Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Not Precise, Not Formal

“Very good. Maybe a little too good. Too clean. Yes, too precise. Too…formal. It should be more…trashy.”

That's what David Hemmings says via subtitles to his fellow musicians in the first real scene of DEEP RED. At least, that’s what he says in the only version of DEEP RED I’d ever seen up until a few days ago. It’s a potent thought and very obviously repesents Dario Argento giving a little hint about what is to come in the following two hours. “Movies don’t like good taste…the things that you’re a little embarrassed about, little show-off things, they’re the ones that are most alive,” says another director of note, Mike Nichols, in the audio commentary for CATCH-22 on that DVD.

Over thirty years after it was made, DEEP RED remains bracingly alive, to an extent that makes certain other giallos made in Italy during that decade seem stilted in comparison, not to mention a few films that Argento himself has made in more recent years. The power of some of its Scope imagery, the ferocious score by Goblin and the chemistry between Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi are just a few of the elements that allow the film to hold up so well. I’d seen it a few times over the years but after picking up the Blue Underground DVD earlier this year I found myself returning to it numerous times. I don't know if it should be considered Argento’s best, but for whatever reason right now it’s the one I’m most drawn to.

I’ve seen several Argento films in theaters over the years, but never this one. Of course, the only print of it that I’ll probably ever see is the version cut down for US release, about 20 minutes shorter than what can be found on DVD. I suppose for years people only knew that variant of DEEP RED so I guess I’m coming at it from the opposite spectrum, being very familiar with a long cut which, while very good, is maybe a touch too long. This past weekend I was able to take advantage of the New Beverly screening it for a midnight show. The theater was surprisingly packed, a nice surprise, but not with anyone else I knew. Maybe they all figured it would be a lousy print. Well, they were right.

For those who have not yet seen DEEP RED: In Rome, psychic medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) is appearing before the European Congress on Parapsychology when she senses a murderer among the audience. “You have killed…and you will kill again,” she proclaims, and that turns out to be true that night when she is brutally murdered in her apartment. The killing is witnessed from the street by pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) who lives in her building and rushes inside when he sees what is happening from the street. After discovering the body, he has the strangest feeling that he witnessed something when he first entered, but can’t quite figure out what it was. Fast-talking reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, mother of Asia Argento) teams up with him to try to solve the crime and uncover the solution to these mysteries. There’s also some pretty extreme gore here and there.

The print of DEEP RED screened at the New Beverly, which I assume was pretty much the standard American cut, bore the title THE HATCHET MURDERS and was admittedly in pretty terrible shape. I suppose that in the parlance of our times this would be considered the Grindhouse version (fittingly, the long cut of DEATH PROOF comes out on DVD this week) and it was actually interesting to view the film from this perspective because part of the problem with DEEP RED, to me, is that at 126 minutes it sort of goes on and on. The shorter version doesn’t exactly cut it down to the bare essentials of the plot—there’s still plenty of the stylistic excess expected from Argento—as much as it makes it more of a straight-ahead horror thriller. Gone is the development of the romance between Hemmings and Nicolodi, along with extra character stuff, additional exposition and other various ephemera. The opening scene I mentioned is also gone, along with the most extreme gore.

Now, I freely admit that there was once or twice where I noticed that five or so minutes had been shaved off and it actually seemed to make things move along nicely, but at times this cut things way too close to the bone. Some sort of happy medium between the two would probably work best—apparently there’s a Japanese version which a different running time, so maybe that’s it. For the record, English dialogue was never recorded for scenes not used in the American release, so the audio on the English track uses subtitled Italian for those sections. Not perfect, but really the best that could be done. The Italian cut which runs a full 126 minutes is a valuable piece of work that is somewhat richer, and I also enjoy spending more time with Hemmings and Nicolodi, but I can't deny how well the shorter U.S. cut flat-out moves. In fact, one slight problem with the film is that the end in both versions seems to wrap up the plot better than it does the characters, but that’s a minor quibble. And probably one that is irrelevant with the type of movie this is anyway.

The famous opening shot, which for much of the film remains unexplained, was also missing from this version but I honestly don’t know if that was due to the lousy state of the print or not. The New Beverly also managed to start the film without the Scope lens on, which for all I know may have been intentional. There was also some sort of breakdown about forty minutes in, which means I found myself sitting in the dark at the New Beverly at one in the morning, wondering exactly what I was doing there. But I didn’t regret it—even though this print could not compare to how vibrant and colorful the film looks on DVD, there was a definite potency to its imagery that I found thrilling to finally view on celluloid. Even with twenty minutes missing, the film still played terrific. Whether or not DEEP RED is a masterpiece of its genre, in any version it remains vivid, alive and unforgettable. It may be brutal, but it’s also beautiful. And trashy.

You have been reading the Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur review of DEEP RED.


Jeremy Richey said...

I used to have a copy of the Hatchet Murders version and wish I had kept it. I missed the additional footage, and prefer the longer cut, but I am regretting not holding on to it as a companion. I am envious you got to see any version on the big screen. I am hoping to at least see his new one at a theater...

Mr. Peel said...

Thanks for writing, Jeremy. After seeing it, I have a hankering to keep my eyes open for a HATCHET MURDERS tape, but it'll never compare to how the DVD looks. Considering that some form of distribution for MOTHER OF TEARS has been announced there's hope that we won't have to wait for DVD. I'm really looking forward to seeing it.