Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Giallo
Why it’s daunting: Prior to the ’80s and ’90s boom in Hong Kong action-movie imports, Italy led non-Hollywood cinema in the production of internationally popular genre pictures, starting in the ’60s with Westerns and sword-and sandal epics, and moving into the ’70s with the sexy mystery-thriller subgenre known as “giallo.” “Giallo” literally means “yellow”—as in the yellow covers of Italian pulp novels—and giallo films rely on the conventions of lurid colors, bright splashes of blood, full orchestral scores, picturesque locales, political conspiracies, earnest heroes, and beautiful women stalked by cloaked killers. The giallo genre proved so popular that the Italians pumped out dozens of them a year, each with strange-sounding and/or provocative titles, and frequently helmed by such master stylists as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. Some of these films are as artful as the best of Alfred Hitchcock; some are merely exploitative schlock. (And some are highly entertaining exploitative schlock.)
Some giallos suffer some from distracting (albeit historically accurate) English-language dubbing, which can give off the cheesy aroma of a Steve Reeves Hercules movie. It’s also easy to overrate the giallos’ tautly plotted, nattily shot style, which doesn’t differ that much from the American TV cop shows of the same era. (The classy ones, anyway, like Columbo and Mannix.) Anyone who dives headfirst into the genre will have to be willing to accept that these shiny-looking mood-pieces can be exceptionally grim and misanthropic, treating human bodies—and naked female bodies especially—like meat, ripe for the carving. But for those who can appreciate that cinema can be about base stimulation and still be artfully made, giallo can be “fun.” If nothing else, it’s worth recognizing the genre’s pervasive influence, from crafty American thrillers like Dressed To Kill and Halloween to more highbrow “into the night” films like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Even the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code is, at its core, a giallo (but not as good as most of the movies below).
Possible gateway: The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
Why: When Dario Argento unleashed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in 1970, Italian filmmakers had been flooding the global market with schlocky low-budget versions of Hollywood genre pictures and arty fare from the likes of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Picking up on the ambitions of his one-time collaborator Sergio Leone, Argento sought to split the difference between art and exploitation with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and produced was one of the era’s signature films. Argento won over the arthouse crowd with the film’s crisp, arid look, and won over the mainstream crowd because The Bird With The Crystal Plumage was as chic as Blow-Up, but easier to understand.
Tony Musante stars as an American writer who witnesses an attempted murder in a Roman art gallery and then falls under suspicion after he reports the crime to the local police. So Musante decides to conduct his own investigation, in part to clear his name, and in part because there’s no better way to get to know Rome than to go looking for a serial killer. The elements of the “giallo” genre that Mario Bava had introduced a few years earlier—the gloved murderer, the upper-class decadence, the political conspiracies, the kinky sex, the vivid color, the lush score and the twist ending—were perfected by Argento, who added elements of voyeurism and ennui, typified by the starkly shot glass cage where the initial crime takes place. The result wasn’t just a clear, compelling blueprint for the giallos yet to come; it was also a near-perfect example of a debut film, by a director eagerly trying everything he’s ever wanted to see in a movie, from back-alley chases to unreliable flashbacks.
Next steps: Before Argento popularized the genre in 1970, the godfather of giallo was Mario Bava, whose Hitchcockian 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964 follow-up Blood And Black Lace established an international market for movies in which scantily clad ladies were terrorized by maniacs with weirdly fetishistic ways of dispatching their victims. Minimizing clever mysteries and maximizing sensationalism, Bava found an intersection between “sophisticated” and “smutty,” and he claimed that space for giallo. He’d go on to set a high standard for giallo in several of his movies, in particular 1971’s highly influential Twitch Of The Death Nerve (a.k.a. Bay Of Blood, Bloodbath, Carnage, and about a half-dozen other titles). Presaging a lot of what was to come later with American slasher films, Twitch Of The Death Nerve places a group of people at a waterfront estate and then murders them off in ever-more-gruesome ways, occasionally passing the mantle of “villain” on to a new character after another killer dies. The movie’s preposterous, but imaginatively nasty.
Like Bava, director Lucio Fulci had a long and eclectic career. Though he was best known for such ultra-violent horror films as Zombi 2, The Beyond, and The House By The Cemetery, Fulci also made Westerns and comedies, and like nearly every commercial-minded Italian filmmaker, he tried his hand at a few giallos in the early ’70s. The psychedelic 1971 thriller A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin stars Florinda Bolkan as mentally unstable heiress whose dreams of murder and mayhem may actually be memories, while 1972’s Don’t Torture A Duckling tracks the case of a masked assailant apparently out to rid a small village of its troublemaking young boys. Unlike Bava and Argento, Fulci made giallos that were less snazzy and more gritty, with toned-down colors and almost docu-realistic camerawork at times. Even the gore effects in Lizard and Duckling steer clear of the outsized and sensationalistic in favor of bones and guts. Fulci’s viscera looked so believable that he was actually hauled into court after Lizard was released, because the authorities were convinced that he’d violated the country’s animal-cruelty laws.
A similar hubbub greeted Fulci’s 1982 horror movie The New York Ripper. Jack Hedley plays a Manhattan homicide detective looking into the deaths of several local prostitutes, who’ve been butchered by someone who talks like Donald Duck. That goofy detail alone should be enough of a cue that The New York Ripper is partly parodic, but since Fulci plays the material so straight—with graphic sex and violence that aren’t so funny—any laughs tend to stick in the throat. The film was banned in the UK, one of many slashers on the government’s “video nasty” list.
As for Argento, he didn’t abandon giallo after Bird With The Crystal Plumage. He followed that hit up with 1971’s The Cat O’ Nine Tails, in which Karl Malden and James Franciscus keep running into dead ends while investigating a murderer who may be a doctor at a prestigious hospital, and the same year’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet, with Michael Brandon as a rock drummer being driven mad by a mysterious stalker. Argento would eventually migrate from giallo to different kinds of suspense and horror, though he’d return to the genre he helped popularize throughout his career, as with 1982’s Tenebre, which stars Anthony Franciosa as a horror novelist whose books inspire a string of murders—not all by the same person. All three of these films are almost as imaginative as Crystal Plumage, and the best ones (Four Flies and Tenebre) tie slasher plots to the creative process, linking art and madness.
Before Argento left giallo behind (sort of), he made what’s often cited as the peak film of the genre, 1975’s Deep Red, a slasher thriller as experimental and frequently bravura as Goblin’s rumbling prog-rock soundtrack. David Hemmings plays a music teacher who witnesses a psychic being murdered, and begins working with reporter Daria Nicolodi to find out who did it. The killer’s identity (and motivations) emerge from a murky soup of pop psychology, but that really isn’t much of a detriment to the film, since the mystery’s mainly a hook on which Argento can hang some genuinely disturbing murder sequences, in which victims get impaled by glass, or drowned in scalding hot water, or have their teeth bashed against a marble countertop, or even just get tormented by the sight of baby dolls hanging from the rafters.
As Argento moved further into the realms of abstract terror, his peers rode the giallo horse around the track until it was nearly exhausted. But some of the rowdier and more notorious giallo titles still have plenty of pep. Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key borrows an Edgar Allan Poe plot about a man who fears he may unconsciously be a killer, while Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude For Your Killer concerns a series of revenge murders committed by a person furious over the cover-up of a botched abortion. Both take place among the idle European aristocracy, with vapid models, rugged motocross drivers, bigoted executives, and debauched artists wandering through a world of soft fabrics and bloody, gashed skin. Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Strip Nude aren’t too different from their giallo peers, aside from the usual minor cultural details, like the naked hippie in Vice who dances on tables and insists, “Naked, we are all equal.” Beyond that, what stands out in each film are their prickliest moments: the sack full of eyes in Vice, and Strip’s startling opening sequence, in which a seductively prostrate naked woman is revealed to be on an abortionist’s table. And in both these films, as well as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the restless gaze of both heroes and villains reflects the viewpoint of the audience, leering at the beautiful people and waiting to see them get cut.
Martino brought a measure of élan to several giallos, including 1973’s Torso, about a group of stressed-out co-eds who seek refuge in the country only to find that the killer they’re trying to forget has tracked them into the mountains. Like Twitch Of The Death Nerve and The New York Ripper, Torso is a clear progenitor to the American slasher film, and while it may be a stretch to argue that Martino’s film runs a little deeper than the likes of The Dorm That Dripped Blood, it is a good-looking piece of sleaze, with a clear point-of-view about the animal nature of men.
Director Aldo Lado’s 1971 mystery Short Night Of Glass Dolls has one of the best plots of any giallo, with Jean Sorel starring as a journalist attempting to solve his own murder while lying motionless but conscious on an autopsy table. Sorel reflects on his investigation into his girlfriend’s disappearance, and how he got too close to a secret organization of social elites who thrive on the life essence of the young. Short Night presages Eyes Wide Shut in its account of a man wandering through a shadow city while uncovering layers of sleaze, and the film’s simple social metaphor, imaginative setpieces, and unsettling finale make it a prime example of diverting suspense.
The artistry level is lower but the entertainment value higher in Giuliano Carnimeo’s glam-heavy 1972 slasher movie What Are Those Strange Drops Of Blood Doing On Jennifer’s Body? (also known by its inferior American title, The Case Of The Bloody Iris). Edwige Fenech plays a jumpy model who moves into the apartment of a slain colleague and soon fears that she’s next on the killer’s list. Carnimeo, directing under his preferred pseudonym, Anthony Ascott, constructs the movie as a series of sudden murders and last-second fake-outs, and he distracts the audience with half-naked models up until the anticlimactic revelation of the killer’s identity.
Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks On High Heels (1971) and Death Walks At Midnight (1972) are also glammy affairs, both starring Nieves Navarro (using her stage name Susan Scott) as a fashionable lady embroiled in complicated robbery and/or murder plots. High Heels plays up the genre’s sexy side—and saves its biggest shocks for its loopy last act—while Midnight is over-the-top violent, with a killer whose gloves are spiked. Both movies, though, are much more about how snazzy Navarro looks than they are about the corpses stacking up around her. A concern with glossy surfaces distinguishes a lot of the best giallos from their more low-rent grindhouse counterparts, and Ercoli’s films layer on that gloss in coats.
Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord (another one from 1971, adapted from a D.M. Devine novel) is on the classier end of giallo as well, with its Ennio Morricone score, Vittorio Storaro cinematography, and more respectable source material. Franco Nero plays a scruffy, obstinate reporter investigating the serial murder of a group of socialites. The plot’s standard-issue, though it has a nifty mystery gimmick, which sees the killer leaving behind gloves with fingers cut off for each victim. Nero’s a more complicated character than giallo detective-types usually are, driven by his own not-always-noble obsessions. And Storaro’s camera is appealingly geometrical, pinning the human figures against spiraling shapes and straight lines, showing how they’re caught in webs largely of their own making.
Paolo Cavara’s similar The Black Belly Of The Tarantula (from, yep, 1971) sports an even more memorable Morricone score, and a superb leading performance by Giancarlo Giannini as a cop dealing with financial troubles and his own exhaustion with the job. Cavara and screenwriters Lucile Laks and Marcello Danon pit Giannini against a killer who paralyzes women with a poisoned hypodermic and then plunges a blade into their bellies. There’s not much of a mystery here, but the kill-scenes are especially lurid, and the movie makes subtle but strong connections between its villain and its hero, both of whom are driven by threats to their masculinity.
Lastly, of all the giallo-inspired movies that have come out since the genre’s heyday, there’s none quite like 2009’s Amer, a semi-experimental film by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. The filmmakers run excerpts from classic giallo soundtracks behind a series of related vignettes, attempting to assemble the essential elements of the genre—sexuality, privilege, deep-seated neurosis, costumes, blades—into a kaleidoscope of plotless images. Amer is pure sensation, close to what Mario Bava and Dario Argento originally intended.
Where not to start: Title aside, Dario Argento’s 2009 throwback Giallo is too tame and self-referential to excite. The plot’s not bad—Adrien Brody stars as an FBI agent who helps stewardess Emmanuelle Seigner find out what happened to her sister—but from the killer nicknamed “giallo” to the bland kills, this movie plays like a pale homage, not the work of the man who made Deep Red.