Defining the Giallo Film

This essay is by our guest writer, Toni Stanger.

I first watched Suspiria (1977) and Tenebre (1982) before I ever knew what “giallo” was. These two films–both directed by Italian filmmaker Dario Argento–are some of the more defined classics of the giallo genre. I also remember watching Don’t Look Now (1973) at university around the same time, which–although not typically cited as a one–does carry some of the key characteristics of the giallo film. A few years ago, I started to get more into this mysterious Italian genre, and set out to broaden my viewing and understanding: Blood and Black Lace (1964), Deep Red (1975) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) are definitely some of my favourites. I researched giallo films online and, amongst all the £30-£40 specialist books, I found some people discussing on various blogs what a giallo film is to them–along with explanations of why it’s such an underrated genre. With that in mind, I want to continue to add to the conversation by outlining what a giallo film, in my eyes, actually is.

What is “giallo”?

The word “giallo” (plural: gialli) means “yellow” in Italian. It’s used in reference to the cheap paperback novels that were published by Mondadori from 1929. They were known for their outlandish yellow covers and were part of the “Il Giallo Mondadori” series, which features novels from the likes of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Edgar Wallace. The series was mainly written by British and American writers and then translated into Italian. It eventually became so popular that other publishing houses began to mimic their yellow trademark covers in order to sell their own mystery and crime novels. After this, the word “giallo” became synonymous for “mystery,” which brings us to the giallo film. A giallo is often cited as a 20th-century Italian murder-mystery film which contains elements of both horror and thriller. However, some would argue that this simple description isn’t the only trait that makes a film a giallo. Some say the height of giallo film occurred between 1968 and 1978 even though there are many key films that came in the early ’60s. The years 1971–1973 were particularly successful with sixty-five giallo films being produced in this two year time period, mostly from the prominent directors of the genre (including Argento and Mario Bava). Giallo did continue into the ’80s where it eventually died out.

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The lavish and vivid set design in Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Gialli are famous for their stylish tropes and motifs which accompany the telling of the murder mystery. I’ve concluded that, for a film to be gialli, it must comprise of most or all of the following elements:

  • Lavish set design with vivid, bold colours and dreamlike, surreal qualities
  • Exceptional costume design
  • Acts of violence such as murder and therefore blood and gore
  • Nudity and eroticism
  • Psychosexual desires from the killer and other forms of psychological madness
  • Murder mystery, often with someone acting as an amateur detective
  • Red herrings to throw off the protagonist(s) and the audience
  • Beautiful middle-class women who have their lives either interrupted or ended
  • A menacing and jarring soundtrack

The giallo film genre began with Bava’s black and white 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which alludes to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Whilst The Girl Who Knew Too Much lacks in sexuality and violence (now traits that help to define the giallo film), it is often credited with establishing the structure of the genre. It highlights the transition between early suspense American crime/noir stories, and begins to settle into the tropes of giallo. One year later, Bava made Blood and Black Lace which set the other hallmark elements of giallo in place, thus making it one of the most influential films of the genre and dubbing Bava as the “Godfather of Giallo”. It also introduced the story arc of a masked killer, in black gloves, with a shiny weapon, murdering a bunch of glamorous middle-class women for psychosexual motives. As well as Bava and Argento, other influential directors within the genre are Sergio Martini, Lucio Fulci and Massimo Dallamano.

So basically, gialli are stylish European murder mystery films – but, as previously mentioned, there is much more to the genre than this. Below is an in-depth look into each element that makes up a giallo film.

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A hue of reds, pinks and blues in Suspiria (1977) directed by Dario Argento

Cinematography 

One of the most important elements of the giallo film is its appearance. Filmmakers such as Bava and Argento not only set the themes and story structure, but also set the standard for the visual elements associated with the genre. Giallo uses bold and vivid colours which complement the lavish set design and stylish camera work. The sets are often surreal and dreamlike due to these features and the middle-class settings, instead of the constant dreary and grim looking palettes that often accompany the standard horror and thriller film. However, many of the typical grim settings still appear in giallo films. The style of cinematography allows for films like Suspiria to be called “the most terrifying film you’ll ever see” and a “candy-coloured nightmare” in the same sentence. This is due to the lustrous colour palette and lucid lighting that Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli explored. A hue of pinks, reds and blues are the most prominent colours in Suspiria, even in its most frightening and tension building scenes. Blood and Black Lace is another great example of a giallo which makes perfect use of bright and bold colours. As you can see from various photos within this post, the set design in this film is very luxurious and features heavy reds, pinks and greens. Other films such as Deep Red, however, may feature a single prominent colour throughout – I’m sure it comes as no surprise that for this film that colour is red. Tenebre also utilises the colour red, but throws it amongst a mixture of bleak whites which highlights some key aspects of the film–the character’s lips, high heels and blood. It’s important to note that the colour of blood in gialli often shows up as a very luminous colour. It’s all about style, but can, of course, be used as a foreshadowing technique.

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The use of red in Deep Red (1975) directed by Dario Argento

Murder Mystery

Giallo films contain a murder mystery. A giallo plot typically involves the protagonist–usually a woman or some male detective–solving a series of gruesome murders. They attempt to find out who the killer is and their motives (should they have any). While trying to figure out what various clues mean, the protagonist often comes across plenty of red herrings to throw them off. We may sometimes see a glimpse into the killer’s past–shown in flashbacks–which makes it all the more confusing (as in Deep Red, Tenebre and The Perfume of the Lady in Black). The killer continues to murder and maim in all sorts of horrible and psychosexual ways throughout the film. However, unlike the common slasher film, the murderer’s identity is generally kept a secret until the end of the film. Some examples that exude this type of plot are The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971). But, like the common slasher, the murders are always grim, gory and sometimes feature nudity.

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The faceless killer in Blood and Black Lace (1964)

The Killer

A typical trope of the giallo killer is someone who wears a mask or is disguised in some other way in order to protect their identity. An example of this can be found in Blood and Black Lace where it first originated. The killer wears a fedora and some material over his face, thus rendering him faceless. There is even a killer who wears a motorcycle helmet to disguise himself in Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975). The trenchcoat motif is also found in gialli. The killer in Blood and Black Lace wears a black one to complete his outfit, whereas the killer in My Dear Killer (1972) wears a beige one. The giallo killer is also frequently seen wearing black leather or medical gloves and usually carrying a shiny weapon, such as a knife, to complete their ghastly kills with. However, there are always exceptions: for example in The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), the killer wears yellow kitchen gloves, which may be a nod to the meaning and origin of the word giallo. There are even some films in which the killer wears white surgical gloves (The Fifth Cord, The Cat’s Victims and Crazy Desires of a Murderer)–although this doesn’t appear as much as the iconic black gloves which were established early in the genre. Men usually take on the role of the killer with psychosexual desires and are revealed to also be mentally disturbed in some way (typically due to previous psychological trauma). However, in gialli, it is also often the last person you expect–meaning there are times when it’s the beautiful woman who is the killer. In a further bid to throw the protagonist and the audience off with more red herrings, the identity of the killer becomes more complex as they sometimes murder their friends, partners, or turn out to be both the protagonist and the killer. Some are also connected to the detective in some way as a brother, mother, wife, husband or friend.

6 gloves
L-R: Tenebre (1982), Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Deep Red (1975)

The Bourgeois Babes

Women are featured heavily in gialli, especially to enhance the theme of eroticism. They are typically beautiful, middle-class women, with impeccable taste in fashion and interior design who have their luxurious and busy routines interrupted by the murders, whether they are eventually murdered themselves or not. Sex and nudity play a huge role in gialli as it is often the women who play the victims and are murdered when they are most vulnerable (showering, being intimate, etc), which further feeds into the voyeuristic qualities of the genre. Also, it’s important to note that the psychological trauma experienced by the killer is usually of a sexual nature, which perhaps explains their psychosexual killings. Argento once explained that “If they have a good face or figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.” It is the women whose semi-naked bodies we see and piercing screams we hear during the gory murders (again, similar to the slasher film). They also manage to keep the women looking very beautiful and fashionable, even as they are being killed, which adds to the overall style of a giallo film–the stylish European murder mystery feel. Even though there is a lot of nudity, the women of gialli have more to offer than their style, grace and often impending deaths. One may presume that they are there to simply play the ditzy middle-class wives and mistresses of their successful male counterparts, but they are in fact portrayed as having high-profile jobs that range from superficial to more academic. In Strip For Your Killer, leading lady Edwige Fenech portrays a successful fashion photographer; Mimsy Farmer plays a well-paid scientist who is known to be a workaholic in The Perfume of the Lady in Black; and Eva Bartok is an important woman who runs a busy fashion house with tons of models in Blood and Black Lace.

Notable giallo actresses are: Edwige Fenech, Eva Bartok, Ania Pieroni, Dagmar Lassander, Barbara Bouchet, Anita Strindberg, Femi Benussi, Barbara Magnolfi, Claudine Auger, Florinda Bolkan, Barbara Bach and even Jane Birkin made an appearance in one.

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Edwige Fenech in Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) directed by Mario Bava

Psychotic Women

On the topic of women, the “psychotic women” trope is another theme in the giallo film. The psychosis often comes from the childhood trauma that they have suffered at some point in their lives. This also adds another layer to their character which shows they’ve at least been fleshed out with an interesting back-story of sorts and they, too, have complicated pasts even though they try to lead busy and fulfilling lives. For example in The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Silvia’s boyfriend threatens to break up with her if she continues to put her work before him, even though he himself is a workaholic. After the argument, Silvia is frightened by an apparition of a dark-haired woman in black, who is spraying perfume on herself in the mirror. It is later revealed to be Silvia’s mother and hints at the past childhood trauma she suffered, including abandonment from her father and her mother’s new partner terrorising and raping her when she was much younger. At one point, Silvia cuts her hand while playing tennis, and repeats “Silvia’s hurt herself” over and over again in a child’s voice, which further show Silvia’s instability. Another good example of mental illness and psychosis in giallo women comes from Four Flies on Grey Velvet. When one of the characters is revealed to be the murderer, she explains to her husband that he reminds her so much of her father who beat her as a child and said she was crazy. He put her and her mother into an asylum which is where her mother died. The terror came back when she met her husband and she knew she would kill him, as she didn’t get chance to kill her father for what he did.

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A small fraction of the gory, bloody deaths in giallo, Top-botton: A Bay of Blood (1971), Deep Red (1975) Suspiria (1977) and The New York Ripper (1982)

Blood and Violence

As you can already gather, the kills in giallo are gruesome and gory. Blood and violence are other hallmark characteristics which are prevalent in all gialli as they add to the elements of horror. Some people refer to giallo are exploitation movies due to their violence and sexual content (especially against women). In New York Ripper (1982) directed by Fulci, the murderer is seen slicing eyeballs and nipples with razorblades, shooting holes into faces and prodding women in the crotch with broken bottles. Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975) sees a young model die from an illegal back alley abortion, while men and women are slashed with massive knives, machetes and axes in Deep Red and Bay of Blood (1971) (sometimes even during sex). These elements tend to happen throughout the film as the mystery element progresses and is similar to the common slasher in that regard.

Soundtrack

One of the most important elements of a giallo film is the defining and chilling soundtrack, some of which are as recognisable and jarring as the key tracks from The Exorcist and Halloween. The most notable are by Italian progressive rock band Goblin, who did the unsettling yet wonderful themes for Suspiria and Deep Red. The soundtrack to a film is typically very important and gialli are no different. They help to really set the tone and atmosphere of either what’s to come or what’s happening.

Strange Titles

While not a requirement, most giallo films have unusual, long and fancy titles, which often feature the name of an animal. Some of my favourite titles are:

  • Four Flies on Grey Velvet
  • The Black Belly of the Tarantula 
  • Don’t Torture a Duckling
  • Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye
  • The Perfume of the Lady in Black
  • Five Dolls for an August Moon

As the word giallo has become interchangeable for horror, thriller and crime, it is often used to describe most horror and thriller films. However, I believe that giallo is more defined by its Italian origin and the characteristics that I have discussed, though there are always exceptions to the rule. Others believe that non-Italian films can be giallo, as well as films that exist outside of the crucial period in the ’60s and ’70s, whereas some believe a film cannot be a giallo if it’s outside of this time period. There are many disagreements on what makes a film gialli which makes this topic very subjecting depending on who you ask. While the main gialli period took place in the ’60s to ’80s, it’s still alive today as pastiche as many filmmakers continue to draw inspiration from these films. The main examples of these come from Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani who made Amer (2009) and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013).

Bibliography 

KOVEN, M J. (2006). La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film. UK: Scarecrow Press.

JANISEE, K (2012). House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. UK: FAB Press.

RIGHETTI, J. (2016). Finding Feminism in the Women of Giallo. Horror Home Room. Available at: http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/finding-feminism-in-the-women-of-giallo/

Giallo Files. A Brief History of Giallo. Available at: http://giallofiles.blogspot.co.uk/

FISCHER, R. (2015). Black Gloves and Knives: 12 Essential Italian Giallo. Indie Wire. Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/2015/10/black-gloves-and-knives-12-essential-italian-giallo-109594/

Filmography

Amer. (2009) Film. Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. France/Beligum: Zootrope Films/Tobina Films.

Black Belly of the Tarantula. (1971) Film. Directed by Paolo Cavara. Italy: Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

Blood and Black Lace. (1964) Film. Directed by Mario Bava. US: Woolner Brothers.

Crazy Desires of a Murderer. (1977) Film. Directed by Filippo Walter Ratti. Italy: Unknown.

Deep Red. (1975) Film. Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Rizzoli Film.

Don’t Look Now. (1973) Film. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. UK/Italy: British Lion Films.

Don’t Torture a Duckling. (1972) Film. Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Medusa Produzione.

Five Dolls for an August Moon. (1970) Film. Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Unknown.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet. (1971) Film. Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Paramount Pictures.

Halloween. (1978) Film. Directed by John Carpenter. US: Compass International Pictures.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon. (1970) Film. Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Unknown.

My Dear Killer. (1972) Film. Directed by Tonino Valerii. Italy: Jumbo Cinematografica.

Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye. (1973) Film. Directed by Antonio Margheriti. France/Italy: Unknown

Strip Nude for Your Killer. (1975) Film. Directed by Andrea Bianchi. Italy: Golden Era.

Suspiria. (1977) Film. Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: 20th Century Fox.

Tenebre. (1982) Film. Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Titanus.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (1970) Film. Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Titanus.

The Case of the Bloody Iris. (1972) Film. Directed by Giuliano Carnimeo. Italy: Unknown.

The Cat’s Victims. (1977) Film. Directed by Antoni Bido. Italy: Unknown.

The Exorcist. (1973) Film. Directed by William Friedkin. US: Warner Bros.

The Fifth Cord. (1971) Film. Directed by Luigi Bazzoni. Italy: Jumbo Cinematografica.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much. (1963) Film. Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Coronet

The Man Who Knew Too Much. (1956) Film. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. US: Universal Pictures.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black. (1974) Film. Directed by Francesco Barilli. Italy: Unknown.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. (2013) Film. Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Belgium/France: Unknown.

 

Toni Stanger is a guest writer for Much Ado About Cinema. If you would like to contribute your own essay or review to the site, please email muchadoaboutcinema@gmail.com, or use the contact form provided.

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