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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5 thoughts on “Giallo for Beginners

    • There are lumpers and splitters in the world. When it comes to movie genres, I’m a splitter. Like, I don’t consider A Nightmare on Elm Street to be a slasher movie, despite the villain’s propensity for slashing. Freddy is a ghost. I’m not sure I’d consider any Friday the 13th entries from 6 to 10 to be slasher movies either. Jason is a supernatural zombie. Seems like a different genre at that point.

      Yes, eventually I’ll paint myself into a corner this way, but the stakes are pretty low. I mean, somebody might call me a dope on Twitter, but I can take it. 🙂

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