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ALL THE COLOURS OF THE 1970s: PART 1
Following in the footsteps of the great auteur Mario Bava, a new generation of names were to become synonymous with horror, thriller and exploitation cinema. Bava had popularised the rise of psychosexual thrillers in Italy, but it was not until the 1970s that Giallo began to truly take off elsewhere. Ornately-titled productions such as Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) would further explore the themes, tropes and devices that Bava had established, elevating the exploitative base content into artful, stylish cinema.
Indeed, Giallo proved itself a very fluid genre despite its set of rules and tropes. A genre that took inspiration from so many others (expressionism, gothic horror, noir, krimi) could not help but be pulled in several directions by a growing roster of very skilled and creative filmmakers.
Many gialli would become known for their highly stylized and romantic imagery – opulent, ostentatious settings, shining blades and painted nails, killers wearing black gloves, wide-brimmed hats and dark mackintoshes that would look just as at home on a catwalk as in the murderous shadows. Films such as Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) and Giuliano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) were like Italian fashion houses brought to life, using the Italian notion of ‘La Bella Figura’ to add a very attractive aesthetic to these violent thriller stories. Perhaps taking their cues from the literal fashion house of Bava’s earlier Blood and Black Lace (1964), the next wave of directors clearly understood that “Alongside stylish camera work, lavish interiors and effortlessly cool soundtracks, fashion in giallo cinema is integral in giving the genre a distinctive look” (Nisbet, 2015).
But the style went beyond the visual. Giallo content was fuelled by modern sexuality and counterculture, incorporating feminism and an analysis of outdated sexual opinions. Blood and Black Lace, Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and Massimo Dallamano’s What have you done to Solange? (1972) played with the idea of violence as a punishment for beauty, or liberated sexual activity. The (often but not always male) killers represented the old belief that sexual potency should be hidden and women remain obedient and subservient, and the victims were often modern, sexually liberated women, the kind who were battling against outdated opinions in real society the same way they were battling brutal, misogynistic villains at the movies.
The spectacle of female death, and the eroticised female body started to take centre stage in many of the genre’s efforts, clearly influenced by the most lurid of Italian books – the fumetti per adulti (comics for adults, also known as the fumetti neri or black comics) – that had shocked elements of Italian society into calls for heavy censorship. Nevertheless, this element would remain throughout the gialli of early Argento, Fulci and their peers, cementing the cinematic genre in the minds of western audiences – and in many cases these eroticised women were not just the films’ victims, but their heroes. Noted particularly in the works of Sergio Martino, where the female protagonist (more often than not played by Edwige Fenech) and her power relations would become the root of the films’ power.
Luciano Ercoli would take inspiration from the earliest Giallo novels – telling tales of stolen diamonds, blackmail plots, murder most foul and a strong element of dramatic irony of the “he’s behind you!” variety. Ercoli’s films (such as Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, 1971; Death Walks on High Heels, 1971; Death Walks at Midnight, 1972) relied upon a sequence of red herrings and rug-pulls that dared to get convoluting but ultimately provided a satisfying conclusion. They also featured occasional instances of bloody, shocking gore and lots of sex and nudity - though mostly supplied by independent, liberated women, often models or strippers who show no fear of or subservience to their men. Nevertheless, in true exploitation style, Ercoli’s women would strip and make love before being violently killed (with long, lingering takes on the naked female form even during the death sequences) in order to titillate and excite. Ercoli’s films would doubtless inspire the male-on-female violence of the darker corners of Giallo.
Films such as Emilio P Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and Sergio Martino’s All The Colors of the Dark (1972) played up on the gothic horror inspiration that flowed through the earlier work of Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti - period castles, satanic cults, surreal plots and even a hint of the supernatural. Despite dispensing with many of the traditional narrative elements of the genre (such as the gloved killer, the whodunit mystery), these films would retain the modern visual flair, the style and fashion that made Giallo films almost like lurid paintings brought to life.
Elsewhere, the likes of Paolo Cavara, Aldo Lado and Duccio Tessari would give prominence to the mystery and procedural elements of Giallo over the more lurid aspects. The dramatic action of Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) would unfold in a courtroom, with witness testimonies, flashbacks, inserts and peripheral character conversations helping the audience (encouraged to essentially act as the jury) to slowly piece the puzzle together. Tessari’s film would seem more akin to a Hitchcockian suspense or a West German krimi film than a sleazy thriller, as would elements of Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), which presented its audience with a mystery to solve and the great noir trope of an unreliable narrator. Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) would focus on an all too competent detective (Giancarlo Giannini) on the trail of a serial killer, with narrative prominence given to the character of the detective and the disturbing psychological effect the killer’s actions have on the protagonist. Like Tessari and Lado, Cavara focused on crime and procedure, recognising that Gialli came not just from horror, not just from exploitation, but from popular thrillers, film noir and the like.
As the decade progressed, Giallo’s heavy-hitters exhibited a new coda within the genre, and one that would influence the darker, even more exciting Italian genre content which was to come. Giallo films would often feature characters that were (or believed they were) losing their minds.
Films such as Sergio Martino’s All The Colors Of The Dark (1972), Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo (1974) and Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) would feature anguished protagonists as their directors wove fractured narratives and elements of expressionism into their works. The disintegrating structure, disparate and shattered images and off-kilter production design - every aspect of these movies mirrors the mental state of the central character, becoming increasingly incoherent (and terrifying) as the stories progress. This move, which would stupefy and bewilder audiences in equal measure, lent a more unsettling tone to the movies of these auteurs, as they morphed and twisted the form of Giallo into something else entirely and paved the way for the ‘Pure Horror’ movement heralded by directors Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci (and screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti) in the early 1980s.
ON FRIDAY: Ten film recommendations to satisfy even the most ardent Giallo fan’s lust
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Anderson, Kyle (2016) Schlock & Awe: What Have You Done To Solange?
Benbenek, Matthew (2015) 30 Essential Films for an Introduction to Italian Cinema
Dillard, Clayton (2016) Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli
Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2012) Surrealism and Sudden Death in the Films of Lucio Fulci http://filmint.nu/?p=6616
Fischer, Russ (2015) Black Gloves And Knives: 12 Essential Italian Giallo
Gosling, Emily (2016) The original scream queens who gave giallo its feminist edge
Lanzagorta, Marco (2007) The Unseen Masters of Horror
Nisbet, Rachael (2015) Fashion & Italian Horror: The Case of the Bloody Iris 1972
Nobile Jr, Phil (2015) German Krimi Films
Parker-Edmonston, Adam (2014) 10 Essential Dario Argento Films Every Horror Fan Should See
Robak, Ashley (2015) 20 Classic European Horror Films You Must Watch
This week on the Beyond The Void Horror Podcast they take on the Ghosts, Legends or Crime surrounding murders in The Meat Grinder. Several tales that people met their demise in the gears of a machine. LISTEN to it here or Listen/Subscribe on iTunes here.