In addition to expensive cars, great food, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Bunga-Bunga girls, Italy is responsible for creating the Giallo sub-genre. The word literally translates to “yellow”; a reference to the Italian pulp novels of the early 20th century, which were traditionally packaged in yellow.
The Giallo films (plural: Gialli) exude a certain dreamy sensibility. When in color, they favor jarring, dazzling palattes – especially the blood, which the Italians offer in generous amounts. Somehow, despite the intense on-screen brutality, there is something almost cheerful about the violence, which is perhaps the appeal of the films.
Gialli are a crazy blend of many elements; think Slasher Movie meets German Expressionism meets Film Noir. Recurring themes include clairvoyance and cross-dresssing, amnesia and a dizzying array of sexual deviance. Here’s a small list of some of the better, early Gialli offerings:
Blood and Black Lace (1964 – M. Bava) While The Girl Who Knew too Much gets credit for arguably being the 1st giallo film, B&BL is perhaps Mario Bava’s finest. Essentially a whodunit that revolves around a series of gruesome murders tied to a fashion house, Bava begins to perfect the Italian tradition of blending sex and violence without resorting to the heavy handed moralism that gets overused in the American slasher film.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (D. Argento – 1970) In Argento’s directorial debut, an American writer is detained in Italy after witnessing a brutal attack on a woman. As the police fail to make an arrest, the killer begins to stalk the witness, forcing him into a game of cat-and-mouse. While relatively tame by later standards, TBWTCP is nevertheless tight and suspenseful, and well worth viewing.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (L. Fulci – 1972) Children begin to turn up missing after a woman performs a black magic rite. One of Fulci’s earlier works, and the first in which he uses the gore that later becomes one of his trademarks, DTAD remains a highly disturbing and yet entertaining giallo.
Deep Red (D. Argento – 1975) This is my personal favorite, although Tenebrae comes in as a close second. A mild-mannered teacher witnesses the murder of a prominent psychic, and aids police in the investigation. Deep Red is one of those movies that manages to perfectly balance gore with genuine psychological suspense. The baddies are not just homicidal robots, but flawed, tortured human beings, and Argento gives an unforgettable view into a very dark place.
Tenebrae (D. Argento – 1982) While perhaps not as multi-layered or brooding as Deep-Red, Tenebrae makes up for this with brilliant gonzo kills and is nevertheless a great entry into the sub-genre. A novelist discovers that a killer is copying the crimes depicted in his books. My advice is to skip the earlier American release – titled Unsane – which hacks off about 10 minutes of footage. Look instead for Anchor Bay’s restored version, which uses the original title of the film.