CONTAINS A FEW SPOILERS
For years this was the one major Dario Argento movie I hadn't seen. Thanks to the Scala Cinema in King's Cross I'd managed to catch most of his earlier films (including the rarely shown Four Flies On Grey Velvet, probably my favourite of his "Animal Trilogy"). I'd been absolutely stunned by Terror At The Opera and Tenebrae on the big screen, and at this point I was a fan, even of the all-over-the-place Phenomena and the relatively flat Trauma. (Sadly it would all come to a screeching, shrieking halt with the ghastly The Stendhal Syndrome.)
I first saw Deep Red under its original UK title of The Hatchet Murders at the Fantasm season in 1996 at the National Film Theatre. It was a ropey old print: discoloured, scratchy and jumpy, but I didn't care: I loved it immediately. (This might have been one explanation as to why I hated Stendhal so much when it was screened the following week - it ain't Deep Red and deep down that's probably what I really wanted). Since then I've seen it several more times, in cinemas, on an atrociously pan-and-scanned VHS and now on shiny DVD, and I still loved it; and having watched it again just a few nights ago I still love it. Oh, sure there are minor annoyances every time - a language problem and a character I really want to slap every time they appear - but this is easily up there in Argento's top rank.
There's not really much point in relating the basic plot details: musician David Hemmings witnesses the murder of a psychic (Macha Meril), and he's first on the scene....but something's not quite right, something's not exactly as he remembers it, and with the aid of (frankly annoying) journalist Daria Nicolodi sets out to solve the crime, not so much in the interests of bringing a murderer to justice as simply clearing up that tiny detail that eludes him. But from this springs two other shockingly brutal murders and a fantastically chilling pair of sequences of Hemmings exploring an abandoned old mansion - not once, but twice! - on the basis of the slenderest and cleverest of clues.
With a terrific early Goblin score (credited as "The Goblins") and gorgeous photography with lots of appropriately deep reds, Deep Red is still one of the best giallos out there: demented plotting, luscious visuals, sadistic violence. It's not perfect: the comedy sequences involving Nicolodi's knackered old car just feel out of place, as does a genuinely weird little girl (Nicoletta Elmi) who sticks a hatpin through a lizard for absolutely no reason, which caused the BBFC some concern on all but its most recent release. And you could quibble about the so-so optical effects for the big fire towards the end, or the fact that the film occasionally switches from English to subtitled Italian - but I'm not going to. No film is perfect, but the best come damn close to it.
I'll admit I prefer Opera, which is so wonderfully bonkers with even more audacious set-pieces, and Tenebrae, a very close second. Those two are masterpieces with infinite rewatch value, Suspiria and Deep Red are right on their bloody heels and all four incredible films show Dario Argento at his absolute peak. That's part of the problem, of course, with more recent works such as The Card Player and the disastrous Giallo: he's done so much better and Sleepless was probably the last of his films to demonstrate just how good he can really be (though I still maintain a fondness for Do You Like Hitchcock?). Deep Red is prime Argento, prime giallo and prime cinema, and I love it.