A Beginner’s Guide to Giallo: author and genre expert Michael Mackenzie investigates the evolution of the Italian thriller with its distinct mixture of highly stylised violence, sex & horror…
Giallo… The Italian for ‘yellow’, these violent, highly sexualised and often brilliantly inventive whodunit thrillers exploded on to the international cinema scene in the early 1970s, enjoying a brief but incredibly prolific heyday before going the same way as the spaghetti western, poliziesco and innumerable other Italian cinema fads. Deriving their name from the yellow-jacketed covers characteristic of detective novels in 1920s Italy, these Grand Guignol whodunit thrillers have made their mark on filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Pascal Laugier and James Wan, but remain something of a niche interest among the filmgoing public at large.
With this quickfire guide, my aim is to put together a list of gialli that provide a comprehensive introduction for those new to the genre. There are not by any stretch of the imagination the only gialli worth seeing or even the ten “best” gialli, and I anticipate no small degree of disagreement over my choices. These films are, however, among the most accessible to newcomers and also readily available on DVD and/or Blu-ray on both sides of the Atlantic. They may not be my ten personal favourites (though I suspect that, if I were to compile such a list, the results wouldn’t differ too radically from this one), but they are all worth watching and will hopefully provide newcomers with a broad taste of the exotic delights that await them should they decide to delve deeper into this unique body of films.
Breaking with the standard practice for Top 10 Films, I’ve decided not to rank these films in any kind of order of preference but instead to list them chronologically. The giallo genre evolved considerably over its lifespan, and working through it in order allows for a comprehensive exploration of its various tropes and trends.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Bava, 1963)
While there remains some disagreement as to the point at which the giallo boom ended, it’s broadly agreed that the genre itself began in 1963 with Mario Bava’s playful and decidedly Hitchcockian tale of a young American tourist, Nora Davis (Letícia Román), who, while visiting her invalided aunt in Rome, inadvertently becomes embroiled in a series of murders perpetrated by the notorious “Alphabet Killer”. The only black and white film in this list, Girl looks sumptuous, and makes up for its lack of overt displays of violence and a high body count with plenty of tension and a delightful sense of whimsy — the omnipresent male narrator, a highly unusual touch for a giallo, frequently makes wry comments about Nora’s state of mind. The film also shows that, even at this embryonic stage, the giallo had a strong sense of self-awareness — Nora is introduced to us reading a giallo paperback, and her obsession with murder mysteries is not only a frequent source of consternation among her acquaintances but also proves invaluable in allowing her to solve the mystery. American and Italian horror staple John Saxon plays the love interest — a rather dashing figure who ends up being the butt of some of the film’s best jokes.
The recent and highly recommended UK release of Girl by Arrow Video also includes a rare treat in the form of the film’s alternate North American cut. Retitled Evil Eye, this version of the film features an entirely different score and a number of additional scenes of slapstick comedy.
Blood and Black Lace (Bava, 1964)
If The Girl Who Knew Too Much crystallised the whodunit framework of the genre, Bava’s next giallo, released a year later, was responsible for establishing much of its visual style and, just as importantly, ushering in one of the most enduring aspects of these films: the body count. Exploding on to the screen in baroque Technicolor, Bava’s second giallo is an audio-visual treat, combining lavish primary hues and exquisite production design with a memorable jazzy score by Carlo Rusticelli. The plot, centring around a series of murders taking place in and around a fashion house, may not give us a sympathetic heroine like Nora Davis in the previous film, but instead assembles an entire roster of sinister, suspicious and in some cases downright unpleasant “victims” to be offed in an array of creative ways. Perhaps the most enduring image of the giallo, that of the masked killer with his black gloves, trenchcoat and hat, makes its debut here — a ruthless, brutal and wickedly inventive assassin who dispatches the rich and sleazy with gleeful abandon.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento, 1970)
Bava may have birthed the giallo, but it was a young first-time director, Dario Argento, who created the phenomenon that the giallo was to become in the early 1970s. His debut film builds on the template established by Bava and a handful of other directors in the 1960s and drags it into the modern era, combining brutal murders and an impressively effective whodunit with an emphasis on urban malaise, masculinity in crisis and — an Argento mainstay throughout his lengthy career — a challenging of gender norms. The set-piece that kicks off the film’s plot — an American novelist, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), trapped between two glass doors and forced to watch a beautiful woman bleeding on the floor in front of him — is one of the most enduring of the genre and a testament to Argento’s skill as a filmmaker, eking so much tension and visual interest out of a deceptively simple setup. An eminently rewatchable film, I find myself regarding it more highly, and discovering new things to appreciate about it, every time I return to it, which is at least once a year.
There is a rumour, perpetuated by one of the film’s theatrical trailers, that, having seen Bird, Alfred Hitchcock remarked “That Italian fellow is starting to make me nervous.” High praise indeed from the Master of Suspense, and richly deserved.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Martino, 1971)
Ask a giallo aficionado who is the undisputed queen of the genre, and I’d hazard a guess that most would reply “Edwige Fenech”. The striking Algerian beauty makes her giallo debut in this twisty (not to mention twisted) thriller, playing Julie Wardh, the wife of an Austrian diplomat, who is menaced and taunted by a sadistic former lover, who may or may not be the same black-gloved killer who is going around Vienna, murdering its young women. The film nails its colours to the mast when it opens with a quotation from Freud, and the psychosexual mind games which follow are appropriately warped. Another giallo mainstay and Fenech’s frequent on-screen partner, George Hilton, also appears, in a role he was to return to time and time again in the genre: that of the suave playboy love interest whose intentions towards the heroine may not be altogether pure. Ward may lack the sophistication of some of Argento’s best work, but it remains a firm fan favourite and is arguably the most iconic of the “woman in peril” strand of the genre.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Fulci, 1971)
Though most famous (or should that be notorious?) for his 1980s zombie films, the prolific Lucio Fulci directed films in virtually every genre, and his contributions to the giallo movement are arguably his most accomplished. Little more than a purveyor of schlock to the uninitiated, Fulci’s gialli are the work of a skilled and meticulous filmmaker, and arguably none more so than this psychedelic thriller set in swinging London, in which a high society barrister’s wife, Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan), is accused of murdering her promiscuous neighbour — and the subject of her erotically charged nightmares — Julia Durer (Anita Strindberg). Perhaps the movie’s most impressive aspect, and a testament to Fulci’s skill as a filmmaker, is the way in which it uses its restless, often handheld camerawork, Ennio Morricone’s jarring atonal score and its for the time explicit sexuality and violence to mirror Carol’s increasingly unstable state of mind, blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Carol’s erotically charged nightmares are a particular standout, conveying the conflicting feelings of desire and revulsion she feels towards her promiscuous neighbour, and hinting at the dichotomy that lies at the heart of the genre as a whole with regard to its attitude towards sexuality.
What Have You Done to Solange? (Dallamano, 1972)
A friend of mine told me, after watching this opening instalment in Massimo Dallamano’s thematically linked “schoolgirls in peril” trilogy, that he wished he could dip his screen in Domestos to wash off the sleaze. Set, like Lizard, in early 70s London, Solange revolves around a thoroughly compromised schoolteacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), embroiled in an affair with one of the students at the prestigious all-girls school where he teaches. When his lover and a number of the other students turn up dead, Enrico soon finds himself fighting to clear his name, the key to the mystery being the answer to the question posed in the film’s title — just who was Solange, and what was done to her that could have provoked the current spate of killings? Perhaps moreso than any other giallo, Solange can be an uncomfortable film to watch, with its frequent and unabashed sexualisation of teenage girls, highly dubious morals and the deeply killer’s deeply disturbing method of dispatching his victims. However, it’s also one of the most accomplished films in the genre, combining a cracking central mystery with brilliant camerawork, a haunting Morricone score and a surprisingly touching final frame.
Discover More: Michael’s review of Region 0 DVD
Don’t Torture a Duckling (Fulci, 1972)
The giallo is primarily an urban and decidedly modern (from a 1970s perspective) genre, albeit with a few notable exceptions. One of these is Fulci’s 1972 trip into the rural south, which sees a rustic community gripped with paranoia as a killer preys on its male children, killing them while they’re on the cusp of adolescence. Criticism of both the Catholic Church and religious superstition in general figure heavily in this bleak and often misanthropic tale, in which the two two most sympathetic figures, and its de facto protagonists, are a ruthless big city journalist (Tomás Milián) and a recovering drug addict (Barbara Bouchet) whose predilections towards pubescent boys are not exactly subtle. Duckling also features what may be the most brutal scene Fulci ever filmed (which takes some doing), in which the local “witch” Maciara (Florinda Bolkan, almost unrecognisable from her role in Lizard) is cornered in a graveyard by some of the local men and chain-whipped to death. The moment when, in her death throes, she crawls to the roadside seeking help, and is unnoticed (or ignored) by the commuters driving up the concrete road that slices through the tranquil countryside, is both tragic and unbelievably poignant.
Deep Red (Argento, 1975)
Arguably the pinnacle of Argento’s career and almost certainly the giallo’s finest moment, Deep Red was Argento’s triumphant return to the genre after a brief and unsuccessful foray into historical comedy with the ill-fated The Five Days of Milan. While essentially a retelling of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this later film ups the ante in every respect. The kills are more brutal, the camerawork more audacious, the production design more grandiose and the gender politics more upfront. In a sort of uncredited reimagining of Blowup, David Hemmings plays a role not dissimilar to the one he inhabited in the Antonioni film — that of jazz pianist Marcus Daly, who witnesses the murder of his upstairs neighbour and becomes embroiled in the hunt for her killer after convincing himself that something about the murder scene didn’t quite fit. Along the way, he teams up with journalist Gianna Brezzi (played by Argento’s on-off partner Daria Nicolodi), and the sparring between them is some of the wittiest and most sharply-observed Argento has ever committed to film. (The sight of Hemmings crying foul after losing a “battle of the sexes” arm-wrestling contest to Gianna, only to later grudgingly concede that women may have brute strength but that men have the brains, is too funny for words.)
As the 70s waned, Argento became less interested in narrative and more obsessed with style for style’s sake. While this meant that his work in the next couple of decades was more of a mixed bag (before, in the twenty-first century, he seemingly gave up on style as well), Deep Red is a perfect melting pot of both style and substance — and a giallo that you don’t just watch, you experience.
The House with Laughing Windows (Avati, 1976)
Zeder director Pupi Avati’s sole entry into the genre arrived at a time when the movement’s popularity had long since waned, but remains one of the most critically acclaimed gialli ever produced. With its rural setting and strong overtures of Catholicism, the film bears certain resemblances to Fulci’s earlier Duckling, but is an altogether different and (some would argue) more restrained beast. Lacking the genre’s penchant for brutal violence and baroque visuals, the film seems somehow to bridge the void that exists between the giallo and other more “respectable” filmmaking. (The fact that it’s one of the few gialli to have been released on DVD by a mainstream distributor, 20th Century Fox, further adds to this impression.) While arguably not as “fun” as the other films featured in this list, Laughing Windows is undeniably the work of a skilled filmmaker, and its more restrained nature may make it an ideal starting point for those new to the genre.
Tenebrae (Argento, 1982)
While, like Laughing Windows, Tenebrae may not be part of the main giallo boom, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone with more than a passing interest in the genre. Based on an incident Argento experienced involving an overly obsessive fan, this highly self-reflexive film follows a writer of murder novels, Peter Neal (Anthony Francoisa), who, while in Rome promoting his latest book, receives threatening messages and becomes embroiled in a series of murders, the victims found with pages of his book stuffed in their mouths. Tackling such issues as the perceived misogyny of the genre and the responsibility of the artist for how people respond to his work, Argento faces many of the long-standing criticisms of his work head-on and weaves his responses into another tight and impeccably constructed mystery, featuring a cavalcade of assorted kings and queens of Italian genre cinema — John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliano Gemma… and the future Mrs. Silvio Berlusconi, Veronica Lario, whose brutal death was ordered to be stricken from all broadcasts of the film on Italian television by her new husband. The fact that the majority of the film takes place under the glare of near-blinding light, contrary to what its title might imply (tenebre is Italian for ‘darkness’), means that this final entry in our brief overview of the giallo looks and feels like no other film in the genre.