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 1982

After the barrage of bloody horror that splashed across theater screens in 1981, the volume of releases normalized to a more sustainable level the following year. It turned out there were only so many audience dollars to go around.

Though the quantity of titles was lower, 1982 offered good variety. Instead of slasher after slasher, we got aliens, mutants, new gialli, a demonic possession/haunted house flick, and the return of anthology horror, which had fallen out of favor midway through the 1970s after Amicus faded into oblivion. There was also a comic book superhero monster in Swamp Thing, a sexy, stylish Hollywood remake in Cat People, and a rare R-rated stop-motion monster movie in Q, the Winged Serpent. None of which appear on the list below.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1982

  1. The Thing

 

This is the easiest decision of this entire blog series. The Thing, the pinnacle of John Carpenter’s career, is as close to a perfect horror film as you’ll see. It seamlessly builds from eerie to unnerving to outright scary. It’s perfectly cast. The music score gets under your skin (like a shape-shifting alien), and Rob Bottin’s make-up FX work is both innovative and surreal. In short, this film deserves the near-universal adulation it gets from fans.

 

  1. Tenebrae

 

In the early 1970s, the giallo film was all the rage, with a new one hitting theater screens every other weekend. But by the beginning of 1982, the genre had seemingly seen its last razor-wielding, black-gloved killer.

Until Dario Argento said, “Not so fast,” and delivered this killer classic that plays like a “giallo’s greatest hits” film. I didn’t know what giallo was when I first saw Tenebrae way back when, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction.

 

  1. Creepshow

 

In 1982, George A Romero returned to the horror genre for the first time in four years to deliver this homage to classic horror comics, using a script written by Stephen King. The individual stories lack the clever twists associated with those old comics, but the visuals are a feast: garish colors, striking transitions from artwork to live action, and now-classic make-up FX by Tom Savini, who was, by this point, almost as legendary to genre fans as his two collaborators mentioned above.

 

  1. Forbidden World

 

In my previous post, I praised New World Pictures’ Galaxy of Terror for being exceptionally creative and ambitious when the producers could have just as easily have crapped out some exploitation fare featuring a rubber monster chasing after topless models. Well, New World took the latter route with this follow up, and we ended up getting a delightfully entertaining piece of trash about an alien that reduces humans to blobs of bloody protein for easier consumption. Forbidden World is a real grindhouse treasure.

 

  1. Pieces

 

If the previous film on this list is a grindhouse treasure, Pieces is a grindhouse legend. The slasher/giallo hybrid features genre favs Christopher George, Jack Taylor, and Paul Smith, absurd dialog, a hilarious array of red herrings, gallons of splatter, a nonsensical ending, and the single worst moment of acting in the history of movies.

This flick is the kind of delirious cinematic mess that compels me to shout derisive comments at the screen, yet I can’t imagine life without it.

 

  1. Basket Case

 

You know how you can often recognize when a film was made, give or take a year, by the “look” of it? Early 80s horror looks different from late 80s horror, for example, and micro-budget American splatter flicks from the early 80s have an aesthetic you can spot instantly: hard lighting, a slight graininess, compressed audio, and fake blood of a deep crimson that filmmakers can’t seem to capture on camera anymore. And the subject matter tends to be in bad taste.

Cult director Frank Henenlotter‘s Basket Case is the quintessential flick in that idiom, the cinematic equivalent of a really good punk rock album on an indie record label. To “normals” raised on big-budget Hollywood spectacle and over-produced pop music, it’s the sort of artistic creation that would be labeled “garbage” in two seconds and is likely to offend on multiple levels. But if you’re the kind of person who gets it, you love it.

 

  1. The Beast Within

 

The Beast Within combines elements of 1950s sci-fi films about mutated humans and oversized bugs and repackages them as a gory, slimy horror film. The plot: a woman is raped by a giant beetle and gives birth to a son who, 17 years later … turns into a giant beetle. Lots of townsfolk meet bloody ends.

Perhaps inspired by the spectacular werewolf transformations depicted in American Werewolf in London and The Howling a year earlier, the producers hired then up-and-coming make-up FX artist Tom Burman to concoct a man-into-bug metamorphosis sequence that turned into perhaps the most over-the-top transformation scene ever filmed. No shot was too absurd to be included in the final cut, which may have been ridiculous at the time but garnered the film some long-term notoriety.

 

  1. Poltergeist

 

Some readers will scoff at Poltergeist sitting all the way down here at number 8. Of course, it’s a horror classic with many iconic moments. For my taste, though, it’s a little too Hollywood, a little too glitzy, and little too reliant on the light show. Few do spectacle better than Steven Spielberg, but I would like to have seen Tobe Hooper unleashed and free to go for an R rating.

 

  1. The New York Ripper

 

Shifting from Poltergeist to The New York Ripper could blow a listicle’s transmission, but for you I’ll take the risk.

Like his countryman Dario Argento, Italian splatter maestro Lucio Fulci returned to the giallo film in 1982 and delivered what is surely that genre’s most gruesome and violent production. Fulci was never about elegantly orchestrated camera moves and clever staging. He was about the visceral aspects of life and death, and there’s one kill in this film so disturbingly visceral it has led some genre fans to declare that Fulci went too far.  To me, if a film’s participants are consulting adults of sound mind, and no one is actually in danger, there is no “too far.” That doesn’t mean I think the scene is ho-hum. It’s kinda fucked up, actually.

 

  1. Amityville II: The Possession

 

By mainstream cinephile standards, this sequel does not compare to the original on any level. By my standards, it’s actually better. As stated in earlier posts in this series, I believe less money generally leads to better horror, because the real scary stuff doesn’t require A-list actors and Hollywood razzle dazzle.

 Amityville II: The Possession is creepier, gorier, more violent, and easily more disturbing than its predecessor. It’s a horror film, for fuck’s sake. Those are good qualities. And Burt Young goes to some dark places with his character.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Friday the 13th Part III

 

I believe there are two groups of Friday the 13th fans: The ones who favor the darker, grimmer early films and those who find the later, campier ones more entertaining. I belong to the former group. Horror is supposed to be scary, IMO.

That said, Part III is the weakest of the four “classic” films. It offers some good kills as well as my favorite pre-zombie Jason make-up.  However, the blurry 3D footage is annoying in 2D, and there are too few likable characters. I like it, but better films bumped it from my top 10.

 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

 

That time John Carpenter said, “Let’s make a Halloween movie without Michael Myers.” A divisive decision to be sure. On the one hand, the concept, plot, and execution are absurd, and I can see why so many fans dismiss this entry. On the other hand, the concept, plot, and execution are absurd enough to be audacious and ironically cool. It probably doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts, but Halloween III: Season of the Witch did manage to produce some iconic genre moments.

 

The Slayer

 

Perhaps this obscurity shouldn’t warrant “honorable mention” over Cat People, Swamp Thing, Slumber Party Massacre, Parasite, House Where Evil Dwells, and a number of other titles released that year, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it. The Slayer is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s legitimately creepy and desolate, and it digs more deeply into the human psyche than most low-budget horror flicks do.