The more gialli I watch, the more two things become apparent: 1) I have no idea, when importing the term into English, when to use “giallo” (singular) and “gialli” (plural), even though it should be simple; and 2) there’s really no such thing as giallo (or is it gialli). By which I mean, it’s so broad that giallo is more of a concept or a set of traits than it is a genre. The simplest comparison is to film noir, which is either a genre, a style, a cinematic philosophy, or a movement, depending on who you ask; and which has, since it was coined, come to refer to everything from a very specific set of films to every crime film ever that was shot in black and white, to every crime film ever as long as someone emerges from some shadows at some point. Giallo is like a flashy set of cool clothes that can dress up an otherwise humdrum murder mystery, and those clothes fit a variety of film types. For a genre — or a style — of films that are often defined by wildly convoluted, difficult to explain plots and a frequent reliance on the theme of the fallibility of human perception, it’s fitting that the definition of giallo itself is to some degree personal and subjective, that it falls into the category of “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”
In Spain, director Jess Franco’s 1963 film Rififi en la Ciudad brings overt elements of the style, in the form of a mysterious trench coat-clad murderer, into the realm of the otherwise down-to-earth noir-inspired crime film. Nothing in film occurs in a vacuum, so it’s no surprise, really, when you take a close look at a film like, for instance, Orson Welles’ 1957 B-film masterpiece Touch of Evil and find very giallo-esque elements years before the idea of giallo as a cinematic movement had been launched. The films trace their lineage and their name back to a series of mystery novels, after all, and “mystery” encompasses vast and sundry types of stories. Hell, you can even find traces of giallo in the novels of Raymond Chandler (or would it be traces of Chandler in giallo), who hard-boiled detective fiction is rife with the same sort of quirky, sinister characters, hopelessly labyrinthine plots, and mysterious murders that would later populate Italian giallo movies.
Rising to prominence just a couple of years before the modern giallo, and largely from the same source (Mario Bava, who kicked off the giallo crazy with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and the Gothic horror craze with Black Sunday), Gothic horror films enjoyed a similar arc as giallo, beginning with classic, old-fashioned chillers and, during the 1970s, growing sleazier and more violent. Given that they shared many traits, not to mention writers and directors, it’s not surprising that the Gothic and the giallo crossed paths from time to time, much to the consternation of people who insist on films falling into clearly defined categories. One of the first films to muddy the waters came, fitting, from Mario Bava. His 1966 film Kill, Baby, Kill most closely identifies with the tradition of the supernatural Gothic chiller, but it also contains definite elements of giallo. One of the first films to reverse the ratio, a giallo with Gothic horror trappings, was Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave. A year later, with his second (and final) giallo, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Miraglia once again plays with the porous boundary between giallo and Gothic, blending together the modern of the one and the musty of the other.
As with his previous film, Miraglia takes the modern setting integral to the spirit of gialli and dresses it up in a bit of old-fashioned Gothic spookiness by, once again, setting a portion of it (much less than in Evelyn) in a moody Gothic estate full of dark secret passages and dungeon chambers. Also once again, Miraglia loads his movie with blondes, in this case Marina Malfatti (returning after her role in Evelyn), genre powerhouse Barbara Bouchet, and in a smaller role, future queen of American direct-to-video fare Sybil Danning, no stranger to Italian movies but surprisingly light on giallo credits (her only other one was Eye in the Labyrinth, also 1972). Bouchet and Malfatti play sisters Kitty and Franziska Wildenbrück, doomed to be in one of those family’s that carries the burden of a terrible curse, the kind of nightmare story that, in these films, is usually jovially relayed to a small child by some cackling old relative. The legend is about two sisters, known as the Black and Red Queens, who hated each other so intensely that the Black Queen murdered the Red. Things like this being what they are, the red queen would then return every one hundred years to wreak her vengeance from beyond the grave my murdering seven members of the family or, if they aren’t handy, whoever else happens to be around. As the film begins, guess how long it’s been since the lat reported visit from the Red Queen?
Because no family living in a sprawling Gothic mansion can settle for just one horrible family curse and/or secret, the Wildenbrücks have been carting around another in reserve. Young Kitty, tormented endlessly by her abusive sister Evelyn (Emilio P. Miraglia really likes that name), got into a fight with her that resulted in Evelyn falling off a walkway, bashing her head against a rock, and dying. It was an accident, but Kitty is distraught, and rather than go to the police, Franziska helps Kitty hide the body, clean up the blood, and concoct a story about their sister jetting off to America to live the wild life. Amazingly, it works, but Kitty has been left with a crippling guilt for years which bubbles back to the surface when their father is murdered — by a mysterious woman in red, no less — and the will stipulates that the inheritance can be doled out only if all three sisters are present. The obstacle of getting in touch with their sister in America who is actually a mummy in the cellars is challenging enough for the sisters. But things get worse when it appears that the Red Queen has once again manifested and started murdering people — and that the Queen may very well be Evelyn, despite the verified presence of her corpse in the dungeon.
Just as it flirts with the Gothic, so too does The Red Queen Kills Seven Times flirt with the supernatural, something Miraglia also did in Evelyn, when a dead woman was once again apparently out and about and murdering people. Despite their common threads, Red Queen and Evelyn are different in just as many ways as they are similar. First, where as Evelyn was a dark, brooding film set mostly at night and in the confines of a crumbling castle, Red Queen is bright, takes place mostly during the daytime, and interacts much more with the modern world, giving it a more stylish, cosmopolitan, and giallo atmosphere. Barbara Bouchet’s Kitty works at a fashion magazine, as about 80% of all people in gialli seem to, so there is a much more modern feel to the film, where as Evelyn was set in the 1970s but could, with minimal tweaks, also be set in the 1870s, as it deals primarily with isolated locations and gatherings of the idle rich. Finally, the biggest difference between the two is that Evelyn asks us to root for and sympathize with a serial killer who himself becomes prey, while Red Queen gives us a much more agreeable protagonist in Barbara Bouchet. Kitty might have killed her sister (might have), but it was an accident, and even covering it up seems a pretty mild crime compared to torturing and slicing up prostitutes.
A more relatable lead makes for a more relatable (relatively speaking, mind you) and thus more enjoyable movie, and Red Queen is enjoyable despite how incredibly, at times ludicrously, convoluted it becomes. No plot twist comes without itself being twisted, and secrets are piled up so high that the whole thing threatens to collapse under their weight. The fact that a possible supernatural and/or back from the grave killer is on the loose is secondary to the fact that everyone is sneaking around, being suspicious, scheming, and generally behaving in some sinister way. Kitty, who may or may not herself be a murderer, is the innocent compared to those around her, doing her best to navigate a pit of vipers, blackmailers, and murderous ghosts in striking red capes. Barbara Bouchet goes through the film with the same look of bewildered shock that the viewer has, as perplexed by the plot as any of us. She, like us, can’t believe that a relatively straight-forward story becomes this confusing, as everyone revealed to be something weren’t thought to be is then further revealed to be something else they weren’t thought to be. In the end, it’s really only the final revelation that ends up being confusing, though one has felt off-balance for much of the film. It creates a sense of delirium, and much of the film’s effectiveness is generated by the frustration that something so simple should be so difficult to penetrate.
Part of the fun of watching gialli is getting utterly lost in the often needlessly convoluted, labyrinthine twists of the plot, sometimes becoming so hopelessly disoriented that one simply has to throw up one’s hands and surrender tot he madness, trusting that the lurid displays of sex, violence, and style will see you through to the end. Peel away the layers and the fractured narrative structures and the obfuscation, and the stories are usually pretty straight-forward tales relayed in a purposefully disorienting fashion meant to alienate, to some degree, the viewer, or at least keep them not so much guessing at the identity of a killer — the revelation of which is often to big shock in a giallo — but to simply keep them off-balance and unnerved, a reflection of the mental state of most gialli protagonists. Which is to say, if you find The Red Queen Kills Seven Times has an impenetrable plot that is, nevertheless, simple at its core, don’t worry. Just come along for the ride, and you can puzzle it all out, if you feel the need to make sense of it, at the end.
It’s nice seeing Bouchet and Marina Malfatti carrying the film. Gialli, like their descendants the slasher films with their “final girls,” have a curious relationship with women. It’s almost always women who exist under the threat of constant violence (though, to be sure, a few unlucky men will fall victim as well) and who are the focus of a leering camera that revels in their gratuitous nudity; but they are also often the ones to shoulder the film’s central mystery, to see things through to the final showdown with whoever the killer end sup being, even if a man shows up at the last second to flex a little muscle and dump someone down a stairwell or off the side of a building, a few of the more popular ways to dispatch a giallo killer. Born Barbara Gutscher in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1944, the girl who eventually grew up to be Barbara Bouchet and her family immigrated after the war to California. As a teenager, she got a gig as a dancer on a San Francisco “top of the pops” type show, and eventually transitioned into modeling and, ultimately acting.
Despite some roles in high-profile films, including the role of Miss Moneypenny in the farcical 1967 James Bond send-up Casino Royale, Bouchet couldn’t catch a break, so like many Hollywood actors in a similar situation, she sought greener pastures in Italy. She found them, and her “anything goes” attitude and energy made her a genre staple throughout the 1970s. Henry Silva, in particular, who shared some grim, harrowing scenes with Bouchet in the 1974 Eurocrime film Cry of a Prostitute, still praises her gung-ho attitude. Marina Malfatti was not as high-profile an Italian cult cinema figure as Barbara Bouchet (who, along with Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri, belongs on some sort of Mt. Rushmore). she split her time between the stage and the screen, and always considered life theater her true calling. Still, that didn’t stop her from appearing in some fun genre fare, including Red Queen, Evelyn, All the Colors of the Dark, and Umberto Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids. Ethereal where Bouchet was down to earth, reserved where Bouchet was emotional, the two work well together.
The real star here, as is often the case with giallo, is the cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli. There are some gorgeous, haunting shots, and he knows how to make not-so-subtle splashes of color pop. This is one, of his first films, if not the first, and he didn’t go on to work in many films of great acclaim, which is too bad. His camera drifts effortlessly between the foreboding Gothic setting of the Wildenbrück estate and the pop-art modernism of assorted apartments and fashion shoots, somehow making the two disparate seeming styles click together. Director Emilio Miraglia had a similarly short, low profile career. There’s a great deal of growth as a director between Evelyn and Red Queen, but he only had one more film in him after this, the spaghetti western Joe Dakota starring genre titan Richard Harrison. Evelyn is interesting despite its faults, and Red Queen goes a long way to rectifying the mistakes made on his previous films. It would have been interesting to see where he went within the world of giallo had he stuck around, but sadly that wasn’t to be. At least the two he left us are both unique and, in the case of Red Queen anyway, pretty good.
Cast: Barbara Bouchet, Ugo Pagliai, Marina Malfatti, Marino Masé, Pia Giancaro, Sybil Danning, Nino Korda, Fabrizio Moresco, Rudolf Schündler, Maria Antonietta Guido, Carla Mancini, Bruno Bertocci.
Director: Emilio P. Miraglia.
Screenplay: Fabio Pittorru, Emilio Miraglia.
Cinematography: Alberto Spagnoli.
Music: Bruno Nicolai.
Original Title: La dama rossa uccide sette volte
Availability: Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia (4-Disc Special Limited Edition) [Blu-ray + DVD]