setting for his adversary’s criminal debut. (It isn’t as though there weren’t probably three-dozen other haunted houses mentioned in Righetti’s book, right?) The place is abandoned now, but Marcus eventually manages to hunt down Rodi the surly caretaker (Furio Meniconi, from Vulcan, Son of Jupiter, and The Snow Devils) and his lizard-torturing daughter, Olga (Nicoletta Elmi, of Baron Blood and Flesh for Frankenstein). These two weirdos confirm Daly’s suspicions about the old Schwartz place, and even let him in to have a look around. It takes him all day and most of the night, but Marcus eventually turns up a wall where a bizarre and violent mural, obviously painted by a child, has been covered up with a layer of plaster, and more importantly, an entire room that has been cleverly concealed from sight both inside and out. Inside that room, he finds a dead body that must be a decade or more old, but before he can do anything about his discovery, somebody whacks him on the head and sets the villa on fire. Marcus owes his survival to the timely arrival of Gianna, who evidently has finally decided that she really ought to do something to justify her continued presence in the movie.
Now it’s back to the caretaker’s place (after all, Rodi will probably want to know that the building he gets paid to look after is burning merrily to the ground), where it turns out that Olga has a drawing in her possession that duplicates almost exactly the painting Marcus found under the plaster at the Villa Schwartz. Marcus assumes at first that Olga must have copied it from the hidden mural, but the model for her drawing was actually something she saw in the archive at her elementary school when she was assigned to help clean the place up some time ago. He and Gianna rush over to the school, assuming that if they can figure out who drew the original, then they’ll also know who’s been running around killing people of late.
This is the point at which I give everything away; if you want to be surprised by any of the idiotic shit that happens during Deep Red’s final phase, then it would be wise to stop reading now. Gianna and Marcus split up so as to make life easier for the killer (who, I remind you, has managed to reach every destination on their search for clues either immediately before or immediately after them— why would the elementary school be any different?), and by the time Daly has dug up the drawing he’s looking for, Gianna has been stabbed in the gut with a great, big knife. “It was…” she gasps as she dies, to which Marcus (exhibiting a nearly schizoid absence of emotion) replies, “I know. Carlo.” Carlo, of course, is standing right behind Marcus with a pistol as this scene transpires, and if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’ll jump up and exclaim, “Oh, bullshit!!!! Fuck you, movie! There is no fucking way in cocksucking hell that Carlo is the killer! He was standing on the goddamned street with Marcus getting his drink on while Helga was being murdered!” The good news is, the filmmakers are fucking with us, and the patent impossibility of Carlo being the original killer (although it’s safe to assume that he’s the one who stabbed Gianna and burned down the Villa Schwartz) is about to become a plot point. The bad news is, Marcus is too fucking dense to figure that out until after the showdown with Carlo has led to the latter man’s death, and Marcus himself is walking down the hallway to his flat thinking the whole thing is over. Shortly after getting hit with that clue club, he suddenly grasps the significance of a point that the film has stubbornly refused to do anything with since Daly’s interview with Superintendent Calcabrini. You see, the corridors of Daly’s apartment building are lined for some unfathomable reason with hundreds upon hundreds of slightly abstract paintings depicting crowds of ghoulish, grimacing faces, and when Marcus spoke to the detective, he mentioned that it seemed to him as though one of them had gone missing in between his arrival at Helga’s flat and the cops’. There were no gaps in the arrangement of the frames, though, and Calcabrini doesn’t seem to have followed up on that piece of testimony. (Of course, he doesn’t seem to have followed up on anything else, either, but that’s a separate issue.) Now, Marcus realizes that what he thought was a painting was in fact a mirror, reflecting the face of the killer— the face of Carlo’s batty mother, Martha (Aphrodite, Goddess of Love’s Clara Calamai). Carlo’s batty mother, Martha, who is conveniently standing behind him with a deadly weapon at exactly that moment, just as Carlo had been at Olga’s school. Martha considerately takes a moment before launching her attack to explain (although we experience her explanation as a flashback) that when Carlo was a child, his father had wanted Martha to return to the mental hospital where she had evidently been confined some time before. Martha wasn’t having any of that, so she stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife, and Carlo has been helping her guard her secret ever since. We then resume our climax, already in progress.
It isn’t as bad as the “killer we’ve never seen before” reveal, but making Martha the villain still helps place Deep Red within the worst tradition of lazy and slipshod mystery writing. We’ve seen her on two occasions previously, but all we know about her is that she somehow got it into her head that Marcus was an engineer, and that she now refuses to be told differently even by Marcus himself. Unless you, too, register the brief glimpse of her face in the mirror as Marcus hurries to Helga’s room (which you won’t if you’re watching a pan-and-scan edition— only the very edge of the mirror makes it into the frame), you’ll find absolutely no reason to suspect her of anything throughout the rest of the film. Nor, for that matter, are we presented any reason to suspect Carlo of being her accomplice. Then again, we shouldn’t be too surprised about a lack of clues pointing specifically to the culprits, because clues as such are almost entirely absent from Deep Red to begin with. Oh, there are things that the movie puts forward as if they were clues, but few of them mean anything in and of themselves, serving rather to launch one character or another off on a new wild goose chase that will put them into coincidental possession of a new bogus non-clue until Marcus eventually blunders accidentally upon completely the wrong solution to the mystery. The sole instance in which a genuine clue leads in a logical manner to a relevant discovery comes when Daly notices a major discrepancy between the photo of Villa Schwartz that he found at Amanda Righetti’s house and the façade that the building shows today, revealing the existence of the walled-up room where Mr. Schwartz lies interred. Otherwise, the whole expanse between Daly’s failed attempt to rescue Mrs. Ulmann and his final “Oh— whoops!” recognition in the hallway is a totally meaningless waste of time. Now, it’s possible that was the point, but in light of the thoroughgoing disregard for logic displayed by every other element of Deep Red, I’m inclined to say that it’s giving Argento and fellow screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi altogether too much credit to propose that they had a point outside of “Wouldn’t it be neat if we showed somebody being killed like this?”
For starters, why in the hell is Marcus making it his business to solve the crime at all, beyond the fact that we sort of wouldn’t have a movie here if he didn’t? Conservatory piano instructor is hardly a skill set that lends itself to bringing murderers to justice, you know. I can see Gianna getting involved. After all, getting to the bottom of things is a journalist’s job as much as it is a detective’s, and her interaction with Calcabrini in Helga’s flat establishes that the two of them neither like nor respect each other. But Gianna never does any investigating! She contributes only by showing up to pull Marcus from the burning villa, and by belatedly becoming a half-hearted red herring. (Gianna and the killer wear the same eyeliner, you see. So, for that matter, does Carlo’s drag-queen boyfriend, who exists for absolutely no purpose except to wear the same eyeliner as the killer.) Also, even if we accept a pianist getting a bug up his ass to moonlight as a sleuth, why does he do so in a way that might as well be purpose-designed to make him look like a suspect? From what I’ve read, the Italian edit explicitly raises the issue that people tend to wind up dead the second Marcus takes an interest in them, but never follows through by having Calcabrini come after him; in the American version, the police just straight-up disappear after that first scene at Helga’s place. Either way, the failure of Daly to share his information with the police and of Calcabrini to treat him as the number-one suspect in the absence of such cooperation has the effect of making both teams of crime-solvers look almost supernaturally incompetent.
The killer (or killers— the precise extent of Carlo’s role is never properly established), by contrast, is too good at her job to be believed. Except for that one time when the TV news tips her off that a neighbor saw her killing Helga, Martha never has any credible way of knowing what she’d need to in order to stay abreast of Daly’s investigation. Carlo obviously isn’t telling her what Marcus is up to (although I think we’re supposed to believe he is), because Marcus clearly isn’t telling Carlo. And because none of the “clues” driving that investigation have any sensible connection to the case, we can’t even chalk it up to Martha seeing the big picture while Marcus does not. Right up front, she’d have to imagine that anybody in authority would take a so-called psychic’s word for it that she briefly linked minds with a killer. Not bloody likely, says I. Now consider the rest of the “evidence” that Martha would have to know about and seek to hide. She would have to know that the house where she killed her husband was reputed to be haunted. She would have to know that the manifestations reported there included phantom recitals of the music Carlo was listening to while she committed the crime. She would have to know that Amanda Righetti had collected the legend of Villa Schwartz in her book. She would have to know that Bardi had read that book and mentioned it to Daly. She would have to know that Carlo handed in a study for his wall mural as an assignment in art class, and that Leonardo da Vinci Elementary School would still be hanging onto it x years later. She would have to know that Olga had found and copied that drawing, and that she kept it displayed someplace where Marcus might see it. At best, Martha might know one or two of those things, but one or two is not enough to account for her actions in opposition to the investigation.
Against these glaring defects of both narrative cohesion and genre integrity, Deep Red has basically one thing to offer in its favor— it looks nice. Even in the crappy cheap-ass edition I saw, it definitely does look nice. Argento’s famously operatic murders have tremendous visual impact even at their silliest; in fact, the most ridiculous of the bunch (in which Giordani’s death by repeated face-smashing is inexplicably preceded by a feint-attack from a puppet that would do any killer-dummy movie proud) is also the most impressive. The rest of the movie is thrown into a curious stylistic balance by the drastic scaling back of the Mario Bava-inspired, color-drenched lighting that Argento so often employed during this phase of his career, even as his equally characteristic squiggly camera movements and busy employment of the frame’s periphery come into full bloom. Deep Red occasionally manages to look 60’s-dreamy and 70’s-gritty at the same time. None of Argento’s visual flimflam can solve Deep Red’s problems, though, and sometimes it even makes things worse. A similar combination of surreal imagery and nightmare anti-logic worked wonders in Suspiria two years later, but in that movie, the killers were a nearly immortal witch and her coven. Here, they’re a dotty old lady and her lethally protective son, and the prosaic nature of the threat never jibes with the movie’s tone.
Something similar could be said of Goblin’s music (their first score for a Dario Agrento movie), which frequently seems to have been composed and arranged completely without reference to the action onscreen. The most glaring example comes during Marcus Daly’s wholly unnecessary attempt to break through the outside wall concealing the window to Mr. Schwartz’s tomb. Goblin seemingly get so caught up in the raucous “danger!” groove that begins when Daly loses his footing on the portico overhang that they don’t notice him grabbing onto a downspout and hoisting himself to safety. They just keep right on wailing away like he’s still scrabbling for a hand-hold with his ass out in the wind. Blaring crescendos go on long after their purposes have been served, scenes that were plainly designed to be suspenseful get paired with spasmodic jazz-funk fusion noodling better suited to a car chase through Harlem, and in general, I’m at a loss to imagine a movie for which the Deep Red score would be appropriate— unless possibly there were such a thing as sci-fi blaxploitation behind the Iron Curtain. And if you want to know the truth, I’d much rather have spent the 98 minutes I devoted to Deep Red on some hypothetical Yugoslavian sci-fi blaxploitation flick instead.
This review is part of a deeply embarrassing B-Masters Cabal roundtable in which we self-appointed “experts” own up to some of the movies that we certainly ought to have seen, but hadn’t. Click the link below to read my colleagues’ confessions.