What are giallo movies? Horror’s moodiest genre, explained

Although Edgar Wright’s new thriller Last Night at Soho is set partly in modern times and partly in the “swingin’ London” of 1966, the movie’s style combines the colorful flash of 1960s Euro-horror with the creepy chill of 1970s art-films. Last Night at SohoIt has been specifically compared to Mario Bava’s and Dario Agento’s work, who were two Italian directors who helped define the style, tone, themes, and look of giallo. This is a cult horror genre where murderers creep through the night at upscale locations and mostly target glamorous women. These movies have been heavily influential over the past decades. James Wan’s joyously bizarre horror-mystery Malignant — with its own story about a shadowy, knife-wielding maniac — was one of the most recent movies to bear a strong giallo stamp.

Was it really? The definition of giallo — or even “giallo-inspired” — has been controversial among cinephiles over the years. So it’s probably a good idea to break down the term’s history and meaning, to consider what fans and critics mean when they throw the word around… and whether they do so too liberally.

The strictest giallo devotees treat the term the way oenophiles treat “champagne” — as a highly specific term that only truly applies to products from a specific region of Europe. Some cult movie fans consider giallo Italian. A few Italian filmmakers produced suspense and horror films from 1960s through 1980s. The most notable was in 1970s. “Giallo” literally means “yellow,” in reference to the yellow covers common to the sensationalistic Italian pulp novels these movies clearly resemble.

Giallo, however, was not an organized movement per se. Unlike Michelangelo Antonini and Federico Fellini who were internationally acclaimed Italian filmmakers, Sergio Martino was not part of the organized movement. Instead, directors such as Argento and Bava came from the commercial sector of Italian cinema. It had a history of copying popular Hollywood films like Westerns, Cop movies and Sword-and-Sandal epics but made them less expensive and more bloody.

Bava, in fact, first came to prominence as a horror director, scoring a hit with 1960’s gothic shocker Black SundayThe gruesome 1963 Anthology Film Black Sabbath. He then helped pioneer the giallo genre with 1963’s overtly Hitchcockian The Girl Who Knew too Much and 1964’s Blood and Black LaceThis is a. The latter established some of giallo’s visual motifs, including masked killers, scantily clad female victims, ritzy locations, and eye-popping splashes of color.

A woman in a dimly lit room, surrounded by vivid pink flowers, looks distrustfully at a bright red mannequin with long black hair and a black dress

Blood and Black Lace
Compass Film, Photo

With his 1970 debut feature, Argento made this style a hit. The Bird with Crystal Plumage, a thriller about an American tourist who investigates a murder he witnessed — and is later accused of committing — at a Roman art gallery. With its clean, colorful look, its richly orchestrated score and its twisty mystery, Argento’s film played like a slicker, classier version of a trashy B-picture. Italian producers were inspired by the film’s worldwide success to begin commissioning imitations. In the 1970s, there was a flood of films featuring quirky titles. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin The Short Night of the Glass Dolls Strip Nude for Your Killer Your Vice is a locked room and only I have the keyYou can find a few more.

These movies were made in large quantities by some directors, who sometimes used this genre to their advantage. This allowed them to capture audiences’ attention while making them uncomfortable. Martino’s 1973 film TorsoThe movie features, among other things, a number of scenes that show young women and men enjoying a romantic relationship in an idyllic country house. But as these kids start getting killed, Martino interrogates the murderer’s deep misogyny and warped sexual desires. Similarly, Fulci’s ultra-violent 1982 cop movie The New York Ripper It is an eerie vision of a world that has gone mad, filled with depravity and decay. This film has been banned in certain places or even censored. Many critics consider it vile, but few who’ve seen it would call it forgettable.

The filmmaker who took giallo in the most fascinating directions in the 1970s and 1980s was Argento, who practically perfected the form with 1975’s Deep Red Before you move to supernaturally spooky thrillers, like semi-surreal ones Suspiria Inferno. He carried the lessons he learned from making those two pictures — namely that the plots didn’t always have to make sense — into 1982’s Tenebrae and 1985’s PhenomenaThe films are visually incredible and almost abstracted murder-mysteries. They deliver cinematic delight.

A dead woman lying with her head on a shattered floor, neon-red blood around her mouth, her head thrown back in a final scream, in 1977’s Suspiria

Suspiria 1977
Photo Credit: Synapse Films

To some extent, many of these films — even The New York Ripper — are uniquely Italian. Although most of the best-known giallo movies of the 1970s imported American or British stars — and although they were dubbed into English when they played in Britain or the States — a lot of them had a political edge. Sometimes subtly and sometimes openly, they indicted a culture of collusion, where well-connected aristocrats and criminal networks conspired to bury the average citizen and to get away with murder… quite literally, in both cases.

These movies relied heavily on formulas. Beyond the recurrence of secret societies and costumed, knife-wielding murderers, there was a well-established visual grammar to classic giallo, with bright colors playing against inky black shadows, while the camera often took the killer’s POV.

The giallo was a rich source of inspiration that could be used by non-Italian filmmakers to make their films more appealing to broader audiences. It’s easy to trace a short line between 1970s giallo and the first wave of American slasher movies, led by Halloween Friday, 13th. Those early slashers — Halloween especially — drew inspiration not just from the basic giallo plots but also from the way they looked and moved, with their subtly dynamic camerawork and eerily polished surfaces.

After slashers went out of fashion, the erotic -thriller boom of early 1990s maintained the giallo tradition that combines eroticism with splatter. Influenced greatly by the films of Brian De Palma — whose movies Sisters Get Out The Body DoubleAnd especially You’re dressed for success drew heavily on the Hitchcockian side of giallo — movies like Fundamental Instinct Sliver emphasized the genre’s voyeuristic elements, while also bringing back some of the luxurious locations the American slashers ditched.

However, it’s possible to reduce the significance of giallo simply by linking it back to EachFilm about serial killer. Why? Last Night at Soho MalignantGiallo films have been compared to giallo because of their visual style more than their plots. These films were influenced equally by European filmmakers such as Roman Polanski or Nicolas Roeg. Their work is sometimes similar to giallo but has little to no connection to the genre.

One of the best ways to “get” giallo is to watch some of the homages and remixes that have been released in recent years, like Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2009 avant-garde film AmerOr their 2013 follow up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s TearsBoth of these films, which rely on imagery and giallo themes to tell their stories, more or less abandon storytelling. Or there’s Peter Strickland’s brilliant 2012 psychodrama Berberian Sound StudioToby Jones is a sound engineer in the 1970s who creates effects that cause skin to rip into his skin.

A woman vividly lit in green and orange in Berberian Sound Studio, standing in a recording booth with a silver mic and padded walls, looking terrified

Berberian Sound Studio
Photo by IFC Midnight

The only problem with these movies is that they’re a bit too elevated. These are the classic giallo photos The lookThey were not expensive, however, they were produced quickly and cheaply by the Italian studios. The fun part about being a Giallo fan is sorting through the junk and finding the ones that stand out. Giallo-influenced films of recent years are presorted and filtered for their fans. They only include the best parts, leaving out all the exploitative crap.

That’s potentially a good thing for modern movie fans, who don’t have to wade through hours of tedious, repetitive slasher movies to get to a ridiculous but memorable movie like Malignant. But as Argento and Fulci knew, sometimes there’s just as much appeal to that lurid, self-indulgent dreck. That’s what turns audiences on… and what makes them feel enjoyably unsettled about a genre that feeds them all the dark and nasty fantasies they could possibly want.

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