Most horror film aficionados believe the American slasher film cycle of the early eighties birthed with John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween*. In reality: slasher films got their start in Italy with a literary format known as Giallo or “Yellow” in the Italian vernacular.
Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 126-paged novella horror classic (The Strange Case of) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, small literary houses in Italy churned out their Giallo variant: a cost-effective format of reading entertainment intended for male readers—considering most of the psychologically damaged antagonist’s victims were female—who eschewed cheaply-produced romance novels with splashy, sexy-gaudy covers enamored by the women in their lives. These Italian paperbacks were produced by small literary houses that kept their printing costs down by binding the books in universal, unadorned yellow covers with simple, black-lettered titles that readers could easily stuff the ironically blood red-soaked tales in their jeans’ back pocket for easy, portable reading.
While the names of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are bantered about as the fathers of giallo, the true father—well, grandfather—is Edgar Wallace. Huh? The British-born writer who wrote the screenplay for 1933’s King Kong?
It’s true. The ex-army press corps and London’s Daily Mail scribe moved into novels and became the “King of the Thrillers” by grinding out 957 short stories, 170 novels, and 18 stage plays—many of which he riffed as a secretary dictated them. Many times, he worked on as many as three books at once.
Sadly, as with the prolific Phillip K. Dick, Wallace’s greatest fame was posthumous (he died in 1932). While alive, his first film adaptation was The Man Who Bought London (1916), and those adaptations hit fever pitch in the ‘60s with the forty-seven films of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series.
Wallace’s new found fame—and on his way to becoming a Giallo inspiration—began when the Danish production company Rialto Film co-produced with the German film market, 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske (aka The Face of the Frog) which started the krimi genre (abbreviation for the German term “Kriminalfilm”). Krimis—like the later Giallo films they inspired, were hyper-noir films, replete with zooming cameras and lurid, masked supervillains. And many of Wallace’s novels sported those cheap yellow covers that gave our beloved, pre-slasher ‘80s films their name—giallo.
What are some of the Wallace novel-to-screen giallo adaptations you might have seen? Well, there’s Massimo Dallamono’s What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), Jess Franco’s Night of the Skull (1974), Riccardo Freda’s Double Face (1969), Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood Stained Orchids (1971), and Duccio Tessari’s The Blood Stained Butterfly—all are Wallace novel adaptations.
Giallos offered European readers sexually-inspired gore stories that caused the fans of the suggestive, atmospheric horror films produced by Britain’s Amicus and Hammer Studios to flinch—and Stevenson, along with noted Gothic horror authors Sheridan Le Fanu, Gaston LeRoux, and Guy de Mausspaunt to roll over in their graves. (And don’t forget the inspirations of Thomas De Quincey to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento.) Giallos—filled with quaint, occasional reader-acceptable typos by way of underpaid and overworked editors and proof readers—were well-written, suspenseful and engaging tales (the “content” is the key) that Sheridan Le Fanu probably wanted to include in his influential, short-story collection In a Glass, Darkly (featuring the vampire classic “Carmella”) and realized he had to rein his imagination or be judged by a puritanical, elitist lynch mob for writing “filth.”
It was those yellow-bound books that inspired the spaghetti-horror (pasta-horror) cycle spearheaded by Mario Bava** with 1971’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) and Dario Argento+, who became the maestro of Italian Giallo films with 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (Watch Carpenter’s Halloween, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, and Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill—and compare to Bava’s and Argento’s work: especially look for the similarities of Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve vs. Friday the 13th.)
Produced for a reported $350,000 John Carpenter’s classic grossed an estimated $80 million dollars in worldwide box office during its initial release. Initially dumped into the U.S drive-in market to make a quick buck, the fluke blockbuster status of the film inspired mainstream Hollywood to jump on the yellow-painted bandwagon with 1980’s Friday the 13th and 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street++.
As fate would have it, the John Carpenter-inspired slasher film cycle coincided with the introduction of a contraption known as a VCR that played something called a VHS tape—and that hunk of analog electronics transitioned the slasher film genre from America’s outdoor drive-ins and onto the shelves of the burgeoning U.S home video market. (Don’t forget: Christopher Lewis’s groundbreak Blood Cult was the first “Big Box” SOV produced exclusively for the home video market.) Slasher films—affectionately referred to as “boobs and blades” for their concentrations on well-endowed, giggly women and the shiny, sharp objects that stabbed them—were cheap and easy to produce and the worldwide film markets were hot for product. Returns on a film’s investment produced under the “boobs and blades” banner were guaranteed. The films became the number one way for a newbie actor or writer, budding director or producer to get into the film business.
At the same time those direct-to-video “boobs and blades” knock offs started flying off the video store shelves, a new form of heavy metal birthed in Britain in the late seventies—dubbed by Sounds magazine as “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (NWOBHM). Featuring the violent, religious mania and bloody lyrics composed by the likes of Venom and Iron Maiden, complete with the requisite Satanic imagery on the album covers, slasher films and heavy metal music were a match made in hell: the music coming out of England was, in fact, Giallo musicals. This music-inspired slasher sub-genre even got its own name: metalsploitation*+, which featured other beloved so-bad-they’re-good bloody analog tales showcasing the exploitive titles of Black Roses, Shock ’em Dead, Terror on Tour, Rock ’n’ Roll Nightmare, Hard Rock Zombies, and Rocktober Blood. The genre peaked—and quickly burnt out—when the major studios took a slice of the metalsploitation pie with 1986’s big-budgeted Trick or Treat.
However, before the glut of heavy-metal horror films hit the video store shelves, Paul Williams and Brian DePalma composed a campy, 1974 rock ’n’ roll giallo-inspired reboot of Hammer Studios’ 1962 film version of The Phantom of the Opera (based on Gaston LeRoux’s novel). Somewhat similar to 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the camp ’n’ rock department, Phantom of the Paradise featured an emotionally damaged musician, Winslow Leech, who rains vengeance on the narrow-minded fools who stole his music and ruined his career. An emotionally damaged antagonist out for revenge who wears a mask? It’s pure giallo. The only difference is that poor Winslow isn’t concealed behind POV black gloves.
Needless to say, the giallo cycle was misunderstood by mainstream America, with the genre’s mixtures of murder and the supernatural rated as “style over substance” and “lacking in narrative logic.”
Well, that’s was always the point, Mr. Mainstream critic. (That and if the friggin’ puritanical U.S. distributors didn’t chop and slice the Italian and Spanish imports into incomprehensible messes.)
Italian Giallos—or any of the Spanish variants—of the ‘70s always eschewed “realism” and “substance” over what were always the main priorities of the giallo genre: art and surrealism rooted in Impressionism and Renaissance art.
The giallo resume of Dario Argento, the leader of the genre, is the cinematic equivalent of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and M.C Esher’s impossible objects and staircases to nowhere. Giallo is all about the utilization of oozing color palates and oddball light sources, nonsensical supernatural red-herrings to nowhere, psychic links to killers hidden in POV, whispered poetic passages, hypersexual oddball red-herring characters, rape and murdered moms, junk science (about sunspots, Y chromosomes, eye-memories, love-chemicals), pedophile fathers, doctors and detectives riddled with kinks and ulterior motives, and a general, overall incoherency (even before U.S. distributors got their hands on ’em) set to a soundtrack of jazz-rock noodling and chanting choirs.
The whole point of Paolo Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula and Sergio Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale—and every bloody tale concerned with insects and animals—is for you, the viewer, to have a series of “WTF” moments. Giallos are crime capers, that is, film noirs+* (see the classics A Double Life, Black Angel, Double Indemity, Fairwell, My Lovely, My Name is Julia Ross, The Possessed, So Dark the Night, Sorry, Wrong Number) with the violence in full living-dead color, along with a dash of the supernatural tossed in for good measure.
In Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray pops up from behind the car’s backseat and strangles the husband of Phyliss Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the camera pulls back and frames on her satisfied face as her husband gags to death off frame (and we can imagine what expression is across MacMurray’s face). That’s film noir. In a giallo, the eye-buldging strangulation is in full frame. In film noir, the sex—via editing and cinematography—is implied. In a giallo, it’s on camera—and, in most cases, only one person walks away unslashed from the encounter.
Actor Tony Musante’s vacationing American writer Sam Dalmas and Michael Brandon’s rock drummer Roberto Tobias, in the respective films The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Files on Grey Velvet, have everything in common with William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Fred MacMurray’s pasty of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, and John Garfield’s Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Each are somewhat well-intentioned, yet flawed individuals. The only difference is the film noir schlubs of the latter films don’t end up in a Dario Argento what-the-fuck giallo plot twist of an intelligent chimp wielding a straight razor and having to rescue a cute girl with psychic links to insects (Phenomena, for those of you wondering what in-the-hell am I talking about).
Of course, as Sam, the bossman at B&S About Movies pointed out, we have Mario Bava to thank with his black-and-white, 1963 neo-noir The Girl Who Knew Too Much and its introductions of giallo conventions serving as the progenitor for the genre. Then Bava sealed the deal with his next film, the 1964 color-shot Blood and Black Lace, which introduced all the high fashion, shocking color-palate gore, and psychosexual encounters missing from the likes of the black and white film noir classics, such as Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number, which inspired Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
So the next time you fire up The Conjuring or Happy Death Day, or any of the endless cycle of sequel-prequels-sidequels of the Blumhouse universe variety, just remember those are the digital copies of the original celluloids by Dario Argento (Deep Red, Suspiria), Mario Bava (Hatchet for the Honeymoon), Paolo Cavara, Ruggero Deodato (Phantom of Death), Riccardo Freda (The Ghost, The Iguana with the Tounge of Fire), Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling), Umberto Lenzi (Seven Blood Stained Orchids), and Sergio Martino (The Case of the Bloody Iris, All the Colors of the Dark, The Strange Case of Mrs. Wardh, Torso, Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key)—the Italian forefathers that birthed the jump-scares oeuvre of today’s digital divide in the first place.
But even I have to admit that no matter how much I enjoy the films of those Italian filmmakers, I am burnt out on them. But I love the era and adore the genre and I want more . . . but my yellow has turned to brown.
Thankfully, there’s a new crop of young turks keeping the genre alive, birthing a new genre: neo-giallo—or what I like to call “giallo impressionism.”
Now I inhale the new, yellow hues of Amer (and Let the Corpses Tan, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears) by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, The App by Elisa Fuksas, Mitzi Peirone’s Braid, Sam Bennett’s Dark Sister, The Editor by Adam Brooks, Marco Rosson’s Evil River, the Argentinian Onetti Brothers with Francesca (and Abrakadabra, Deep Sleep, What the Waters Left Behind), Graham Denham’s Greenlight, Matthew Diebler and Jacob Gillman’s The Invisible Mother, Mandy (and Beyond the Black Rainbow) by Panos Cosmatos, Tommy Faircloth’s A Nun’s Curse, Bret Wood’s Those Who Deserve to Die, Under the Silver Lake by David Robert Mitchell, Marc Cartwright’s We Die Alone, and Vahagn Karapetyan’s Greek-twist, Wicca Book.
So, embrace the yellow leaking out of Kevin V. Jones across the marbled floors of Morningside, ye children of the night! Fill your goblets, for tonight; we dine by the plasma’s streaming glow. And it forever glows yellow and in all the primary colors of the dark. “Die Hard!”
Here’s the complete list of all the film’s we reviewed for our week of Giallo films from June 14 to June 20:
Arabella The Black Angel
A Black Veil for Lisa
The Bloodstained Butterfly
The Cauldron of Death
Damned in Venice
Death Knocks Twice
Death Steps in the Dark
Eyes of Crystal
The French Sex Murders
A Girl in Room 2A
The House of Good Returns
An Ideal Place to Kill
The Killer is One of 13
The Killer Is Still Among Us
Killing of the Flesh
Knife of Ice
Knife Under the Throat
Nude, She Dies
A Quiet Place to Kill
Reflections in Black
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye
Seven Notes of Terror
So Sweet . . . So Perverse
What the Waters Left Behind
And here’s some more reviews from the past:
The Blood Stained Shadow
Death Smiles on a Murderer
Die Screaming, Marianne
Five Dolls for an August Moon
Footprints on the Moon
Lizard in a Woman Skin
My Dear Killer
The Night Child
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave
The Perfume of the Lady in Black
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times
Short Night of Glass Dolls
Strip Nude for Your Killer
Who Saw Her Die
And if our written documents of the giallo era isn’t enough to quench your psychosexual bloodlust, then be sure to check out the 2019 giallo documentary All the Colors of Giallo.
+ Be sure to read ourexplorationn of The Maestro Argento with our “Ten Dario Argento Films.”
++ Be sure to read our exploration of the ongoing influence of Freddy with “Ten Movies that Totally Ripped Off A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
*+ Be sure to examine our “No False Metal” week of films.
Oh, and finally: Be sure to visit with our Giallo Drive In Friday featurette, “Black Gloves Required.”