If you’re like us, then you don’t really need an introduction to the giallo. You’ve had the Giallo Fever series at Anthology Film Archives on your calendar for months; you’ve also probably watched one or two of these movies in the past week to get in the spirit of the series. However, all movies are best experienced with friends, and not everyone gets excited for poorly dubbed Italian thrillers the way that we do. If you want to convince your friend or significant other to join you at the Anthology Film Archives next week, or finally dive into the Mario Bava collection on Amazon Prime, let this be your handy guide. We might just be able to hook ‘em in on your behalf.
It’s probably not a stretch to say that genre film would be considerably less interesting without the influence of 1960s and 1970s Italian directors. For two decades, Italian filmmakers such as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci used American genre films as a springboard for new heights of violence and gore. The frontier antihero spawned the “Spaghetti” Western; the renegade cop became the poliziesco or police thriller; and the psychosexual violence of PYSCHO became the giallo, a genre focused on sexually ambiguous serial killers whose popularity today is back on the rise.
Named after the yellow covers of murder mystery novels, the giallo serves as an important link between crime thrillers and American slasher film of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Like the crime thriller, many of these films feature an amateur murder investigation by someone who either witnessed or has a personal connection to the crime. These protagonists – often writers and journalists, people with a knack for asking questions and no lack of money and free time – work with local experts to unravel the crime until they themselves become a target of the killer. If they’re lucky, only the helpful expert will get killed. If not, no one is safe.
Unlike the crime thriller, however, the giallo has no real interest in presenting audiences with a solvable mystery. Like the cheap paperbacks that inspire its name, the giallo was meant to titillate, blending together sex and murders and exotic locations under the guise of an established medium. Deduction, while entertaining, is hardly titillating. The closer the investigator gets to the truth, the more red herrings the plot throws out. Shots linger on secondary characters, flashback sequences prove completely unreliable, objects that seem important prove not to be, and vice versa. The mystery takes on a secondary role to the scenes of voyeuristic stalking and murder, with the giallo truly flexing its muscles during the deaths of witnesses and experts. What matters most is the creativity of the killer.
More often than not, the killer is revealed to be someone who had suffered a traumatic childhood event and is compelled to murder when these memories resurface; in some cases, such as Bava’s HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, the script is flipped and the killer uses murder to help unearth a repressed childhood memory. Traditionally, this first murder is a crime of passion. After suffering a mental break and stabbing someone close to them, the killer must continue killing to keep the first murder from coming to light. This cause-and-effect relationship between adolescent trauma and adult homicidal rage is always accepted without question as a logical explanation for serial murders. “We are looking for some kind of maniac,” a police officer will say, as if that explains everything. It usually does.
Which is not to say that every giallo follows the same narrative arc. Individually, each film is like an improv exercise in murder, with each filmmaker having access to a handful of shared props and themes. Black gloves, sexual ambiguity, and psychoanalytic trauma may be at the heart of each film, but the genre itself is without consistent narrative form. The aforementioned HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is no less a giallo for its central ghost story; neither is SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS, despite a villainous secret society that might make the film a better fit for the Italian poliziesco or police thriller.
Unlike, say, a vampire movie, where the film is evaluated on how well it sticks to the established conventions of the genre, the giallo had no firm boundaries. Filmmakers can be seen in conversation both with each other and their own early entries into the genre. You made a film where two people were stabbed to death? I can make a film where two characters are impaled simultaneously. My last film featured a killer with black gloves? This one will feature a killer with an entire black trench coat. At their worst, these films are fun improvisations on jazz standards, with genre enthusiasts able to see the different ways in which the giallo diverges or converges with the established tropes. At their best, the giallo represents a brand of psychosexual violence rarely seen before or since.
As the genre boomed in popularity during the ‘70s, it quickly exhausted its own already-limited range of narratives. The films that managed to rise above the crowded landscape verged either towards the psychosexual abstract – violent expressionist films that blended color, sound, and imagery together in increasingly bizarre ways – or towards the pure graphic violence of films like Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD and Sergio Martino’s TORSO. Along the way, the giallo managed to set the stage for quite a few Hollywood films, such as Alan J. Pakula’s KLUTE in 1971 and then, ultimately, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN in 1978.
And yet, none of this answers the question, why the enduring popularity? One the one hand, as DVDs and 35mm prints of these films become increasingly available, American audiences are able to discover what Italian audiences already knew: even the worst giallo has something going for it. The bright colors and vibrant landscapes of the giallo are a welcome reprieve from the gritty darkness of contemporary horror films; similarly, the playfulness of Morricone or the funk of Goblin epitomize a sound that many contemporary composers are still trying to remake. Since much of the talent in these films also worked in other Italian and European thrillers, the giallo often represents a wealth of familiar international names looking to keep their careers alive.
The giallo has also proven itself to be a particularly interesting place for gender and sexual representation. Certainly, the genre is not without its fair share of homophobic or misogynistic depictions, but whereas many genre films adhere rigidly to these stereotypes, the giallo breaks them down with glee. Because these films often link back to childhood trauma, the average giallo downplays the links between gender and sexuality and the murder in favor of an underdeveloped sense of self. The giallo is often about people who cannot fully tell the difference between the living and the dead, which, in a roundabout way, gives many of its characters an agency they would not otherwise possess. A killer can be a killer and not have it say anything significant about their gender or sexual orientation.
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