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Enter Giallo

Giallo (Gialli) is an Italian 20th century genre of literature and film, which in Italian indicates crime fiction and mystery. In the English language it refers to a genre similar to the French fantastique genre and includes elements of horror fiction and eroticism. The word giallo is Italian for “yellow” and stems from the origin of the genre as a series of cheap paperback novels with trademark yellow covers.

Like a handful of Japanese films of the same period, The Italian giallo is worthy of recognition due to its contribution to the contemporary horror film genre. Many cult film fans, horror film fans and euro cult cinema fans know the giallo film quite well. If you fancy yourself a fan of stylish, macabre, explicit murder mysteries from the 1960 and 70s but have not yet filled your small screen with these Italian takes, I offer you this essay.

Giallo History

The Italian cinematic giallo owes a significant debt of gratitude to english literature. Many of the stories of the cinematic giallo were influenced directly by English pulp writers from the 1930s – 1950s. Cornell Woolrich, author of Rear Window, who wrote under the name William Irish in the 1930s was one of several key writers to have their work transferred to the screen in giallo form, such as Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), based on a Woolrich short story and a film of significant importance within the giallo movement. The stories of British writer, Agatha Chrisite were also lifted and employed as screenplays such as Mario Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970). Edgar Allen Poe is another writer who’s works were shapped into giallo scripts including Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic (1977), and Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes (1990), based on Poe’s The Black Cat. It’s safe to say that although the giallo film is uniquely Italian, the foundation for many of the stories playing out in the films is very British-American.

Although the giallo genre is not nearly as well known as other major movements, many of the standout giallo films certainly deserve attention for their interesting mix of daunting atmosphere, colorful, stylish photography and gorgeous ingenues. Like all film movements, many of the makers of these films were simply cashing in on the primary components that audiences were craving. With the giallo it was the Sex, Blood and Rock & Roll of 70s Euro Cinema. But among the 200 + giallo films made were some masterfully crafted works produced by talent who understood the components of good suspense cinema. The giallo may conflict with our view of how genre films should be branded because it can be argued that the giallo does not fall into specific, common trappings like other genres. That being said however, there are clear thematic styles within. One such example is the reoccurring appearance of the killer in a long black coat wielding a knife or razor. Note that although the physical characteristics of the villains are similar the weapon of choice often changes.

Giallo Razor

Often credited as the father of the Italian giallo is filmmaker and cinematographer, Mario Bava with his classic, La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Bava was first a master cinematographer and here he employs artisan black and white photography to convey a very noir-esque style and form, which would ultimately become the primary style that helped form the giallo. Although a bit overly complex in its plot, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is beautifully filmed, ultra macabre and a seminal film within the movement. In the proceeding years, Bava would continue to shape the giallo with a number of successful titles including Blood and Black Lace (1964), Five Dolls For An August Moon (1970) and Twitch Of The Death Nerve (1971), which critics argue was the inspiration for the legendary American horror film, Friday The 13th (1980).

Common Devices

Following Bava’s early giallo’s was both Dario Argento with his directorial debut, The Bird With Crystal Plumage (1970) and Lucio Fulci with his entry, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971). Both films were highly successful due to their controversial content such as unabashed sexuality mixed with ultra-violence. It’s true that while we cannot easily classify the giallo, nearly all of the films contain essential devices of murder, suspense and psycho-drama, mainly within the confines of a beautiful, young, innocent woman. But within a larger picture there are a number of story lines taking place across the giallo. I would argue that diversity of story was less important to the filmmakers then was mis-en-scene and plot “devices”. Looking at Umberto Lenzi’s film, Eyeball (1975) in which the killer removes the eyeballs of his victims became a bit of a favorite, thus the gruesome act involving violence to victims eyes is another reoccurring device along with cats and insects. Most giallo films however are not necessarily “about” these common devices but rather they play as a mischievous ingredient within the Italian recipe of what drives fear.

The universal foundation of the giallo lies within the psychosis of its villains, each exhibiting a very dark, highly disturbed mental state driving them to kill. What’s different is how the protagonists of each story deal with their given situation from film to film. Some protagonists see the psychosis of the killer as threatening and something to fear, while others depict the protagonists as powerfully masculine, ready and somewhat threatening in their own disposition.

There were hundreds of these films produced in Italy roughly between 1963 and 1978, however only a few dozen have been remastered and distributed on DVD.

A sampling of Giallo

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Kill Baby… Kill! (1966)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971)
Who Saw her Die (1972)
Seven Blood Stained Orchids (1972)
Deep Red (1975)
The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
The Blood Stained Shadow (1978)