Dario Argento's DEEP RED (Italy 1975) and "The Uncanny"

Deep Red builds upon themes already touched upon in Argento's earlier films; the frustrated male protagonist and gender ambiguities. It is notable as being the first film in which Argento's distinctive baroque vision emerges, and his depiction of extreme graphic violence. Before examining the film it is useful to consider the theories of Sigmund Freud and Robin Wood on the subject of repression; a central theme in Deep Red.

Deep Red, The Eye Of Horror Image

Freud identifies one aspect of repression that is integral to the analysis of this film: "Repression operates upon memories that are traumatic or upon memories that are associated with traumatic experience." (1). He also categorises repression into primal repression and repression proper, it is the latter category that concerns us here: "Repression proper forces a dangerous memory, idea or perception out of the consciousness and sets up a barrier against any form of motor discharge." (2). Similarly, Robin Wood separates repression into two categories that correspond to Freud's primal and proper definitions; basic and surplus. Basic repression is part of our human nature, it governs our self-control and consideration for other people. It is universal and necessary. Surplus repression however, is a way of conditioning people to take up pre-determined roles within a particular culture. According to Wood, in our culture it is designed to make us monogamous, heterosexual, bourgeois capitalists. If it fails in this purpose it can produce revolutionaries or neurotics. Surplus repression within a patriarchal capitalist society results in frustration, anxiety, dissatisfaction, greed, possessiveness and jealousy, it restricts development and human potential. The point that is most relevant to the films discussed here is that what is repressed must always strive to return. (3).

Deep Red and Tenebrae (Italy, 1982) both feature flashback scenes that provide clues to events in the past that were kept hidden or repressed, but which have resurfaced to haunt the people involved. Deep Red opens with a Christmas scene; a lullaby is playing and there is a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. The scene represents the family; Christmas is often used as a metaphor for the family, and occurs in films as diverse as It's a Wonderful Life (USA, 1946, d. Frank Capra) and Die Hard (USA, 1988, d. John McTiernan). The difference here is that one member of this particular family is being stabbed to death; we see the shadows cast onto the rear wall, but we cannot identify the killer or the victim. A bloody knife falls to the floor in the foreground, then a child walks into the frame stopping by the knife, we only see his legs. Like Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) and his elusive painting, we have glimpsed an important scene that will make no sense to us until the end of the film. It is this event that has been repressed. The return of the repressed in this case will lead to more murders.

For a more detailed analysis of this film I think it is useful to draw a parallel with Freud's ideas on the uncanny: "That which is undoubtedly related to what is frightening - to what arouses dread and horror." (4). Barbara Creed arranges Freud's ideas into three categories (5); I will use these categories as a starting point for my discussion of Deep Red:

Deep Red, Marcus and Carlo Image

a) Those things that relate to the notion of a double or doppelganger, a multiplied object; a ghost or a spirit; an involuntary act. (Related to a discrete entity). Several writers have referred to the idea of doubles within the film. Marcus and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) are both pianists, Marcus is English and bourgeois playing in the name of art, Carlo is a member of the Italian proletariat playing for money and survival. When Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) asks Marcus why he plays the piano he says a psychiatrist would put it down to hatred of his father; when he hits the keys he is really bashing in his father's teeth. This idea is reflected later in the film when Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) has his teeth bashed in before he is killed. Other examples of doubles in the film are the fact that there are two killers (or one killer and one potential killer), the killer's face is reflected in the mirror in Helga Ullman's (Macha Meril) apartment and Marcus's face is reflected in Marta's (Clara Calamai) blood at the end of the film. This scene leaves Marcus and the viewer with a feeling of complicity and contamination.

b) Castration anxieties expressed as fear of the female genitals or of dismembered limbs, a severed head or hand, loss of the eyes. (Related to gender). When Carlo talks to Marcus about playing the piano he compares it to the female genitalia: "For me the piano is a beautiful woman and I like to tickle her fanny". But if the piano keyboard represents teeth as Marcus implies to Gianna, then Carlo is invoking the image of the vagina dentata and the myth of the woman as castrator.

c) A feeling associated with a familiar/unfamiliar place, losing one's way, womb phantasies, a haunted house. (Related to the known vs. the unknowable). Marcus traces the recurring motif of the lullaby to a book on myths that includes a story called 'The House of the Screaming Child', an abandoned and allegedly haunted house that the sinister young girl, Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), warns him not to visit. One of the rooms in the house has been sealed off and its windows bricked in to conceal a corpse, the remains of the murder victim from the film's prologue. Freud concludes that uncanny experiences are closely tied in with infantile repressions that are revived, or primitive beliefs that have been surmounted, but seem once again to be confirmed. (6).

In other words, the notion of the uncanny is inseparable from the mechanisms of repression. The key to the events in Deep Red is in the short prologue scene, which is elaborated upon at the end of the film when Marcus discovers that Marta is the killer. Before Carlo was born, his father had forced Marta, Carlo's mother, to give up her acting career. He deprived her of an outlet for her creative urges and expression of her own sexuality. She was forced to succumb to patriarchal authority, but this had an adverse affect on her mind; she became neurotic, and eventually psychotic. On the night of his murder, her husband told her that she must go back into hospital, a polite reference to the asylum. She refused, and stabbed him with a kitchen knife; a tool of feminine domesticity used as a weapon against patriarchal oppression.

The trauma of the murder caused Marta and Carlo to repress the event; they covered up the crime by sealing off the room containing the father's body, before moving into different accommodation. The abandoned house became known as 'The House of the Screaming Child'. It had taken on the personality traits of the occupants. The house is an example of the 'terrible place' as discussed by Carol Clover in relation to American horror films of the late 1970's and early 1980's. These places are usually in a state of Victorian decrepitude, they house terrible families, and conceal acts of murder, incest and cannibalism. (7).

Deep Red, Helga Image

At the European Congress on Parapsychology, prior to Helga unlocking Marta's mind, she says, "Thoughts linger around the room like cobwebs". This draws a comparison between the dusty sealed-off room and the repressed mind. The room represents the killer's mind. However, the sealing of the room proves to be ineffective, as that which is repressed must always strive to return. (8.). The intrusion by Helga into the repressed area of the killer's mind, prefiguring Marcus' discovery of the sealed room, provides the catalyst for the return of the repressed, and triggers off a series of murders. A common theme in Argento's films is a series of killings that are taken over by a second killer; in this case the second killer proves to be ineffectual; his mother is far more potent. Carlo attempts to kill Marcus and Gianna to protect his mother, and the secret of the 'House of the Screaming Child'.

Carlo is the most interesting character in the film. He was the child who witnessed the murder in the prologue where his mother killed his father. In murdering Carlo's father she deprived Carlo of the correct transition from the maternal phase, into the symbolic order of the Father as it normally occurs within patriarchal society. According to Freud's Oedipus complex, the son is supposed to inherit the phallus from the father, and then find a woman for himself in order to reproduce and maintain the continuation of the symbolic order. After he has been stabbed, Carlo's father pulls the knife out of his own back and attempts to hand it to Carlo. The knife is symbolic of the phallus that the father is trying to pass on to his son, but the knife falls to the floor. The transferral of the phallus from father to son is a failure. The Oedipal trajectory is interrupted; Carlo is unable to relinquish identification with the pre-oedipal feminine maternal realm to gain access to the Law of the father. (9). "Freud assumes that every person is constitutionally bisexual, which means that he inherits the tendencies of the opposite sex as well as those of his own sex. If the feminine tendencies of the boy are relatively strong he will tend to identify with his mother after the Oedipus complex disappears; if the masculine tendencies are stronger, identification with the father will be emphasised". (10). Carlo clearly identifies with his mother whom he tries to protect, but the murder of his father must have initiated a fear of women.

Deep Red, Prologue Image

Carlo's comparison of the piano to a beautiful woman is merely an attempt to hide his homosexuality from Marcus, another aspect of his character that requires repression within patriarchal culture. With this amount of surplus repression it is little wonder that Carlo drinks as heavily as he does. When we discover Carlo with his lover, (as a further gender twist, Argento cast a woman in the role of Carlo's male lover), and realise that he is homosexual; we are presented with a question regarding the gender of the killer. In the scene prior to Helga's murder the camera tracks over an arrangement of children's toys and a child's drawing of a person impaled by a dagger. There follows an extreme close-up of an eye to which mascara being applied. It is probably a woman's eye, but with our newfound knowledge of Carlo's sexuality, the gender of the killer is thrown into question. We had assumed the killer to be a man when we saw him in the men's toilet at the Congress, and he is glimpsed wearing a hat, a brown raincoat and zip-up leather gloves on several occasions. These items of clothing are essential wear within the Italian giallo as they hide the identity of the killer, and make it more difficult for the protagonist and the audience to solve the crime. In this case the clothing is important as it conceals the gender of the killer, our conception of the killer's gender remains frustrated by the ambiguities within the text.

Deep Red, Marcus and Gianna Image

We know Carlo is homosexual, but Marcus, Carlo's mirrored self, seems to be asexual. In a more traditional narrative the protagonist would fall for the female reporter; she would be the focus for some form of love interest. However the relationship between Marcus and Gianna is an ongoing battle of the sexes, instigated by Marcus. It is a battle in which Marcus seems to come off worse every time; he challenges Gianna to an arm wrestling contest in order to prove that woman is the weaker sex, but Gianna wins and Marcus accuses her of cheating. Like Marta she will not succumb to male control. When Gianna gives Marcus a lift in her car his seat collapses and he is made to look smaller and less significant than Gianna. And finally Gianna saves Marcus' life on two occasions, the first is when the killer arrives at Marcus' apartment, Gianna telephones him and ruins the killer's opportunity for murder. She also rescues him at the 'House of the Screaming Child' where he has been left unconscious to burn, along with the evidence of the original crime. Within the horror genre we are more familiar with the sight of the male protagonist rescuing the stumbling, screaming woman.

Deep Red,  Death Doll Image

When Gianna asks Marcus why he plays the piano. He draws an analogy between the piano keys and human teeth; he claims that in psychiatric terms, he is imagining himself to be bashing in his father's teeth. This can be seen as a reference to the castration anxiety of Freud's Oedipus complex, where the son sees his father as a rival for the mother's affection and as a possible threat of castration. (11). Marcus' statement is mirrored in the attack on Professor Giordani. Prior to Giordani's murder, a large clockwork mechanical doll is released into the room. At first Giordani is confused then he laughs. There seems to be no explanation for the presence of this doll, but in relation to Freud's essay 'The Uncanny', the event makes sense. Freud writes about uncanny experiences being generated by doubts as to whether a lifeless object might in fact be animate, an impression similar to the feeling derived from lifelike dolls and waxworks. (12). The entrance of the doll serves as a prelude for the symbolic castration and death of Giordani; before being impaled through the neck by a knife; he has his teeth bashed against the heavy furniture.

Carlo unwittingly gives us a clue to the identity of the killer early in the film. In likening the piano keyboard, or teeth, to a woman's genitalia, he conjures up the image of the vagina dentata, the castrating woman. Carlo knows, from his own experience, that it isn't the father who is the agent of castration within the family, but the mother. (13). Barbara Creed gives several examples of the myth of the vagina dentata from different cultures. Knights and adventurers would defeat a monster in order to win the love of a girl, or put another way, they would remove the teeth from the vagina to render it safe. Essentially the myth derives from a male fear that the female vagina has the power to trap and castrate. (14). Within the context of this film the castration is symbolised through the violation of victims' bodies by a number of methods, from meat cleaver attacks and teeth bashing, to death from scalding water. A doll loses its head in Amanda Righetti's (Giuliana Calandra) house, prefiguring the decapitation of Marta and the head crushing of Carlos; decapitation can be seen as another symbol of castration.

Deep Red, Gates Image

The vagina dentata can also be interpreted as a barred and dangerous entrance; in fairy tales it appears in the form of spiked roses and fearsome beasts guarding the entrance to some forbidden place, which the hero must conquer in order to gain entry. (15). Marcus has to breach the entrance to the 'House of the Screaming Child', he breaks the chain on the gates; predicting the decapitation of Marta by her necklace, and has to scale the walls of the house to gain access. This nearly results in his death as some of the stone work crumbles underneath his weight. He has to overcome the danger before he can discover the secret of the house, and the identity of the killer. "Once we are aware of the prevalence of the image of the woman as castrator in the horror film, we can more easily recognise the signs of her presence - cruel appraising eyes, knives, water, blood, and the 'haunted house'." (16). Deep Red is full of such signs; we are shown eyes and knives in extreme close-up, Helga chokes up a mouthful of water at the Congress, blood accompanies every murder, although it is more prevalent in Helga's death scene, and the 'haunted house' holds the key to the whole mystery.

In Deep Red, Argento emphasises gender ambiguities and role-reversals; a frustrated male protagonist with a strong female companion, a castrating mother with her homosexual son, and a woman cast in the role of Carlo's boyfriend. These ambiguities would become more pronounced in subsequent films.


  1. Freud, Sigmund, quoted in Hall, Calvin S. A Primer of Freudian Psychology. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1962. p. 88.
  2. Ibid., p. 87.
  3. Wood, Robin. 'An Introduction to the American Horror Film', Nichols, B (ed), Movies and Methods Volume II. University of California Press, Ltd. 1985. pp. 196-205.
  4. Freud, Sigmund. 'The Uncanny', Art and Literature. Penguin. 1988. p. 339.
  5. Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine. Film, feminism, psychoanalysis. Routledge. 1994. p. 53.
  6. Freud, Sigmund, op. cit., p. 372.
  7. Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chainsaws. Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton University Press. USA. 1992. p. 30.
  8. Wood, Robin, op. cit., p. 205.
  9. Williams, Tony. Hearths of Darkness. The family in the American horror film. Associated University Presses. 1996. p. 15.
  10. Freud, Sigmund, quoted in Hall, op. cit., p. 115.
  11. Ibid., p. 114.
  12. Freud, Sigmund, op. cit., p. 347.
  13. Creed, Barbara, op. cit., p. 151.
  14. Ibid., p. 106.
  15. Ibid., p. 108.
  16. Ibid., p. 140.

Paul Flanagan Winter 1999/2000