Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 – Giallo Films

Halloweentime is my favorite time of the year, and like kernunrex, I celebrate the season by watching a ton of horror movies, eating bite-sized candy, drinking pumpkin flavored beer, and playfully decorating my home with (fake) corpses and mutilated pumpkins. I’ve got Netflix queue full of movies and only 6 weeks to get through them all, but if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment or play along!

I’m starting this year with a distinctive Italian sub-genre known as the Giallo. The word “giallo” means “yellow” in Italian, and the sub-genre takes that name because of the distinctive yellow backgrounds on a series of pulpy, Italian crime/mystery novels.

Giallo Novels

The defining characteristics of these stories are all familiar to fans of traditional pulp fiction. There’s usually a whodunit murder/mystery element, combined with lurid sexual themes and often bloody violence. These films started appearing the in the early 1960s and ultimately lead into the slasher craze of the early 80s (may of the elements of the slasher are prefigured in Giallo films – more on this below).

  • Psycho (trailer)
  • Here’s Your Problem… (Robot Chicken)
  • Hardly Working: Slasher (short)
  • Blood and Black Lace (1963): The origins of the modern slasher film are usually traced back to Hitchcock’s Psycho. That film, of course, is not really a slasher, but it originates some of the common tropes of the sub-genre. Rumor has it that Italian director Mario Bava saw Hitchcock’s film and was so inspired by the brilliantly staged death sequences that he vowed to make a movie with three times as many deaths. And thus was born the body-count movie. Even beyond that, this film prefigures the modern slasher more than any other of its contemporaries (until 1974’s Black Christmas). Besides the body count, it also features a masked killer (and it’s a surprisingly effective mask, perhaps because it’s so simple and elegant), some POV shots, lots of young models, and well staged, violent deaths though means of elaborate or unusual weaponry (in particular, the three-pronged metal claw stolen off of a piece of armor). Of course, Bava is a much more talented filmmaker than much of the slasher-ilk that would follow, and this film features several exceptional set pieces, and not all of them are murder sequences either.

    Masked Killer

    The film takes place in an Italian modeling agency/fashion house. The first victim is almost immediately dispatched and later, one of the models finds the victim’s diary and places it in her purse. Bava playfully dances around the scene, first executing a quick montage of paranoid onlookers, then orchestrating a long sequence where the bag never leaves the camera’s gaze, but characters maneuver around the screen, attempting to get at the diary (which presumably holds some sort of clue about her murderer, and the assumption at this point is that it’s someone at the fashion house that’s responsible).

    The production design is also well done. It seems to feature a lot of ornate, body-shaped objects such as mannequins, statues, and suits of armor. The effect being that you always feel like you’re seeing people who aren’t really there. Bava’s impeccable sense of framing almost always frames the murders in the presence of these figures (Bava will also follow up a murder by moving the camera towards an angelic figure, an interesting symbolic motif that persists throughout the film). Ultimately, the story of the film is rather commonplace by today’s standards, but it’s extremely well made. Bava is known as the father of Italian horror, and his influence can be seen far and wide, both in future Italian cinema as well as American cinema. Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) is especially influential (it’s another slasher precursor, and it’s also blatantly copied by the early Friday the 13th films, especially part 2) and Planet of the Vampires seems to have an awful lot in common with Alien (though Bava’s film absolutely pales in comparison to Alien). All in all, Blood and Black Lace is a great film for those in love with the genre. It may seem a bit tame by today’s standards, but that’s only because we’re so used to the conventions this film helped to establish. ***1/2

  • Deep Red (trailer)
  • Black Christmas (trailer)
  • Susperia (trailer)
  • The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970): Dario Argento’s directorial debut is a well executed murder mystery that shows some hints of what’s to come in that director’s career. In a lot of ways, it’s very derivative of the aforementioned Blood and Black Lace, but Argento manages to assert himself a bit by the end of the film. Many of his trademark themes are here, in particular the idea of a protagonist who sees something of great importance but doesn’t realize the significance of what they saw (or can’t remember a key detail of what they saw). One of the interesting things about this film is that on the police procedural side of the story, we see a lot of precursors to the current forensic craze (represented by TV shows like CSI, etc…). This film taking place in the 60s, the methods are somewhat primitive, but it’s an interesting element (and it makes me wonder if, thirty years from now, some joker will be saying the same things about CSI). While I’ve not seen a ton of Argento’s films, this film ultimately takes a back seat to his later works, in particular the exceptional Deep Red. This film is worth a watch for Argento fans, but if you’re not familiar with him, I’d recommend Deep Red ahead of this… **1/2
  • Zombie 2 (trailer)
  • The Beyond (trailer)
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies
  • Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972): Lucio Fulci’s disturbing and controversial tale of a series of child murders is reasonably well made and very disturbing. Part of this is just because of the subject matter – killing kids is a pretty lurid and manipulative thing to do to an audience, but this film goes there, and it doesn’t flinch. Interestingly, the most disturbing death scene in the movie features no children at all. I don’t want to ruin the sequence for anyone who decides to see this, but the way Fulci juxtaposes music with the violence during the sequence is expertly done. And that scene is quite violent and relatively gory, even by today’s standards (well, maybe not quite, but it’s close). Fulci would later become known for his out-of-control gore, but he’s still somewhat restrained at this point in his career (the zombie films he produced in the late 70s and early 80s are another story). The controversy surrounding the film is not only because of the age of the victims, but because of a somewhat critical stance against the Church, which is apparently something of a no-no in Italian cinema. The film was only released in the US on DVD in the past few years. Like Argento’s Crystal Plumage, this film is a solid example of the genre, but probably not for a casual viewer (if you enjoy Deep Red and Blood and Black Lace, you might like this).

Well, that about covers it for this week. Except that I probably need to watch a dozen other Giallo movies! Lots more movies on the docket for this year, including a few good old fashion hauntings, some crazy Japanese splatter films, and maybe even some silent horror. Stay tuned!

4 thoughts on “Six Weeks of Halloween 2009: Week 1 – Giallo Films”

  1. Indeed! I’ve been looking forward to this for a while.

    Blood and Black Lace is well worth checking out. As I said, it’s a bit tame by today’s standards, but it’s still great.

  2. I think reading this series for the last couple of years has had an effect on me. I started watching horror movies this week without realizing it.

    I guess I better write about them now.

  3. Yes, yes, it’s going exactly as planned! Soon, everyone will start watching horror movies in mid-September. The revolution starts here. (Uh, so, yeah, looking forward to some 6WH posts on your site:)

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