What We Talk About When We Talk About Giallo

Over the last few years, but especially the last couple of weeks, there’s been a wave of newfound appreciation for giallo, thanks mostly to a handful of high-profile horror films regarded as modern day versions of the cultishly-beloved Italian subgenre – specifically  Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake from 2018, James Wan’s newly released Malignant, and Edgar Wright’s forthcoming Last Night in Soho

While it’s always good to see people give love to older films, there’s one big problem with this particular trend: none of the above-listed movies have much, if anything, to do with giallo.

First, a brief history lesson. In the early ‘30s, Italian publishing house Mondadori experienced enormous success with a series of mystery-crime thrillers called Il Giallo Mondadori. Other publishers soon got in on the act, turning out cheaply produced, inexpensively priced paperbacks of the same kind. These novels were called ‘giallo’— ‘yellow’, in English — after the color of their covers and pages. Eventually, more extreme and grotesque elements—including supernatural and gothic horror, heightened eroticism and sexual violence, and an emphasis on psychopathology—were added to these titles, distinguishing theme from traditional mysteries.

The literary genre eventually petered out, but starting in the ‘60’s, Italian filmmakers began adapting them (prior to this, certain titles put out by Mondadori, such as their Italian-language translation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, had been brought to screen, but these were done in either traditional noir or neo-realist stylings). Combining the plots from these books with the transgressive violence and complex set pieces of Alfred Hitchcock films, the decadent aesthetics of Edgar Allen Poe and the structural ingenuity of Agatha Christie, while imbuing them with increasingly lavish set design, costumes, score and cinematography, the genre took hold in Italy and a few other countries throughout Europe (such as Germany).

Mario Bava is generally considered to have made the first true giallo films, with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and his highly influential fashion-world whodunnit Blood and Black Lace (1964). For the next decade-plus—but especially during the first half of the ‘70s—nearly 100 such films were produced, with the many of the most notable coming from directors Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Rogero Deodato and Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son). 

In a feedback loop of inspiration, these directors would go on to influence American filmmakers, starting with the gritty, violent and sexually-charged detective movies of the 1970s—which took as much from giallo as they did its cugino genre, the poliziotteschi (police-esque)—and especially during the height of the slasher flick in the following decade (and then again during that genre’s resurgence in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s). 

It’s tempting to claim the slasher as the American equivalent to the giallo, especially since some of the earliest and most important examples feel especially in line with it—Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) to be sure, but also the Carpenter-scripted, fashion world-set The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). But the differences are large enough that it doesn’t quite work, and the main one is a question of aesthetics. You watch slasher movies for the fun/disturbing kills and the promise of T&A. You watch giallo for the ornate design and lurid mood.

(This is not to say there aren’t some giallo films that run grimier and uglier—see: some of Fulci’s efforts, including Don’t Torture a Duckling [1972] and The New York Ripper [1982]—or that there aren’t American slasher films that are legitimately beautiful—see: the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman.)

The man most synonymous with giallo is Dario Argento, whose films Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Opera and Tenebrae are regarded as the high water marks within the genre (his later work, including 2009’s Giallo, are… less acclaimed). There’s long been an argument over whether Argento’s most iconic movie, Suspiria (1977), counts as giallo. It’s easy to understand how someone with a cursory knowledge of giallo may think so—its does boast many of the same stylistic flourishes and a couple nifty murder set pieces that play out according to its conventions—but ultimately it’s a work of full-on supernatural horror and therefore shouldn’t be categorized as such (although his 1985 fantasia Phenomena blends the two in such a way that it can count as both). 

Less easy to understand is how anyone could view Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria as giallo. That film, while not without its interesting moments, is so far removed tonally and stylistically from the genre—from its grey color palette, to its intense focus on political themes and character arcs, to the draggy pacing and long runtime—as to plays like its antithesis.

Nor does Malignant feel much like a giallo either, outside of a (slight) mystery element and some, let’s say, broad performances. Rather, Wan’s film resembles high concept slashers of the Wes Craven variety (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker), the darkly funny body horror of Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Brain Damage) and the slapstick mania of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2, Darkman).

Finally, there’s Wright’s new film. For as much as the hip fashion and neon ambience promised by the promotional material suggest that Last Night in Soho does have a bit more in common with giallo, early reviews, as well as interviews Wright has given during the film’s press tour, suggest that it’s more influenced by some supernatural, or at least reality-bending, psychodramas from the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, such as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. (That said, Wright’s 2007 buddy-cop love letter Hot Fuzz does actually veer into giallo territory on several occasions.)

As often happens with horror, subgenres get boiled down to their most obvious tropes (see also: the spate of cosmic horror films and shows that have reduced the existential terrors of H.P. Lovecraft and co. to tentacled monsters), while the new work that repurposes these tropes earn entry into said subgenre, even if they’re missing some of the most essential elements. 

In the case of giallo, the key elements that are missing include visually interesting cinematography—an increasingly rare sight in today’s current landscape, which has unfortunately embraced ‘naturalistic’ lighting, washed out color correction, shot/reverse shot framing and editing, and, worst of all, CGI special effects—as well as an unabashed embrace of not just sexuality, but sex, which is either wholly absent from most of the horror films that make waves these days, or presented in a manner that intentionally discards titillation. But there is no giallo without titillation. Giallo is one of the great perv genres, and while modern versions need not embrace the more misogynistic or reactionary attitudes found (in abundance) throughout those original films, they would need to A) feature actual sex scenes, and B) embrace fetishization.

Some more recent homages do meet this criteria, although they’ve flown under the radar, at least compared to the previous examples: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s psychedelic throwbacks Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013); Peter Strickland’s meta-psychodrama Berberian Sound Studio (2013); and Yann Gonzalez’s gay porno thriller Knife+Heart (2018). These films not only replicate the lavish aesthetics of the genre proper; they also lean heavily into the sensationalized and transgressive sexuality and violence.

The current state of film is one that rejects the things giallo is most known for—intricate formalism, bold color palettes, and unabashed prurience. Until that changes, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see a true giallo renaissance. 

Which, honestly, is fine. Like the Spaghetti western or classic film noir, giallo is a movement that belongs to a specific time and place. And more importantly, it’s a disreputable genre that should stay disreputable. 

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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