It’s the season for blood and gore and unhealthy, possibly psychotic fixations, and few subgenres inspire obsession quite like “giallo” thrillers. But perhaps a detail-oriented, focused audience is appropriate for these particularly fetishistic films, as giallo is defined by outrageous production design, bold close-ups, intense color, memorable scores filled with sighs and shards of sound, and strange, gruesome murders performed by a very particular type of villain. With bizarre titles like “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” and “Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key,” they won’t be slipping our minds anytime soon.
Nightmarish but enthralling male-fantasy thrillers, tuned to a sexuality shaped by pin-up magazines, rock and roll, and the heightened, aestheticized world of movies and advertising, these bizarre spaces in which an urbane bourgeoisie reckons anxiously with social issues that were new and raw in the ’70s — they heyday of giallo. Themes such as feminism, civil rights, and emerging counterculture ideals were often expressed through monstrous violence. They’re films about obsessions and sublimated desires, fetishistically detailed with black gloves, lacquered nails, shining knives, and opulent interiors. Imagine Playboy magazines from the ’70s come to jerky life, animated by madmen whose process perverts desires, corrupts inhibitions, and renders morals flimsy and two-dimensional, and you get close to the splashy, salacious appeal of giallo.
It does have roots in a few other more respectable creative areas, with the movies of Alfred Hitchcock being visually evident touchstones, if not the most important antecedents. The term “giallo,” which translates literally to “yellow” but in Italy tends to mean simply “thriller” when talking about fiction, comes from the cheap, yellow-covered thriller novels published in Italy in the ’50s and ’60s. A specific subset of thriller films, however, made by directors such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Sergio Martino, overflowing with the currents described above, are called “giallo” outside Italy — and it’s in that context we use it here.
The earliest giallo efforts grew out of the “krimi” (crime) films out of Denmark and Germany, many of which were based on novels by “King Kong” screenwriter Edgar Wallace, whose books were also published as yellow-covered gialli. Mario Bava made arguably the first giallo film in 1963, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” but the specifics of the genre were formalized in 1970 through Dario Argento’s directorial debut “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.” The subgenre thrived until 1975, after which it gave way to rough-edged “poliziotescchi” police action films in Italy, with a more sporadic output continuing the giallo influence even through today, in films like “Berberian Sound Studio” and “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.” Here are a dozen key gialli out of the many dozens produced in the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond — a perfect starter pack selection for anyone who wants to spend time this Halloween season exploring something a little more off the beaten track.
THE FORMATIVE FILMS
“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (Mario Bava, 1963)
Mario Bava’s black-and-white thriller is called the first giallo movie, and as a nexus point between Hitchcock, paperback thrillers and emerging Italian sensibilities, it makes a perfect starting point. Letícia Román stars as Nora Davis, a young American woman obsessed with paperback giallo thrillers who heads to Italy for a relaxing stay with her aunt. But auntie is ill, and despite the ministrations of an attractive young doctor (John Saxon, in his male model era) dies shortly after Nora’s arrival. Panicking after the old woman’s expiration, Nora flees into a nearby plaza, is mugged, and passes out. Upon waking, she witnesses a murder — or is it a dream of one of a string of serial killings that took place years earlier?
The story is a daft yarn in which Nora puts her thriller knowledge to use as she assembles clues about multiple killings, and fields threats to her own life. Nora fights to provide proof of her experiences, expressing a theme that will be a giallo staple — the woman who knows what she’s seen, but is pressured to believe she might be losing her mind. Bava shoots all the action in gorgeous high-contrast black and white that provides such rich atmosphere and storytelling that “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” could almost work as a silent film. Nora’s personal terrors come to life in a grand old apartment, where she faces phantoms in deep shadow, glinting knives, and the real killer. As Nora finds herself in stark, broken-down buildings and public spaces, another major undercurrent of gialli is born — the alienation of urban spaces.
The film exists in two major versions. The actors primarily perform in English, but the Italian-dubbed “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is the superior cut. It is shorter and more finely honed as a thriller, with voiceover that complements the paperback thriller plot device. The english-language version, called “The Evil Eye,” features more humor, little of which is particularly effective, a more indulgent voiceover, and a new score that poorly complements the intense chiaroscuro cinematography.
“Blood and Black Lace” (Mario Bava, 1964)
Made just one year after “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” Bava’s next thriller is a colorful but madly bleak whirl of violence and suspense in which a masked killer in raincoat and hat, looking like a pulp hero with a demonic twist, rips through the lives of the employees (particularly the gorgeous female employees) of a small design house. The atmosphere is a riot of fashion magazine imagery lit with primary-colored light that competes with inky shadow. It all coheres into just enough of a plot – a murdered woman’s diary threatens to expose the secrets of a small group of people – to keep things going as Bava stages a minor ballet of glances and objects in which everyone is suspect to the very end. Everyone still alive, that is. “Blood and Black Lace” proves the maxim that says process, rather than plot, can be the thing that really enthralls, and indeed the primary pleasure of this film lies not in trying to figure out whodunnit, because that really doesn’t matter, but in watching how they do it, and where, and in what light. Few gialli are as visually accomplished as this, which marks a high bar for the genre that wasn’t matched, much less exceeded, until the release of Dario Argento’s “Deep Red.” Despite the fact that this effort was crafted before the “giallo” was even fully defined, it is among the best the genre has to offer.
“The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (Dario Argento, 1970)
An American witnesses an attempted murder during an extended stay in Italy and is drawn into his own investigation of the would-be killer’s actions, which naturally puts the American and his girlfriend in the killer’s sights. Dario Argento’s directorial debut could have been a routine crime thriller, and in places “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” does fall back on threadbare cop-and-killer material. The director’s inclination towards a baroque, even operatic visual sense is revealed early, however, as the first near-murder involves a black-gloved assailant disguised with hat and raincoat, and takes place within a spacious gallery dominated by Grand Guignol sculptures and separated from the street by a pair of glass walls. The plotting of “Plumage” is more coherent and satisfying than many of Argento’s later movies, and the fascination for objects and textures that would characterize later films is only beginning to bloom. Argento tries on concepts without pushing too hard against established genre confines, making “Plumage” among the more conventional and even audience-friendly gialli, but he caps the story with a late twist and what is essentially a nightmarish coda that shrugs off convention to reveal the first true look at the unpredictable heart of the genre. Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” provides the skeleton for the giallo, but Argento’s debut adds the flesh and blood, from the shadow of the modern cop thriller to the exaggerated title, and the visual flourishes and increasingly hazy storytelling that would soon define the genre. In a nice touch, Argento even dresses one character in a bright yellow jacket— an homage to the yellow covers of the original paperback thriller novels which both inspired and ultimately named this filmic genre.
“A Bay of Blood” (Mario Bava, 1971)
A killer opening sequence is a boon for any film, but as with so many other things, gialli sometimes take the idea to extremes. Mario Bava’s “A Bay of Blood” (also called “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” and occasionally “Blood Bath”) features one that encapsulates the genre: an aged woman in a wheelchair slowly rolls through her home, where she’s attacked by an unseen assailant, who is himself murdered as soon as he’s dispatched the old woman. The basic chain of events is absurd enough, but Bava adds to the effect by employing disorienting mise en scene to intensify the sense of danger and isolation. It seems physical laws don’t quite apply, as a figure can simply appear in a room, suddenly revealed by the camera. It’s sequences like that the feel so unhinged, declaring that there is no safety for the characters, and that tropes or character archetypes are as dead here as the first two victims. It is also playful, in a demented fashion, as space and time are compressed, folded, and even disregarded in the action of editing and shooting. Characters are little more than a tangle of limbs and weapons in this demented riff on Agatha Christie‘s “And Then There Were None” as the residents of a small bayfront community, along with a few visitors, find themselves involved in sudden violence. One string of killings, featuring a group of carefree hippies – the sort of young counterculture kids who are more prevalent in later gialli – is essentially a prototype “Friday the 13th,” nearly a decade before Sean S. Cunningham‘s series premiered (American slasher movies owe a great deal to giallo). The wispy plot barely coheres, but audiences are rewarded, and probably baffled, with a cuckoo ending that is as bizarrely satisfying as it is nonsensical.
CORE ’70s GIALLI
“Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key” (Sergio Martino, 1972)
This brilliantly titled film follows a washed-up, alcoholic writer (George Hilton) and his long-suffering wife (Anita Strindberg) as they moulder away in degenerate unhappiness in the decrepit mansion once owned by his mother. The deceased matron’s portrait and her gown still linger, and her cat, a bread loaf-sized voyeur in black fur named Satan, stalks the halls as paranoia and long-simmering resentments come to the fore. The title of Sergio Martino’s fourth and greatest giallo effort – no minor accolade for the director who deserves the name recognition of Argento and Bava within the genre – is a repurposed line from his first thriller, “The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh,” aka “Blade of the Ripper.” In that film and here, the concept is more a piece of evocative window dressing than anything else, but the repurposing points to a general sense of continuity between Martino’s gialli. His thrillers feature a consistent core creative team, and common cast members such as Edwige Fenech and George Hilton. Several are particularly good at evoking a festering rot in romantic relationships, and none are more accomplished than in this nasty 1972 riff on Edgar Allan Poe‘s story “The Black Cat.” While Martino leaves behind the typical urban giallo setting in favor of rural isolation, the film is still nestled right in the genre thanks to a couple gruesome killings, the Bruno Nicolai score, and the shifty and manipulative actions of Hilton and Strindberg. And of course Fenech, who plays the writer’s niece, whose flinty gaze betrays the potential for selfish plans concealed behind a carefree facade. All three wind each other’s springs until the mansion is pressurized to the point of explosion. Horrific action is taken, and dark plans come to fruition. A grimy, sensual, and tightly-executed thriller, this film also features some of the most potent social critique of the gialli, as Martino depicts the counterculture as a pack of insipid hangers-on whose pretensions are no match for the practiced viciousness of a more experienced social order.
“Short Night of Glass Dolls” (Aldo Lado, 1971)
The directorial debut of screenwriter and “The Conformist” assistant director Aldo Lado is high-concept even in the exaggerated giallo landscape. Jean Sorel stars as Gregory Moore, an American journalist living in Prague, who at the beginning of the film is seemingly dead. Howvere, he is alive in inexplicable stasis, in fact, not able to move so much as an eye or finger, but very much aware of his surroundings as officials process his “corpse.” In flashbacks we see what brought Moore to such a state as he seeks clues to the disappearance of his girlfriend Mira (Bond girl Barbara Bach). The film’s first hour is relatively light on genre trademarks, and also on engaging drama. In that span, the tinkling, sighing score from Ennio Morricone is the chief indicator that “Short Night of Glass Dolls” is something other than a standard thriller… and then Moore stumbles across a secretive club that holds dark secrets and will do anything to protect them. Perhaps to match the repressive, politically careful Prague setting, few of the actors make any great display of overt engagement, choosing instead to maintain a minor-key groove. “It’s a bore,” Moore says, with a weak smile, of the search for his missing girlfriend, and that could also be Sorel jibing about his role. But then hints of stranger and more unsettling activities, delivered throughout the film in flashes of inspired editing, bloom into major-key social repression seen through the lens of arcane ritual. It’s not just that the last half hour of “Short Night of Glass Dolls” becomes more interesting than what went before, but that it finally gives a name to the hazy smog of repression that has lain over the story. This giallo is no masterpiece as a portrait of old-society control in a cold-war milieu, but it is an effective chiller with a final sequence that resonates long after the credits roll.
“Perfume of the Lady in Black” (Francseco Barilli, 1974)
This dreamy thriller, a melange of sleep-deprived hallucinations and post-Polanski impulses, falls just outside the confines of the central giallo spectrum, but its differences from the genre as a whole are part of what makes it a terrific diversion. “The Perfume of the Lady in Black” is an excellent, slow-burning paranoid breakdown. Mimsy Farmer, removed from American teen movies and imported to Italy thanks to a real-life love affair, plays Sylvia, a successful chemical engineer who offsets her professional capability with an emotionally stunted, even brutish relationship with a selfish, distant man. Sylvia’s life becomes more complicated when memories and dreams of her violently troubled childhood begin to intrude upon her everyday life. Barilli does well as he conveys Sylvia’s visions and unusual experiences, but soon pushes the film into weirdo overdrive with the suggestion that everyone in Sylvia’s life is part of an underground cabal organized around her destruction. Whether that’s part of any objective reality is open to question – one that the film’s bizarrely violent conclusion is not at all prepared to answer. In a set of films known for keeping audiences off-balance, Barilli’s movie has a particular talent for layering minor uncertainties and major shock sequences within an overarching vision of decaying city life. When many gialli have been rediscovered, revived, and thoroughly dissected, “Perfume of the Lady in Black” is probably the least-seen film on this list, and the most deserving of a second chance.
“All the Colors of the Dark” (Sergio Martino, 1972)
When therapy doesn’t work, try Satanism. That’s one lesson from director Sergio Martino (‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room’) who works once again with Edwige Fenech and George Hilton for a dive into full-on black magic. This time, the director thins the membrane between reality and hallucination to little more than a vague gauze. Fenech plays Jane, a woman whose young life was defined by her mother’s murder, and who is now struggling towards emotional recovery from a car accident that led to a miscarriage. Her traveling salesman husband and medical assistant sister are little help, as is a well-meaning therapist. But a stray encounter with a new neighbor leads to the ultimate in counterculture cures: a black mass that shreds Jane’s dignity but restores her sexual appetite and props up her sense of emotional independence. The benefits of the ritual are short-lived, however, and Jane finds no solace anywhere when she is followed by a man (Hilton) whose plastic-blue eyes look exactly like the eyes of a dream figure linked to dreams of her mother’s death. Martino works all the giallo tricks, using red herrings, suspect glances and an overwhelming aura of paranoia to dash realism and crush any sense that Jane might easily find refuge from either her bloody past or fraught present. Surprise twists surface late in the game, of course, but perhaps the most shocking elements are the stray wisps of optimism that prevent “All the Colors of the Dark” from being overwhelmingly bleak.
“Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (Lucio Fulci, 1971)
In a genre dominated by men working to process and/or reject the rush of social changes in early ’70s Italy, the fantasist director Lucio Fulci often seemed least willing to deal with advances for women and youth culture even as he couldn’t turn away from the allure of new cultural influence. “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” is a phantasmagoric vision of respectability colliding with hidden vice, where a desire to not be respectable can never quite be expressed, leading to degradation and violent death. Florinda Bolkan plays lawyer’s daughter Carol Hammond, whose upper-class apartment shares a wall with the counterculture pleasure den inhabited by Julia (Anita Strindberg). The rich woman suffers quietly and patiently through dinners colored by the sounds from drugged-out hippies and degenerate partygoers next door. Carol is haunted by dreams of Julia’s activities, and her life begins to unravel when her dream of murdering Julia is followed by the woman’s actual murder. The convoluted mystery that follows isn’t so much intriguing in its own right as it is a thinly-covered rumination on the collision of new cultural attitudes. Fulci is happy to look long and hard at images of writhing hippie parties, but he also scorns the participants as ineffective and small. Even so, there’s an understanding that the appeal of new youth culture could be more insidious than Fulci would like to admit, and the real horror of “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” is that the hedonism of the far left could corrupt absolutely anyone, especially with the repressive old social order in place to keep everyone’s vices hidden away. Famously, a (possibly apocryphal) story claims that Fulci was taken to court on charges of animal cruelty for a scene in this film featuring vivisected dogs, which were in fact puppets created by Carlo Rambaldi, who would later create the ET puppet for Steven Spielberg. Rambaldi paraded the puppets before the court, says the story, and all parties went home chastened but happy.
“Deep Red” (Dario Argento, 1975)
After a brief break from giallo, Dario Argento crafted this gloriously impressionistic nightmare, which for those who want vicious sensory overload could be considered the height of the genre. “Deep Red” is certainly the aesthetic giallo ideal, with its setting in overwhelming architecture, first-person camera movements, unreliable perspectives, over-saturated colors, and lingering close-ups of stray objects. OK, sure, there’s a story, about an American pianist (David Hemmings) who witnesses a gruesome murder in his own apartment building, and spends the entire film in a staple-giallo pursuit of perception, chasing that one detail he can’t quite remember or put into context. The film is really about visions and textures, however, featuring characters dwarfed by columns and statues, virtually buried in concrete. The extreme close-ups of a parquet floor, knives, and a phono needle on a record precede David Fincher‘s macro work in “Fight Club,” and work in concert with the proggy and occasionally jarringly upbeat score from Goblin to establish this idiosyncratic vision. When he turns away from color and texture, Argento tries and mostly fails to come to terms with emerging social changes. The line “it seems that there are some things which you cannot do seriously with liberated women” is probably meant as a joke, but doesn’t land as such, and the film’s gay and trans characters, who play a significant role, are very much rooted in a society that wasn’t yet comfortable with a non-hetero norm. “Deep Red” exists in a few versions, with a longer cut released in Italy as “Profondo Rosso.” The longer version features more comedy, and extra dialogue scenes with the reporter played by Daria Nicolodi, but isn’t essential enough to be worth tracking down for casual viewing.
THE LAST WAVE
“Dressed to Kill” (Brian De Palma, 1980)
Argue the purity of this thriller within the genre — maybe it isn’t true giallo, as it is not an Italian film—but if nothing else Brian De Palma’s 1980 release is an elegant giallo art installation. The opening alone is like the genre in miniature: the camera tracks through a well-to-do home into a spacious bathroom where a beautiful woman (Angie Dickinson) showers seductively, watching a man standing at the mirror, shaving with a straight razor. Close ups of her near-masturbatory activities turn horrific when she’s grabbed by a black-gloved hand, and threatened with a razor. De Palma’s own tendencies were well-developed as fetishistic gazes long before he made “Dressed to Kill;” this movie just provides the ideal framework for his voyeuristic and lurid proclivities. Dickinson’s character, a bored housewife whose work with a therapist (Michael Caine) doesn’t ameliorate her marital dissatisfaction, enjoys an afternoon affair, but runs afoul of a killer. Her brainy son (Keith Gordon) teams with a plucky prostitute (Nancy Allen) who has seen the killer in action, employing the very tricks of cinema to learn the truth about the killer’s identity. The film is riddled with dualities, split-screen compositions, and mirror images — De Palma revels in pairing off themes and identities, to the degree that nearly any audience should be able to point out the killer right off the bat. But the mystery isn’t the point, as “Dressed to Kill” is far more interested in luxuriating in the pleasures of its own movement, and in mocking moralistic ideas about sex. Giallo took liberal inspiration from prior filmmakers, and this film, which comes five years after the movement began to wind down in Italy, shows how effective the genre’s ideas could be when traded back to an American filmmaker reaching the height of his game.
“Tenebrae” aka: “Tenebre” (Dario Argento, 1982)
Dario Argento all but defined the giallo subset in 1970, and he very nearly closed it out when he returned to thrillers after a detour into witchcraft with “Suspiria” and “Inferno.” While “Tenebrae” lacks the overblown style of Argento’s “Deep Red,” this film has something few gialli can boast: a point. “Tenebrae” is the first Argento film that seems to have real meaning for the director, rooted as it is in criticism of his films, with a plot inspired by death threats Argento himself received. An American thriller novelist — i.e., a giallo author — travels to Italy to promote his latest chart-topping novel, Tenebrae. There he faces criticism for the way his novels deal with women and morality, and is visited by police after a young woman is murdered, pages from his novel stuffed in her mouth to finish the job. The plot is meta, but not excessively so, and the story holds together in a way many other Argento films don’t bother to attempt. Murders multiply, with Argento and cameraman Luciano Tavoli going to extraordinary lengths to create a long-take exploration of the apartment in which a lesbian couple falls victim to the knife. It’s a sequence every bit as lurid as those that led to criticism of previous Argento films, and in the context of “Tenebrae” plays as a decisive “fuck you.” Early ’70s gialli featured social issues infringing on an old male-dominated order, and those issues are more formally integrated into “Tenebrae,” which treats gay rights as a foregone conclusion. (The film does feature a trans actress in one small role, and despite the fact that the character is both a tormentor and victim, those qualities are not linked to her gender.) For a genre inspired by Hitchcock, many gialli are not particularly suspenseful, trafficking in the horror of inevitable violence rather than the tense potential to escape unharmed. “Tenebrae,” however, is among the few to skillfully employ classic suspense, and a mid-film encounter, which begins as a young woman evades the most athletic doberman ever captured on film, is executed with wicked control to induce the sort of gut-level discomfort that is rare even in this genre of perverse pleasures.
A note about Dario Argento’s “Suspiria:” it’s an excellent film, and deservedly his most famous, but not giallo. The film puts its own spin on some of the giallo concepts Argento has worked so well in other movies, but “Suspiria” is a supernatural film. That said, don’t overlook Dario Argento’s “Cat o’ Nine Tails,” with Karl Malden as a blind man who tracks a murderer, or “Four Flies on Grey Velvet,” which is centered around an American rock drummer in Rome who is drawn into a blackmail and murder plot. His 1987 film “Opera” is a mean and capable shocker too.
“Black Belly of the Tarantula” had fallen out of fashion for a while, but its terrific name — one of the few great things about the film, to be honest, along with the Ennio Morricone score — helped bring it back into giallo watch lists. It’s a choice for completists, though its lead character, a reluctant cop played by Giancarlo Giannini, is one of the more interesting lawmen in the giallo canon. See “The House With the Laughing Windows” or perhaps “Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion” first.
Umberto Lenzi, perhaps more known in Italy for his cop movies and more known abroad for crazed shockers like “Cannibal Ferox,” made several gialli, among which a few are often referenced as canonical. “Seven Blood-Stained Orchids” is a sturdy, middle-of-the-road effort that will satisfy basic genre cravings, while “Eyeball” fuses Lenzi’s own weirdness with one of Fulci’s chief preoccupations. Finally, “Spasmo” is a total whackadoo movie that steadfastly refuses to make sense for an hour, then blossoms into real weirdness. That one is really for deep genre devotees, or perhaps for those who think they’ve seen everything.
You’ll even find some hardcore purists listing the 1971 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” among their favorite gialli, and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 film “Frenzy” features many giallo elements. A set of recent films, from Peter Strickland‘s “Berberian Sound Studio” to Ryan Gosling‘s “Lost River” also use giallo influence in major and minor ways, while the directorial duo of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani has created their own nouveau giallo revival with “Amer” and “The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears,” which push the genre into the realm of pure abstract art.
While gialli were once difficult to source in the U.S., many titles are now available on DVD and Blu-ray, in restored and often uncut versions. Films on this list are or will shortly be available from Arrow Video (“Blood and Black Lace,” “Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key”), Blue Underground (“Deep Red,” “Short Night of Glass Dolls”), Kino Lorber (“The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” “A Bay of Blood,” “The Perfume of the Lady in Black”), and the Criterion Collection (“Dressed to Kill”). There is no current U.S. disc release of “All the Colors of the Dark,” which we hope will be rectified immediately. While Netflix has a paltry catalog of giallo streaming at press time, Amazon Prime and the curated horror streaming service Shudder feature many titles. Any favorites of yours we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments.