February is a month for romance, what with Valentine’s Day and all. It’s also usually the iciest and coldest month of the year. So in honor of that duality, we’re dedicating the month (and the next) to the giallo movie, that bizarre mix of violence, horror, crime, and sex perpetrated by and upon people who seem to possess something like human emotions without having actual human emotions.
Judging Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much from its first scene, it would be reasonable to assume one was watching a Fellini movie, or at least a reasonable imitation of Fellini. The opening shot of a TWA plane in flight toward Rome, the bustling capital of high style, suggests the dawn of the age of the jet set, as does the introduction of the film’s main character, stylish but somewhat naive American Nora Davis, who is being pestered by her Lothario seat-mate (while she is trying to read a giallo novel).
When it came time for Mario Bava to turn in his version of a Hitchcock movie, he picked up on that underlying current of malicious giddiness and ratcheted it up. In Blood and Black Lace, Bava is a peasant let loose to demolish a nobleman’s home during the Russian Revolution. There is unbridled celebration in the carnage, but there’s also unsettling tragedy.
In a sense, Antonioni has made a movie about the movie he is making without it being one of those “film within a film” deals, and his final conclusion, if it is indeed a conclusion, is a bit sad. Thomas chases the meaning of the photographs he has taken, but he never gets there. In the end, everything he has done vanishes.
Deadly Sweet might have been inspired by Blow Up, but it lacks that film’s sense of disillusionment. It’s experimental but still commercial. Bleak but still bubbly and colorful. Tinto Brass still seems to think that Swinging London is, you know, swinging. Thus he turns in a decidedly less somber film despite a somewhat downbeat conclusion. It’s often sold as a giallo, but that is really stretching the definition of the genre.
Dario Argento’s first film also works as a convenient place to mark the beginning of what would become known as giallo. It was to giallo what Goldfinger was to the James Bond franchise. Others had come before, but none contained all of the elements that would come to define the genre throughout the 1970s.
Martino’s 1972 giallo All the Colors of the Dark works within the confines of the genre, but it takes the genre further afield than had previously been explored, resulting in a dizzying psychedelic combination of straight-forward stalker/murder mystery, hallucinogenic psycho-sexual exploration, and straight up occult/devil worship horror.
Giallo are often about an amateur sleuth (also almost always a potential victim or suspect, or both) trying to solve some murder case in which they’ve suddenly become entangled. The police, if present at all, are often portrayed as a hostile and incompetent force. The Bloodstained Butterfly takes a different approach, concentrating primarily on police procedure competently executed, courtroom maneuvering, and forensic science.
The joke is often made that giallo are populated by people who are, to put it mildly, not of the best quality. When it comes to truly loathsome characters in a giallo, few can match Giuliano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris, a film in which pretty much everyone is hateful, stupid, or more often, hateful and stupid.
Forbidden Photos concerns itself with only one murder, which might put it at a distance from the giallo genre as a whole. If you are someone who comes to giallo cinema primarily for its stylized violence that will likely be the case. However, if you are someone who is content to bask in the pervading atmosphere of slinky European licentiousness, it should be considered a pleasure not forbidden but prescribed.
Alan is a handsome aristocrat who enjoys velvet jackets, cravats, and murdering strippers. He marries a woman in hopes she will curb his homicidal outbursts, and his creepy estate is soon haunted by the ghost of his former wife. Alan and his new bride struggle to untangle the web of shifty relatives and bloody corpses before they too become victims of the revenant.
Even though it’s poorly written, even though it’s relentlessly tasteless, even though it has very few points you could single out as being good other than Edwige Fenech, and even though it’s packed full of gratuitously seedy garbage, Strip Nude for Your Killer ultimately entertains on that level that might make you feel like you need a shower afterward.
Gaunt, shaggy-haired former James Bond George Lazenby is living in Venice, enjoying a visit from his young daughter when his life is shattered by abduction and murder. Along with his estranged wife, played by Anita Strindberg, they are plunged into a desperate chase to find their daughter and solve a years-old murder connected to their current plight.
The Sound of Murder
At least as important — and sometimes even more so — as the visual style of giallo is the soundtrack. Music for these movies was created by a regular stable of musicians who emerged during the 1960s and ’70s as some of the most talented, inventive, and prolific composers and conductors in the history of film scores. People like Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani, and of course Ennio Morricone created a quirky, unique sound that has become as recognizable as a black-gloved killer in a black trench coat.
It was common for Italian exploitation films to be graced with a soundtrack that was much better than the film surrounding it. Such is the case with Bruno Nicolai’s score for The Case of the Bloody Iris. At best, it’s a middling affair as a film. Nicolai, however, was a consummate professional and, by 1972, a seasoned veteran who knew how to take pride in his work even if it was composed in the service of a bad movie.
Morricone’s score for Aldo Lado’s 1972 giallo Who Saw Her Die? (Chi l’ha vista morire?) is like a children’s church choir gone horribly, disturbingly awry. As accompaniment to a film that stalks the foggy labyrinths of Venice, you couldn’t ask for a more perfectly haunting and off-kilter collection of songs.
Given how closely Morricone and Nicolai collaborated, it’s no surprise that their music has a lot in common. In the end, and despite Morricone’s much deserved reputation, it’s probably Bruno Nicolai who deserves to be crowned king of the giallo soundtrack. He wrote quite a few. Most of them are very good. Many of them are great. All the Colors of the Dark is the best.
The score maintains this blend of offbeat styles that still manage to operate as a cohesive whole, becoming tenser and more threatening as the music (and the film) progresses. It makes perfect sense in a film that is about the unreliable nature of perception and interpretation.