So Daily Grindhouse is doing a week on giallo movies. Editor-in-chief Jon Abrams gets ahold of me and asks if I’d like to write something. “Eh, it’s not really my favorite subgenre,” I demur, while in my head I’m dodging bullets like Neo and congratulating myself. “That’s okay,” Jon counters, “write about why you don’t like ’em!”
Clever guy, that Jon.
So… stop me if you’ve heard this before. The term giallo can be traced back to 1940s Italy, when a popular series of mystery paperbacks whose lurid covers were always set against a yellow background began to be published; giallo being Italian for yellow. Now if you’re Italian, any thriller is considered a giallo. They feel Alfred Hitchcock made gialli, even the fairly tame FAMILY PLOT. Mickey Spillane wrote gialli. MURDER SHE WROTE? Giallo.
It’s when you start moving west and into the English-speaking climes that giallo gains a much more specific definition. It’s a murder mystery, yes, and the murders tend to be hyper-violent, somewhat outlandish, and extremely gory. Black leather gloves are the official uniform of the giallo killer, and the murders are frequently shot from that killer’s POV, not only handily concealing said killer’s identity, but also adding to the voyeurism of the viewer, making them even more complicit in the act. The protagonist is never a policeman of any sort, but is some everyman, often a foreigner, who had the misfortune to witness the opening murder. And more often than not, that victim is a woman.
Gialli often have the charge of misogyny leveled against them, and frankly, it’s hard to make a case for their defense. These movies rose up in the late 60s and especially the 70s, as older production codes loosened, and the blood and violence are in competition with eroticism for screen time. The mixture of the two has always been a dependable shortcut to shock and discomfort, and giallo movies are not afraid to play that card.Sometimes it seems like they have a whole deck just made up of that card.
The most experience I’ve had with the subgenre is through the movies of Dario Argento, who screamed onto the scene with THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1970 – in fact, the sole giallo I own is his 1971 follow-up, THE CAT O’NINE TAILS. Argento is singular among directors, as his murder scenes genuinely unnerve me. This is good, because, honestly, I should be repulsed and horrified by murder, but I watch a dozen cinematic murders a week without blinking. Argento is somehow able to make me forget everything I know about camera angles and makeup effects; it’s like I’ve never seen a movie before, and all that stuff is real.
That is another reason why I seem to be willing to come back to this particular charnel flavor upon occasion: the gialli directors were often daringly innovative in camera moves, lighting, color, music. But my major problem with their movies still remains the major problem I have with slasher movies: they’re pretty damn mechanical,and can get brutally misogynistic, often without seemingly trying.
Slasher movies aren’t really gialli (unless you’re Italian). A giallo is a murder mystery at its heart, and slasher movies are about that most American of pastimes, mass murder. Both have linchpin movies authored by yet another Italian giant of the screen, Mario Bava. BAY OF BLOOD has indiscriminate slaughter as unwary travelers wander into the killer’s sphere of influence (the first couple of FRIDAY THE 13th movies borrow from it), BLOOD AND BLACK LACE has likely the first instance of a black-gloved killer knifing his way through a house full of models to find the diary that could implicate him in the first murder. (If you need to find something concerning my hypocrisy, it’s that I’m very excited that the latter movie is making its Blu-Ray debut next month. It’s Bava. It’s seminal.)
Craig Ledbetter, in his late lamented European Trash Cinema magazine, devoted an entire issue to gialli, and seemingly tracked down and watched every goddamn one ever made. I asked him how the hell he managed that without going insane with boredom (in fact he seemed to tackle each instance of repetition with the same enthusiasm as the first), and he replied, basically, “I dunno. I guess I just love ’em.”
Well, I’m glad somebody does. I actually do hate to think about a whole subgenre that no one likes. That would be kind of sad. But gialli do not need me to survive and thrive, and if recent movies like THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS and BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO can get made and attract appreciative audiences, well… even an old grouch like me has to admit there must be something there, beyond pretty pictures and the swingin’ sounds of Goblin.
But I’m still going to leave it to its fans.
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