Hello again, and welcome to the belated third installment of Garland’s Movements in the Dark, a weekly essay series where you and I take a deep dive into a movement within horror cinema. With every installment, we will take a look at key films and moments within the selected movement, and how the movement itself rippled throughout horror cinema at large. This week we will be delving into the surreal and colorful world of the Italian “Giallo” movement.
What is it?–
The term Giallo literally refers directly to the Italian word for “yellow”; in terms of the cinematic definition, the term refers to a series of films released between the late 60s through the early 80s that were directed by Italian filmmakers who took direct inspiration from the pulp novels and noir films of the earlier part of the century. A successor to the Hitchcockian mystery movies of the 50s and 60s, and a precursor to the slasher movement in Hollywood that would come directly afterward in the 80s, the “Giallo film” represents a major global contributor to the horror film canvas at large.
Beginning with director Mario Bava’s 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a template was born that the director would further expound upon and refine with his 1964 film Blood and Black Lace, which is what many scholars consider to be the first true film within the movement. We will talk about the film itself more in-depth in a bit, but for now, it is important to recognize the tropes that it established, many of which would become the tentpoles for further films in the movement to follow. Of these tropes, the most notable ones could be considered the heavy focus on the dynamic between eroticism and violence, a distinct stylization in cinematography that relies on color and disorienting handheld sequences, and, perhaps most importantly, the presence of an unknown masked stalker/murderer whose identity is shrouded until a third-act reveal.
The genre only reached worldwide notice when writer/director Dario Argento put out his first film in 1970, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. The film brought Argento acclaim and popular success, which would further bring the movement itself into the spotlight of horror. Argento of course became the maestro of the “Giallo film”, following his debut up with a series of beloved entries in the form like Deep Red, Opera, and Suspiria.
Dario Argento directing
The mid-70s saw the movement hitting its critical and commercial peak, with some of the films released during this time being considered horror classics. However, the major influx of titles provided dilution, as is the unfortunate case with almost all of the mainstream horror film movements, and the films began to fall out of favor. The decline was cemented when the formula was adapted and appropriated into the American slasher film, which dominated the public’s wallets and attention in the 80s and early 90s.
With a seemingly endless amount of titles to choose from within the confines of the Giallo repertoire, the three key films that are necessary viewing and perhaps the most well-regarded and influential releases that require extra analysis are the aforementioned Blood and Black Lace, and two Argento films–Deep Red and the seminal witch classic Suspiria.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)–
With the release of Blood and Black Lace, Mario Bava presented the film world with a distinctive vision. While on paper, the film seems to be another campy whodunnit with a pension for fetishized violence, it is the film’s visual palette and cinematic execution that elevates the material. The film serves less as a showcase for a cleverly constructed mystery and much more as a series of sequences that combine an erotic overtone with escalating violence and murder at the hands of a masked figure operating without mercy, and seemingly without motive.
The style on display in the film is interesting because it demonstrates both the limitless imagination in technicality and the low-brow camp of the almost soft-core narrative and screenwriting. The idea is that the film is less trying to use the violence and sexuality as a probe into some part of the human condition, and more to use the entire film itself as a way to convey a visceral and surreal experience that subverts classic tropes of the mystery genre. The effect is something like an Agatha Christie novel mixed with a bad acid trip.
Blood and Black Lace–Violence, colors, fetishistic imagery
Blood and Black Lace captures the essence of pulp, the trappings, and possibilities that come with that territory and translates it beautifully to the medium of film. The whole thing is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between a young model and the masked villain, who are both searching for a diary that might explain the killer’s motives. For many American audiences, early traces of the slasher film can be found in the film, though it is the visual aesthetic and the added layer of mystery that differentiates the two, and makes the Giallo a slightly more cerebral experience.
Deep Red (1975)–
Dario Argento is unquestionably the most prolific, long-working, and well-known maker of Giallo movies. After his previously mentioned debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, the writer/director’s name became synonymous with the movement. Throughout his ongoing career, Argento has contributed a number of well-regarded films under the Giallo umbrella, including Inferno, Tenebrae, Opera, and Deep Red. Looking at any of those films, one could glean almost all they need to know in regards to a first taste of what a Giallo film looks and feels like, but it is 1975’s Deep Red that is perhaps the director’s greatest achievement.
Deep Red was released at the absolute apex of the movement’s heyday, and it was immediately received well by its audiences and most contemporary critics. Everything one would expect from a Giallo picture is on display here–the mysterious psycho offing people in heinous ways, the bright color palette, the unsettling mystery underlying it all, and so on and so on. But there are a few things that Deep Red does that make it one of, if not, the best of the lot.
Number one, the film features the first collaboration between Argento and Italian prog-rock band Goblin. Goblin’s score for the film has been used countless times since in both horror and non-horror films and is one of the more iconic horror soundtracks of the decade. Furthermore, the band and director would collaborate many more times, something that would later go on to unofficially define an Argento film, and certainly became an influential partnership in the world of horror film scores. In terms of only Deep Red, Goblin’s music carries some sequences in the film and contributes an ethereal doom throughout the entire thing, leading to a perfect dynamic between sight and sound.
And secondly, the film manages to blend the mystery/thriller serial killer elements crucial to the genre with the supernatural, something Argento would revisit more in-depth a few films later. Deep Red combines all things Italian horror and blends them into a satisfying and brutal film about a musician who becomes embroiled in a series of graphic murders related to visions from a murdered psychic. It is a genius movie and one of the best Italian horror films of all time, as well as serving for the quality watermark of the director’s long and storied career.
I have been somewhat dancing around this one throughout for a few reasons. Namely, Suspiria has managed to become the unofficial figurehead of the movement in terms of its popularity, and the profile-raising fact that a hot streak director remade the film recently. The strange conundrum of Suspiria is that it both represents the perfect Giallo introduction and deviates from the formula enough to be a bit misleading in that context.
Suspiria, arguably Dario Argento’s magnum opus, is both constrained in execution to the Giallo template and decidedly a departure in subject matter. On the one hand, the film sits very comfortably within Argento’s distinct style, the neon-drenched phantasmagoria of pleasant visuals and graphic scenes of brutal violence in continuously more elaborate setpieces. Goblin again contributes a legendary score that has taken on a life and reputation of its own, while Argento provides plenty of nasty kills and excellent architectural shots. However, the distinctly feminine narrative alongside the lack of murdering psychopaths in favor of a secret coven of evil witches makes the film a bit of an outlier when contrasted with the rest of the subgenre’s work.
The film charts the strange journey undertaken by an innocent dancer who arrives for training at a prestigious dance academy only to find herself embroiled in a conspiracy involving murder, human sacrifice, and witchcraft. Less terrifying and more of a gothic trip, the film maintains its very unique vibe and atmosphere for the entire runtime (again, Goblin’s score is invaluable to this), and the film has since garnered a reputation outside of the Giallo context.
International horror films represent an infinite amount of deviant styles and movements from the Hollywood output. Sometimes, these tropes and templates crossover out of their home geography and into the world of horror at large. Giallo represents one of those times and arguably one of the times when it crossed over the most; after the movement died down, the visual cues and style could still be seen in various Hollywood productions, as well as the mixture of serial killer horror mixed with mystery and dripping with sexuality became a popular format in the New French Extremity movement (covered in Part I of this series).
Perhaps not the most spine-tingling horror offerings that one could watch, they certainly are some of the most unique and beautifully rendered films, especially of their era.
Thank you for reading this week’s Garland’s Movements in the Dark. Apologies for the late post, it’s been a busy one. I’ll for sure be back on the Thursday night schedule after this one. In the meantime, if you’d like to catch up on the past two essays, you can click here. Otherwise, have a great few days and I’ll be back on Thursday with Part IV–The Modern Horror Rennaissance (Part 1: Blumhouse).