Blu Reviewed: Dario Argento's Deep Red – The Arrow Video 4K Limited Edition

Over the last few years Arrow Video has gradually been releasing what are surely the definitive home video editions of the classic films of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. With 4k restorations, extensive documentaries, and Criterion-esque limited edition packages as well as more inexpensive standard editions, Arrow has so far gotten the last word on Deep Red, Tenebrae, Phenomena, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and The Cat O' Nine Tails (and while it is neither a 4k restoration nor a fancy limited edition, they currently have by far the best blu-ray version of Inferno as well). But sadly for North American collectors (at least, those who don't have region-free blu-ray players, which every cinephile probably should), most of those releases were UK-exclusive, and region-B locked, since other companies beat Arrow to the North American blu-ray rights. While Arrow's region-B discs are superior, region-A-only collectors at least have Synapse's recent restorations of Phenomena and Tenebrae which are a reasonably close second-place, and still quite impressive in their own rights. Much more unfortunate was that the US had to miss out on Arrow's stellar 2016 edition of Deep Red, since Blue Underground's 2011 US blu-ray has extremely sparse special features, and a transfer which is perfectly acceptable, but nowhere near the quality of Arrow's more modern 4k restoration techniques. Even at the time the Blue Underground disc was far inferior to Arrow's original region-free UK blu-ray from the year before, which boasted a large amount of new extras that put Blue Underground's single 10-minute featurette to shame, so it really stung when the UK got a still-better region-B-locked upgrade while we were stuck with the same lackluster disc for one of Argento's most iconic films. Fortunately, Blue Underground's rights to Deep Red expired at the beginning of this year, and Arrow was able to snatch up the North American distribution rights and re-release their limited edition of the film in the region-A territory. The definitive Deep Red hit store shelves last Tuesday.

The Film:

Deep Red is often held up by fans as the quintessential giallo (that distinctive brand of brooding and bloody Italian murder-mystery thrillers), the film that kicked off Argento's most iconic era as a filmmaker, and one of his greatest films in general. It certainly was a game-changer in many ways, and marked the debut of Argento's more outlandish and stylized horror sensibilities that would soon give us Suspiria and Phenomena. But the timing of this Arrow special edition, with its US re-release shortly following their special editions of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O' Nine Tails, reframes the film not just as the start of his horror work, but as a reworking of, and a departure from, the more traditional Hitchcockian thrillers which came before. Revisiting the film so soon after revisiting and reappraising his first two features allows us to not only see the obvious ways in which it introduces the more extreme stylistic flourishes that would soon take the forefront in his work, but the change in sensibility away from that past work, in ways both good and bad. Particularly, this is the film where we start to really see the attitude of Argento as a filmmaker which earned him the often-cited criticism of being style-over-substance.

On the one hand, Deep Red takes the already very impressive visual style of the “Animal Trilogy,” with its kinetic dolly and handheld camerawork and gorgeous 2.35:1 shot compositions, and fully matures it into a spectacularly innovative, experimental, and inspired aesthetic which sets Argento apart as one of the most artistically powerful horror filmmakers in the history of the genre. But on the other hand, the film also sees Argento become increasingly disinterested in whether his stories really cohere at a narrative level, as he treats the plot less as the backbone of the film, and more as the tool to get the movie from one spectacular visual setpiece to another. One could argue that this is just a symptom of him moving away from past cinematic influences and towards his own personal style, which favors visual audacity and experimentation over conventional genre tropes. There is no doubt that from a technical and artistic standpoint this is his most impressive and accomplished film by this point, and probably one of the most technically impressive and accomplished that he would ever make, second only to Suspiria. But having recently been so pleasantly surprised by how not-style-over-substance The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O' Nine Tails were, and how well their plots functioned as solid and coherent Hitchcock-esque mysteries, it's hard to not be a tad disappointed by how Deep Red seems fairly unconcerned with these matters, and how readily it allows its plot to be driven by deus ex machinas and tenuous leaps of logic. It is still a great horror film well-deserving of its classic status based on its bravura style alone, and at its best it still works very well as a thriller, but viewing it in a sequential triptych with Arrow's releases of Bird and Cat (leaving aside the all-around misstep that was Four Flies on Grey Velvet), it becomes clear that Deep Red is also an uneven film that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Of course some fans will surely say that I'm being a bit too hard on Deep Red with that critique, and maybe they're right: after all, the film is very self-aware and up-front about its intentions and its emphasis on style over conventional narrative structure, with an opening scene in which the jazz pianist main character chastises his band for focusing too much on formal perfection and neglecting the personality that comes with loose spontaneity. “It should be more... trashy,” he says, and one can't help but hear it as Argento rebuking the idea that his style should be reigned in by typical storytelling wisdom. But at the same time, the film invites this criticism by being more or less a reworking of the same basic plot as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Again we have an English-speaking foreign artist (this time a British musician played by Blow-Up's David Hemmings) living in Italy while dealing with some serious thirtysomething male ennui who witnesses a murder during his listless nocturnal urban wanderings. Again he channels his own existential crisis into an amateur-detective investigation of the murder, becoming the killer's target in the process, and again he is haunted by the nagging feeling that a detail he saw but overlooked holds the key to the killer's identity. Of course, from this remarkably similar set-up Argento embarks upon a very different film, in keeping with the “artistically bold but not formally perfect” thesis of Hemmings' opening speech to his band. In addition to the move away from narrative-driven mystery storytelling, Argento seems to have stepped into an altogether different genre space. Deep Red is the first of Argento's gialli which truly feels like a horror film rather than a mystery/thriller, full of creepy and atmospheric Gothic menace, stalk-n-slash sequences that foreshadow the conventions of the slasher genre, and bloody kills that still pack a nasty punch 40-some years later. If The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O' Nine Tails feel like contemporaries of early Brian De Palma, Deep Red feels like a predecessor to John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper. It is a nasty, unsettling film made all the more effective in its unnerving qualities by how gorgeously, artfully shot the whole thing is. It almost makes it not matter that the mystery is frequently moved along by plot devices that feel rather arbitrary, although I would posit that the film would have been even better if the plot cohered a bit more strongly.

Just as Deep Red reworks The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's story in a way that is an odd mix of compelling yet scattered, it does the same thing for that film's themes. Like Crystal Plumage, Deep Red is interested in shifting norms of sexuality and gender in a changing and modernizing world, and both films are centered around traditionally-masculine male characters feeling a certain amount of uncertainty about how they fit into a world that has moved away from the norms that they were raised to accept. But the film doesn't seem entirely clear on how it feels about the issues at hand, or exactly what it is trying to say. At the heart of the film is the (literal and figurative) odd couple of Hemmings' conservative musician with a casually sexist certainty than men are superior to women, and Daria Nicolodi's tough, intelligent, and resourceful feminist reporter who for some reason wants to be romantically involved with him. The dynamic is clearly meant to present Hemmings' Marc Daly as the representation of dated, old-school European gender norms, and Nicolodi's Gianna Brezzi as the empowered future who he is afraid is leaving him behind; the movie repeatedly aligns itself with Gianna's viewpoint, gives her most of the meaningful detective work, and frames Marc as an out-of-touch stooge whose fear of being overpowered by women directly hinders his murder investigation. But that the film seems to have active disdain for its male protagonist does not change the fact that he is the protagonist, and the one from whose perspective we are witnessing the story; this essentially undercuts whatever critique of masculinity Argento is attempting, as the plot ultimately requires Marc to be the hero, when on paper the social commentary that appears to be at work should make Gianna the hero. It further confuses things that Gianna is a highly comedic character, and her relationship with Marc is mainly told through almost farcical comedy; not to mention that Marc often ends up looking like such a jackass that it seems almost implausible that the feminist Gianna would actually want to be involved with him.

It is clear that Argento wants to say something about the fragility and closed-mindedness of the old-school European masculinity that the 1970s were struggling to leave behind, but it ends up so muddled that it's hard to discern exactly what that is, leaving us with an awkward romantic subplot that mostly just doesn't work. As with The Cat O' Nine Tails, though, the dated gender attitudes of the film are counterbalanced by how non-judgmental, matter-of-fact, and (for its day) kind of progressive the film's attitude towards its gay characters is. This has lead to the pretty sound interpretation that Marc is a closeted gay man; a presumably unintended theme which nonetheless gives some much-needed additional depth to both his weirdly hostile attitudes towards women and his more general existential crisis and sense of ennui. Argento almost certainly didn't intend for Marc to be a repressed gay character (he has said as much in interviews), but that interpretation makes Deep Red a more interesting film, and helps tie together its otherwise somewhat directionless themes on sex and gender.

Given how phenomenally hyped up Deep Red has become as the ultimate giallo, it almost pains me to have to point out what an uneven and erratic movie it is on both a narrative and thematic level, but especially after revisiting Argento's filmography through the last year's worth of Arrow limited editions, I'm afraid that it is pretty clearly true. But that doesn't negate the one way in which the film absolutely lives up to the hype: its breathtaking style. It really can't be overstated what a gorgeously crafted film this is, with its bold, kinetic cinematography and its masterfully eerie atmosphere. While the plot certainly doesn't have the attention to detail that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage does, the style is where we really see Argento's growth from a young director with an innovative and ambitious eye to a true stylistic master. And I would be remiss if I didn't comment on how this style is effectively (if very eccentrically) accented by the iconic prog-rock score by Goblin; the first of Argento's many iconic collaborations with the band. Whether Deep Red lives up to the hype or not entirely depends on what aspect of the film you are talking about. The substance? Ironically enough, his first two features are probably stronger in that regard, as is his subsequent Suspiria. The style? It remains pretty unparallelled in his filmography, and goes a long way to make up for the weaknesses elsewhere. Its classic status is certainly deserved, though with some caveats.


The Video:

Given what a visual film Deep Red is, and given that the visuals are what does most of the film's heavy lifting, picture quality is very important to the experience of the movie. As such, this Arrow restoration is without a doubt the only version that viewers should watch, if at all possible. Remastered in 4k from the original negative, this is far and away the best that Deep Red has ever looked. It's not just a matter of clarity, although the picture is near-flawlessly clear and sharply detailed; it's everything else about the restoration as well. The contrast and color-correction both mark a major step up over all previous presentations of the film, including the two previous blu-rays (the US release from Blue Underground and the original 2010 Arrow UK blu-ray). Both of those discs had a noticeable yellowish hue, as though the source print had yellowed over time, or else the transfers were not color-corrected properly. Both were also a bit on the muddy side. This remaster fixes both of these flaws, with the color now looking spot-on, and with loads of added detail where previously there was too much murk. Ironically, there is at least one point when the picture might even be a bit too clear: the detail which Marc sees but doesn't notice at the murder scene is supposed to be one that the viewer likewise doesn't consciously take note of at the time, but will be able to recall in a different light later on. In this pristinely clear 4k restoration, the detail in question is a bit too obvious, making a certain plot twist a bit of a giveaway if you're looking closely. But again, since Argento's film isn't about the plot so much as the style, that's really not the end of the world; the style looking as great as it possibly can is what really matters, and I can't imagine it ever looking better than this.


The Audio:
As with most of these Italian films from this era, Deep Red was shot with a mixed cast of English and Italian-speakers, so no matter which language you watch the film in, some of the cast is going to be dubbed. I always tend to watch the track in the language that the film's lead actor is speaking, so we can hear the film's star using his own voice – in this case, British character actor David Hemmings' English – but it's basically down to personal preference. Arrow's disc presents both the English and Italian tracks in their original mono, restored to sound as great as they possibly can. Dialogue is clear and understandable, sound effects are effective, and Goblin's score packs a punch. In this case, though, Arrow has also provided the Italian track artificially mixed out to 5.1 surround sound. Personally, I prefer the mono which was the original audio format mixed by Argento, but those with surround set-ups will surely appreciate the option, which neither their Bird with the Crystal Plumage nor Cat O' Nine Tails limited editions gave us.

However, there is one big, unfortunate caveat which we have to discuss when it comes to the English-language audio track: all of the dialogue for the film (English or Italian) was re-recorded in post-production for European films of this era, rather than on set, and the film's distributor made the unfortunate choice to only record the English dialogue for the 20-minutes-shorter UK theatrical cut (which is on disc 2 of the limited edition, although it's missing enough that I would not recommend it). As such, when you watch the film with the English-language track, during those 20 minutes of scenes exclusive to the director's cut, the audio switches over to Italian with English subtitles. It's a bit of a jarring experience, and as a result some viewers may wish to just watch the film in Italian instead; but again, I'd rather watch it with the lead actor speaking his own dialogue for only most of the film, rather than none of it. It's a bit of a pick-your-poison situation, but it's certainly not Arrow's fault, and the audio sounds as good as it is realistically ever going to.


The Extras:

Arrow's limited editions always come with plentiful bonus materials, and Deep Red certainly does not disappoint. The package starts with a hard outer box containing a book, a poster, a set of lobby cards, and two blu-rays, the second of which, the shorter UK theatrical version, is exclusive to the limited set; the main disc will be re-released in a non-limited-edition standard case likely in a few months. The special features contained on the main disc are excellent – although while all of them are Arrow Video originals, most of them are actually not new. As I mentioned earlier, Arrow released Deep Red as one of their earliest blu-rays back in 2010, and while that early disc's transfer of the film isn't great by modern standards, it was a stacked special edition with extras that remain quite impressive, and which put the subsequent almost-bare-bones Blue Underground disc to shame. All of that earlier disc's special features are ported over onto this edition: three interviews averaging about 15 minutes each with Dario Argento, star Daria Nicolodi, and composer Claudio Simonetti from Goblin, plus a tour of the Deep Red shop in Rome hosted by filmmaker Luigi Cozzi, and a commentary track by Argento scholar Thomas Rostock. Since that is the bulk of the features on this box set, collectors who already have the 2010 Arrow limited edition will have to ask themselves whether little else but a new transfer is enough to make a double-dip worth it; however, if you don't have that older set, that list of extras matches the quality and quantity of most of Arrow's new releases, so just because they are eight years old is not in itself any kind of a negative. There is only one new extra on this set, but it's a very good one: a half-hour visual essay/appreciation/analysis of the film which is excellent for putting the film in context and unpacking its themes and stylistic choices. It's a deep dive into the film which will genuinely expand your appreciation for it. Most of the extras may be recycled from the past release, but they're all excellent, and all Arrow originals, so it's safe to say that it adds up to a spectacular package all the same. Plus, that 2010 blu (while region-free) was a UK-exclusive, so for most American viewers these will all be new anyway. I can't imagine a more thorough array of extras documenting this film.


Overall, Deep Red may be a more uneven a film than its stellar reputation might have you believe, but it is still a very good one. It may be style-over-substance in certain regards, but the style is so triumphant and original that it is hard to be truly upset about it. With what a visual film it is, it is a no-brainer to want to see it in the most gorgeous quality possible, and I have no doubt that this Arrow limited edition is the last word on the subject. Between the beautiful 4k restoration, the great collectible packaging, and the excellent extras, this is a fantastic special edition well worth picking up – at least if you don't have that 2010 Arrow release with the near-identical extras to create a double-dip dilemma.

Overall Score:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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