I Am Curious, Giallo


Every movie lover has pet hates. The two genres of film I least enjoy are chick-flicks and westerns, although there are a tiny number of both I’ve admired, ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally’, ‘The Big Country’ and ‘The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford’ among them.

I grew up with one film genre, giallo, because they were always on the lower halves of double bills in the UK, so I got to see most of them on a big screen, albeit in censored versions. They came to epitomise 1970s Europe, all fast cars, murderers and mini-dresses. Now that the way we watch films has changed, I’ve noticed that DVD sales are still persistent in the UK and have become a collectors’ medium. Stores like the excellent Fopp do a roaring trade in obscure or cult movies and books, and the giallo movies are heavily represented by labels like Arrow.

With so many restored, remastered versions appearing I thought it would be a good time to check out a few, ranging from Mario Bava to Lucio Fulci and finishing with Dario Argento, especially as this summer sees an interestingly angled reboot of ‘Suspiria’ arriving. I didn’t get very far; it seems my tolerance for what are effectively terrible movies isn’t as high as I thought.

You know where you are with a giallo; beautiful women, gloved hands, fetishistic murders, appealing design, crash zooms, cheesy music, incoherent plots, wild colours. ‘Blood and Black Lace’ is still the startling start-point and stands up well, although its pacing is a mess. Gialli deserve the full cinema treatment; without a large screen to draw the eye, attention flags.

That’s the first problem; we’re used to better dialogue, sharper edits, stories that make sense, everything faster. And then there’s the all-pervasive air of sleaze that seems to be uniquely Italian. Trying to watch ‘Don’t Torture A Duckling’ now is hard work. Children die in a small village against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery and Riz Ortoloni music. The cops are hilariously inept, poor Irene Papas is stuck with the ‘silently glaring local’ role, the titular duck puts in a bizarre appearance and a young woman sits around naked, trying to seduce an underage boy.

This last element is squirm-makingly uncomfortable, but directors like Fulci don’t have time for niceties. The murderer’s identity is poke-in-the-eye obvious from the first frame, and the climactic explanation is a moment of genuine bewilderment, along with a surreal fight on a clifftop with the murderer falling to his death by hitting every rock on the way down, sparking against them as if his head was made of steel.

The traditional Giallo crime movie moved on to introduce supernatural elements, which made the films less pure but actually better. The biggest problem – which seems common to nearly the whole of the Italian film industry – is any sense of consistency from one scene to the next. While this works in some films’ favour (‘Inferno’, ‘Tenebrae’, ‘Opera’ etc) it turns most into stitched-together collages of set-pieces. It’s very rare that one scene impacts upon the next, as if the scenes were cards that could be shuffled in almost any order.

Even Federico Fellini was not immune from this flashiness in later years; it seems ingrained in Italian film-making. I sneakingly like the more restrained sentimental films of Guiseppe Tornatore, but even these are tin-eared. Italian directors have never cared about words (whereas British directors care too much) and are completely relaxed about dubbing. They love strong designs, but sitting through ‘Bay of Blood’ or ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ is now a struggle because everything is so stilted. Gialli defy the laws of filmmaking, as if a child had decided to write a detective story.

Yet when young filmmakers honour giallo in films like ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ or ‘Amer’ they get it wrong by merely making humourless, dull films that cover giallo style tropes. Perhaps giallo films are about all of the elements jammed together, from topless sunbathing and stupid cops to inappropriate sexism, razor-wielding chimps, buckets of flame-red paint and Ennio Morricone on the moog.

One of my favourite supernatural giallos is ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’. Look at those elements; Mia Farrow’s less well-known sister! Richard Johnson! A zombie fighting a shark! Gratuitous nudity! Seventies electronic music! A skewered eyeball set piece! A flyblown Caribbean island with a mad doctor! Bad dubbing! And yet it succeeds by creating (probably accidentally) a genuinely disturbing atmosphere.

Most of the others (and there’s a very long list) only have a few moments that work. Which ones are worth a second watch?


7 comments on “I Am Curious, Giallo”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    Italian films were dubbed by default. Actors considered to have good voices would dub themselves. Others would have their lines delivered by one of the many voice over professionals – it’s a big industry in Italy. We probably heard Sophia Loren in English soundtracks long before she was allowed on an Italian one.

  2. SteveB says:

    Mario Bava’s films tend to be more genuinely creepy and memorable. I have no time for Lucio Fulci though I did always remember Manhattan Baby for some reason. There was a mainstream horror called The Key or something which seemed like an obvious Fulci ripoff to me. Argento is very hit and miss even within films but when he hits it’s spectacular and completely unforgettable.
    The TV series Taggart in its early days used giallo elements (written by the brilliant Glenn Chandler) and I believe in fact the genre had its origin in Italian TV series.
    Also Pete Walker of course, and Murray Smith who wrote many of his films went on to write some great quirky TV.
    Unlike admin I do love many westerns though from Shane to Outland.
    There’s one giallo film I wanted to recommend but my mind is blank. If I remember I’ll be back!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Steve, Shane is an excellent film, period. Growing up in the 50s everything was a western because the people who actually remembered the American west before statehood came along were either dead or dying so they could do anything they liked.

  4. Denise Treadwell says:

    Shane is one my favourite films and I am not a fan of westerns. The book is exellent too and could join the slim book group.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Absolutely, Denise.

  6. Bruce Wells says:

    Determining whether or not a Giallo is good seems to be very subjective. Don’t Torture a Duckling has a boatload of fans but I find it repugnant. The film’s nominal heroine is a pedophile and literally no adult in the film is much of an improvement; the final revelation is stupifying. Argento has had more misses than hits, although there are a few that are awesome (Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Tenebrae, Opera). Ditto for Bava. Although not technically gialli, The Church, The Whip and the Body and Cemetery Man are very good, IMO. I also like The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, Death Walks At Midnight, Stagefright,The Case of the Bloody Iris and The Curse of the Scorpion’s Tail. Keeping in mind that in none of these is plot or coherence a major concern.

  7. Denise Treadwell says:

    I have seen ‘Stage fright ‘ it is surprisingly , a very good film . The great Marlene Dietrich and a very young Jane Wyman!

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