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?