Director: Dario Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento, Bernardino Zapponi
Producers: Claudio Argento, Salvatore Argento
Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 126 min/ 98 min
In Italian cinema, there is a fascinating genre known as the giallo. Giallo is Italian for yellow and refers to the yellow covers that characterised a popular series of cheap paperback mystery books in Italy from the 1920s onwards. Giallo films generally retain all the crime fiction whodunnit elements that were so popular in the novels that inspired them but also add generous amounts of horror and psychological thriller. The result of this marriage of genres tends to be vivid, operatic, sometimes ludicrous but always entertaining, blood-soaked nightmares. There are several directors associated with the giallo but none spring so readily to mind as the master of the genre, Dario Argento.
By the time he made Profondo Rosso, Argento had already dabbled in the giallo several times, starting with his debut film The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970). The influence of that film is apparent in Profondo Rosso, which borrows the plot point of a murder witness who struggles to recall a crucial detail he observed at a crime scene, but Profondo Rosso marks an important progression from Argento’s more realistic early work, towards an increasingly dreamlike, haunting atmosphere which places greater emphasis on the horror elements. In Profondo Rosso, Argento seems most interested in exploring this atmosphere, sometimes at the expense of narrative coherence. This matters little, however, when the result is such a thrilling exercise in the development of a master’s cinematic technique.
Undoubtedly, Profondo Rosso is severely flawed but it is, nonetheless, a flawed masterpiece. Upon first viewing, the audience may well pick out such problems as overlength, incongruous comedy, self-concious visual flourishes and an intrusive soundtrack (by Italian prog-rock supergroup Goblin!). However, these problems all become part of the movie’s charm if you’re willling to go with them rather than fight against them.
Profondo Rosso follows the reckless attempts of pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) and journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) to conduct an amateur investigation into a series of murders being carried out by an unseen, black-gloved killer. As the investigation progresses, the bodies pile up via several virtuoso murder sequences which saw Argento being compared to Hitchcock for his deft execution of these suspenseful set-pieces. The film keeps viewers rivetted with the steady unfolding of the whodunnit plot but Argento always knows just when it’s time to drop in one of these increasingly incredible and visually amazing scenes. Some moments seem to make very little sense, such as the film’s most famous image of a creepy-as-hell robotic doll, but they tend to be so cool that we forget to question their credibility and the nightmarish world Argento has built up houses them very neatly indeed.
Bloody and disturbing, the set-pieces also toy with elements of the ridiculous (as most horror unavoidably tends to) and Argento, rather than shying away from this, embraces it. Profondo Rosso features quite a few comedy moments. Marcus and Gianna are engaged in an ongoing battle of the sexes, in which the bigoted Marcus tries to prove that women are naturally the weaker sex, resulting in his repeated humiliation and childish frustration. These asides are refreshing and often genuinely amusing but Argento ultimately includes too many of them, making them seem like incongruous exiles from a romantic comedy. One of the reasons I am so drawn to Profondo Rosso is its refusal to take itself totally seriously as so many of these baroque 70s horrors often do, but there’s a limit. The scene in which Marcus gets a lift in Gianna’s cramped, dilapidated car, for instance, is a good little bit of slapstick but Argento replays it later in the film when the seriousness of the main plot is intensifying, making for an awkward segue.
The film’s soundtrack by Goblin tends to split critics right down the middle. Some find it mesmerizing and effective, others find it intrusive and ridiculous. I tend towards the former, although there are undoubted moments of the latter. For instance, a very effective early murder scene is made laughable by the sudden abrupt arrival of the forceful electronic score. However, for the most part this bold musical accompaniment perfectly compliments the visuals and lends the majority of sequences amazing power. The most memorable example of this is a beautiful early scene which Argento uses to establish Profondo Rosso‘s dreamlike atmosphere. Accompanied by Goblin’s uncanny music, Argento presents us with a close-up pan across a series of strange objects which will play a significant part in the story. Finally, the camera rests on a chilling image of the killer’s eye as dark make-up is carefully applied to it. It’s a jaw-droppingly effective moment which crystalises Profondo Rosso‘s magical appeal at an early stage.
To address the problems of overlength, there are actually several cuts of Profondo Rosso of varying length. The original Italian cut (which I suggest everyone see at least once) is a sprawling 2 hour+ affair which tries to include a good deal of silly comedy asides and a rather unconvincing romance between the two main characters. The version that I would recommend most is the 98 minute English dub. Although dubbed films have an unavoidably absurd air (hardly much of a problem in such an excessively bizarre film as this), the lopping out of over 20 minutes of extraneous material actually tightens up the pace of Profondo Rosso, as well as shrewdly removing the weaker comedic moments and all of the romantic subplot. I rarely approve of these butchered edits of films but in this case it improves the film immeasurably, maintaining it’s unique charm without losing anything worth mourning.
For a film I love and recommend so strongly, I seem to have spent the best part of this review apologising for Profondo Rosso. However, the point I hope I’ve made is that this horror landmark is a masterpiece both despite of and, to some extent, because of its ludicrous excesses. Horrific and hilarious, tense, gripping, occasionally stomach churning and completely unforgettable, Profondo Rosso will stay with you whether you like it or not. Whichever version you choose to watch, if you’re a fan of quality horror then you’re in for a blood-soaked treat.