Deep Red & The Uncanny Argento

by Tony Nigro

There’s something about Italian genre films of the 1960s and ’70s that aren’t quite right. They appear to be cobbled together all too quickly for the basest international markets. They’re corny. They’re derivative. They often don’t make sense or, even worse, almost make sense. Their post-synch dialogue is unnerving and poorly mixed. Yet these films do have their occasionally spectacular visual displays, and so film nerds everywhere find joy in them.

Admittedly, I am one of those nerds.

Dario Argento’s Deep Red lumbers along as so many gialli do, awkwardly between dynamic, violent set pieces. In between such sequences is an abundance of acid-tinged art direction, otherworldly mise-en-scène, and clunky post-synch dialogue.

The big picture, however, is just Psycho without a twist: gender-bending murder stuff of which psychology papers are made. And we’re never misled to believe that anyone in particular did it. For the trained eyes out there, the killer’s face is even revealed in a mirror as our hero (David Hemmings, less the model he was in Blow Up) investigates the film’s first murder. Everything is on the table from the beginning, at least all that Argento wants there to be, and the audience is left to sit back and enjoy the madness: wickedly fun/corny murder scenarios, a guilty pleasure score by Goblin, and screwball comedy hijinks between Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in her obscenely tiny Euro-auto.

Ah, Argento. We keep coming back for more.

Wikipedia’s entry for the film there has a link to a scholarly essay by a guy named Paul Flanagan. The essay puts the film in the contexts of Sigmund Freud and Robin Wood. It’s all very clear and well organized with reference notes, as scholarly texts tend to be. If you want a step-by-step analysis of the film and Freud’s ideas on the uncanny, it’s the thing for you.

However, the essay skips the notion of the uncanny (“that which is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror”) as experienced when watching an Argento film. I mean the more visceral reactions to aesthetics that we have — the baroque art direction, the unease of Goblin’s Eurotrash synth, the unmotivated camera moves, the un-reality of post-synch dialogue. To me these add as much to the uncanny nature of Argento (and other Italian genre films). It’s a weird dread that creeps up behind you just as you’re asking yourself what the fuck is really going on, or why no one at the Blue Bar seems to be moving.

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