Giallo: The Strangest Crime Genre Of Them All (Part 2)
Mario Bava’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ was not the first Giallo, but in it all of the right elements and perfectly aligned. Murders of beautiful women in a gothic fashion house by a killer in black leather gloves. Sadistic deaths, lighting more Grand Guignol than Giallo. This was cinema of the senses, more decadent and lurid than anything seen before – or since.
Of course it hinged on the simple formula of sex + violence = box office, but if that had been all there was the genre wouldn’t have needed to go to such artistic extremes. There were grindhouse films and B-movies but these were surreal, overheated fever-dreams.
Many of the high points came from Dario Argento. A witness to an art gallery murder is trapped between its glass walls, a maze-like ballet school has a wheezing coven at its heart, an underwater ballroom hides a corpse in its chandelier, a raven in an opera house plucks out an eye. In ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ Asia Argento finds herself falling into Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Fall of Icarus’ and sinking under its sea, to be kissed by a fish.
Few of these surreal moments have anything to do with the plot. Rather, they tend to stop the narrative dead like musical numbers in Bollywood movies. But there’s a recurring theme throughout; that you cannot believe your eyes. Scenes burned into the retinae change and replay themselves, reflections lie, what appears real proves to be false. The ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ turn out to be the last image imprinted on the victim’s sight, a pendant seen swinging on the killer’s chest. Eyes, sight and interpretation feature in almost every major Giallo.
For a fundamentally misogynist genre it’s very clear that the women are in charge, so much so that the men are barely noticeable, the possible exception being David Hemmings in ‘Deep Red’, a film that has the nerve to recreate living versions of Edward Hopper paintings into its narrative. And that’s before it introduces a murderous walking clockwork dummy!
Sound, much of it deafening, floods the audio track. Argento’s penchant for metal bands is tiresome but highly effective. It’s especially effective in the opening of ‘Suspiria’, a film inspired by Thomas de Quincy and starring the brilliant Jessica Harper. Although it has a supernatural aspect most gialli lack, ‘Suspiria’ marks a high watermark for the genre. Argento’s German locations are designed to invoke the shadows of Nazism (the blind pianist is attacked by his own dog in the middle of Königsplatz, a plaza used for Nazi rallies) and the story was originally to be presented as a fairytale cast with children, which is why the girls’ teasing of one another takes on a playground quality – the dialogue was not rewritten.
Kids seeing the film at home on iPads will now laugh but in a large cinema, with lurid colours filling your peripheral vision and deafening sound, the film overwhelmed audiences. Who but Argento would have a choir screaming ‘Witch!’ over a shot of a flooding drain or turn a murder site into an Art Deco tableau?
American critics were bewildered by this very European, semi-plotless thriller, and doomed its success, while in Europe it was embraced and celebrated, then turned into an audience favourite.
The remake from the director of ‘Call Me By Your Name’ took the opposite approach to the original by creating a dour, drained, low-key atmosphere. In doing so he created a remake in name only.
Argento’s star faded as his directing style coarsened into parody. Eventually the Giallo died out but for a few ungainly homages from directors eager to recreate specific elements, as in ‘Berberian Sound Studios’, which plays out more like a trade show documentary on studio equipment.
One thing is sure; the Giallo cannot return. It was specific to its era and will remain as a disreputable genre strand in a world of increasingly banal films.