Written by Stefan Matthews
So far, we’ve been on a ride through both Italian cinema history and world cinema history (provided that your world consists only of German crime films and American detective movies).
We’ve seen the rise and decline of the neo-realists, the fascists and their white telephones, the Edgar Wallace inspired Krimi films and the raunchy commedia all’italianas; all of which has led, in one way or another, to giallo.
In these posts, we’ll generally focus on the “golden age” of giallo, roughly between the years of 1963 and 1973. We’ll look at the key directors, actors, musicians and writers, before focusing in on exactly what it was about giallo that made it so endearing. Of course, the term “golden age” is fast and loose, and there were plenty of wonderful giallo made after ’73 and plenty of naff giallo made before. But as a rule of thumb, the central players and themes of giallo as a cinematic art were founded and crystallised in this delightful ten year period.
In its heyday, the genre had a plethora of wonderful and iconic directors. However, since we can’t list them all we’ll settle on discussing the key directors who helped mould giallo into an Italian powerhouse in the golden years. These were Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, Luciano Ercoli and Aldo Lado.
Now this list is by no means exhaustive; the late director Massimo Dallamano created some of the finest giallo films in his “schoolgirl-in-peril” trilogy, Giuliano Carnimeo directed a lone giallo (and one of the best) The Case of the Bloody Iris, Mario Bava’s own son Lamberto carried on his father’s legacy throughout the 80’s and beyond. But our list is a great place to start for newbies to the genre, or those wanting to dip back into the bloody waters of giallo.
We start with Mario Bava, the originator. He directed the “first” true giallo in The Girl Who Knew Too Much and his early films helped create a kind of groundwork for the genre. As a director, Bava was clearly inspired by the krimis and the hard-boiled detectives. His early work such as the aforementioned The Girl Who Knew Too Much and the overlooked anthology film The Three Faces of Fear were more akin to murder mysteries than to showcases of blood and sex.
But it was Bava’s third film in the genre, Blood and Black Lace, that really set the standard for giallo to follow. A man dressed in an all black trench-coat, white mask emerging from the shadows and wielding a knife, stalking beautiful women; Bava was clearly a director with an eye for style, a style that would be replicated throughout the genre’s history. Take Bava’s use of dramatic colour throughout Blood and Black Lace as an example. An opening sequence of a woman donned in a bright-red overcoat being stalked by the killer. The vivid use of black, purple and blue lighting as another victim is hunted through rooms of mirrors and mannequins. Even a simple telephone is painted a stark, bright red.
It was this eye for style, for grisly murders and creepy murderers, that influenced giallo so greatly. As a starting point, any of Bava’s early works are a brilliant introduction to the genre for a newbie. If you’re into murder mysteries, go with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and if you’re up for a more “classic” giallo, you can’t do much better than Blood and Black Lace. One of my personal favourite gialli of all time is one of Bava’s; Hatchet for the Honeymoon.
Dario Argento, along with Mario Bava, is cited for introducing the so-called “golden age” of giallo. His animal trilogy (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) compounded on many of the elements introduced by Bava that would be vital to the very essence of giallo; the amount of murders committed in Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, the black humour of The Cat O’ Nine Tails, the feeling of being constantly unsafe and on edge as seen in most every of Argento and Bava’s films.
Argento took great care in staging each murder. The death sequences were hyper-visual events, artistic displays of murder and savagery. One could argue that this focus on stylising violence was an inevitable step in Italian cinema; the gritty realistic films of the (aptly named) neo-realists were now being pushed away, art shifting towards the violent expressionism of giallo.
Much like how the 18th and 19th century romantics; Robert Burns, Percy Shelley, Eugène Delacroix, Robert Schumann; were born from a dismissal of the rationality of the enlightenment, perhaps so to these early seminal giallo directors such as Bava and Argento were formed from the leftovers of the neo-realists and the fascist white telephones.
It is a slightly dramatic observation, to compare giallo to such a large artistic movement as romanticism, but it is one that I feel isn’t totally unfounded. Giallo, like many other horror genres, was born from a stretching of rules, a pushback of old fashioned sensibilities. If Italian neo-realism was enlightenment; raw, realistic, cerebral, then Italian giallo was romantic; stylistic, expressionist, full of emotion.
Argento was the pinnacle of this ideal, a man who oozed the phrase “style over substance.” Every frame of his films are like a work of art. The man would go on to build a legacy that rivals the likes of Wes Craven or John Carpenter, so influential were his giallo films.
Argento’s portrayal of blood and horror is as stylistic as it gets, and any of the three animal trilogy films are a great place to start.
Lucio Fulci’s pictures were less violent than Argento’s. By the time Fulci arrived, giallo had entered the public mainstream and was picking up steam. Fulci was considered to be a “lighter” giallo director, his pictures more focused on story over style (a rarity in giallo, and a direct contrast to Argento). Fulci’s first film (Perversion Story) had a succinct plot that, much like Bava’s early works, played out like a classic murder mystery. Fulci has been known to claim that his films were more coherent than many of his contemporaries and it shows in the slick storytelling of Perversion Story.
What makes Fulci’s catalogue of films so special is that they’re consistently different from one another. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is an ethereal and horror-inspired giallo, full of trippy dream sequences. Don’t Torture a Duckling, on the other hand, is one of the eeriest and most spine tingling giallo, realistic and analytical in its approach to the genre. Duckling veers closer to those gritty neo-realists than it does a blood and gore fest.
After giallo, Fulci would transition into more outright horror with his “Gates of Hell” trilogy that includes the masterpiece The Beyond. However, any of his forays into giallo are a good place to start if you prefer your films a little easier to follow, more sensical than fabulous.
Luciano Ercoli was one of the more practical giallo directors to come out of the golden age. His films were distinctive and he was a little Hitchcockian in his approach to the genre. Stylised mise-en-scene, strange and twinkling music from the likes of Ennio Morricone and Gianni Ferrio, and a clear knowledge of what makes film such a wonderful medium made Ercoli a standout director.
This innate knowledge of film came, perhaps, from the fact that Ercoli started as a producer. Throughout the 60’s he worked on films such as the black comedy-cum-giallo What Ever Happened to Baby Totò? and westerns A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo.
When in production of Ercoli’s first true giallo film – Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (written by legendary Giallo screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi) – funds ran out and Ercoli turned from producer to director to save cash. This ended up being a great boon for the genre, as Ercoli, Gastaldi and Susan Scott (Ercoli’s wife) would go on to make two more wonderful gialli in Death Walks in High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight.
While Ercoli doesn’t have the catalogue of someone like Sergio Martino, or the genre influence of someone like Mario Bava, he was a prime example of the low-budget success that could be found in the genre. Gialli were often filmed on shoestring budgets, and this producer turned director showcased how best to squeeze out every last drop of creativity from a few more lira.
Aldo Lado only made a few giallo films, his finest two being Short Night of Glass Dolls and Who Saw Her Die?. An example of the idiom “quality over quantity”, Lado’s occasional forays into giallo were some of the first to incorporate a real sense of unease, otherworldliness and even supernatural into the genre.
Lado had a crisp and clear style in these two brilliant films, both of which have an almost magical quality. Short Night of Glass Dolls feels like a nightmare. If the idea of your mind being alive trapped inside your own dead body scares you, then this film will make uncomfortable viewing.
Who Saw Her Die? is less supernatural than Lado’s first work. Much like Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? is an isolating, meditative slice of cinema. George Lazenby plays a Father who is looking for the killer who murdered his little girl. The film forgoes style and flash, instead choosing to examine the effects of loss and the obsession of finding answers. A backdrop of a cold, misty Venice only adds to the feeling of isolation, as if the story is set apart from the rest of the world entirely.
Lado’s early films are a great introduction to the genre’s rarer, more otherworldly and supernatural delights. If you want something less bloody and more elegant, Lado is the man for you.
Umberto Lenzi’s pictures were some of the first to be palatable enough to appeal to foreign audiences. His films of the late 60’s would often feature international stars such as Jean-Louis Trintignant, a prominent French actor, and Carroll Baker (who had previously worked with Eli Kazan, a director who hugely influenced Lenzi).
Lenzi’s films were often experimental in their settings and with So Sweet… So Perverse he created what he defined as “uptown giallo”. These “uptown” films, namely Paranoia, So Sweet… So Perverse and A Quiet Place to Kill, were set in the milieu of the upper class. They would have a kind of morbid quality, rife with hatred and perverted sexual practices. These uptown giallo would also frequent strong social messages on class, murder and deceit, all set in rich and decadent worlds of VIPs.
There’s also a fun little story about a series of mishaps that Lenzi went through regarding his film titles:
In Italy, the word “noia” means boredom. As a result, when Lenzi’s film Paranoia (featuring actor Carroll Baker. This will be relevant later, promise) was released in Italy, the distributors changed the title to Orgasmo to avoid any connotations with boredom. It received huge success in Italy and that success then led to the rights being bought by Commonwealth United in the States, where it was also a big success. However, in the States the film was not released as Orgasmo, rather it was released with its original title of Paranoia.
Then Lenzi’s producers asked him to write a new film, again starring Carroll Baker (told you it’d be relevant). However, this time around the Italian producers figured that having the word noia (boredom) in the title wouldn’t bother Italian audiences. One can only presume that given the success of Orgasmo, they figured that audiences would be smart enough to understand that noia and Paranoia were different words.
As a result, Lenzi’s third film ended up being titled Paranoia in Italy. However, there was now the problem of the USA – Paranoia already existed over there. So the American marketing team decided to change the name of this third film to A Quiet Place to Kill.
Consequently, Lenzi ended up making two films with essentially the same name; one of which was called Orgasmo in Italy and Paranoia in the US, and one of which was called Paranoia in Italy and A Quiet Place to Kill in the US.
If you’re a little confused don’t worry – Carroll Baker, who starred in both, claims that she still gets confused about it all too. So if you’re looking to be unsure as to what film you’re watching, watch Paranoia or Paranoia. They’re both great anyway.
Finally, we come to Sergio Martino, one of giallo’s most prolific craftsmen. In the years before his stint in giallo, Martino cut his teeth all over the cinema landscape, from westerns to comedies. When it came to giallo, Martino’s films focused on strong elements of sexuality, psychology and dreams. One of the first directors to attain real success making giallo, Martino’s films were frenzied affairs. They were violent and graphic, utilising hand-held cameras to create a heightened state of discord around the killer, never offering any guarantee of where the murderer may strike next, or who might be behind the mask.
This sense of constant unease is echoed throughout many gialli, but Martino was a master at implementing it. Victims would be murdered seemingly out of the blue; see the blue-eyed (pun unintended) killer of All the Colours of the Dark hunting Edwige Fenech’s character, appearing and disappearing almost at will.
Martino also wasn’t afraid to showcase a lot of violence and sex as a filmmaker; his film Torso was probably one of the most violent Italian films up to its release in 1973. Rumour has it that in order to get films like Torso into cinemas, Martino would knowingly shoot extremely explicit scenes (again, often with actor Edwige Fenech) so that the censorship boards would make cuts without hurting the integrity of the rest of the film. Smart chap.
Martino veered towards the supernatural as his filmography progressed and he has built one of the finest back-catalogues of giallo films. If you want violence and mania, you can’t go wrong with Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, All the Colours of the Dark and Torso.
It is probably clear that giallo was a genre directed and dominated by men, specifically white men. Perhaps this was a sign of the times (we’re talking some 50 to 60 years ago), but it is a sad fact nonetheless and something worth quickly exploring.
There were few, if any, black personnel either in front of or behind the screen during giallo’s heyday, with the few black characters more often than not being killed off early or reduced to minimal roles (see The Case of the Bloody Iris or Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key). Likewise, any sexuality beyond heterosexuality is almost non-existent, another disappointing reflection of the times in which giallo hit its peak. There is a little gender-fluidity on display in giallo, with the occasional man dressed as a woman or vice versa, but even that is more often than not portrayed as strange or crazy or taboo.
Female bisexuality was generally the limit of intersex relationships in giallo, though if do you want to check out a gay giallo watch Pierfrancesco Campanella’s Bugie Rosse. Set in the gay nightclub/prostitution scene, the film doesn’t portray homosexuality as deviant as other giallo sometimes would. Sure, not mocking a group of people is an extraordinarily low bar to exceed, and the sexual and gender politics aren’t perfect by any means. But if you find a copy of Bugie Rosse, it is still worth a watch.
Likewise, women were often relegated (so to speak) to being in front of the camera and being the centre of attention, be it sexual or violent. Delitti is really the only giallo directed by a woman that springs to mind, and Giovanna Lenzi’s foray into the genre wasn’t particularly good.
However, there is something to be said for feminism regarding the women of giallo, by which we mean the actors such as Edwige Fenech, Susan Scott and Carroll Baker. Their characters were arguably some of the first real scream-queens, pre-dating even the slasher heroines. To use the age-old and perhaps a little outdated cliché, they would often give as good as they got. In fact, many a giallo murderer is revealed to be a woman; the filmmakers, one supposes, saw no difference between men killing men, women killing men, men killing women and women killing women, as long as the knife was sharp and the blood abundant.
We’ll discuss into the actors of giallo in the next post, and in the meantime there are a few interesting articles that delve deeper into the discussion of feminism in giallo:
- Finding Feminism in the Women of Giallo
- The Feminist Heroines of 1970s Giallo Movies
- Feminism in Giallo Cinema
So for now I shall leave it to those good folks to take the reins if you’re interested. Join us again next time where we’ll look at the actors, musicians and music maestros that helped elevate giallo to new, horrific and gasp-inducing heights.
“Golden Age” Watch List
- The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
- The Three Faces of Fear/Black Sabbath (1963)
- Blood and Black Lace (1964)
- Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
- The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971)
- Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
- Perversion Story/One on Top of the Other (1969)
- A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)
- Death Walks on High Heels (1971)
- Death Walks at Midnight (1972)
- Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)
- Who Saw Her Die? (1972)
- Orgasmo/Paranoia (1969)
- So Sweet… So Perverse (1969)
- Paranoia/A Quiet Place to Kill (1970)
- Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
- All the Colours of the Dark (1972)
- Torso (1972)
The “Schoolgirl Trilogy” (Dallamano)
- What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)
- What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974)
- Red Rings of Fear (1978)
- The Case of the Bloody Iris (Carnimeo, 1972)
- Bugie Rosse (Campanella, 1993)Delitti (Lenzi, 1987)