A young woman enters her chic quarters. She begins to disrobe, preparing for bed. A hand wearing a black leather driving gloves reaches out and cuts the cord for the lights. The woman turns towards a creaking door where a silhouetted figure wearing a trench coat and wide-brimmed hat stands in silence. She screams and searches for an escape while the figure silently approaches …
A variation of this scene appears in nearly every gialloin Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming series, Giallo Fever! (September 20-30), which features a wide variety of samples from the genre. At this point the woman will most likely be beaten or stabbed to death. The villains in these films are murderous MacGuyvers, turning almost any household object into the deadliest of weapons, and so the weapon of choice can be hard to predict. Like other Italian films from the 1960s and ’70s, there is almost no sync sound and the soundtrack is entirely created in postproduction, causing the audio to float alongside of, rather than emanate from, the onscreen sources. Italian viewership was extremely large at this time, and the demand for new material from the directors necessitated a quick shooting schedule and a shoestring budget. As a sort of compensation for this, the body count in a typical giallo is high, and one of the thrills for the audience was seeing how each film upped the ante on the amount and type of bloodshed.
The genre takes its name from Il Gialli Mondadori, a long-running series of mystery novels, cheaply published, with yellow (giallo in Italian) covers. These often included translations of foreign authors such as Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie. A Christie-like narrative structure is evident in a majority of the films. A murder occurs. A detective of sorts (usually an amateur and often a witness to the original crime) begins to track down the killer. Throughout the film a list of possible suspects accrues, each with his or her motives for committing the crime. Finally in a climactic scene the perpetrator is revealed and, usually, killed. While this may sound similar to other Christie adaptations (such as the BBC’s portrayal of sly amateur detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple), giallo’s difference is in the devilish details.
The stakes in these films rarely feel very high, despite the fact that they are literally life or death. In a standard mystery, the original crime upsets the natural order of things, which subsequently is reestablished through the criminal’s apprehension. Most giallido not portray this sense of order or security to return to. A general sense of amorality circulates throughout and, in the end, what is one more murder? Coupled with a dizzying sense of aesthetic freedom, this largely cynical worldview, an index of the overwhelming political conflict and violence of Italy’s “years of lead,” can make for an exhilarating viewing experience. Safe and dependable conventions, narrative or otherwise, which we all rely on, are consistently thrown out the window, and in their wake anything is possible. Objects suddenly take on violent, unforeseen potential. Bodies are malleable in uncomfortable ways, transforming, falling apart, and bursting open like bloody piñatas. The camera movement is unbridled, swinging like a monkey from a vine, dramatically zooming in on items of interest, popping in and out of POV shots, and often glancing askew. The screams of the victims, and the sounds of the weapons are peculiarly disconnected from their images. The wildly inventive soundtracks, composed by the likes of Ennio Morricone and the Italian prog group Goblin, interweave with the sounds of carnage to jarring effect. The “anything” of “anything is possible” is usually expressed in the many unspeakable acts of passion (either sexual or sadistic, and often both) that occur.
Exciting as these moments may be, they can be hard to watch. Both a moral and physical nausea can ensue. I count myself among the squeamish, and there is much in these films to make me wriggle. Aside from the gore, the pervasive misogyny and homophobia that saturates, gialli can at times be all but suffocating. One could rightly ask, “What is to be gained from watching scene after scene of people (usually women) being brutally killed?”, and I may not be able to supply an adequate answer. But if I were to try, I might rather evasively begin by pointing to the aesthetic formalisms of the genre’s founding fathers, Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Anyone who attended the Andrzej Źu ławski retrospective this winter at BAM can attest to the strange and mesmerizing beauty that is possible in profane material. Through their use of camera movement and artistic direction, these filmmakers have an uncanny ability to turn the mechanics of murder into absorbing spectacles. While the material may have very little redeeming social value, the execution is enthralling, and often beautiful enough to be worth the ethical discomfort.
The uses of color in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Argento’s Deep Red (1975) (both screening in Anthology’s series) are stunning in their brazenness. Blood and Black Lace’s opening titles, which feature each of the film’s actors posing with multi-colored mannequins in moody tableaux, are simultaneously so mannered and gorgeous that they alone are worth the price of admission. Dante Di Paolo darkly stares into the camera, Mary Arden stiffly extends her arm out as if she was a window display for the dress she is wearing, and Francesca Ungaro furtively views a bright red mannequin whose arm is positioned as if it was strangling her. Bava’s combination of schlock and style is pitch-perfect and his sense of humor shines through as a unique quality amongst his giallocohorts. We can laugh at the overwrought acting, the messy dubbing, and the arts-and-crafts gore, while still being impressed by his ability to create a riveting Hitchcockian melodrama through narrative timing, blocking of the actors within the frame, and camera movement. He always makes the best of his material, packing each moment with slapstick, sly winks towards the audience, and generous portions of outrageousness. His are the most purely enjoyable of the giallo, pleasurably alternating between thrilling and chilling, scintillating and campy.
Dario Argento has a darker, though no less outlandish sensibility, as we see in Deep Red when professor Giordani is murdered. Giordoni calls the film’s protagonist, Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), in order to reveal the identity of the serial killer on the loose (a sure sign of his impending doom for astute giallo fans). He drinks a celebratory cup of tea in near silence. Suddenly, a creak from the balcony outside sets into motion a series of ever more chilling and absurd events. These include a mechanical doll that emerges, laughing, from the shadows, Giordani having his teeth smashed on the corners of a table and mantelpiece, and a shot that tracks up and down with the knife stabbing Giordani through the neck. Goblin, whose soundtrack we first hear in this scene when seeing through the eyes of the killer, are the perfect co-conspirators for Argento. Their music, often featuring an eerily twinkling keyboard, pounding drums, and someone singing in a child’s falsetto, is both wacky and sinister. In this scene, it strangely dissipates the horror we feel at what we’re watching, detaching us from the violence in a disturbing fashion. Listening to its exciting upbeat tempo, we find ourselves rooting for the wrong side, reflecting the blood lust of the killer. After watching an Argento film, it’s hard not to feel a little dirty and in need of a moral bath.
In Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)—my favorite from the series—the filmmaker launches a scathing criticism of both the xenophobic townsfolk of the small rural town of Accendura and the modern city dwellers who attempt to infiltrate the town with their culture. The opening shots depict a highway that cuts through the countryside, competing with the mountains for grandeur. On the sidelines are the town’s immobile inhabitants, as if from another time, while families of tourists zoom past them. The superstitious brutality of the backwoods combines with American rhythm and blues, which blares from a car radio, to create a hair-raising murder that begins in a decrepit cemetery and ends on the side of the highway. This is murder scene as social critique and with it Fulci takes giallointo new areas of power and significance.
And then there is Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), a giallogone Godard, which uses its supernatural subject matter as an excuse for experimental camera techniques, disjunctive editing, and an elusive narrative. The first 10 minutes of the film takes a page from Made in U.S.A. (which was released the same year) in both style and substance. Armed with Morricone’s enigmatic soundtrack, Petri enumerates absurd consumer items, such as a chair with a gun sticking out of the crotch and an underwater television set. Within the story these items motivate the film’s protagonist, Leonardo Ferri (played by Italian genre-film fixture Franco Nero) to leave the city in search of a bucolic lifestyle, but as they first appear in the film, without context, they seem only to be a list of capitalism’s violent and useless detritus. It should be noted that at times the symbolism is overly blunt, as in the sequence where Ferri’s fear of the elderly is depicted by replacing an old woman with a reclining coffin in a handful of shots. That said, by taking giallo’s cynicism towards the world and directing it towards consumerism, this eccentric mixture of avant-garde film techniques and ghost story uniquely looks for inspiration not only from within the genre but also from the art-house films being made at the time.
Despite the rather strict narrative structure most of these directors follow, there is a wide diversity in their implementations. As any jazz musician or genre-studies film student can tell you, there is creativity and innovation involved in playing a standard. The film industry in Italy demanded both adherence to familiar narrative structures to sell these films, and an intensifying of their structures to keep the audience engaged. Whether for artistic satisfaction, marketing concerns, or both, the best of the giallodirectors featured in this series push the formula of their field into new territories. The barrier-breaking drive towards higher and higher heights of possibility (which occasionally involve lower and lower depths of depravity) and the aesthetic experimentation that follows is reason enough to watch these films. Whether through blood and guts, or overwhelming camera techniques, the audience is consistently being pushed into emotional extremes. Disgusted, amazed, shocked, or inspired, the one feeling you won’t leave the theater with is indifference.