Guest Blogger: Miguel Ribeiro
If you are a film buff or a horror aficionado chances are you’ve already come across several giallo movies. Otherwise, unless you’re Italian, it’s possible you haven’t even heard about them. Violent, sexy, stylish and deliciously kitsch, characterized by flashy décors, extreme close-ups, grandiose soundtracks and gruesome murder scenes, these are among the most “problematic” – to use an expression unfortunately associated with art and entertainment – productions in movie history. If you add black leather gloves, big knives, Mackintosh wearing killers and awful dubbing to the list of common tropes you’ll probably identify the genre, even if you do not recognize the name. Spaghetti thriller, as it is also know, hasn’t been that popular for a long time, but left its mark in mainstream horror.
The word “giallo” (plural “gialli)means “yellow” in Italian and, originally, it referred to a collection of cheap paperback crime novels, most of them translations of hardboiled and murder mystery classics – like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler – published by Mondadori Editore since the late 1920s, and which had garish yellow covers.
In the late 1960s the term was internationalized, thanks to its film iteration. Mario Bava, one of the most famous filmmakers who came to be associated with the genre, directed the first giallo movie, La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963). Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Enzo G. Castellari are some of the other well-known names connected to giallo. Luchino Visconti has also been added to the category by a few critics due to the film Obsession (1943) and, if you accept that, he’s certainly the most reputable director on record to this day.
To define giallo isn’t easy. More than a genre, in the usual sense of the word in movie theory, it is a concept defined only by common tropes that includes movies which are catalogued into different categories, such as thriller, crime drama, murder-mystery, slasher and horror. Depending on who does the classification, you may even find cannibal horror and spaghetti western among the classics. Sexuality, violence, voyeurism, hallucination, dream, delusion, alienation, paranoia are the most common themes and they appear, with different degrees of relevance, in most gialli.
There is an obvious connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). Hitchcock was also Brian De Palma’s main influence, and De Palma directed Dressed to Kill (1980). The famous thriller starring Michael Caine combines elements taken from the Master of Suspense himself with cues from Italian horror. Quite a lot of the stylistic elements and tropes in Dressed to Kill, from voyeurism to sexuality, including psychosis, art, music – and if that isn’t enough, razor blades and black leather gloves – gave rise to an American version of giallo. It’s still a relevant work and influenced other directors, but some of the traits were lost along the way.
Another thing you may have noticed about these movies is the title: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Blood and Black Lace, Five Dolls for an August Moon, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, The Perfume of the Lady in Black. Some of these sound like thriller titles, but none seems remotely kindred to American slasher flicks. There’s a certain lyricism about spaghetti thrillers, rather common in other Italian cinema, which seems a little odd when associated with such displays of violence. The passionate way of handling horror is amongst the finest details added to the genre by European filmmakers.
And since the clichés are what makes the giallo movie, let’s expand on that a bit. The first true gialli were produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of social turmoil and change. Sexual liberation was still associated with feminism at the time, and the eroticization of film was hanging on a thread, trying to keep balance between the expression of male desires and fetishisms and what today would be named female empowerment. In other European countries where there was a movie industry (mainly France), certain controversial themes were already being explored but, considering these are mostly Italian productions, and that Italy still was – in part due to religious constraints –, a conservative society, there was a breakthrough behind the gialli. Naked female bodies and sex aren’t the only contentious features. Homosexuality, mental illness, drug abuse and criminality are part of the issues on which Italian horror presented social commentary.
The sexploitation trope shows up in two major variants: having a female or male protagonist usually defines how the sexualisation will work in the narrative. In spaghetti thrillers the protagonists are primarily female and, while that doesn’t mean there will be no violence directed at women, at least we know for sure that, until the very end, the star will not die. Since in a female led film there are much more opportunities for eroticism other than the violent murder scenes, nudity usually abounds. There are certainly further defining traits in movies with a woman protagonist other than nakedness. As an example, the male stars commonly have the role of witness or investigator, while women are often the targets of psychotic killers. That’s not always like that, though. Sometimes the villain is a woman, as is the case of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Killer Nun (1979).
When a man leads the cast – like in Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1975) – it is likely that he will be witness to one or more ghastly homicides. In male ledmovies, the protagonist is ordinarily a foreigner, and that’s another important trope, related to the outsider role. On the one hand, this was the chance to internationalize the genre, by hiring American, British and French movie stars, such as Karl Malden, David Hemmings, John Saxon, Donald Pleasance and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Even when the protagonist isn’t a foreigner, he is normally outside his milieu, as it happens with the journalist played by Tomas Milian in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). On the other hand, having a foreigner character helps solidify the alienation trope. There’s a cultural and linguistic barrier but, more than that, when the crime investigation starts, the authorities tend to distrust the outsider’s testimony. In female led movies, the doubts arise from their own traditionally related female weaknesses, like a tendency to overdramatize or having hysterical reactions to shocking events.
The voyeurism trope sometimes gets mixed up with the outsider one. That’s what happens in Deep Red – a seminal work by Dario Argento – in which David Hemmings plays jazz musician Marcus Dally, who witnesses a murder from afar. When the characters themselves aren’t witnesses to crimes we, the spectators, are. Every spaghetti thriller has at least a murder scene in which the audience is invited to watch a grisly homicide while it happens, from a first or third person view. The voyeuristic approach isn’t just fetishist; it is profoundly connected to the inner workings of the genre. Rarely are the characters police officers or detectives. That’s another sort of production, the poliziotteschi, influenced by gritty French and American action movies of the ‘70s (like the Dirty Harry and Death Wish series). In gialli the authorities are usually portrayed in a bad light, as corrupt, aggressive, contemptuous, incompetent and distrustful. The disdain for authority figures’ deductive ability is also part of the social commentary so frequent in Italian horror.
The already mentioned violence is ubiquitous in the genre. The crimes are commonly dreadful affairs and the murder scenes more graphic than contemporary American counterparts. Violence is increasingly sexualized, taking advantage of the social upheaval of the time. Unlike what happens in Psycho, the shower scenes in these films reveal more than they conceal. It’s quite possible gialli take the lead among the most disturbing horror and thriller productions of the same period. Perhaps it is not a disadvantage that this is a niche, or it would be more likely to be “cancelled” nowadays. Nonetheless, psychological horror is as important as violence. Unlike other Italian horror subgenres of the epoch, this one doesn’t thrive on gore.
Although special effects play a very small role, gialli rely heavily on visual impact. Lurid colours, bright neon, lush décors, impressive façades and plenty works of art, all have a part in creating the adequate mise-en-scène. The use of close-ups of objects and body parts, bizarre camera angles and disorienting framing and editing fuels the atmosphere of delirium and confusion. At the same time there’s also an obsession with luxury, present in other genres of the 1970s. Locales are carefully chosen, there’s a notorious prevalence of Art Déco architecture and house interiors are lavishly decorated. Some scenes take place in decaying buildings, but even those are rather stylish.
The musical score is also an important factor. It mixes several styles, from lounge music to progressive rock, there’s always great care in the soundtrack choice and the way it is intertwined with sound effects to breathe life into the whole ambiance. The esteemed Ennio Morricone authored several scores, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Cold Eyes of Fear (1971), Cat O’ Nine Tales (1971), What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and Spasmo (1974) among them. The progressive rock band Goblin had a prolific collaboration with director Dario Argento that encompasses Deep Red, Suspiria (1977), Phenomena (1985), Sleepless (2001) and they also recorded musical scores for other Italian horror directors like Joe D’Amato (Beyond the Darkness, 1979).
Selected giallo filmography:
Ossessione/ Obsession (1943), La ragazza che sapeva troppo/ The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), 6 donne per l’assassino/ Blood and Black Lace (1964), Orgasmo (1969), L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo/ The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Il rosso segno della follia/ Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto/ Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)/ Il gatto a nove code/ The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), 4 mosche di velluto grigio/ Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Una lucertola con la pelle di donna/ A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Cosa avete fatto a Solange?/ What Have you Done to Solange? (1972), Non si sevizia un paperino/ Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave/ Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), Il profumo della signora in nero/ The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), Spasmo (1974), Profondo Rosso/ Deep Red (1975), Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro/ Eyeball (1975), Suor Homicidi/ Killer Nun (1979) Sette note in nero/ Seven Notes in Black (1977), Lo squartatore di New York/ New York Ripper (1982), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985), Morirai a mezzanotte/ You Die at Midnight (1986), Delirium (1987), Opera (1988), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)