Sunday, 2 January 2011

An Introduction to the Italian Giallo

The Bloodstained Butterfly (Duccio Tessari, 1971)

January 2011 marks the first anniversary of The Celluloid Highway and what better way to celebrate this minor milestone than with a month dedicated to that most fascinating of Italian filone the giallo. The term filone recognises gialli as a cycle rather than a self-contained genre. An indigenous attitude to the production and distribution of popular cinema in Italy which goes some way to explaining the hybridity of the form and the cross pollination with other popular cycles. This month long festival of black gloved psychopaths, eye watering camp fashions, bourgeois artisans and their neurotic women, and exaggerated acts of eroticised violence is due in no small part to my readership who voted for it. As a result I am consigned to walk the plaza’s and squares of European capitals in search of madness and murder. The age of DVD and Blu-Ray has given audiences uncut and pristine transfers replete with supplementary material and many of the titles have acquired cult followings. Films that were at one time barely remembered obscurities are now presented as lovingly as the Italian art films which took all the critical plaudits in the 60’s and 70’s.

Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)

An introduction to the form must inevitably begin with the year 1929 when the Italian publisher Mondadori created their Il Giallo Mondadori imprint and offered translations of writers such as Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Ed McBain in distinctive yellow sleeves. Prior to these releases the concept of the detective was pretty much unheard of in Italian culture and these first few books introduced an idea which would eventually blossom into a culturally specific indigenous form. The films subverted the idea of the expert detective with amateur sleuths who were motivated by their own obsessions and neuroses. The typical protagonist of a gialli is an insecure artist who unwittingly witnesses a murder and then must spend the remainder of the film either piecing together their memories and solving the case to save their own life, or solving the case to prove their own innocence. Because the protagonist is constantly in battle with their own mind and a myriad of internal vulnerabilities (in the Argento films related to gender and masculinity) they are mistrusted by the authorities. This also makes them unreliable narrators and helps to create much tension within the films. The role of the police is very ambiguous, more often than not they are painted as unhelpful bunglers or they represent a barrier or hindrance to the efforts of the amateur detective. This attitude to authorities and institutions is not dissimilar to that seen in the concomitant Italian film cycle the Poliziotteschi. However gialli rarely travel the terrain of political or institutional conspiracy, and the general cynicism the gialli offers towards the police is lighter in tone.

Deep Red aka Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975)

Like the protagonists in gialli the antagonists are often unlucky and are forced to continue murdering in order to cover their tracks. In many cases the killer just wishes to kill once, but events escalate out of their control and a bloodbath ensues. The path they travel ends in alienation and paranoia and their weaknesses are often those qualities that exist as strengths in the protagonist. The more interesting films are those in which murder is used to conceal a past event that is threatening the killer in the present. The question of madness becomes blurred here and the killer becomes a twisted mirror image of the protagonist. They are also driven and obsessive and risk their lives in order to cover up the past or their own inadequate vulnerabilities. The killer also endures a number of mental and physical neuroses, often sexual in nature which dramatise a crises in gender representations. The twisted and perverted minds of these psychopaths almost seem custom built for psychoanalysis, and gialli overflow with the symbols of Freudian theoretical analysis.

A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (Lucio Fulci, 1972)

Gialli are not concerned with the working classes. Even when set in the rural climes of Northern Italy, the films are firmly on the side of the more enlightened outsiders who usually come from the modernity of the city. The protagonists of these films are usually artists, musicians, writers, photographers or some other kind of artist and circulate around coffee shops, restaurants, upmarket night clubs, fashion houses and other locales populated by equally bland and lifeless individuals. Works of art in gialli are often subverted and associated with the madness of the psychopath and regularly provide a conduit into the past and into the mind of the antagonist. The films however are clear in their intention in emphasising the tacky emptiness of middle/upper class existence in 1970’s Italy. The exhibitionism and vanity of the principal characters is often linked to fashion and photography, and the outfits and designs give the films a camp appeal.

Don't Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)

Other thematic concerns of gialli include tourism, travel and cultural migration. The cultural otherness of a foreigner often leads to unrest and tension, but Europe’s landmark’s and capitals are subsequently united by operatic murder and violence. From the moment Barbara Shelley had a spiked mask driven into her face in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday popular Italian cinema has had a fascination with vision and sight. The gialli took this up and explored the fallibility of an individuals sight and how knowledge must be accumulated logically through a process of deduction and detection. This is extended formally in the gialli by an over abundance of point of view shots. They often show us the perspective of the killer, but can also be used to create red herrings and moments of shock or surprise. On occasion they give us an insight into the fractured psyche of the murderer. Generally speaking gialli offer a patriarchal or masculine gaze which indicates their retrograde attitude to gender. But this came full circle in 1987 when it was subverted to brilliantly sadistic effect by Dario Argento in Opera.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)

From a formal perspective gialli are unique in their presentation. In addition to convoluted plots and a dream like approach to narrative, the films are notable for their ravishing colour schemes, audacious camera work, and distinctive soundtracks. The formal centrepiece of the films are the murder sequences which often exist as self contained units that far exceed their narrative justification. They become an artistic and operatic statement and offer a troubling connection between sex and death. This set piece ‘body count’ structure has been hugely influential, but in all reality owes more to conceptions of art cinema than it does the horror genre. The Celluloid Highway is proud to present a month of giallo.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Excellent and thoughtful article, Shaun! I'm not a huge fan of giallo films, but do own over 30 of them. I agree totally regarding their artistic merits.

  2. excellent introduction, looking forward to this ongoing series.

  3. Looking forward to this month long series.

  4. oooh and in that first screenshot- I believe that is Eugene Walter, his role in House With Laughing Windows is stuck in my mind. :)

  5. Cheers Holger :-)

    I'll have to take your word for that Nigel, you're the man when it comes to Italian cinema. But so much of HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS sticks in my mind, totally unforgettable and horribly unsettling...I feel duty bound to review it this month.

  6. You are absolutely right, Shaun, when you state "But in all reality owes more to conceptions of art cinema than it does the horror genre." I have the same mixed responses to giallo films as I have to art films. I've seen a fair handful of them--particularly the ones with Edwige Fenech!--but have found them difficult to sit through due to poor dubbing, confusion, and indeed, simple boredom. Often I simply play them for their unbeatable '70s style. HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS was quite good, however, and DEEP RED just may beat SUSPIRIA for my entertainment money and is a seminal film of the 1970s.

  7. Thanks for stopping by Will. Yeah I've always felt the line between popular Italian cinema in the 60's and 70's (specifically the giallo and the poliziotecchi films) and the art cinema is very blurred. Take Argento as an example, in many ways analysing them from an art film perspective is more illuminating than a generic approach. A lot of these films are boring, and with their convolution can be very tiresome indeed. If you check out the Giallo Timeline though I highlight the ones I think are important. I'm in the DEEP RED camp every time.

  8. Go Shaun go! Go Shaun go! Excellent article, sir. I will definitely be checking out giallo month!

  9. A thoughtful and informative summary Shaun, I can't wait to see what this month brings! Big congrats on the one year, let this be the first of many!

  10. Many thanks Carl - it is comments like yours that inspire me to continue :-)

  11. Shaun,

    I know I'm a little late to the party here, but I just wanted to congratulate you on a great piece. I chose it as one of the best posts of January.

    Check it out!


  12. Thanks Jonny, it's a great honour to be chosen and I really do appreciate it :-)

  13. Great article! Haven't seen it put down so plainly and thoughtfully since... well, ever! I took several Italian Cinema classes during school, even one that included Giallo as part of its scope; that, and their Westerns. The professor was even highly regarded in New York film circles, and knew everybody who had anything to do with movies in Manhattan. But he was from Italy, and thus, there was a language gap. Even so, I don't remember ever having the cycle explained as well as it is here. Good job, Sir!

  14. Many thanks Greg, I truly appreciate it. I did a module at University called Horror/Nation, and one week of it was devoted to Italian horror. The gothic horror of the 60's and gialli were jammed into just three hours. Apart from that, that has been my only interaction with gialli in an academic context. Another good introduction to the subject can be found in Mikel Koven's book LA DOLCE MORTE...which I have reviewed on these pages. Thanks again for the encouraging comments.

  15. Yeah, I went to two Universities, transferring into what was considered a more prestigious program (how we Americans come up with these distinctions, I'll never know!), but I actually learned more from what was considered the lesser program when it came to history and theory; and like you, I had a basic intro to horror class, that just touched on giallo; I believed we screened DEEP RED, a film I have since owned, but recently lost. I've seen a few others here and there (beginner titles like: BLOW UP, THE CAT O' NINE TAILS, etc.), but have always been fascinated by the "cycle" as you call it. I just really like the idea of the amateur sleuth as a narrative devise. I'm not so worried about the disaffected former cop turned P.I., as am about some nosy newspaper reporter and a blind Karl Malden!

    I've always like De Palma's English speaking odes to the cycle, such as: DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT, and one of my favorites of his, 1984's BODY DOUBLE; though, I guess these (excepting DRESSED TO KILL), aren't straight odes to gialli. I seemed to remember there being a cover-up spin in BLOW OUT, though Lithgow is certainly a creepy killer-for-higher; I can't remember if he's sexually confused, though, it's often hard to tell with Lithgow, as he always come across as sort of gay! And in BODY DOUBLE the motivation isn't rooted in any Freudian psychosis, i don't think.

    I especially like BODY DOUBLE; a much better film set in and around the LA porn scene of the 70's and 80's than say HARD CORE, which has it's merits, I guess.

    Anyway, I've been planning on getting into more gialli, and this article and its addendum list of films, has inspired me to do just that. Thanks, amigo.

    Oh, and thanks for the book recommendation. Amazon, baby, here I come!

  16. I was able to explore these areas a bit more fully during my MA, but didn't have much support from the faculty. The focus at my second university was very much on Hollywood. In retrospect I think I chose the wrong university. I should have gone to somewhere like Hull which did an MA in British Cinema, or Brunel in London which offers an MA in Cult Film.

    Argento considers CAT O' NINE TAILS to be one of his weakest films, but I've always had a soft spot for it. Considering the garbage he has made in recent years, I don't think he's the best judge of his own films. Yeah the De Palma films are gialli remixed through the lens of Hitchcock, and through his own thematic concerns. It's very difficult with De Palma to sift through all the influences and actually locate an essential De Palma characteristic. I like all the films you mentioned, but my two favourites of that period are OBSESSION and SISTERS. I don't think I've covered him at all on here, so I might do a De Palma retrospective in the future.

  17. Shaun!

    Been meaning to respond to this, but have been a bit slammed as they say. Yes, you should do some sort of De Palma retrospective! I'm a huge fan of his. And like you, SISTERS is a favorite of mine. I've got to see OBSESSION, all the more appropriate since Cliff Robertson's recent passing. Robertson has long been a favorite of mine, too. That last scene in 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR with him and Redford is chilling!

    Anyway, I digress: De Palma, while a hard one to nail down, does have an authentic voice, one worth looking into. I recently saw THE FURY, which is an interesting one regarding his work, I think; something about "fathers," their failures, how that ties into the whole telekinesis thing, etc. One of the things, I think, that he does, is to juxtapose light, airy humor with moments of true horror - something to explore regarding his works. This is especially true in some of his earliest films, like Hi, MOM! This one really threw me for a loop in film school! If I recall... who am I kidding, I know I recall: it offended (and surprised) the shit out out of me at the time... I was younger, remember?!

    Okay, now the real reason I'm leaving a comment. I just stumbled across this movie online (due to the score, actually - a Morricone) called AUTOSTOP ROSSO SANGUE, or in its English title: HITCH HIKE. Haven't seen it, but plan to; mainly I thought it sounded like the kind of movie your readers and fans would enjoy. Obviously, all up to you, if you A.) you see it, or B.) review it.

    Cheers, amigo. -- Greg out

  18. Hi there Greg!

    OBSESSION has just been released in the UK in a wonderful Blu-ray package by Arrow Video. It might be worth importing if you have access to a multi-region Blu-ray player. I do like THE FURY despite the obvious accusations that it is just a slightly more complicated riff on CARRIE. I found the film didn't quite do justice to the John Farris novel. Whereas the film of CARRIE was a vast improvement on the novel.

    HITCH-HIKE is a great little film. You have David Hess doing his LAST HOUSE/EDGE OF THE PARK schtick (but puts in a performance far better than either of those films) and the ever dependable Franco Nero. Plus of course Morricone's wonderful score. I watched it for the second time only two months ago, and was planning to review it. But the moment slipped me by. However the details of the film are still fresh in my mind, so I'll try and pen a review. The only problem is I'm suffering from writers block at the moment...not feeling any inspiration.

    Thanks as ever for the comment :-)

  19. Well, you can't keep the peddle to the metal twenty-four seven. Movies are rabbit-holes (or at least they can be) and sometimes you just got to come up for air, take a look around. When people derive inspiration from you, it's often hard to keep yourself full. Writing can be mind numbing, the individual words start to look like islands in a sea of sentences. Anyway, I feel your pain. I'm currently trying to shave something like fifteen to twenty pages off of a spec script I've been killing myself on for a couple years now, and it's already so damn tight, I can't see how I'm going to do it. It's God damn grueling! But I don't want people to throw it in the trash, so I've got to keep going.

    But enough about me. I don't know, maybe start from the beginning, watch an Eastwood film. THE ROOKIE always puts me in a good mood. Or just ride it out and be depressed, that's always fun, too. I already drink little too much, so when I'm down, drinking more isn't the best idea, but hey, maybe it'll work for you! And don't forget, Halloween is coming up....

  20. It's even more difficult I think when you are working on original piece of fiction such as a screenplay or a novel. I have written both in the past. I have a box with three original screenplays in (one a western, one dystopian science-fiction, and the other an historical adventure) and a couple of half finished novels. Writing reviews is comparatively easy - although I don't work too a rigid formula like many others do. It's more a case of not really watching anything that has inspired me to write in recent weeks. I've been downloading a lot of soundtracks instead. don't give up on your screenplay, you'll be proud to look back on it in years to come. A concrete example of something you created.

    Any Clint Eastwood film puts me in good spirits, even relatively 'difficult' watches like THE BEGUILED, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER or ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ. I recently downloaded the soundtracks to THE EIGER SANCTION and HONKYTONK MAN...brilliant music and brilliant films. I of course love THE ROOKIE as well :-)

  21. Was just looking for an old comment thread to respond to, and reread you last comment here. Trying to get a handle on how this blog thing is done. I think I'll be able to set it up now, so as I can get emails of post updates. We'll see.

    Anyway, I love downloading soundtracks, too, and have been doing it quite a bit lately. There are so great to write to, but honestly, I listen to 'em all the time. Right now I got on 1985's SILVER BULLET. Not normally what I go for, but not too shabby either. It's even got a lonely werewolf howl mixed in on the last track!

    I also recently downloaded THE KEEP, which I know you've mentioned, so I'm assuming you have it already. That's so fantastic and moody, you can't even begin to put it into words. It gets no better than Tangerine Dream! First time I saw THIEF, their work blew me away. That movie blows me away, easily in my personal top ten list. It also has had heavy influence on what I'm working on now.

    Also, I just got the soundtrack to CREEPSHOW, which is as a tasty little morsel indeed! Oh, and BODY DOUBLE. I'm gonna stay on you about getting De Palma up on The Highway, Shaun! He deserves it!

    And yes, by God, I must get the music to THE EIGER SANCTION post haste! Those others, too. Eastwood is such a talented musician and composer himself, that it's no wonder his films have such singular and unique soundtracks. Later, amigo.

    p.s. I was looking to comment on and write down your top three Morricone "genre" scores. What a list that was! Glad to see FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE made it to number two in "Westerns." I can remember the emotional impact that music had on me when I was in junior high or high school. And I'm still listening...

    Anything else you just got, that you'd recommend?

  22. I haven't found SILVER BULLET on my musical download wanderings, but I remember that the film had a good score. It also has a great nightmare scene where the priest imagines his congregation as ravening werewolves!

    Yeah THE KEEP is one of Tangerine Dream's better soundtracks along with THIEF. I think those two films represent the very best of Michael Mann. I'm not a huge fan of his post MANHUNTER films.

    I do have access to quite a few De Palma films...I think CARRIE, THE FURY, SISTERS, SCARFACE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and OBSESSION are all in my film library. Plus others would be very easy to get hold of...I might do a De Palma month in the near future.

    At the moment I'm enjoying both versions of the PHENOMENA soundtrack...the original with all the rock songs, and the Goblin only version. I recently downloaded all the Bond scores which contain some of the greatest film music. HALLOWEEN III, THE FOG (Carpenter) and Schiffrin's scores for the Dirty Harry pictures and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR have been on repeat play. The latter is a truly dreadful film only saved by the score in my view. Oh and the soundtrack to PHANTASM is of my favourite horror films.

  23. Yes! THE FOG is one of my all time favorites scores! Those first few simple strokes of the piano atop the ominous, low/slow pulsing of the synthesizer on "Mathew's Ghost Story!" The truly stirring "Reel 9" - its rolling, throbbing bass line, the way it builds and builds to its inevitable climax. Man oh man, does it impart a feeling of certain dread and impending doom!

    I have HALLOWEEN I, II, and III; HOLLOWEEN III is also one of my all time favorites! Any score with a track entitled "Chariots of The Pumpkins" is automatically a classic! And this movie is so bleak. God, I do love it so!

    I gotta say, it seems we have the same ear for soundtracks. I know one of the reasons I love these types of movies is on account of their score.

    I agree with you abouty THE AMITYVILLE HORROR; the onnly redeeming quality of the movie beside the score is Brolin's beard - a true masterpiece of facial hair that! Oh, and I think Steiger puts in a nice performance. I've read your review, I think. I read her again for fun soon, leave a comment on Steiger's behalf.

    I read your review of PHENOMENA and remember you saying the music didn't fit the material. I haven't seen the film, so I'll have to check it and its score out. I'm almost embarrassed to admit I haven't seen PHANTASM. The shame of admitting as much here will prompted me to do so, I'm sure.

    Anyway, SILVER BULLET is a very nice score. I also like that the priest has a since of guilt about his being a werewolf. It's one of the more interesting aspects of the film. I love the scene where Cory Haim drives his suped up wheelchair out to a lonely bridge near the woods in the middle of the night (during a town wide "werewolf alert" no less!!!) and has the audacity to start letting of fireworks! All the while clapping, and yelling: "Ha-ha! Yahoo! Alright-alright!" There's childhood for ya: anything for the joy of blowing shit up.

    David shire is good, as is Jerry Fielding.

    I'll stop here for now...

  24. I also have the soundtracks to the first three HALLOWEEN films, and I think HALLOWEEN III is my favourite. It has am ominous feel which never lets up, even when it segues into the advertising jingle for Silver Shamrock. Those early Carpenter films are almost entirely reliant on their soundtracks. HALLOWEEN would a pale experience without its inspirational sound design.

    I've yet to review THE AMITYVILLE HORROR Greg, but I might do so soon. It will probably consist of me slagging it off for 800 words. But I do enjoy the odd rant. Most of my vitriol would be saved for THE EXORCIST, a film I have scant regard for. Though I do love the use of Mike Oldfield's TUBULAR BELLS on the soundtrack.

    The original soundtrack for PHENOMENA with the rock songs is a perfectly good experience when listened too in isolation. I think all the songs are good, but I'm not a fan at all, of the fetish for heavy rock songs in 80's horror films. DEMONS is another that suffers from this. A great soundtrack when you listen to it on CD, a bit daft when you watch the film. Their is a second soundtrack for PHENOMENA which excises the songs and just features the work of Goblin. If you can, I'd download both. If you want direction as to the links...just send me a message on facebook and I'd be glad to point you in the right direction.

    Also don't forget Gary Busey in SILVER BULLET...he's great as Uncle Red. An enjoyable film which deserves greater recognition. I might slot the DVD in later and then pen a review.

    One of my all time favourite soundtracks is THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, by Francis Monkman of Sky fame. One of my favourite films period!

  25. Yes, THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is a fantastic film! I remember the soundtrack being great, too. I'll have to look it up. That's a movie I should own.


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