The word ‘giallo’ literally means ‘yellow’ in Italian. It’s derived from the term ‘yellow-back’, i.e., yellow colour-covered cheap paperbacks which emerged in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. By the mid-20th century, yellow-backs were largely associated with crime and murder mystery fiction. Similarly, gialli (plural) are low-budget whodunits which are known for their aesthetic ingenuity. Moreover, Giallo films are identified through their sensationalistic display of violence, sexuality, and fetishism. The earliest influence on giallo was the West German ‘Krimi’ film movement. British crime author Edgar Wallace’s books were largely adapted in this film movement.
It was critics who classified the distinct features of gialli, not the Italian movie industry of the 1970s. The reluctance behind accepting giallo as a separate genre is largely because the gialli itself is an amalgamation of horror, mystery, and thriller genres. Yet like how the French cinephiles coined the term ‘film noir’ for the American crime genre movies made in the 1940s and 1950s, giallo films gradually ascended to iconic status across the world.
How To Identify A Giallo Film
Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento are the prominent filmmakers of the giallo. One of the significant formal qualities of giallo is the ability to generate the feelings of suspense, ambiguity, and paranoia. In fact, a lot of modern horror tropes originated from gialli. The earlier giallo cinema wasn’t very distinct compared to the usual pulpy crime thrillers. Its artistry became a talking point when the dramatic use of colours was witnessed. Bold colours (particularly red), dreamlike atmosphere, and a jarring soundtrack came together to create a distinct style for gialli.
Eroticism, nudity, and acts of violence are the staple elements of gialli. Sweet and innocent women from the middle-class are often the protagonists. Men with psychosexual disorders are often portrayed as the murderous villains. Although attractive women at the mercy of an unknown male attacker are a narrative thread used in films before, it is the hallmark element of a giallo.
Over the years, giallo cinema has received a lot of flak for its inherent misogyny and sexism. The unapologetic male gaze of a terrorized woman became an iconic as well as infamous motif of gialli. Hence while acknowledging the artistic merits of giallo cinema, it’s also important to examine the treatment of sociocultural and gender aspects in it. The list below covers the essential works of Italian giallo:
12. What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)
Massimo Dallamano’s fairly restrained giallo is centred on an all-girls Catholic school. Based on Edgar Wallace’s novel, the narrative campily deals with the negative traits associated with such an institution, i.e., perversity and hypocrisy. The girls from the school are murdered one-by-one. The prime suspect is a gymnastics teacher, Enrico Rossini who is known for his affair with an underage school girl. But there seem to be darker secrets behind the killing, and Enrico decides to find the murderer himself. Some of the twists in the film are surprisingly effective. But it takes too much time in setting up its array of characters. The other positive aspect about the film is the classy, memorable score from Ennio Morricone.
11. Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
Apart from the visual excess, gialli sometimes have outrageously intriguing titles like the one for Sergio Martino’s eccentric thriller. The narrative is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat which has spawned many horror film adaptations. Martino takes great liberty with the source material, and incorporates all the familiar giallo ingredients. The film is set in a crumbling mansion and revolves around a burned-out, alcoholic writer named Oliviero Rouvigny. Frustrated by his inability to write, Oliviero hosts debauched parties and orgies, adding to the hysteria of his wife, Irina. When a couple of Oliviero’s lovers end up dead, matters get complicated. Overall, it’s a film of lurid thrills that plunders Poe’s story to offer a violent conservative take on hippies and intellectuals.
10. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
Lucio Fulci’s convoluted mystery naturally prioritizes the exploitative, gory elements over everything else. It’s packed with all the excessive ingredients, including erotic imagery and grisly murders. The narrative revolves around a wealthy and traumatized wife, Carol. She has violent and erotic dreams about her beautiful neighbour, Julia. When Julia is brutally murdered, the detective finds evidence that implicates Carol. But there’s a dangerous stalker and a blackmail sub-plot is also thrown into the mix. Plot-wise, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is so twisted and bizarre, and full of bad expository writing. Yet it’s a film with an intriguing atmosphere and thrilling set-pieces.
9. The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
Mario Bava’s black-and-white thriller is credited as the first giallo movie. Bava made his directorial debut with the greatest gothic horror cinema Black Sunday (1960). He is known for his power to immerse us into genuinely creepy atmospheres. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is naturally full of memorable compositions and visual thrills. It revolves around Nora Davis, a young American tourist in Rome. She witnesses a murder committed by a possible serial-killer and becomes involved in the ensuing police investigation. The film doesn’t have much suspense, though its flawless production qualities are highly impressive. It is also somewhat light-hearted and quirky compared to the later giallo movies.
8. Blood and Black Lace (1964)
In Blood and Black Lace, Bava hits us with a tapestry of vivid colour hues. Such explosive use of color signified the fevered dream state within which the narrative unfolds. It’s a formal quality that was later perfected more ingeniously by Dario Argento. In this whodunit mystery, a young fashion model is viciously killed by a masked figure. A number of people including the individuals at the local fashion scene are considered suspects. Blood and Black Lace don’t boast a well-developed plot. There are a few interesting twists, but a lot of them don’t make any sense. Still the eye-popping use of colors and intricate tableaus are deeply satisfying aspects. Besides, the character of fetishist killer later became a common element in giallo as well as American slasher films.
7. A Bay Of Blood (1971)
Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood was one of the earliest films in the slasher genre. It’s set in an isolated bay side mansion and has a bunch of oddly strange characters, including the fun-seeking youngsters camping out. Like many giallo films, A Bay of Blood starts with a gruesome murder, and there are several suspects. But Bava goes on a rampage as the body count keeps increasing. The murders are gorily depicted, featuring graphic beheading and throat cuttings. In fact, Bava’s storyline became the template for 80s American slasher movies. At the same time, the filmmaker’s black humour and splatter fest offer a great deal of dark fun.
6. Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972)
Lucio Fulci was better known for his gore fest films like Zombie (1979). Don’t Torture a Duckling is comparatively restrained, though Fulci employs few violent gore effects. Unlike the works of his contemporaries Bava and Argento, Fulci sets his thriller in a small-town in Southern Italy. A series of child slayings happen in the town and a plucky reporter tries to catch the killer. The reporter also joins forces with a sultry young woman. Despite staying within the confines of the genre, Fulci’s energetic directorial style keeps us hooked. Don’t Torture a Duckling also has an interesting big reveal at the end. In fact, its deeply troubling denouement is an overt critique of the Catholic Church.
5. Opera (1987)
Opera is considered as the swansong for the giallo genre as well as the last good film from Argento. His stylistic tendencies and twisted storylines are all perfectly packaged in this vibrant thriller. The story revolves around a young opera singer named Betty. She lands a lead role after an opera star is injured in an accident. Soon, someone obsessed with Betty stalks her and starts killing people involved with the show. Argento’s elaborate staging of the mayhem on-screen is thoroughly entertaining. The most memorable set-piece is when the killers perform gruesome acts in front of Betty, while her eyes are held open by needles. However, Opera has a lot of logical loopholes which is too much even for a giallo.
4. Tenebrae (1982)
Tenebrae marks Dario Argento’s return to the giallo genre after a hiatus. The film follows American mystery novel author Peter Neal who comes to Rome to promote his latest book. A series of murders ensue in the city. The victims are young women. The killer proclaims that he was inspired by the murders detailed in Neal’s latest book. When the author himself receives death threats, the search for who and why ensues. From voyeurism to Freudian psychology, the heavily stylized Tenebrae deals with multiple themes. But most interesting is the overt critique and reflection on giallo films’ sexualisation of violence. Not to say that Tenebrae is devoid of the conventional giallo ingredients. But Ye its meta-commentary on the genre is somewhat fascinating.
3. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)
Dario Argento’s assured directorial debut is credited to have popularized giallo films among the American audience. Moreover, it displayed certain fetishist and iconic elements of giallo, particularly the black leather gloves. The film revolves around an American writer, Sam Dalmas who witnesses an attempted murder at an art gallery. The murderer at large is said to have already killed three young women. Subsequently, Sam gets embroiled in the search for the serial-killer. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a solid mystery thriller with quite a few Hitchcockian twists. The violence is also pretty minimal compared to Argento’s later works. Eventually, it’s important to note the commendable work of two Italian legends: cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and composer Ennio Morricone.
2. Suspiria (1977)
One of the best films streaming on Tubi right now, Suspiria doesn’t have the key mystery plot, but ventures into a supernatural territory. There’s always been a debate over whether Dario Argento’s Technicolor spectacle Suspiria is a giallo or not. Cinephiles who are also genre purists might scoff at the idea of considering Suspiria a giallo. However, even Argento was ambivalent about what constitutes a giallo. Moreover, such artificial distinctions were strictly created by cinephiles and critics. So though Suspiria isn’t predominantly a crime thriller, it has all the iconography of a giallo. The plot is unbelievably minimalist. But it’s a spectacular rollercoaster ride as the frightened protagonist navigates her way through the house of horrors. Argento simply wanted to put his viewers through a nightmarish, surrealistic experience, and he achieves it brilliantly.
1. Deep Red (1975)
Dario Argento chiefly popularized the giallo craze of the 70s. Though the filmmaker gained international attention with Suspiria (1977), Deep Red is where he gained command over his eye-popping visual style. Argento offers an extraordinary aural-visual experience right from the murder we witness in the opening scene. Helga, a psychic, gets killed, and a pianist named Marcus hears the screams. Since the police rarely solve a crime in a giallo, Marcus teams up with a young reporter to catch the killer. As one can expect from Argento, great creativity has gone into the staging of the macabre killings. Deep Red isn’t as convoluted as his other films. Also, there’s a balance of sorts between story, character development and the supreme style.
There we are! These are some of the greatest giallo films. Once the technicalities and mood of the giallo films were absorbed into the mainstream, the idiosyncrasies of its imagery started to fade. Nevertheless, the pulpy Italian genre films still retain its craze among the genre cinephiles. It’s important to mention Berberian Sound Studio and Adjunct here. The former is Peter Strickland’s 2012 movie which pays a remarkable homage to giallo. The latter is a satirical novel by Geoff Cebula which smartly criticizes as well as celebrates giallo.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’