People usually have a pretty good idea about movie genres; comedy, drama, action, thriller, horror, sci-fi, romance. There’s a bit of variation in those, and sometimes you get the oft-touted “genre-bending” experience, but there are sections
in video stores on streaming services for a reason.
But within certain genres, you get legitimate subgenres and cycles that can’t be neatly folded into one specific major heading. Like Star Wars and Silent Running, for example. They’re both space movies, but you’d have to agree there’s a bit of blue sky between the two just to lump them both as “sci-fi.”Horror has a lot of these mini-distinctions, and one of the most fascinating has to be the Italian giallo cycle, generally indicated by stylish, metropolitan locations, gorgeous actors, twisty crime plots, and often grisly violence. For a long time in the U.S., if it wasn’t Dario Argento, people couldn’t really find out about gialli, but now thanks to specialty Blu-ray companies and streaming services like Shudder, fans can get access to a wide array of these Italian thrillers.
To get you started on the basics, let’s use three new releases by three different Blu-ray distributors as examples.The film scholar and filmmaker Michael Mackenzie has split the giallo up into two very basic categories: male-focused, or m. gialli, and female-focused, or f. gialli. Seems like a pretty straightforward distinction, but there are certain hallmarks of each that rarely find their way into the other. The Rosetta Stone for the m. gialli is Argento’s 1970 film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which popularized the giallo and gave it its basic shape: an outsider witnesses some crime (usually murder) in the streets of a European city, he decides to play amateur detective, and becomes the focus of the murderer’s ire. Argento made four such gialli in a row, following Bird with Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and arguably his greatest pure giallo, Deep Red. Movies like these are the prototype for the ’80s slasher movie.
But far more interesting to me are the f. gialli, movies with a female protagonist who does get embroiled in a murder or criminal plot, but the detective story takes a backseat to the exploration of the female sexuality and psyche, using the thriller elements as a reflection of her own fragile mental state. These kinds of movies predated Bird by a number of years, following Mario Bava’s stylish body count movie Blood and Black Lace in 1964.
One such f. giallo that came out the same year as Bird is Luciano Ercoli’s The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, out this month in a glorious Blu-ray edition from Arrow Films, currently North American fans’ best resource for gialli. Written by the most prolific writer in the cycle, Ernesto Gastaldi–of whom I’ve written here—Forbidden Photos follows a young wife named Minou (Dagmar Lassander) whose businessman husband (Pier Paolo Capponi) has little time for her. She has one friend, an older and more sexually adventurous woman named Dominique (Susan Scott), but otherwise Minou is the epitome of the bored housewife.One evening, while walking home, she’s attacked by a blackmailer (Simon Andreu) who tells her her husband is a killer. She doesn’t believe this crazy man until a business associate of her husband is reported dead. The blackmailer soon gets in touch, demanding Minou sleep with him or he’ll tell the police her husband killed the man, which she begrudgingly does, but nothing’s ever that simple, especially when she learns the blackmailer has photos of their tryst…and she finds pornographic photos of him with her friend Dominique too. Someone’s out to get her, but who, and how many?
While it doesn’t possess any of the black-gloved murder set pieces that movies post-Bird would require, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion is a troubling exploration of the psyche of a woman repressed and controlled by stronger people, a cycle of abuse which she–a woman in 1970 Europe–allows to happen until it almost drives her insane. This type of gaslighting is a hallmark of f. gialli in films like Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and All the Colors of the Dark.Despite some of the risque plot elements of Forbidden Photos, that movie is rather chaste when compared to many of the gialli that came after.
Gialli became sleazier and sleazier with regular thriller plots now full of graphic violence and sex. One such example is Giuliano Carnimeo’s 1972 thriller The Case of the Bloody Iris, available on Blu-ray through British distributor Shameless.
Another f. giallo, it’s written by Gastaldi and stars genre staples Edwige Fenech and George Hilton. Fenech plays Jennifer, a British model living in Rome who moves into a high-rise apartment to escape her ex-husband who had conned her into joining–what else–a hippie sex cult. Unfortunately, though, her new flat’s former tenant was murdered, and the killer apparently only likes people in that apartment, and the culprit could be her ex, but it could also be any of her new neighbors: a grumpy old lady, her deformed son, the gregarious lesbian, her grumpy father, or even the handsome architect/landlord/new boyfriend who has a debilitating phobia of blood.
As with most gialli, the actual plot is insane and can be hard to follow, but it mostly hangs together and represents the kind of movie the subgenre would create for the next few years.Bloody Iris is quite a bit more lurid–not least because star Fenech was queen of both Italian sexy thrillers and sex comedies and fans had come to expect a degree of skin from her–and the murders are quite graphic, but its psychology is very similar to that of Forbidden Photos. Jennifer, like Minou, is worried about her romantic shortcomings to such a degree it becomes debilitating. She’s living with the shadow of her bad decisions and those manifest in horrific ways–as they do in almost all gialli. But because she’s played by screen siren Fenech, we get the sense that even though she’s outwardly confident in her sexuality, she’s inwardly in constant turmoil.
Blending with Slashers
After about five years, the giallo output of Italy and Europe began to slow down quite significantly, though hundreds were produced during that span, of varying qualities. But, due to his cache at home and abroad, Dario Argento kept making successful movies well into the age of the slasher film. His 1983 masterpiece Tenebre proved the m. giallo could continue with buckets of fake blood, but the maestro’s sole nominal f. giallo (one without any supernatural elements), 1987’s Opera, would prove to also be his last great movie. A brand new Blu-ray of this film was released via the CultFilms imprint.
Opera trades in the flashy, metropolitan feel of the ’70s gialli for the gloomy-grey slasher trappings of the ’80s. It follows an understudy named Betty (Cristina Marsillach) in an avant-garde production of Verdi’s Macbeth in Parma, Italy, who gets the coveted role of Lady Macbeth following the injuring of the show’s egomaniacal star. However, an unknown figure finds their way into the opera house on opening night and becomes fixated on Betty’s performance. Anyone who gets in between the figure and Betty gets murdered brutally, and Betty is at one point bound, gagged, and forced to watch as the murderer slaughters her boyfriend, unable to even shut her eyes due to the assailant taping needles to her eyelids.
Each of these movies tackles its themes quite differently, but the tenets of the f. giallo remain constant: the usually naive or innocent woman protagonist is caught in a world of sex, death, and intrigue, and only through her friendship with an older, much more worldly woman (often bisexual or lesbian) does the heroine make it out alive. Opera, made in the era of the slasher, makes Betty its true final girl, killing off her friends, but Forbidden Photos literally ends with the heroine’s sexually open friend coming in at the last moment to kill the male aggressors.
More than typical whodunits or gory horror, the f. giallo are troubling, fascinating explorations of female repression and burgeoning sexuality in post-Fascist Europe, and they definitely deserve a look.All of the films featured above are available for purchase, and for more giallo, check out our further writings on the subject here.
Images: Shameless, Arrow Films