Most people have a fair understanding of the classic slasher flick. Made popular by Halloween in 1978, with predecessors including The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Black Christmas, Psycho etc, the idea of killing people off one by one has been immortalised by the formulae refined by films of this type. However, the slasher film is very closely linked to the Giallo (roughly pronounced jea-low), a type of Italian film which was very popular in the sixties and seventies, and bred a slew of filmmakers still admired and imitated today. This article won’t be a comprehensive discussion of the Giallo, as I’m a fan of the genre and not a scholar of it, but it will hopefully provide an introduction to those not aware of it, and give you a couple of movies to add to the ‘to-be-watched’ list.
Originally, gialli were cheap crime paperbacks, a bit like pulp novels, that were printed by Mondadori and trademarked with an instantly recognisable yellow cover. Hence this gave birth to the term Giallo, meaning ‘yellow’. These were mostly translations of Agatha Christie, Edgar Lee Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other similar authors. It’s important to make a distinction between the types of crime fiction, however. Gialli focused more on the graphic violence and the sleuths, rather than gun-toting noir police work. As Gary Needham says:
The publication of gialli increased throughout the 1930s and 40s, however, the importation and translation of the 1940s “hard-boiled” detective fictions from the US were prohibited from publication outright by Mussolini on the grounds that their corrupting influence and glamorisation of crime would negatively influence “weak-minded” Italians. (Needham, 2002)
Despite some of the restrictions, the Italians began writing their own gialli, and the literature boomed in the ’30s and ’40s. By the late ’50s, it had started to make its way across to film. The main mastermind behind its initial translation to the screen was Mario Bava, a film legend in his own right. After all, it was his film, Black Sabbath, which gave the band their name, who helped invent and pioneer the Heavy Metal genre of music.
Though he made a splash in ’63 with his film The girl who knew too much, it was his 1964 film, Blood and Black Lace, which really kicked things off. Dispensing with the police-procedural elements of previous films, Bava upped the sex and violence, turning the stalking sequences into major set pieces in their own right. Despite being a financial failure at the time, it has gone on to be critically appreciated and influenced dozens of filmmakers after. It set the template of what was to come after. It also introduced the killer in a black coat with black gloves, very much like Jack the Ripper, which would be the usual getup for Giallo killers as time went on.
A few years later, the most influential Giallo filmmaker would take up the mantle. Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage incorporated a twisted, convoluted plotline with stunning visuals that earned him the nickname ‘the Italian Hitchcock.’ The film was an international success, and still has one of my personal favourite twists of all time. He followed this up with Four Flies on Grey Velvet a few years later, and then release one of his masterpieces in 1975, Profondo Rosso (Deep Red).
Around the early seventies, Sergio Martino also released films such as Torso, All the colours of the dark, and the incredibly titled, Your vice is a locked room and only I have the key. Lucio Fulci also breaks onto the scene here, directing films such as A lizard in a woman’s skin and Don’t torture a duckling in the early seventies. I’ve already written an article on Fulci here on HorrorAddicts.net, and I’ll include a link to that at the article’s end.
Because of their frequency of production and release at this time, gialli ended up like the Saw films did, with each film trying to out-do the previous in terms of twists and turns. I recall hearing Luigi Cozzi talk about this in relation to when he and Argento were batting around ideas for a film in which someone foresaw their death, then had to try and explain how it happened without psychic powers. The film, Profondo Rosso, was eventually made without Cozzi’s involvement, but he does own a horror memorabilia shop in Italy named after the film.
The gory death sequences continued throughout the seventies, continuing into Argento’s most famous film, Suspiria, which had a remake released last year. The brutal opening death scene with a body crashing through a stain glass window is as in horror history as Johnny Depp’s demise in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, and Goblin’s score for the film is something you find yourself humming walking down the street. Filled with vibrant colours and haunting imagery, it’s still shocking even today.
By the time the eighties came around, however, the Giallo was beginning to fade. Fulci’s return to the genre after doing his Gates of Hell trilogy were fairly laughable (Murder Rock is just funny, and there’s not a person in existence that can’t think of The New York Ripper without saying ‘quack’. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and you’ll understand what I mean), and Argento has been making movies to this day, but nothing of any real note after the mid-eighties with Phenomena and Opera. The American slasher had taken the spotlight, and even that was, by the late eighties, beginning to run down its original formula.
These films are still influential, however. The film Abrakadabra, released last year by the Onetti Brothers, is a wonderful homage to the giallo, nailing everything from the groove-rock soundtrack to the quick zooms and grainy footage. Gialli are a wonderful time, those made around the late sixties/early seventies especially, as they have their own unique vibe, shooting style, and soundtracks. Unlike the slasher or the ghost story, it’s something that I highly doubt will ever make a proper return, but will stay immortalised as the brilliant pieces of cinema that they are. Sleazy, shocking, suspenseful; the Giallo is one of a kind.
-Article by Kieran Judge
FURTHER READING ON HORRORADDICTS.NET
- Link to my article on Lucio Fulci: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/odds-and-dead-ends-lucio-fulci-italys-godfather-of-gore/
- An additional link to my thoughts on Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Were None, and its influence on the slasher (and the Giallo by connection): https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/09/19/odds-and-dead-ends-claustrophobic-killing/
- An older (but still relevant) article on Suspiria: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/eds-extreme-cinema-suspiria/
A Nightmare on Elm Street. 1984. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States of America: New Line Cinema.
Abrakadabra. 2018. [Film] Directed by Nicolas Onetti Luciano Onetti. Argentina/New Zealand: Black Mandala.
All the colours of the dark. 1972. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Lea Film.
Black Christmas. 1974. [Film] Directed by Bob Clarke. Canada: Ambassador Films.
Black Sabbath. 1963. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy/France: Emmepi Cinematografica Societe.
Blood and Black Lace. 1964. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.
Don’t Torture a Duckling. 1972. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Medusa Produzione.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet. 1972. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.
Halloween. 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Falcon International Productions.
Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. 1971. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: International Apollo Films.
Murder Rock. 1984. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Scena Film.
Needham, G., 2002. Playing with genre: an introduction to the Italian Giallo. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php
[Accessed 20 07 2019].
Phenomena. 1985. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: DAC Film.
Profondo Rosso. 1975. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seta Spettacoli.
Psycho. 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. United States of America: Shamley Productions.
Saw. 2004. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: Twisted Pictures.
Suspiria. 1977. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.
Terror At The Opera. 1987. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: ADC Films.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. 1970. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: CCC Filmkunst GmbH.
The New York Ripper. 1982. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown. 1976. [Film] Directed by Charles B. Pierce. USA: Charles B. Pierce Film Productions, Inc..
Torso. 1973. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion.
Your room is a locked vice and only I have the key. 1972. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Luciano Martino.