Il Thrilling Italiano
- Giallo cinema of the 60’s & 70’s
The Italian cinematic legacy extends beyond what some people would call serious films. Bengt Wallman celebrates Italy's premium exploitation genre: the "Giallo"
I know Uppers readers will agree that Italy is the premium film country in the world. Subsequently there is no need for me to go into the wide range of exceptional films or Italian art house directors that since the birth of cinema have entertained and marvelled the world. Few will disagree when you say that directors like Antonioni, De Sica and Fellini has shaped the medium we know as motion picture. Furthermore there is no one in their right mind who will not understand the impact and revolutionary effect the Italian neorealism had on film making all over the world. In a nutshell, when it comes to fine films; indeed FORZA ITALIA!
However a fact often overlooked is that Italy’s cinematic legacy extends beyond what some people would call serious films. The Italian back catalouge of exploitation cinema is possibly unequalled in the world. There are numerous genres of interest, there are cannibals, zombies, westerns, mondo, nunspolitation...the list just goes on and on. But undoubtedly the most interesting of them all is the Giallo genre. - A genre whose impact on both the thriller and horror film cannot be underestimated. Directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento modernised the thriller and together with Briton Hitchcock must be hailed as the most important to the genre throughout time.
The obscurity of the Giallo could be blamed upon the fact that the self proclaimed writers of The History of Cinema i.e. Hollywood, has always been very reluctant to admit to being inspired by any outsider. Not even Brian DePalma, who blatantly stole many of his visual ideas from Dario Argento, has, as far as I know, ever admitted the genre even existed. And although US-horror directors like John Carpenter and William Lustig has acknowledged admiring Argento's thrillers, they are in a minority in coming clean on their foriegn influences. Just to pick two examples I would urge anyone to sit down for a minute and compare Halloween(1978) to Sergio Martino’s Torso (I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale, 1972) or Friday the 13th (parts 1&2, 1980&81) to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (Reazione a Catena, 1970). As anyone will see there are obvious connections, and however entertaining the slasher films are in their own right there is no denying the fact that this connection sometimes even extends beyond influence and into the dark lands of plagiarism.
You could argue that this is a case of cross-fertilization, as the Giallo was inspired by American films as well, Hitchcock classics like Psycho and Marnie springs to mind, but this opens issues for a whole other article. Suffice to say that the Giallo of course has influences of it’s own, and apart from Hitchcock, they trace back as far as twenties crime novelist Edgar Wallaceand the German films made after his books. Or indeed the thrillers of Fritz Lang, M in particular. And to go even further back, the influence of the Jack the Ripper murders runs strong in the genre. But to be honest the Italian pulp fiction, or Fumetti, is the main nerve of the Giallo. The name (giallo = yellow) in it self comes from the cheap yellow paper these adult crime/horror comic books and novels were printed on in the 30’s. The Fumetti dwelled in daring adult entertainment, not seldom the books featured cynical, costumed anti-heroes who were really just criminals with added sophistication and charisma. Probably most popular where the series Diabolik and Kriminal.
The first of the Giallo films kicked in to production in the early 60’s, as the first real thrillers ever made in Italy. Of course the thriller genre had been sporadically approached ever since the 40’s. But those few films, like for instance Labbra Serrate (Mario Mattoli, 1942), Obsession (Ossessione, Luchino Visconti, 1942) or Facts of Murder (Un Maledetto Imbroglio, Pietro Germi, 1959), could be called thrillers but are in fact equally as much melodramas and lack the distinct aesthetics of the Giallo.
The new blood
The first giallo to hit the market was director Mario Bava’s Hitchcockian outing Evil Eye (La ragazza che sapeva troppo) in 1962. But there was much work to be done. And actually Bava did most of it. In 1964 he shocked Italy with Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino) and gave them the sense that violence and paranoia lie in every dark corner of the modern city, one of the gialli key thematic. But the motivating factors in these early thrillers are greed, lust and hatred rather than psychological disturbance, which later came to be the hallmark of the genre. Blood and Black Lace is possibly the most influential Italian thriller ever made. It was indeed the staring point for something new, something uniquely Italian. Every frame is a classic and the immaculately dressed masked assassin with black gloves became a staple for almost every murderer committed to celluloid in Italy for the next 20 years. The film also placed the action in a decadent upper-class milieu (in this case a fashion house) which also was to become one of the giallo trademarks. Something that not only made for classy settings, progressive fashion and a highly stylised cinematic look but also rendered the genre a social stand. Actually almost all of Bava’s gialli are in some way anti-capitalistic.
A new beginning
Towards the end of the 60’s, with a handful fine gialli made en route the genre moved to become more daring. Films like Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet, So Perverse (Cosi Dolce, Cosi Perversa, 1969) and Orgasmo (1968) followed the Fumetti into thematic elements at the very cutting edge: Graphic sex and violence, drug abuse, fetishism, insanity, sadism and a general tone of amorality. By the end of the sixties the trend was cemented as the genre made it’s final metamorphosis. 1969 saw the opening of Dario Argento’s first film Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo). A psychological thriller which by examining repressed/violent characters who live among us peacefully, striking out without warning or apparent motive, set the standards for virtually hundreds of gialli to come.
The film revolves around a murder attempt witnessed by an American writer on assignment in Rome. Being the only witness, not being sure of what he actually saw, doubled with the police’s inability to make any progress he launches his own investigation. While a modern day Jack the Ripper-type is lurking in the dark byways of Rome, slicing up pretty girls, the story spins on faster towards an climactic ending which throws the whole film on end. With a Ennio Morricone score and photography by Vittorio Storaro the film is of course an unquestionable masterpiece and it modernised the giallo and gave it many new trademarks, while it also successfully employs every trick in the Mario Bava book.
Cinematically the giallo, even from the earliest Bava-films up to Dario Argento’s latest, has always been highly stylised. Much attention is paid to photography and editing, which renders most gialli exciting mise-en-scene and narrative structures. Experiments with point-of-view-shots are common and much work often go into the murder scenes which unlike in most horror/thriller cinema have an active part in the story’s development and in the portraying of the killer. The soundtrack also plays a vital part in most gialli. Like in the spaghetti westerns the soundtracks often feature a series of themes. For instance the murderer often has his/hers theme and sometimes different ones to underscore the emotional state of him/her. Psychology is always an important factor in the giallo and there is often music to emphasise it. For instance in Dario Argento’s Deep Red (Profundo Rosso, 1975) the murderer even carries around a tape recorder with music to evoke the murderous feelings. All this of course makes for a highly cinematic genre, and sometimes it’s impossible to see how a literary genre inspired it all.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was an instant success, and a watershed at the box office. It proved that the fact that a monster existing among us is not scary enough, but that the terror lies in how far he will go. The breaking of taboo was where horror now was headed.
Not short to follow, Sergio Martion’s Next! (Lo Strano Vizo Della Signora Wardh, 1970) shared Argento’s visual flair and contained enough sex and violence to get attention from critics as well as the public to be a huge success. Both films where exported to foreign markets just as Bavas films had been before them and in America the slasher was soon to follow the Italian trend with charm, but without the flair. It is also important to point out that while the slasher was aimed at the undemanding teenage audience the gialli always was an adult phenomenon. However the connection as I stated earlier is impossible to ignore.
The height of the genre
Back in Italy the gialli was THE new thing. 1971 saw fourteen gialli opening in Italy, most of them to great success with the the most popular being Argento and Martino’s new outings Cat O’ Nine Tails (Gatto Nove Code) and The Case with the Scorpions Tale (Coda Dello Scorpione). Another big hit that year was Lucio Fulci’s second gialli A Lizard In a Womans Skin (Lucertola Con la Pelle Di Donna). This highly psychedelic thriller plays out on a swinging London backdrop with two hippies on acid witnessing a murder but only remembering seeing ”A lizard in a woman’s skin”. The film ended up in court due to a scene with mutilated dogs, but Fulci was freed after demonstrating the special effects to the judges. But the effect was already in, at the box office they loved it. And subsequently in 1972 no less than 24 gialli premiered in Italy. It was still early in the game and inflation had not yet set in which made for many bona fide masterpieces among the 1972 gialli. Just to mention a few; Martino’s All the Colours of Darkness (Tutti Colori Del Buio) - a highly exciting mixture of psychedelic dream sequences, devil worshipping and ritual murders. Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino) which features Playboy playmate Barbara Bouchet and spaghetti western veteran Tomas Milan in an intriguing tale of a child murderer in a little village in southern Italy. And possibly most controversial of the year; Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done to Solange? (Cosa Avete Fatto a Solange?) A harsh masterpiece where Fabio Testi portrays Henry, a London schoolteacher who is having an affair with a student. One day during a romantic afternoon on the river the girl witnesses the murder of one of her schoolmates. Henry falls under suspicion and desperately tries to free himself by finding the real killer only to expose a teen group sex club at the school. All the while the murders of schoolgirls continues with a elusive assassin killing by stabbing girls in the crotch and leaving them to bleed to death.
Is this the end?
As time went by the big audience interest started fading as filmmakers pushed the envelope and almost competed in being most explicit and daring. By now some levels of society seriously started to question the morals of the giallo trend. Films ran into trouble with censors time and time again and internationally the major distributors would have nothing to do with them. Most of the films that were exported sooner or later ended up on the American drive-in circuit. Many severely trimmed, not only by censors, but by the distributors to suit the teenybopper audience. Often the elaborate twists were cut out and the subplots minimised. For instance in Umberto Lenzi's excellent erotic thriller Orgasmo the american distributor cut out the final plot twist thus the film ends with different culprits in the european and american versions!! One of the few exceptions to the declining popularity of the giallo in the mid seventies was Armando Crispino’s Autopsy (Macchie Solari) which was quite the hit in 1974, and quite rightly so if I may add. Also, the follow up to What Have They Done to Solange?; What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (La Polizia Chiede Aiuto, 1974) made it very big in it’s native country, however it could be argued the film was more a straight forward American styled police-thriller than a giallo.
But still the most successful giallo of all time was yet to come.
1975 saw the release of what many consider to be Dario Argentos magnum opus Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). It was to be Argento’s international breakthrough and a fitting end to the genre. Deep Red both summarises and refines the stylistic and thematic of the genre. Possibly his most stylish film it borders on cinematic perfection, with its acute sense of colour and carefully planned set pieces. Added to this a pounding avant-garde rock soundtrack supplied by the Italian psyche-rock combo Goblin. In the leading role David Hemmings does something of a repetition of Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) when he witness the murder of a psychic. He is the first on the scene of the crime, but what has he actually seen? As he investigates the brutal murders continue and soon he is in mortal danger himself. Deep Red explores a theme common in giallo land - Childhood trauma resulting in murder and it does it in a visual style so unique it made Argento an internationally acclaimed director.
The final chapter
Although gialli still went into production on quite a regular basis up until 1980, after 1975 they where mostly low budget cash-ins on the previous popularity of the trend. Directors like Anthonio Bido, Andrea Bianchi and Maurizio Pareaux were responsible for the bulk of these films and should be probably by avoided on the video shelf unless you are a die-hard. One or two post 75 gialli are worth mentioning though; Pupi Avati’s masterful The House With The Laughing Windows (La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono, 1976). and Alberto Negrin's fine crafted final instalment in the What Have They Done To Solagne-trilogy; Rings Of Fear (Enigma Rosso, 1978). Or of later date; Ruggero Deodato’s sleazy The Washing Machine (1993). Even Argento and Fulci sporadically returned to gialli territory, most notably Argento’s classic Tenebrae (Tenebre, 1982), Terror at The Opera (Opera, 1987) and recent Italian box office hit Sleepless (Non ho sonno, 2001). The latter, a film that actually comes a long way in contemporating the giallo genre without loosing it’s characteristics. Among Fulci’s post 75 productions Murder To the Tune of 7 Black Notes (Sette Note In Nero, 1977) stand out as the final masterpiece of his career before he found fame with the splatter epic Zombie Flesh Eaters (Zombie 2, 1979). And subsequently indulged more in excess than quality which ultimately led to the infamous The New York Ripper (Lo Squartatore Di New York, 1982) where he combined extremely graphic violence and soft core porn with giallo clichés to a truly...ehm...unequalled effect.
Needless to say the genre was never really the same again...
[Published 23 July 2002]
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|Sylvain L.||jul 5 2005 5:08AM|
|Very good overview of the giallo indeed. If you're interested in it, I started a blog about this genre : |
Hope to see you there.
|Kat Bjelland||okt 23 2004 10:55AM|
|So guys, what can you say about Brian de Palma and his arrogance to not even credit Italian Horror where credit is due (even going to the length of branding Argento as a hack)?|
|Bengt||aug 26 2004 8:43AM|
|My dear friend and uppers collegue Luciano in an e-mail pointed out something that i would like to add to this article, in a modest way, I simply include bits of our e-mail correspondence here below:|
Luciano: Hi Bengt! I've just received "Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa", thank you very much! I watched it tonight, and I liked it. What always strikes me about these films is their ambiguity: they seem "modern" and "liberated" on the surface, but sometimes they are so mean and conservative. Do you remember the one where a killer killed unfaithful women? (Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale
al capo della squadra mobile)
Bengt: You are right, in many gialli, like in Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile, the morals are outdated but the aestethics are very modern. I guess it's in many cases due to the producers and filmbosses being of certain age and although the films can be , in want for a better word; quite 'progressive' they are afraid to upset audiences and some levels of society. I mean how else would you explain all the mean hippies in cinema of the 60's and 70's? My experience is hippies are gererally (manson family excluded) peacful people yet in for example I Corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale,they are prone to rape, violence and blackmail etc etc. Also, I think it's a way of getting the films pass the censors, and to be crass, these films where made to make money not to change society, so the directors seldom cared what their message was. Also maybe it's to do with the influence of right wing religious groups in society, you know how all the people that die in american slasher movies are sexually promiscous, do drugs and drink etc. It's not so much so in italian films, because they where aimed at adults, but there is defienetly a similar tendency. Really it's just Bava who was
respected enough to get away with criticising society in these kind of films, and his films take a firm stance against capitalistic greed, patriacal biggotry and so on. Like in 5 bambole per la luna d'agosto, where the hero is the young girl or indeed Reazione a catena where only children are morally inocent of murder and greed. actually Reazione a catena, goes so far as to not judge the children for the death of their parents, and acctually puts the blame with the parents themself. Also Fulci's Non si sevizia un paperino goes
a long way in showing how, in, albeit extreme way , the religious patriarcate is bad for young people. But then you have films at the very other end like Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile, or Fulci's Lo Squartatore di New York, which are very misogynistic, and dont allow female sexuality. But Lo Squartatore di New York
has an interesting aspect in it's criticsm of the harsh side of the american dream, like his later Murderock - uccide a passo di danza. Sadly the two films are as I stated so misogynistic that the bad sides over shadow the bright ones.
On the subject of mean hippies it's interesting to note that even in sweden which had a very liberal view on subject matter in cinema in the 60's, the Jack Nicholson film Pyschout had a swedish title with translate to The Devil's gang and Easy Rider was actually named A trip to hell in sweden.
|Speedy||aug 24 2004 4:32PM|
|Great Article. |
Being a DJ/composer of modern electronic music the Giallo genre has been a major influence on my direction of music/film. The hip, stylish, psychological aspect of these films Ive always felt was beggin for resurrection in todays "retro resurgence". To see and hear my interpritation check out www.spacetoonzmedia.com to get a free copy of my Techno/Giallo DJ Mix DVD's.
|Bengt||dec 2 2002 9:06AM|
|Helen > that's an excellent soundtrack! do check it out!|
Re Peeping Tom, as a matter of fact it is sometimes credited as an influence on the giallo, but I think that's because it is in itselft so influenced by Hitchcock. Did Peeping Tom even play in Italy?
|Helen||dec 1 2002 10:20AM|
|The soundtrack of 'A Lizard in a Woman's Skin' has recently been released on CD, should anyone be interested.|
By the way, would a film like 'Peeping Tom' (1960 or 61, UK) be similar to a giallo? Sex 'n' violence and repressed memories resurfacing of childhood trauma. Also, the colour used in that film is SO garish!
|scott duncan||aug 29 2002 2:26PM|
|Having been prepared by this article I stopped when flipping through channels yesterday on a documentary about director Dario Argento. I am not a fan of the horror genre (maybe because fiction doesn't really horrify me) but I stopped and watched a good portion of the documentary. It was running on the Independent Film Network (which recently showed Tenebrae) and was Titled "Dario Argento: something I can't recall". Intersted parties may want to look out for that. I must admit that though I am not much interested in horror films the aesthetics in the films showcased on this documentary is very appealing.|
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