01 October 2014

Deep Red (1975)
Contributed by Maitland McDonagh

Critic, lecturer and TV commentator Maitland McDonagh is the author of Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Movie Lust: Recommended Viewing for Every Mood, Moment and Reason, Filmmaking on the Fringe: The Good, the Bad and the Deviant Directors, as well as The 50 Most Erotic Films of All Time. Formerly TVGuide.com's Senior Movies Editor and editor of AMCtv's Horror Hacker website, she contributes to Time Out New York, Film Comment, Fangoria, and other magazines, and has been interviewed for many film-related documentaries. She also runs her own site missflickchick.com where she reviews new movies and DVD releases.

I saw my first Times Square double bill when I was a teenager in the early 1970s. Now, Times Square was never what it used to be, and there was always some killjoy to tell you how you should've seen it when.

"When" being whenever you weren’t there.

That said...in the mid-70's, New York was Fear City and the entire Times Square area was ground zero: a seedy, rundown forbidden zone that stretched from Eighth Avenue to Sixth, from the Hotel St. James on 45th Street (you can glimpse it in both Bill Lustig’s Maniac and William Friedkin’s Cruising) to the Pussycat on 49th and Broadway, part of a porno theater chain co-founded by Dave Friedman and Dan Sonney.

Business was good enough to support a second adult theater a few doors down, the Kitty Kat, with the Mardi Gras Topless Disco sandwiched between.

There were a dozen theaters on the Deuce – that's 42nd Street between Seventh and Eight Avenues – showing double and triple-bills of martial arts movies, Eurosleaze, horror, violent action movies and porn, with the odd third-run mainstream picture tossed in to produce pairings like Brian de Palma’s glossy Dressed to Kill and the totally sleazy Humanoids from the Deep, an eco-horror film about mutant monster rapists (though it did showcase effects by the soon-to-be famous Chris Walas).

There were junkies in doorways, hookers in hot pants resting their platform-shod feet inside, and hustlers working the men’s rooms (or so I was told; the only time I used one – my friend Michael deemed whatever theater we were in too unsavory for me to venture alone into the ladies’ room – there was nothing going on at all).

Drug dealers walked up and down the aisles like the bizarre world version of film noir cigarette girls, wares neatly displayed in improvised trays. Savvy theater managers never turned the house lights down all the way, the better to keep an eye on things, and yet the impression remained that someone was always getting shot or stabbed.

But in 1974, I yielded to the siren call of Amicus’ Blaxploitation/werewolf hybrid The Beast Must Die and also some little thing called Seizure, with Martine Beswick and Dark Shadows star Jonathan Frid (it turned out to be Oliver Stone’s first feature and a pretty good little rubber-reality movie) and braved the dirty, degenerate Deuce.

I don’t remember the theater, only that it was on the North side of the street: The Lyric, maybe? The Selwyn? No matter. I discovered that evil reputation notwithstanding, Times Square grindhouses weren’t complete and total hellholes. I, a pale, bookish little teenager, had seen not one but two movies and emerged unscathed and enormously entertained.

I saw my first Dario Argento picture less than a year after President Gerald Ford, a provincial Midwesterner to the core, decided that the greatest city in the United States, which was on its financial knees, didn’t merit federal assistance.

Deep Red opened in the Victoria, an 800-seat venue at 1547 Broadway, between 45th and 46th Streets, whose history is the story of Times Square writ small.

Opened in 1909 as a legitimate theater called the Gaiety, which by the 30's was a Minsky’s burlesque house featuring the likes of Ann Corio and Gypsy Rose Lee; rechristened the Victoria in 1943, after being converted to a cinema; chopped into a multi-screen warren dubbed the Embassy 5 in 1978, and demolished in 1982 to make way for the spectacularly vulgar Marriott Marquis Hotel.

In 1976, the Victoria was a genteely shabby cavern whose ticket price was out of line with its location: The same $2.00 that got you into a single feature (which could be a major studio action movie or an exploitation picture) at the Victoria bought a kung fu triple bill a few blocks south. I honestly don’t remember why I wanted to see Deep Red.

It wasn’t the super cheap, B&W prints ads, which featured a clumsy silhouette of someone with a cleaver, a screaming woman and a pool of black blood, with the words “The Exorcist. PSYCHO. Jaws. Now there’s Deep Red: You will Never Forget it!” superimposed on top. Yeah, so sure.

And it certainly wasn’t the reviews. None of the major newspaper critics had anything good to say, especially about the director. The down market Daily News sniped that Argento was no Hitchcock, while the New York Times’ much-admired Vincent Canby dismissed it as a "bucket of ax-murder movie clichés” made by “a director of incomparable incompetence.”

On second thought, it probably was the reviews, since I’d figured out that mainstream movie critics didn’t like horror movies – not PSYCHO or Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes or Halloween, or anything that wasn’t poetic or delicately suggestive.

So if every respectable reviewer hated something that looked like a horror movie, it was probably worth checking out.

And oh, was it ever. Though I had my doubts when the ticket taker handed me a pink cardboard fright mask printed with Hypnotic Eye-style swirls to put over my eyes when the movie became too scary to bear. How cheap is that? (And how much do I wish I’d kept it?)

But Deep Red – even in the butchered 98-minute version released by Mahler Films (a husband and wife outfit that specialized in soft core porn and seems to have spent a lot of time in court) – wormed its way into my brain and never left.

Luigi Kuveiller’s cinematography was breathtaking – those colors! The Goblin score was amazing, from the creepy “la la la la” lullaby to the pulsing main scene.

Deep Red was crammed with insinuating images: childish paintings under crumbling villa walls, Amanda Righetti’s last words vanishing with the steam on her bathroom mirror, the giggling wind-up toy, the fetishistic pans over those marbles and dolls and bits of braided wool. And the dense cluster of nightmarish paintings on Marta’s wall...

I had to go back for a second viewing.

Deep Red was the beginning of the end of my Times Square days. By the mid 80's, most of the theaters were shuttered or staggering their way to an inevitable end. And home video was becoming the home of genre moviemaking.

But it was the beginning of my life long love of Argento’s films, of Italian horror and of Euro-thrillers.  

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