Giallo for Beginners

For curious movie buffs and budding cinephiles, discovering the wonders of global cinema can be an awakening. Other people are content to catch the latest superhero blockbuster or sci-fi/action franchise film at the local multiplex, and there’s nothing wrong with that (if one desires a banal, meaningless existence). But some of us are driven by a craving for the strange and exotic.

If you’re in the early stages of your world-cinema adventure, perhaps the term giallo has piqued your interest. Giallo refers to a genre of film—largely produced in Italy but sometimes elsewhere in Europe—that is superficially similar to but predates North American slasher movies.

There are two basic rules:

  1. Gialli are murder mysteries. If there are no murders and no mystery to be solved, it’s not a giallo.
  2. Gialli are not supernatural tales. If the film features a ghost, demon, witch, or a zombie, it’s not a giallo. in a giallo, the killer is human.

Gialli and slasher films are similar in that they involve characters being picked off one by one, and both genres are intended to thrill and frighten by employing cinema’s traditional lurid elements: nudity and graphic violence.

However, gialli are typically richer in commentary on culture and society. They often satirize the decadence and corruption of the wealthy, the church, government, and other institutions, or they mock bourgeois hang-ups and indulgences and the seedier aspects of modern life.

Most importantly, Gialli are stylish, lurid, and sensual. That’s why we watch them.

Characteristics of giallo cinema:

  • They are as much crime dramas as horror movies
  • They tend to be suffused with eroticism
  • They often juxtapose modern lifestyle, music, and fashion with old-world European architecture (sometimes using the latter to symbolize hidden madness or decaying sanity)
  • Genre directors frequently use color and other visual cues to tie characters, scenes, objects, and events together
  • Many feature jazz, jazz fusion, or instrumental progressive-rock scores

Take an Agatha Christie mystery, imbue it with painterly visuals and a cosmopolitan air, and ladle on generous helpings of sex and violence. That’s a giallo.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

A not-too-boring history: The word “giallo” means “yellow” in Italian and refers to the color used for the covers of violent and sexy detective novels had been popular in that country since the 1930s.

Influential Italian director Mario Bava piggybacked on the popularity of these books, inventing the film version of genre either with 1963’s black-and-white thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much or his 1964 release, Blood and Black Lace, depending on whom you ask (I lean toward the latter because a giallo in black and white is film noir in my view, and Girl seems too naive and comedic to fit the genre proper).

Blood and Black Lace is a vivid, color-saturated body-count thriller set in a fashion house where beautiful models are being killed by a masked slasher. Not long after, director Umberto Lenzi (of Cannibal Ferox notoriety) delivered a string of gialli including Orgasmo and So Sweet … so Perverse. But it was auteur filmmaker Dario Argento’s global smash The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) that unleashed a title wave. As many as 200 gialli followed over the next decade and a half.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Every giallo fan has their favorites, but here are 15 I recommend:

Blood and Black Lace (1964): It’s the seminal film in the genre and a must see.

The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970): Argento’s blockbuster debut is stylish and cosmopolitan, and it cemented the genre’s signature qualities.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970): The first of Sergio Martino’s five gialli is sexy and stylish, and it takes more turns than a Grand Prix driver. Featuring giallo cinema’s favorite star, Edwige Fenech.

Edwige Fenech

Bay of Blood (1971): Mario Bava’s grisly thriller is not only one of the bloodiest of all gialli, it’s also the launch pad for the slasher genre.

Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971): Director Paolo Cavara’s fan favorite features all the classic giallo elements and could serve as a starting point for those who want to discover what the scene is all about (see lead image above).

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971): Horror fans familiar with Lucio Fulci’s blood-drenched zombie classics may be surprised by this sexy and psychedelic murder mystery.

All the Colors of the Dark (1972): Martino’s third giallo, also starring Fenech, isn’t the most coherent story ever filmed, but visually it’s superb.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972): Fulci delivers another strong giallo, this time with the darker, gloomier mood we’re used to seeing in his splatter films.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972): One of the prettier movies in the genre in terms of locations, deployment of color, and cast (led by the stunning Barbara Bouchet).

Barbara Bouchet

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972): Massimo Dallamano’s well-made thriller might be thought of as a “classy” giallo with its Hollywood-grade production values. If crotch stabbings can be considered classy.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972): A eerie and well-shot chiller directed by the underrated Aldo Lado, with an unnerving score by Ennio Morricone.

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973): This lurid and entertaining Spanish giallo demonstrates the difference between the cosmopolitan Italian approach and the Spanish horror industry’s ingrained gothic tradition.

Torso (1973): Director Martino’s best-known giallo eschews the visual elegance of his previous efforts and delivers straight horror. The third act is a blueprint for slasher films, including the “final girl” scenario.

Deep Red (1975):  Dario Argento’s magnum opus is perhaps cinema’s best-known giallo. If you’re only going to watch one …

Tenebrae (1982): Once more, Dario Argento proves the master of the genre by delivering a late-cycle classic dripping with blood and packed with twists that play out with razzle-dazzle camerawork.

All the Colors of the Dark

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My Top 10 Horror Films of 1987

The 1980s were an embarrassment of riches for horror fans. The second half of the decade saw a surge in new titles that began in 1985 and peaked in 1987, when a deep run of popular films hit screens big and small.

This list was tough to whittle down. Indeed, there are three fan favorites you won’t find below: The Lost Boys, Near Dark, and The Monster Squad. They’re all fine films, but this blog series features my personal favorites, not an attempt at consensus regarding which ones are “the best.” Such an endeavor is inevitably subjective anyway.

A few others I cut, but which could have cracked the top ten in a weaker year, include Street Trash, The Offspring, Blood Rage (filmed in 1983 but released in ‘87), and Dolls. But enough about movies I omitted. Which ones made the list?

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1987

 

  1. Hellraiser

 

Hellraiser isn’t the best acted or most polished production of 1987, but for sheer imagination, you can’t top it. Writer-director Clive Barker has shown time and again to be among the most outside-the-box (no pun intended) thinkers to ever work in the horror genre. The puzzle box, Pinhead and the cenobites, the S&M kinkiness, the merging of hell and earth … such a tableau of terror could not have been dreamed up by anyone else.

 

  1. Stage Fright

 

First he got his brain squished in City of the Living Dead. Then he sold real estate in A Blade in the Dark. After that, he gave away free tickets to the Metropol in Demons. Finally, Michele Soavi got a hold of a camera and directed his own movie.

The result was Stage Fright, one of the best slasher films of the decade, a stylish and gory romp that somehow managed to make this tired subgenre seem fresh and exciting again for 90 minutes.

 

  1. A Chinese Ghost Story

 

Hong Kong cinema is at times so imaginative that writers are at a loss for how to describe it, often resorting to comparisons between disparate western films to draw a vague sketch. So I’ll wave the white flag now and do the same: A Chinese Ghost Story is like Evil Dead II meets The Princess Bride.

Director Ching Siu-tung’s dark fairytale tells of a beautiful, life essence-devouring ghost betrothed to a tree demon, and the human tax collector so in love with her he enlists the help of a magical swordsman to stop the wedding. Whew. Tell me the last time Hollywood came up with an idea like that. This film is funny, eerie, tragic, action packed, and charming, often at the same time.

 

  1. Prince of Darkness

 

A surprisingly gloomy metaphysical horror movie, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness tells of an ancient container found in the basement of an urban church that may be holding the essence of evil itself. Spoiler alert: they open it.

This film sustains a somber, eerie atmosphere throughout its entire hour-and-forty-minute running time, and even the little bits of humor are tinged with unease. In my opinion, it’s the director’s most underrated work.

 

  1. Bad Taste

 

I’m going to boast: I called it. Way back in the day, a friend who ran a video store gave me a promo screener of this flick well before it hit the shelves, and I said after watching it, “This director, Peter Jackson, is a genius and is going to be super famous one day.”

The video store guy scoffed at my prediction, but I was right. Don’t tell him (Peter Jackson, that is) that I think Bad Taste is still his best movie. If the Lord of the Rings trilogy had featured vomit-drinking aliens, a pair of sneakers ruined by exploded brains, and a dive-bomb chainsaw assault, we might be having a different conversation right now.

 

  1. Angel Heart

 

This is Hollywood horror all the way: polished, expensive looking, and trying to hide from the fact that it’s a horror film. Except in this rare instance, it also happens to be pretty damn good.

Sure, Angel Heart is stylized to the point of being pretentious, but Mickey Roarke, Lisa Bonet, and Robert De Niro are all perfect casting choices, and the story is full of giallo-eque twists and intricacies that keep viewers hooked to the very last. Like Hellraiser, the film isn’t afraid to merge sex and death into one kinky mess.

 

  1. Evil Dead II

 

It seems as if each one of these lists requires me to make the same confession, and it usually comes around film number seven: I don’t like this one as much as I should.

Don’t misunderstand; Evil Dead II is still one of the top horror films of 1987. It’s zany and funny and full of cool creature FX and all that good stuff. I’m such a huge fan of the original, however, that I kind of wish Sam Raimi and company had taken a darker, less slapstick approach. That said, I totally get why they went for laughs at this point in the horror cycle, and I enjoy the film for what it is.

 

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

 

After an inconsistent outing with Freddy’s Revenge, New Line Cinema brought back some familiar faces from the original Elm Street movie to stabilize the franchise. The result is the best sequel of the entire series.

When it comes to 1980s body-count movies, you can usually count on one thing: The characters will be so annoying you can’t wait for them to die. Dream Warriors is the rare exception in that you root for these kids. This flick has a surprising amount of heart, as well as some rather inventive horror set pieces on a low budget.

 

  1. The Stepfather

 

Two words: Terry O’Quinn.

The decision to cast the at-the-time relative-unknown character actor in the titular role turned what would have been a taut little thriller into one of the most talked-about films of the year. Just as it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho, it’s hard to see The Stepfather being as effective without O’Quinn as the oft-disappointed family man Jerry Blake.

 

  1. Nekromantik

 

To most viewers, Nekromantik is either disgusting, offensive, repugnant trash, or it’s too primitive to be considered a legitimate feature film.  Shot on Super 8 by eccentric German filmmaker Jörg Buttgereit, this “corpse-fucking art” flick sports production values barely more polished than those of a home movie.

However, to a few of us, it’s one of those weirdly captivating films that continues to haunt long after the credits roll. I’ve encountered a number of folks who can comfortably sit through the most violent and notorious splatter movies ever made yet find Nekromantik too disturbing to watch. That’s impressive in a strange way.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Creepshow 2

 

Aside from the wraparound scenes and story-to-story transitions, the filmmakers ditched the comic-book visuals in this sequel to George A Romero’s 1982 classic, the result being that the cinematography is flat and uninteresting. Also, the lead story about the cigar-store Indian come to life is lame and eye-rolling in historical context (“These young Native Americans today just don’t appreciate the great things the white man has done for them!” Yikes).

But once you get past those flaws, the flesh-eating oil slick story is pretty cool (if kinda rapey in that one part), and the hitchhiker segment is lurid comic-book horror at its best. Instead of being great, Creepshow 2 is merely decent, which keeps it off the Top 10 list. It’s still a worthwhile flick in a strong year for the genre.

 

Opera

 

The giallo film was on its last legs in 1987. Not even the genre’s greatest auteur, Dario Argento, was able to conjure another classic in a genre that had reached its zenith in the early 1970s. In the end, we got a pretty good movie that seems cobbled together from bits of the director’s earlier works.

That said, while Opera has its flaws, the film still features plenty of Argento’s signature set-piece kills and flashy camera work.

 

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II

 

Prom Night II isn’t any better than the films I left off the list altogether, such as Street Trash or The Offspring. There’s just something weird and unexpected about it (it feels more like a Freddy Krueger film than the sequel to a slasher movie). Ask me next week and I might change my mind, but for now, it gets an honorable mention.

To repeat: I have chosen to omit The Lost Boys, Near Dark, and The Monster Squad from my list. Yes, I have seen them; no I have not lost my mind. Please mail your complaints, along with a $20 processing fee, to:

 

Alex Vorkov Enterprises

1313 Mockingbird Lane

Hollyweird, Karloffornia 66666

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1986

By 1986, creature FX were in and gory, slasher-style kills were out. The MPAA had been coming down hard on body-count films anyway, so movie producers adapted and gave audiences what they wanted— and what the censors were willing to tolerate.

Only a few consensus classics were released that year, but the horror scene still generated its most prolific 12-month span of output since 1981. Among the 30 or so new films to hit theaters and VCRs were several now considered minor cult favorites: Maximum Overdrive, Critters, Neon Maniacs, Vamp, and Terrorvision.  Each is characterized by stylized villains or other exaggerated production-design elements while at the same time eschewing the grisly, ultra-realistic murder scenes that had defined the genre in the early part of the decade.

But, as you know by now if you’ve been reading this blog series, I tend to go for harder-edged horror content, which is why I mentioned those films above instead of including them on the list below. Speaking of which …

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1986

 

  1. The Fly

David Cronenberg’s horror masterpiece is many things: An art-house film that manages to be a commercial crowd pleaser, a culmination of the director’s decade-long exploration of body horror, and arguably the best remake in any genre.

A lot of horror films are superficial entertainment made with varying degrees of artistic skill; Cronenberg’s movie about a man who slowly transforms into an insect offers multiple reads in the manner of a literary work. A cancer metaphor. An aging metaphor. A mid-life crisis metaphor. A story about regret and the ripple effects of bad choices. It’s beautifully hopeless in the tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein, another pretty good flick.

 

  1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Michael Rooker is so chilling in this film, one might think the producers hired an actual serial killer for the lead. The scene in which Henry and Otis watch, with bored detachment, a camcorder tape of themselves raping and murdering an entire family ranks among the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a movie, and not a drop of blood is shown.

Relentlessly grim from the opening frame to the last, Henry is one of those films that stays with you long after you’ve watched it. A true horror film.

 

  1. Aliens

The original Alien is a near-perfect horror movie that would be impossible to replicate, so the studio wisely decided to go in a different direction with the sequel, opting for action/horror spectacle.

Fresh off the success of Piranha 2: The Spawning The Terminator, hotshot young director James Cameron grabbed the reins of the franchise and delivered a fun, FX-heavy adventure that gave audiences a thrill ride. The acting in Cameron films tends to be a little over-the-top for my taste, but there are plenty of great dialog moments and memorable characters to be enjoyed here, from Lance Henriksen’s quirky android Bishop to Paul Reiser’s smarmy corporate douchebag Burke.

 

  1. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Man, people hated this movie when it came out. I was iffy on it myself, but it has grown on me considerably in the intervening years. Audiences were expecting another grueling, documentary style horror masterpiece and instead got a colorful, splattery black comedy more in line with the violent parody Mother’s Day.

Upon repeated viewings, one starts to see the same type of genre satire that Sam Raimi later earned praise for with Evil Dead 2. Poor Tobe Hooper. He’ll never get the credit and recognition he deserves.

 

  1. From Beyond

Following the success of Re-Animator, the producer-director team of Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon returned with another HP Lovecraft-inspired horror tale, this time about a device that opens a gateway to an alternate dimension populated by all kinds of nasty critters.

From Beyond doesn’t quite reach the heights of Re-Animator, but it’s an imaginative film in its own right and touches on some of the body-horror themes previously explored so effectively by David Cronenberg.

 

  1. Demons 2

Director Lamberto Bava wasn’t able to recapture lightning in a bottle like he did with the original Demons film, but the sequel is still a fun, frenetic romp that gives the audience what it expects.

Set in an apartment tower rather than a theater, Demons 2 tells the story of a demonic possession infestation that spreads from floor to floor like a fire. The film is more intentionally campy than its predecessor and borrows ideas from earlier, better films like Videodrome, but as sequels go, you could do a lot worse.

 

  1. Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI

The birth of zombie Jason. After the horror genre shifted toward a more comedic, fantastical direction with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Return of the Living Dead, the producers of the Friday franchise couldn’t respond with yet another dark, gory stalk-and-slash picture. So they turned to writer-director Tom McLoughlin, who played up the campiness, turned the kill scenes to slapstick, and peppered the film with corny one-liners, to which audiences responded well.

I confess that I don’t like this film nearly as much as many other fans. I find the tone of the humor silly. Nevertheless, it’s a vast improvement over the previous entry in the series and is well put together. CJ Graham portrays a killer Jason as well.

 

  1. The Seventh Curse

There’s nothing like Hong Kong horror. Anything can happen at any moment, and the filmmakers do not seem beholden to western storytelling conventions.

The Seventh Curse is a bizarre pastiche of Brides of Blood, Alien, Romancing the Stone, and probably five other films that have no business appearing in the same sentence. You know when a character starts tossing toddlers into a pit to be crushed by clashing stone slabs, you’re not watching a Hollywood studio film. Look for a small role from Chow Yun Fat before he became the world’s biggest action star.

 

  1. The Hitcher

In The Hitcher, which feels like a gritty 1970s flick time machined into an age of creature FX spectacle, we get cult fav Rutger Hauer at the top of his game playing a psychopathic killer fixated on a man who happened to give him a ride as he was hitch-hiking.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like much, but the simple story plays out in a taut, relentless, and suspenseful manner. It’s the kind of film that proves you don’t need a lot of money to make an effective chiller.

 

  1. Night of the Creeps

Sometimes a silly, fun crowd-pleaser is just what you’re looking for. Night of the Creeps, while far from a masterpiece, offers plenty of action, gory zombie and alien FX, and a great performance from the always-welcome Tom Atkins. You can laugh at it, you can laugh with it. It’s a good time either way.

 

Honorable mention

 

Chopping Mall

This fan favorite about robot security guards gone rogue is fun and action-packed. The humor isn’t to my taste (a trend across the entire year, I’ve noticed), which puts me off the film ultimately, but it’s here out of recognition for its popularity.

 

Poltergeist 2

Some of the Native American magic-power stuff is a bit cringy in 2017, but otherwise I give the producers credit for adding new villains and trying to avoid a cynical rehash of the first film. It’s kind of disjointed in spots, but once you get down here in the honorable mention zone, you’re not finding all-time classics. I could have chosen Deadly Friend, which is also disjointed, or April Fool’s Day, which is rendered nonsensical by the big twist. C’est la vie.

 

Manhunter

I’m putting this film here so all you weirdos who claim Manhunter is better than Silence of the Lambs can enjoy a moment of glory. It’s not better, by the way. Not even close.

Weirdos.