Wednesday, August 10, 2011



I want to propose a methodology for looking at horror films, although it certainly need not be strictly confined to that genre alone. The method is this: consider the protagonist, and consider the menace, and imagine that the protagonist is at the center of the whole universe of the film and has somehow called the menace to him, has conjured it despite himself like a repressed dream. Now consider the protagonist at the beginning and the end of the film and the transformation that he has undergone, and often this is what indicates to us what the film is really about. What desire has called this horror, this one and not another? What emerges from him when he faces it, and what is shed to make way?

This is hardly an original approach, and it may not work in every single instance, but for me it certainly helps to crack Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece DEEP RED. A few notes on the film before we get any deeper. The film was made in 1975 and looks like it, which I mean as a compliment. It is often called Argento's best film, and though I do not like everything about it, I do think it is pretty terrific and one of the best giallos I have seen. It is basically a slasher movie, and though it attains transcendent heights that most of its peers do not approach, it adheres pretty close to the slasher premises. Getting your head around it will certainly provide some insight into that subgenre as a whole.

It is also the earliest Argento film to star an actor that I have seen in anything else (for whatever that's worth), the actor in question being David Hemmings a.k.a. Mr. Miserable a.k.a. The White Slacks King a.k.a. Frowny Starks. If I had infinite time, I would compile an epic montage of David Hemmings moping around and looking irritated and being unpleasant to women in movie after movie. I do not have infinite time, so you will have to do the research yourself, but trust me, the evidence is out there.

DEEP RED concerns a serious of imaginatively grisly murders committed by the requisite black-gloved killer. Ol' Black Gloves, you scamp! The whole affair is set in motion when a psychic catches a whiff of murder-mind in her audience and proceeds to publicly flip out. This psychic is of course the first victim to be dispatched, and the act is witnessed by conservatory pianist/perennial gloomboat David Hemmings. The rest of the film concerns his attempts to uncover the original crime while eluding a cleaver to the melon.

The thing unfolds in a surreal, baroque Italian cityscape, captured beautifully by Argento. Despite its miraculous ornamentation, it seems like a fairly miserable place. Figures sit on benches smoking idly, people stand unmoving in the nearly empty bar, the palate is all grays and pale greens and anemic blues and off whites, the characters move and speak with a sort of woodenness amid all their marvelous rooms. Can we blame Mr. Hemmings for being so dour? The absurd dub (I watched the American version) actually works in the film's favor, adding a further level of disembodiment between the characters and the words that come out of their mouths. The photography through most of the film is actually rather stagy; the camera fixes or slowly pans across meticulously composed sets as the characters awkwardly shuffle through them.

And suddenly the rigid composition breaks. It happens at moments of action, of revelation, of violence. Abruptly the camera spins in a frenzy to disorienting angles, the phantasmagoric theme erupts while diegetic sound attains a startling intensity. We must notice the camera during these moments; sometimes we are behind the killer's eyes and sometimes we are floating in the third person. This is not a HALLOWEEN perspective-of-the-killer trick. Rather, in these moments we are coming up against the walls of the stagnant symbolic order and passing over into the furious libidinal economy which churns beneath it like a swirling sewer. Water streams out of an open mouth, steam fills a room-- sudden explosions of elemental force intrude into the pacified civilized domain in discharges of repressed erotic and violent desire (note the steaming pot on the stove in the background of the origin-of-the-crime scene!). The signifier for all of this is, naturally, the "deep red" of the title, the red which surrounds our doomed psychic as she first senses the presence of murder and of the glowing ring of Hemmings' flashlight as he nears the hidden secret and of the blood that spurts over the rococo interiors. A red message glimpsed in a school lavatory: "KILL YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER". It may as well read "DEATH TO THE SYMBOLIC ORDER!"

"I'm the proletariat of the keyboard, and you're the bourgeoise," Hemmings is told by his drunken piano player friend/double Carlos, and this turns out to be the critical statement of the film. Poor, repressed David Hemmings! How isolated is he from the elemental, grounded in his plastic modernist hell filled with soulless set pieces, toying constantly with cigarettes that he never manages to smoke (his ashtrays are empty too)! Contrast this to the mad world of the killer, whose assortment of objects are cathexes of powerful energy. Can we blame him for being drawn to this world of primal violence?

(I will intrude here to say SPOILER ALERT sort of)

Much of the criticism I've seen regarding DEEP RED focuses on gender, which I am not very interested in, as the film's gender politics seem fairly incoherent to me. To that end, however, I will say that it seems relevant that the "original crime" involves the murder of the patriarch. It is this act that banishes Marta from the symbolic order (hetero-bourgeois-materialist) and strands her in its underbelly. Her pancake-makeup look seems kind of like a burlesque of the feminine object, the corpse of the iconic female.

(end spoiler alert)

Escape, David Hemmings! Escape wooden world, escape endless drudgery! Find power! Find desire! Find violence! He does, and by this is animated, and is immersed, at last glimpse, in deep red.

(This trailer is pretty super great, but gives away most of the kills and some of the plot as well, so I'm going to go ahead and SPOILER ALERT it for those who haven't seen the film and are interested in its intrigue as well as its sensual pleasure.)

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