18 May 2008

Giallo: Grindhouse films with Italian style

A typical cover of a giallo novel

Giallo is the Italian word for yellow. As a film genre, it represents the Italian version of American grindhouse films. While American grindhouse mainly enjoys expression by means of exploitation films, the Italians managed to entwine a literary genre too, albeit inspired by American pulp fiction.

From the late 1920s, the Monadori publishing house specialised in horror and crime pulp fiction. This house published cheap suspense novels in response to the rising popularity of American whodunits (who done it? or who did it?). In fact, the first giallo novels were translations of their popular Anglophone counterparts.

These giallo novels appeared with – you guessed it – characteristically yellow covers. Since then, the term giallo became synonymous with intrigue and suspense in Italy.

A poster advertising the Grand Guignol theatre

Besides the popularity of their Anglophone counterpats, giallo novels were inspired by the legacy of the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. This theatre could best be described as the theatre of the macabre. Since closing its doors in 1962, the term Grand Guignol is often used to describe amoral horror entertainment. Sweeny Todd is a shameless tribute to Grand Guignol theatre, and doubly amoral due to Johnny Depp's spooky singing.

Giallo in Film

Characteristics of Giallo in film include:
  • buckets of blood

  • stylish camera work

  • eerie music

  • gratuitous boob shots

  • staged drama in the vein of Opera

Since these correlate closely with my 10 Commandments of Horror, I am hooked on giallo. In fact, I should probably include eerie music and operatic tragedy as the 11th and 12th commandments of horror.

Giallo sets itself apart from the American grindhouse formula of babes and badasses because it is mostly driven by a whodunit plot. While giallo is not prepared to be upstaged by means of boob shots or buckets of blood, it does have something more compelling than just mere lustful gore.

House by the Cemetery poster, a film by Lucio Fulci

Some giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Mario Bava's film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is regarded as the first popular giallo film. Note the obvious reference to Alfred Hitchcock. Lucio Fulci is more renowned for his inventive zombie films, but he has worked in the giallo genre with films like The House By The Cemetery. Last but not least, Dario Argento.

Dario Argento, the Goremeister of Giallo

The Italian Hitchcock, Dario Argento, is the most famous example of giallo cinema. As a film genre, giallo enjoys influence from:
  • fantasy

  • crime fiction

  • horror fiction

  • eroticism

With films like Suspiria, Argento manages to blend all of the above in a masterly way. Argento likes to reinvent himself, but he is at his best when he does crime fiction. Examples of his genius at work are Sleepless and Deep Red (also known as The Hatchet Murders).

Suspiria, Dario Argento's most famous movie, film poster

For eerie music, Argento often teams up with Enno Moriccone and progressive rock band Goblin. Deep Red in particular stands along with Vampyros Lesbos as exploitation films which are often revered for their brilliant soundtracks.

Suggested links

  • Grand Guignol tribute site, with sick posters.

  • Kinoeye special report on giallo films - brilliant essay.

  • Vault of Horror reports on Dario Argento's first English film in 15 years.


cybrpunk said...

I ran through a bunch of old giallo on Netflix a few years back. Mostly for the zombi movies of course but all that I watched were pretty hit and miss. None of them really "worked" for me, but I'm still glad I saw a few of them.

petra said...

Susperia is a classic that will forever have a special place in my collection. an Interesting read.

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