I hope this isn’t oversharing, but my first Dario Argento movie was PROFONDO ROSSO, which we call DEEP RED here in the states. I don’t think I knew anything about it when I rented it on a mysterious, seedy looking VHS tape that called it “DEEP RED HATCHET MURDERS.” That’s not the worst title because it is, in fact, about a series of murders, though some of them are done with knives and not hatchets. So the “hatchet” part is kinda misleading. The plural on the “murders,” though, that part was dead on. There’s a bunch of them.
The story begins in Cronenbergian fashion as psychic medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) is doing a public demonstration of her skills, and is suddenly overcome when she senses evil thoughts by someone in the room. Our protagonist is David Hemmings (Dildano from BABARELLA) as British jazz pianist Marcus Daly, who happens to be walking beneath an apartment window as Helga is murdered in a genuinely shocking burst of violence (she’s hit from behind with… yeah, I guess it’s a hatchet, her head crashes through the window and then she drops-throat first onto the edge of the remaining glass. Ouch! And all up there on display like he’s watching an opera.
Whoever this unseen murderer is, he or she begins a spree, playing a recording of a creepy children’s song before each attack. I guess maybe it’s helpful that Marcus knows about music, because he begins to investigate the song, tries to remember what he saw when he ran up to try to help Helga, things like that, eventually leading him to a house where he literally digs for clues, chipping through a wall with a pickax until he discovers hidden secrets.
In many ways it’s a typical murder mystery story with a few extra creepy touches (example: the revelation of why he remembers the painting looking different right after the murder). But this movie knocked my socks off that first time I saw it because it has an aggressive style like I’d never seen before. There are beautiful shots, I’m not sure how they did it, the camera seems to be tiny and hovering along a table of small childish things like dolls and marbles until it gets to a knife. Also, extreme closeups of cassette tapes and turntables operating as they play the children’s song. In one shot the camera appears to be attached to a large knife as it drops, machine-like, into a guy’s neck.
The settings are beautiful: ornate theaters, red velvet curtains, a chair that seems almost occult in its geometric design. These sights are dirtied by the shocking violence, including but not limited to the scene where a man gets his mouth AMERICAN HISTORY Xed against a couple different mantles. And the blood looks like bright red paint. This Argento, I realized right away, treats fake murders as art. Always looking for a new and more stylish way to do it.
Keep in mind, this is 1975. If it was later I’d think it was an attempt at a more visually and aurally accomplished version of the slasher movie, but it’s only a year after BLACK CHRISTMAS and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and a few years before HALLOWEEN, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, MANIAC, FRIDAY THE 13TH, etc. Instead I think it’s just Argento’s more violent and fetishistic take on the giallo genre of Italian murder mysteries. Most of the American horror directors probly didn’t know about his movies until later on, so they didn’t know he’d already upped the ante on them.
Having seen it a bunch of times now, and having fallen in love with Argento’s even more stylized and surreal later movies SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, DEEP RED seems a little slow at times, especially in the much longer original Italian version. I hate to sound like a Weinstein, but you do have to be a little patient sitting through some standard mystery stuff to get to the good shit. But the good shit is real good shit.
(And I’m not dismissing the connective material here either. It can be fun and even humorous, like the bit about driving around in a little car with a broken seat so Hemmings looks ridiculously short. And the door is broken so he has to climb out through the top. They beat EXPENDABLES 2 to the “smart cars are small” joke by 35 years.)
This killer doesn’t just jump right into it, this is somebody that has to set a mood first. In one scene, a woman finds a doll hanging from a noose in her house. Her bird is squawking out of control, and there’s a strange wind blowing, and then amidst the black shadows of her closet we see a single eye, and that children’s song starts playing again. Jesus, it’s too much! At least shut the bird up. You’re freaking me out, Argento.
It had been long enough since I last watched it that this time I actually forgot about maybe the craziest moment in the movie, when suddenly a door flips open and a terrifying clockwork doll mechanically runs toward a man, giggling. Frightened, he smashes its head with a hatchet and it falls broken to the ground, where its pieces continue to twitch around like a headless chicken. It’s an out-of-the-blue, never explained, amazing moment, so they put it on the cover of that first VHS version I rented:
And that’s gotta be the inspiration for that doll in the SAW movies, right?
I haven’t yet mentioned the most important aspect of the movie, the score by the band Goblin. They were an existing prog-rock band called Cherry Five, but they renamed themselves when Argento chose them first to perform the score for this movie and then to replace the original composer and write the music themselves. What they came up with is one of the most unique and badass of film scores. Here’s the scene I described above with the closeups of the dolls and the knife. See how it plays pretty much like a music video:
And here’s the giggling doll scene. I think the secret to its success is the music and the way it suddenly stops for an awkward silence before the doll appears.
Goblin’s driving rhythm section and weird, bombastic keyboards ended up creating many other great scores, most notably DAWN OF THE DEAD and SUSPIRIA. But one style I never heard them repeat after DEEP RED is this intense drum-heavy track that would work in a blaxploitation movie:
This may be the nerdiest shit I ever admitted to you guys, but all those years ago when I rented DEEP RED THE HATCHET MURDERS I was so obsessed with this music that I went through and recorded all the choice bits onto audio cassette. This was before the invention of the Best of Goblin CDs, so I didn’t know what else to do.
This latest viewing of DEEP RED was to prepare myself to see Goblin at Friday’s sold out Seattle date of their first ever tour of North America. That was an incredible experience that I gotta write down for posterity.
When I got to the club, Neumo’s, it was crowded and dark, lit only by red and blue lights, fog pouring off the stage, music playing relatively quietly, the smell of burning meat pouring in from a hot dog stand next to the entrance. It really seemed like some weird bar that could be in an Argento movie, or at least a DEMONS sequel. The opening band, the 5-piece instrumental group Secret Chiefs 3, were a good match. They played a set of weird, cut-and-paste experimental rock that included covers of songs from HALLOWEEN and, further research told me, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. For the closer their violin player switched to trumpet, which he played very well. It sounded like a western theme, possibly a Morricone, but it turns out it was from Otto Preminger’s EXODUS. They wore white hoodies with pointy, monk-like hoods draped over their eyes, and they never took them off.
Goblin were not as ritualistic. They all look like they could be in different bands. Claudio Simonetti, lead keyboard player and guy who does the creepy voice on SUSPIRIA, is a tall nerdy dude who was wearing a skeleton t-shirt like the guy in THIS IS SPINAL TAP. He looks like what he is, a guy who has composed alot of keyboard scores. The other keyboard player, Maurizio Guarini, is bald with a goatee, like a warlock. Guitarist Massimo Morante looks like Phil Spector, or some rocker who hasn’t let go of the ’60s, even though his heyday was the ’70s. The other two, drummer Titta Tani and bassist Bruno Previtali, look more like normal rock dudes. They’re a little younger because they’re not original Goblin members, but they come from Simonetti’s band Daemonia. Like many musicians visiting Seattle, Previtali was wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. So my fantasy of them coming out in terrifying leather masks carrying red velvet cases full of strange bladed weapons did not come true. But otherwise it was as amazing as you’d hope.
They started with one of their newer songs, then one of the lesser songs from DEEP RED. After that they played several songs that sounded vaguely familiar, because they sounded exactly like Goblin. I couldn’t figure out which movies they came from, but I enjoyed them.
Occasionally they would thank the crowd for waiting all these years to see them. Mostly in English, sometimes in Italian. They seemed charmingly happy and grateful to have an audience. Eventually Guarini explained that what they’d been playing were songs from an original non-soundtrack album called Roller, but now “we’ll play something more soundtracky. Let’s start… with zombies.”
This of course kicked off a medley of almost all the major themes from DAWN OF THE DEAD, or ZOMBI as they call it where they come from. And this was the first of several goosebump-type “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” moments. The thumping, hearbeat bassline. Ba-domp. Ba-domp. Ba-domp. Ba-domp. The weird electro-choir keyboards. It all sounded just like on the movie.
I determined at one point that DAWN OF THE DEAD is the movie I’ve dipped on the most times. I bought the original DVD of it. Then I bought a PAL code 2 import of the Italian version (not as good, but more Goblin music). Then when they came out with the new remastered version I bought the theatrical cut, knowing that was my favorite version, I didn’t really need the longer one sometimes incorrectly called the director’s cut. But then when the box set with all the versions came out I figured who was I fooling, and I bought that too. And then I got a blu-ray player, so, you know what happened next. And when I got rid of most of my old VHS tapes I discovered that I had two different versions of it on that format too, one a longer cut on 2 tapes. And of course I have the Goblin soundtrack CD, and the other one with all the library music like “The Gonk.”
And over the years as I obsessed over it in all those different formats, I bet I never once thought “You know what would be cool would be to see some of the guys who recorded this music performing it live.” Because of course that would never happen. What are the chances of seeing that for a 35 year old movie? What are the chances of seeing it for any movie?
So getting to see and hear something like that seemed like a miracle. Oh, those are the guys who make those sounds. That’s how they do it. There they are. I couldn’t believe it.
And then I felt that all over again as they played SUSPIRIA, which Simonetti presented as a singalong (the only lyrics are “la” and “witch”), and of course as they played songs from DEEP RED (pretty much everything except the one I linked above). They also played something from PHENOMENA (they also used the title of the not as good American cut, CREEPERS), and when it was time for the disco-y talkboxing of TENEBRAE I had a good “I forgot about TENEBRAE!” moment. I don’t really like that movie that much, but the music is great.
They didn’t really need any theatrics, but that had a few. During themes from the more famous movies like DAWN OF THE DEAD and DEEP RED they had a screen playing montages of clips edited and kaleidoscoped into psychedelic spurts of horrible violence. Seeing all the most fucked up parts while a shadowy crowd nodded their heads to the music was a little unsettling. They also had a dancer who occasionally came out to wildly jerk around or (in the case of SUSPIRIA) do some ballet.
Despite my love of the band I’d always kept them mysterious, never really learned the names of the members, other than Simonetti because I knew he’d composed other scores. I never knew what they looked like or about that Roller album they did. I liked thinking of them as some arcane secret society instead of just people I could look up on the internet and learn every nerdy detail about. Seeing them in person, of course, humanized them. But that didn’t ruin anything.
Man, if you like Goblin and you ever notice an opportunity to go see Goblin, go fucking see Goblin. You will not regret it.
And if you’re not into Goblin, go rent DEEP RED. That might get you started.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.