It’s Time To Bury Giallos
I saw my first Italian dubbed crime/horror movie at around 16, (Argento’s ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’) and loved it. The term ‘giallo’ was term used to describe the mainly 1970’s Italian genre of literature and film with mystery, slasher and later fantastical elements. The three star directors to look out for were Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, but scores of others directed films, which had exotic titles like ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ and ‘Seven Dolls for an August Moon’.
The typical giallo hero was an outsider, perhaps a traveler or a writer on a publicity tour, and a beautiful young woman (gialli rarely featured cops). They would track a black-gloved killer because one had witnessed a crime. The mystery was the identity of the killer, revealed at the end to be a key character concealing his or her identity with a ridiculous disguise. The main source of interest was the elaborate staging of murders as grand guignol set-pieces, most notably in films like ‘Blood and Black Lace’, ‘Deep Red’, ‘Tenebrae’ and ‘Opera’.
Better yet were the gialli which added a supernatural spin. The two absolute high points were the exotic, eerily disturbing ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, and the brilliantly lurid ‘Suspiria’. Dario Argento’s talents quickly faded but it didn’t stop him from continuing to make films, each more terrible than the last. I had dinner with him once, but as he spoke no English and I had no Italian I didn’t really get a chance to find out what had gone wrong.
Gialli and their counterpart supernatural Italian movies have enjoyed a more lasting success with cult completists than even Hammer horrors, driven by uber-fans like the extremely dedicated Tim Lucas, who turned the study of Fulci into what appears to be a disturbingly therapeutic life’s work, and critic Alan Jones, with whom I have never agreed about a single film. Also, as these films were heavily censored upon their initial release, various video companies like Arrow have been able to rerelease them for years in various uncut versions, as censorship gradually slackened (shops near me still have racks of them).
Last night I made the bad mistake of watching two, ‘A Blade in the Dark’ and ‘Night Train Murders’, back to back. I had forgotten just how surreally boring the rest of them are. Most feature staggering amounts of Italian misogyny, sexism and homophobia and a fetishistic regard for knives. In ‘A Blade in the Dark’ one busty victim stares at a knife wiggling through a cupboard door for what feels like ten minutes. Similarly, an X-acto blade is poked through a wire fence at a screaming girl who obligingly refuses to move out of its way for a further ten minutes.
However, you can learn a lot about 1970’s fashion here – in ‘Night Train Murders’ one man wears loons, a fox coat and a jaunty red tam o’ shanter – and girls’ makeup; swathes of dense matt pastel foundation and big dry-looking hair. Both films seem to feature kitchens decorated by blind optical artists, and have long dubbed conversations of staggering banality between girls smoking and painting their nails. Murders, when they finally arrive (in both cases about an hour in) linger on limbs daubed in what appears to be vermilion paint. Often, early hired-for-cash Ennio Morricone songs screech tinnily over titles. ‘Night Train Murders’ has an achingly long title sequence over random shots of a German Christmas market – mmmm, sausages!
It’s hard to imagine now that Argento et al had any idea of what they were achieving when they produced powerful set-pieces. In the above clip did it occur to the director to symbolise the decadent evil of the coven with maggots, or did he simply fancy conducting some tracking shots across floorboards? In ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Blood and Black Lace’ the use of colour is genuinely enthralling, and the fetishistic attention to detail (hands, shoes, eyes, hair, knives) fascinates.
But in the majority of cases I can only look back now and wonder, were we all mad to admire these films? How were we fooled into thinking that most of them were worth watching? What a handful of gialli have going for them is a lurid, over-ripe atmosphere, something recent filmmakers have tried to copy with films like the tedious ‘Berberian Sound Studio’. If you do decide to check them out, be prepared for the primitive social mores of Italian directors who, despite juxtaposing female flesh and violent assault, never manage to find a real point of connection between the two. The top five films would probably be Deep Red, Suspiria, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Opera, Blood and Black Lace, and the older Black Sabbath.
I should add that the most pleasing aspect of gialli is the totally random incomprehensibility of their plots, which wouldn’t even make sense to Italians (which is saying a lot). That in itself is refreshing (especially over badly dubbed dialogue) and turns the giallo into a sort of modern art form, best projected onto a gallery wall.