The Uncanny Unconscious of ‘Deep Red’
By Luke Beale
Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso) is a seminal giallo film by Dario Argento released in 1975. While there are many fantastic gialli directors like Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) and Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972), it is Argento who is arguably the director most synonymous with the Italian pulpy thriller-horror films known as giallo.
Like my favourite giallo films, the images presented in Deep Red do not always make logical sense, but instead, tap into our unconscious emotions using Argento’s distinctive visual language of bizarre and dream-like sequences. Although there is nothing overtly supernatural in the plot, the way that the film unfolds connects us to something uncanny and otherworldly. The plot is straightforward enough as a pianist witnesses the murder of a famous psychic and teams up with a reporter to try and discover the identity of the killer while attempting to avoid the victims’ same fate. The feelings evoked are much more complicated and revolve around a mysterious painting which may serve as a clue to the killers’ identity. The scenes with this painting act as a centre-point which the entire film revolves around, while also acting as a perfect example of how Argento’s film gets under your skin.
Early on in the film our protagonist Marcus (David Hemmings) witnesses a murder in the window of a neighbour’s apartment from the square below. He runs up to the apartment following a trail of blood through a corridor hung with strange paintings and finds the psychic Helga’s (Macha Méril) body lodged in the window. Those events seem logical, if gruesome when written down. However, there are several things that feel out of place in these scenes. Firstly, Marcus looks up at the window because he hears a woman’s scream. When he sees Helga banging on the window, the window is closed and now we cannot hear her screams until the window is dramatically shattered as the killer smashes Helga’s head through the glass. There are also the terrifying paintings in the corridor, one of which unsettled me in a profound way the first time I saw this film. There is a logical (and spoiler-filled) explanation for why this painting feels so uncomfortable, as all is not what it seems. What is more interesting to me is how the combination of a scream we couldn’t have heard and a creepy painting taps into our unconscious fears.
“Maybe that painting was made to disappear because it represented something important, something so important you don’t even realise it.”
Throughout the film, there are haunting combinations of images that claw themselves deep into your subconscious. There are memorable uses of close-ups including a floating eye surrounded by blackness, the sweat on someone’s temple, a woman splurging water from her mouth, a gloved hand gripping a fence, and strange childhood toys. From the opening scene, we are also shown the significance of the colour red as it becomes associated with trauma, and then it is used throughout the film to reinvoke that feeling. When we get to the scene where Marcus runs through the hallway filled with paintings, the camera shifts quickly between three points of view: tracking low to the ground, following Marcus with the paintings in the background, and showing us Marcus’ perspective of the hallway. All these techniques are deployed to manipulate our perceptions and keep us constantly on edge. Heavy use of close-ups, fast zooms, and changing perspectives means we see normal objects in strange ways — turning the familiar into the uncanny. Then while we are dizzy and working out which way is up, the filmmakers slip a genuinely frightening image into frame. Although I have some understanding of how these scares are produced, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stick up thinking about it.
I think the reason this painting scene stays with me is that it taps into the unconscious mind, using the techniques I mention above. The film’s use of bizarre images interspersed with strange perspectives of everyday objects is heavily evocative of dream states. Dreams don’t always make logical sense, but the powerful ones certainly leave an emotional mark. Deep Red messes with our perception so effectively because our perception of the world is affected by emotional states, and the film heightens our emotional states. We do not see the world as it is but instead through a prism of our experiences and physical limitations. Everyone has had the experience of seeing things that aren’t really there, often at night when light is very low, and our brains attempt to understand what we are seeing: a dark figure standing by your bed, a shadow moving under your door, or a curtain-twitching when the window is closed. What Argento does so well is to understand that we need to interpret the world in order to understand it, and then he slips a gloved hand in between our perception and the world and starts tinkering.
I cannot write about this uncanny feeling that Argento so often evokes without mentioning Sigmund Freud. In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Freud evolves the term away from the German ‘unheimlich’ (unhomely) as first used in 1909 by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch. Freud suggests instead that an uncanny object is not simply something we are afraid of but defines it as something that is at once familiar yet also unfamiliar. In fiction, he gives examples of ‘the double’ (‘der doppelgänger’ in German) or of an automaton, both of which very closely resemble something and yet are not that thing. He deepens the definition by including the idea that the uncanny brings to light something once known but has since been surrounded in darkness and forgotten. To me, this really captures what I love about Argento’s films and Deep Red in particular. Argento literally uses an automaton, for example, famously bursting from the side of the screen while the viewer is focused on watching the door in the centre of the screen.
This idea of ‘the double’ also illuminates the film in new ways for me. Freud writes about ‘the double’ as a concept first representing an assurance of immortality (a painting of yourself could live forever) before shifting to become associated with narcissism, a dark reflection of the self, or as he says, “the ghastly harbinger of death.” In Deep Red, it is eventually revealed that what we initially take to be a painting in a hallway is actually a reflection of a painting. When we see this painting again later in the film something about it has changed; it is both familiar yet unfamiliar, somehow capturing the essence of ‘the double’. This scene more than any other gave me this uncanny feeling, and while it does serve as a centrepiece for the themes and plot of the film, I could have evaluated any other scene and found the same techniques at work.
Argento is always working to unsettle us, to make us feel at home yet not at home. Deep Red is not just terrifying, it is uncanny. 🩸
Luke Beale is a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.
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