The most widely recognised form of 20th century Italian cinema is the Spaghetti Western: a genre that made Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood household names, as well as revitalising the traditions of the American Western. Worlds away from the precise filmmaking and grand scale of the Spaghetti Western is Giallo horror. Another Italian export, with pulpy murder mysteries that would change the horror genre for decades to follow. Visually lavish portrayals of human deprivation, and psychological unease torn straight from the novels of pulp detective fiction and works of iconic authors, like Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, merged together to create something wholly original. It’s also rare to see a genre able to metamorphise so drastically, but as you’ll see through this series, innovation was a cornerstone of Giallo filmmaking.
Bava and argento
Two directors form the backbone of this new examination of terror. The first, Mario Bava, had made a name for himself working as a cinematographer on projects such as Riccardo Freda's 1957 I Vampiri and Pietro Francisci's Hercules in 1958, with the latter proving thankfully not to be too inspirational on his future work. With his directorial turn, he shocked audiences in 1960 with his debut film, the notorious cult religious horror Black Sunday (known in the UK as The Mask of Satan). Indeed, the film was so shocking, the BBFC banned the film's UK release over its visceral content. Nonetheless, Bava's career as a horror pioneer had been launched.
Bava's third feature, and the opening film of this series, Blood and Black Lace (1963) would kickstart the Giallo film genre with its oversaturated presentation and challengingly violent content, twisting the incredibly popular American Noir genre past recognition. Following the success of his “body count” Gialli (a popular reference to the expendable nature of Bava’s characters), a series of imitators would take inspiration and form the Slasher genre that excelled in popularity in late 20th century America. But Bava’s influence would be felt more immediately by a figure whose name is synonymous with Giallo...
Dario Argento. The man who would twist the genre into new territory, pushing conceptions of what Giallo cinema can include. Argento began his obsession with cinema as a film critic, before scoring his first big break working as a screenwriter on Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), for which he received only $800. Undeterred by his measly reward, and now with his father on production duties, Argento would create a classic run of post-war horror that would begin with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, and end with Opera in 1987. Across this seventeen-year period his films would shift from lavish murder mysteries, to surrealistic supernaturality, before finally moving towards the grimier aesthetics of the slasher films that were inspired by the movement. His works would also lean heavily towards replicating influences and adaptation, with his most famous picture Suspiria (1977) being indebted to the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s and a brutalised retelling of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. Where Bava was more focused upon the mechanics that made Giallo’s typically convoluted mysteries unfold, and the number of fatalities rise, Argento’s imagination is the main draw to his strand. Ensuring each new picture found increasingly surprising and bewildering new ways to shock his audiences.
Argento and Bava may be the most iconic names within the movement, but the entries by Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino examined the possibilities of adapting prestigious literature and examining hefty themes like religious commentary, and social changes within 20th century Italy. Giallo became a field of experimentation. Fulci’s example in this series Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) drawing on rampant nihilism and anger at the Catholic Church. Meanwhile Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) showing Giallo at its most literary, by updating Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 tale The Black Cat with a revenge plot that draws heavily off social issues. These films show an isolated example of the contrast available in Giallo, which would drive its two decade run.
Giallo abroad and beyond
The films found massive audiences in the US and UK in the early days of Giallo through drive-ins and arthouse cinemas, as the Golden Age of Hollywood came to an end. The decline of Hollywood from the Communist fear that led to the infamous Blacklist and the rise of home entertainment saw a fall in the popularity of American blockbusters, leaving an opening for foreign cinema offered darker topics than mainstream Hollywood cinema of the era, which led large audiences to the scandalous pulpy horror of early Giallo. Despite their explicit content, they would actually play well with the American establishment as they frequently featured rejection of the counterculture and embedded a respect or reliance upon authoritative figures as protectors from evil.
Over time, Giallo films became known as a disposable form of cinema, as they were made cheaply and quickly to meet an increasing demand, often not seeing international home releases after their cinema runs. A tragedy given the genre’s loosely defined format allowed for so much creativity in terms of content, and the directorial resourcefulness make it a vital subgenre for any film fan. Thankfully distributors like Arrow Videos and Cult Films have recently taken to reissuing Giallo classics on both remastered Blu-ray and DVD. Further, many of the earlier entries before 1969 have fallen out of copyright and can now be found in their entirety on YouTube. Giallo is more readily available than ever, and this series aims to navigate the beginning of your journey into its strange little world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick is a freelance journalist working in Edinburgh, currently writing for ShortCom. He has always been interested in cinema, but developed particular obsessions for horror and Studio Ghibli. He post written reviews on his social media platforms and will soon be starting a podcast.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.