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.



9 comments on “Giallo: The Strangest Crime Genre Of Them All (Part 2)”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Whatever you think about giallo in particular — to my mind, it was just another example of the profound influence of Italian cinema on that of the rest of the world. Giallo had a significant effect on horror films but, but then Italian filmmakers also pioneered or greatly impacted other genres virtually from the advent of moving pictures in the late 19th c. Italian epics at the turn of the century were ‘epic’ with a capital ‘E,’ thanks to unprecedented budgets for the time.

    Avant-garde, neorealism (e.g. ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and ‘Umberto D’), the delightful comedies and sharp ‘introspectives’ (‘Big Deal on Madonna Street,’ ‘The Easy Life’), and, of course, the ‘Spaghetti Western’ of the ’60s and ’70s with its flamboyant cinematography — among other category creators or genre-busters — represent watershed moments in the history of cinema, not just Italian film.

  2. Helen+Martin says:

    I wonder about your Ten Second Staircase. There seem to be gialloesque elements there. Or The Burning Man?

  3. SteveB says:

    Suspiria is brilliant I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, it hits you with the music first and then the colours of the airport hall and the storm outside. Only the murder with the dog is for me out of place and doesnt hit the mark.

  4. SteveB says:

    Even Argento’s later films still have moments of genius- TheStendahl Syndrome with Asia Argento walking out of a room and into somewhere totally different, or the train chase sequence at the start of another film whose name I forget!

  5. SteveB says:

    And yes remaking Suspiria was utterly pointless, it’s a complete one off.

  6. Brian says:

    Shortly before the plague I went to a screening of Suspiria, not in a cinema but in a theatre. In the orchestra pit was a hard driving rock band and a choir which quite cleverly replaced the music track of the film. It worked remarkably well; far better than I had anticipated.

    What else I hadn’t anticipated though was the audience size. I thought it might draw a couple of hundred or so devotees but it was packed with people just like an opera night.

    Yes SteveB, the remake was just a waste of film stock.

    Admin, I listened to your “Desert Island Discs” interview with Des Burkinshaw last night. What a pleasure! Was surprised to hear that you might be a Pogo fan given that he doesn’t exactly wave the rainbow flag.

  7. Stu-I-Am says:

    A link (Twitter) to the Soho Radio interview with CF by Des Burkinshaw mentioned above.^google|twcamp^serp|twgr^tweet

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    If you haven’t listened to this yet, make sure you do, it’s a lot of fun, in spite of them having to shoehorn two pieces of music into a totally non-musical discussion. At the end, in a totally throw away line Chris mentions a “London” book with all the Peculiar Crimes characters having conversations about London. Have I missed something? This is actually an upcoming thing?

  9. Rich says:

    I love Jessica Harper in ‘Suspiria’ She’s a perfect heroine in that she is (rightly) terrified by what’s going on but is determined to work it all out and save herself without relying on someone else to come to her rescue.

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