Giallo: Cruelty Is Beautiful

by Diana Ushkar


In cinematography, there's a special category of films that are called "exploitation". Such movies are traditionally made with a purpose of "quick money", so the directors and producers pay more attention not to the quality of the content, but to its appeal to the viewer, and the most common way to attract the viewer's attention has always been sensational advertisements and bright catchy posters. "Exploitation films" consist of different genres, one of which is giallo.

Giallo is a subgenre of Italian horror that specializes in detective stories about terrifying cruel maniacs and pretty suffering preys. Initially, the word giallo, "yellow" from Italian, referred to detective stories that were published under the yellow covers that might be considered as an instrument of attraction of readers by analogy with what "exploit films" directors do today to promote their works. An interesting fact:many giallo movies, especially early ones, saved the traditional yellow cover –- many posters are made in yellow or use this color to make the image more catchy.

The story of giallo as a movie genre starts with the name of an Italian director Mario Bava. In 1963, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, he made The Girl Who Knew Too Much which is considered to be the first giallo movie in history. Even though it's hard to recognise the giallo we know today in this black-and-white detective, as the famous style wasn't formed yet, the film consisted of some elements that would later be inherited by the classics of giallo. Among them is the image of a protagonist –- a foreigner in Italy, an amateur detective who's making his own investigation, a research of voyeurism through undertone of murders, and the literary basis. Apart from this, giallo movies are also influenced by Hitchcock's works, for example, the classical image of the murder in all films –- a murder in black gloves was initially invented by him.
In 1964 Bava shot Blood and Black Lace which had become the sample for all giallo movies that came after. The movie tells us about mysterious and cruel murders the police try to investigate. While the story unfolds, the viewer might also witness the birth of all great traditions of giallo films. The first is the aesthetic shot: juicy colors and luxurious interiors are the classics of giallo setting. As the characters almost always represent the rich and arrogant part of society, whose only worry is to save their possessions and find easy entertainment, gorgeous big houses, art galleries or fashion ateliers become the perfect field for murder and mutual mistrust. In Blood and Black Lace we also see the legendary image of a murderer for the first time –- his fase hidden under the mask, his hands in black leather gloves holding a knife. Speaking of the depiction of murders in Blood and black Lace, Bava was the first to eroticize them, a prey in his movie, screaming in terror and trying to evade stabs, somehow loses the clothes in the process. Later with the development of the genre, many other directors will explore this imagery deeper.
In 1970 Dario Argento came on the stage with The bird with the Crystal Plumage. In this movie the police investigate attempted murder in an art gallery. Here Argento creates a certain type of protagonist that will later become a distinctive feature of his movies. Sam Dalmas is an American in Italy, who's dreaming about coming back home. A few days before the long-awaited flight he accidentally witnesses a terrifying picture in an art gallery –- a fight that ended up with a bloodied woman. This incident ruins the plans of the main character, as the police keep him in the country because he's an important witness. At first, Sam is upset, but gradually he becomes obsessed with the case and starts his own investigation to find the truth. The image of a charismatic, wit man, who's better at finding the murderer than the police had a great success among viewers, and the director continued to develop it in his later films. Another important thing that appears in this movie is madness. Psychological traumas or mental illnesses as the reason a murderer starts to kill is one of the most common in giallo movies. As we don't see the Killer, he is hidden from us, his personality is often depicted through madness and his traumatizing story that gradually unfolds as the main characters figure out more and more things during their investigation. That is why in giallo films we always find out the motives for the crime first, and in the end we find out who was the murderer. Argento in his films does a great job to reveal madness. He often uses details for that, for example, in The bird with the Crystal Plumage he introduces a mysterious painting that is the key to the story and to the personality of the villain.
Deep Red (1975) by Argento has quite the same development of the story –- a mysterious murder makes two concerned people start their own investigation, but the stylistic development differs a lot from the director's first work. This movie is considered to be the "golden pick" of giallo and the reason for that is formed stylistic ideals of the director. The murders here became more cruel and bloody, the creepy atmosphere increased due to the visual work and soundtrack, made by Goblin, an Italian rock band. Another interesting feature in this movie is a more profound research of mystic things. Paranormal phenomena are a part of classical giallo, they had sacrificed to the atmosphere in many movies, but it rarely was something bigger than a spontaneous mention. In Deep Red ' mysticism is one of the key motives, as it welcomes us in the first scene of the movie with an esper who sees her death, and doesn't leave us until the final titles. Argento in this movie also did a great job exploring the act of murder. Here is the apogee of the aestheticization of it: the director wants it to be terrifying but at the same time somehow appealing for the viewer, so we may talk about voyeurism here. Dario Argento had his own point of view on murders. In his movies it was the metaphor for sex, there's the pick of an act of murder, death itself, equals to the highest point of physical pleasure.
Though giallo had not much time to flourish, so many movies were made during this period, for example, Plucked (1968) by Giulio Questi. The movie was made in the period of the active development of the genre and it doesn't have a profound and thought-out conception and style like Argento's films did. Instead, it is a representation of a hunter-prey play between a beautiful woman and a cruel man with a penchant for murder. We must admit that it resembles what most of the giallo films looked like, as directors were mostly interested in making their movies bright and commercially successful. Another amazing feature of giallo movies is their names. Though it is not so obvious for us, as we look at translated names, Italian filmmakers tried their best to make the title sound like a poetic line. For example, Plucked originally is called La morte ha fatto l'uovo, which can be translated as "Death that laid an egg", and it refers to the driver of the conflict – a chicken farm, everyone wants to possess.

Another movie that was shot during the golden age of giallo is The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) by Sergio Martino, where love affairs and conflicts are inextricably interwoven with murders. In this film, the main female character is played by Edwige Fenech who was given a nickname "giallo queen" for her participation in so many of those movies. The giallo directors cared not for the quality of her acting talent, but for the compliance with the standards of giallo, so they made her undress in every movie she participated in, which now may be considered as sexploitation.
Another interesting work by Dario Argento is Suspiria (1977) which tells us about murders in ballet school. In this movie, Argento goes even deeper in his mysticism explorations, so that the movie becomes a tie between two most popular Italian horror subgenres of that time - giallo, some kind of a detective, and gothic movie, specialized on witchcraft and ghosts. The resounding success of Argento works inspired many other Italian directors, and thousands of giallo films were shot at that time, but despite such success, giallo was the phenomenon that quickly ceased to exist. The fall of giallo is considered to occur in the 1980s, and nowadays such movies are no longer made, though the great influence of the genre is not forgotten. Sometimes modern directors turn back to classics, for example, the new Suspiria, was released in 2018, but if the story is quite the same, there's nothing from giallo style in this movie.
Considering all this, we may say that there are some standards that giallo directors try to keep from film to film, but the main standard is "the hunter and the prey". In giallo movies might not be any foreign protagonists, but there's always a murderer, who kills or plans to and his victims. And those are the core images of a woman and a man. According to giallo canon, the victim is always a pretty girl or a woman, and though some men might also suffer from a killer, this will always be the addition to the main murders. In giallo films the murder is traditionally shown from the killer's point of view: we see a screaming woman, getting wounded, blood, and the hands of a maniac in black gloves. This refers to Laura Malvey's concept of the male gaze. According to her theory, a viewer has to follow the camera's point of view, which means that if we see a murder with the maniac's eyes we reinforce our perception of a woman as prey. Talking about eroticised murder, as it is shown in giallo, we may also agree with Malvey that directors tend to sexualise women to respond the masculine voyeurism. As for the core depiction of a man –- it is in the image of a murderer. We don't know who is the killer, their gender or personality, the only thing we see is an image –- tall dark figure in leather gloves and often black coat. Witnesses of a crime in giallo movies often describe the murderer as "a man" though they never can be sure about it, as they don't see the face.

However, in giallo movies, the depiction of a woman and a man is more profound. It often occurs that under the murderer's mask hides a woman, usually close to the prime suspect. The motives for the crime might be different. Sometimes, a woman becomes a murderer because she had suffered from a man (which is often sexual abuse and often in childhood), sometimes because of mental illness. There are often situations when a prime suspect was the main victim of a woman murderer. There's always mutual cruelty –- that's what giallo movies tell us. They do it in a very peculiar way: by aestheticization of this cruelty.
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