In the late sixties/early seventies, a unique form of horror was born in Italy. Inspired by English and American mystery novels, as well as German thriller films (known as “Krimi”), this powerful little sub-genre was soon known as Giallo. The word means “yellow” and originally referred to the color of the translations of Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace, among other detective novelists, when those books were released in Italy. The first wave of Giallo ran from the sixties through the late eighties, and a new wave of neo-Giallo is upon us even now. Giallo heavily influenced world cinema, influencing Japanese and Korean horror film, while also inspiring directors from Martin Scorcese and John Carpenter to Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. That it’s still so little known amongst modern horror fans is a crime. Even viewers who don’t like reading subtitles should be able to enjoy these movies, as many of them were filmed in (or dubbed in) English.
Giallo movies are, generally speaking, murder mystery stories with a high body count and often spectacular deaths. If that sounds a little familiar, it might be because Giallo directly inspired the birth of the Slasher flick. Without Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento, there would most likely have never been a Black Sunday, a Halloween, or a Friday the 13th. But Giallo brings more to the table than violent killings. First of all, these movies often have complex mysteries at their hearts, stories about abnormal psychology and dark secrets. They also usually feature central characters that aren’t cops or other law enforcement personnel. Instead, musicians, painters, photographers, historians, and other amateurs of crime are forced to solve daunting puzzles. There also tends to be a more erotic, at times sleazy, side to these movies than that afforded by the occasional sex scene in a Slasher movie.
Most intriguing to me, though, are the stylistic excesses and fractured logic behind many Gialli. The movies of Dario Argento, the most famous and daring of the directors associated with Giallo, are prime examples of both qualities. Strange angles, weird lighting, and disturbing editing all help make these movies feel more demented, somehow, than the bloodiest outing of Jason Voorees of Freddy Krueger. And often, lurking behind the seemingly rational mystery storylines they feature, are odd leaps of logic and twisted series of events, as if the madness of their killers has infected the films themselves.
There’s still life in this strange little genre. Giallo isn’t done with us yet.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Mario Bava was a legend of Italian horror cinema. His Twitch of the Death Nerve is essentially the first slasher movie and inspired many aspects of Friday the 13th, not to mention a slew of other films. His son Lamberto Bava also went on to direct several movies, including Demons, a raucous demon-possession story that should have more viewers. Mario also directed The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a Hitchcock-inspired mystery that has some claim to being the first Giallo movie.
It was with Blood and Black Lace, however, that the Giallo template was truly set. The movie is about a series of murders that take place in and around Christian Haute Couture, a swanky Roman fashion house. These brutal killings all seem to center on the scandalous secrets of the models and employees of the fashion house. With this movie, Giallo saw its primary characteristics gel. Violent and inventive killings; a killer wearing black gloves, trench-coat, and a white mask; a vibrant color palette; a cast of characters with sleazy backstories: these would all be replicated and built-upon in the decades to come.
Short Night of Glass Dolls (1972)
Short Night of Glass Dolls opens in a way reminiscent of that Noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, further intensifying the connections between Giallo and that more famous Mystery sub-genre. Reporter Gregory Moore has been found apparently dead in a plaza and is brought to the morgue. We, however, quickly learn Moore is alive and paralyzed, and through his anxious consciousness, we learn how he ended up this way. When his girlfriend went missing, he began digging into her disappearance, soon uncovering a complex conspiracy involving powerful people and occult practices. Short Night of Glass Dolls is, perhaps, more political than most Gialli, but it faithfully adheres to many of the tropes of the genre and provides an involving mystery as well as anxiety-producing scenarios that still retain their ability to haunt viewers.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
After this movie, director Lucio Fulci went on to carve out a niche for himself in the horror world, specializing in intensely gory and often nonsensical pieces like The House by the Cemetery, The Beyond, and possibly his most famous movie, which goes by several titles including City of the Living Dead, The Gates of Hell, and Twilight of the Dead. It was in Don’t Torture a Duckling, though, that Fulci’s movies began taking on the particularly gruesome violence he subsequently became known for.
Don’t Torture a Duckling is set in the small Italian village of Accendura, a backwoods hamlet filled with a superstitious and small-minded citizenry. When a local boy goes missing, this village begins to implode under the forces of paranoia and misplaced religious fervor. But when another boy is found dead, things get really ugly. For a movie with such a strange, even silly title, Don’t Torture a Duckling deals with heady material, and its climax (as well as a horrendous moment of mob “justice”) makes damn sure viewers won’t miss Fulci’s mordant message.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
Can I be honest? Even if Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key was a terrible movie, I would’ve been tempted to include it for the sake of its title alone. Fortunately, this Poe-inspired murder mystery is worth watching for its other merits too. Oliviero Rouvigny and his abused wife Irina live in a mansion that’s falling apart, in which Oliviero throws decadent parties meant to assuage his feelings of artistic failure. After one of his girlfriends is found murdered, Oliviero fights to clear his name while his wife prods at his flimsy alibi. A series of increasingly sordid plots and counter-plots builds towards an ironic climax.
Your Vice was, as mentioned, strongly influenced by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly “The Black Cat,” and as anyone who has read that story knows, it involves some violence against animals, so if that’s a triggery thing for you, avoid this one. There’s also some sexual violence, albeit only of the type that you could get away with in the 70’s. One of the less bizarre Gialli, this is a good one for those looking for something a little closer to a conventional (though sordid) mystery movie.
Profondo Rosso/Deep Red (1975)
This list could easily have been made up entirely of Dario Argento films, as the director’s influence over Giallo dwarfs that of anyone other than Mario Bava. Argento is also one of my favorite directors, so the temptation is there… His film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage helped solidify Giallo not only as an Italian genre, but also brought it international interest. I will, however, focus on Profondo Rosso (Deep Red in English or The Hatchet Murders in a severely cut form), as it represents something like a gold standard for Giallo in my opinion (but not in that of some purists, who dislike its mildly supernatural elements).
Jazz musician Marcus Daly witnesses the horrifying murder of a German psychic only hours after she alluded to a psychopathic killer being amongst her audience. Plagued by the feeling that he saw something vital the night of the killing, something he can’t quite remember, Marcus starts digging into the many mysteries surrounding this psychic’s accusation. Soon, others are dying in increasingly strange and vicious fashion, and the musician realizes he’s no longer just a curious bystander: he is fighting for his life. I can’t sing the praises of this movie enough. In its full form, it’s 126 minutes, and some may find its pacing a little slow, but it is jammed full of creepy music, memorable set-pieces, odd characters, and stunning visuals. All that plus a genuinely puzzling mystery plot makes it a classic not only in the Giallo genre but in Mystery-Horror movies in general.
The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
The House with Laughing Windows is the most subdued of the movies on this list, favoring a carefully built mystery and a slowly growing creepy sensation over stylistic extremities. And it works. Avati’s film also switches up its gender politics (in comparison with most other Gialli), focusing on the male body in extremis in an erotic way usually often reserved for female victims.
Years ago, the painter Legnani made his name through his highly suggestive paintings of beautiful young men in agonies reminiscent of those supposedly suffered by Saint Sebastian. Long after the painter’s death, Stefano arrives in Legnani’s hometown aiming to restore one of his frescos. But as Stefano starts looking into Legnani’s past, he uncovers a sordid and bloody history the townspeople seem determined to keep hidden. He’ll be lucky if the secrets he uncovers don’t lead to his own destruction. A genuinely creepy film.
Delirium: Photo of Gioia (1987)
Directed by Mario Bava’s son Lamberto, Delirium came along late in the first cycle of Giallo and it shows. Tired of the by-the-numbers movies he’d been compelled to direct, Bava chose to make this one exactly as he pleased, with the result that it feels significantly different than most Gialli. The movie is about Gloria/Gioia, a former model who now runs an adult magazine. When models associated with her magazine start dropping dead, Gloria is forced to into investigating the murders, hoping to avoid the same fate herself.
Delirium is a guilty pleasure, something that must be kept in mind while watching it. It displays a certain distinctly 80’s over-the-top aesthetic, from its synth music to the soap operatic performances of the cast, among whom I must mention Daria Nicolodi, Dario Argento’s ex-partner, mother of Asia Argento, and the co-author of Suspiria. My favorite aspect of this little flick is that we see the victims from the perspective of the psychopathic killer, introducing an entertaining hallucinatory quality into this absurd thriller.
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014)
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is part of the second wave of Giallo, one in which filmmakers have begun dialing up all the nuttiest aspects of the genre. Cattet and Forzani directed another movie in this vein, Amer, but it’s in The Strange Color that we see them really let fly with their cinematic pyrotechnics. The story is, on the face of it, fairly simple. Dan Kristensen is a businessman who has been out of town for a while. When he returns to his lavish apartment, he finds that his wife has gone missing. Intent on finding her, Dan starts looking into the other inhabitants of the apartment complex, but what he finds only further deepens the mystery.
The Strange Color is a fantasia of a film, as if it was stitched together from several dozen dream sequences. It’s as if the directors went through the classic Gialli (particularly the trippier ones) and squeezed every bizarre moment out of them, making a condensed and purified nightmare of a movie. This is certainly a “love it or hate it” sort of movie and not for those looking for more straightforward entertainment. But if you appreciate more surreal horror offerings, such as those created by David Lynch, you may enjoy this weird film as much as I do.
The Editor (2014)
Adam Brooks & Matthew Kennedy
The Editor was brought to us by Aston-6, the same film collective that would go on to create both the Lovecraftian monster movie The Void and the absurdly fun and gory PG: Psycho Goreman. The Editor is, from what I can tell, possibly the only flat-out satire of the Giallo genre and if you come to enjoy the rest of these movies, you’ll get a kick out of this one.
Rey Ciso is a once-acclaimed editor of horror movies who accidentally cut off the fingers on one hand during a fit of madness. Now forced to oversee the work that once animated him, Rey is working on a new Giallo. When cast and crew members start getting killed in violent fashion, we follow Rey as he tries deciphering the mystery in which he is now caught. Could Rey be insane? Or does someone just want him to think he is?
The Editor does something similar to what The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears does with Giallo, cutting out and pasting together some of the genre’s hallmarks, but whereas the latter is an almost indecipherable nightmare, The Editor has a ton of fun celebrating, lampooning, and turning up to 11 Giallo’s strangest and sleaziest aspects. From its campy acting (along with what seems to be intentionally terrible dubbing) to its outré killing sequences to the convoluted and scandalous motives of everyone involved, The Editor aims at making you laugh at and savor both the best and the worst of Giallo.
Knife + Heart (2018)
In this lurid neo-Giallo, the pornography business is the site of several shocking and seemingly motiveless killings. Vanessa Paradis plays Anne Parèze, the director of many gay pornos and a woman on the edge of some sort of nervous breakdown. When someone begins butchering men with whom she’s worked, Anna makes the questionable move of incorporating this horror into her latest film. This does not, unsurprisingly, stop the killings, instead putting her too in the killer’s line-of-sight. Now, she may have to solve an old mystery in order to save her crew, not to mention herself.
Knife + Heart leans hard into the seamier side of Giallo’s history, mixing near-pornographic action with gritty violence. This is, as critic Katie Rife wrote, an “unabashedly queer” film, one in which a spectrum of gay sexuality, from the innocent and romantic to the vicious, is portrayed vividly. At times, it feels as if the director is toeing the line of parody, but the truly disturbing violence and psychosexual tensions keep the movie grounded in Giallo territory.