ALL THE COLOURS OF THE 70s: PART 2
In preparation for this series of articles, I watched over 40 Gialli – some already firm favourites of mine, others I had never seen before. While I have always considered myself a fan of Giallo, I soon realised there was much more to this genre than I had ever understood.
Today we walk through ten of my favourite Gialli of the 1970s, one recommendation for each year of the decade (well, almost). The titles have been chosen to shine a light on some of the finest films the yellow genre has to offer, alongside some of its lesser known lights. Each film on this list captivated and educated me in one way or another, and is worth seeking out and viewing.
In addition, I present some notes on why Italian genre cinema in particular has had such difficulties retaining any longevity.
1970 – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento).
The Italian maestro’s directorial debut, widely credited as the film that popularised Giallo. The tale concerns an American writer in Rome who stumbles upon a murder in progress and is powerless to stop it. Haunted by what he saw that night, the protagonist finds himself on the trail of the killer as he desperately tries to unlock the missing piece of his memory from the night of the murder.
The film was widely praised as a high point of Giallo. Even Roger Ebert was a fan, giving the film 3 out of 4 stars and praising how it “works mostly by exploiting our fear of the dark” and marvelled at how engaged audiences would “(lean) forward in their seats and…squinting, as if they could vicariously spot any danger to the hero. That’s what thrillers are all about, of course, and that’s why this one works.”
1971 – Black Belly of the Tarantula (Paolo Cavara)
A killer paralyzes his victims with needles dipped in deadly venom then slices open their bellies in one of the finest Gialli ever made.
A succession of beautiful women, all patrons of an upmarket health spa, are picked up one by one by a sadistic killer wearing rubber gloves. The killer inserts a needle into their neck, leaving them paralyzed but still alive and aware as he slices open their abdomens. These actions mirror those of a certain type of wasp - the only natural predator of the tarantula, it paralyzes the spider with its poison before planting its eggs in the still-alive arachnid’s belly, so that its larvae can feast upon their new host.
The detective charged with bringing the killer to justice is appalled by the killer’s violent crimes, and the film becomes as much about the reluctant hero’s journey as it is the naked flesh and body count. A superb production with a mix of murder, action and intrigue, this film will delight horror and thriller fans alike.
1972 – Don’t Torture A Duckling (Lucio Fulci)
An early Giallo from the Godfather of Gore, and one that shows Fulci’s inventiveness as he disassembles the coda of the Giallo to present a very original take on the Italian murder mystery.
Fulci’s movie abandons the expressionist nightmare of the urban city in favour of a rural setting, and uses the murder of a child to set off a number of socio-political narrative charges. In switching up the setting, Fulci essentially creates the rural giallo and imbues it with its own coda - his is a movie of small-town moral outrage, of corruptible faith and a very cynical view of Italy’s most revered and powerful institutions. That the director is not afraid to take broad swipes at targets many Italian directors would shy away from establishes Fulci as an enfant terrible of Italian cinema – his narrative hits upon a number of raw nerves and very human fears to create a Giallo that feels gritty and authentic, yet still manages all the chills and gore set-pieces that his later horror cycles would rely upon.
1973 – Torso (Sergio Martino)
Also known as ‘The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence’ this bloody thriller comes from the fourth of Giallo’s ‘big four’ directors (who never seems to be celebrated in the same way as Bava, Argento and Fulci, despite being perhaps the most consistent contributor to this genre).
Torso bears many hallmarks later used in slasher movies, such as its college setting, co-ed victims and violent murder as penance for sexual activity. Developing the cues originally established in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), Torso is a tale of sexual potency nullified by death - coined as “the ruination of beauty”, the women’s deaths serve as an embodiment of sexual guilt. The film further conflates art, sex and death, and predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by introducing the ‘Final Girl’ trope.
1974 – Puzzle (Duccio Tessari)
One of Giallo’s lesser known gems, this fun film about an amnesiac in jeopardy allows the audience to put the pieces of the puzzle together alongside the protagonist.
Tessari’s second and final Giallo (after 1971’s The Bloodstained Butterfly) is a mystery that plays with themes of memory loss - popular in Giallo since The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and a familiar trope in modern thrillers such as Memento (2000, dir Christopher Nolan) and Sleepless (2001, Dario Argento). Like all effective memory-loss thrillers, Puzzle lets the audience experience the narrative vicariously through the protagonist. There is no dramatic irony here – we know only what Luc Merenda’s Peter/Ted knows, and the narrative is a slow burn, character-led affair. Very different to what the casual fan of Giallo is used to, but a very effective mystery thriller nonetheless.
1975 – Deep Red (Dario Argento)
A masterpiece of a movie by Giallo’s heaviest hitter, this sees Argento setting up elements that would come to define the most successful period of the director’s career. Following the murder of a medium, music teacher Marcus (David Hemmings) soon attracts the attention of the killer as he attempts to recover the medium’s missing painting…
This movie is widely considered to be the peak of Giallo. Argento uses the existing conventions of the genre and builds upon them all to ramp up the fright and tension. A constantly moving camera keeps us permanently on edge; the use of lullabies and childhood toys to instil paralyzing fear is a genius move; the deaths are orchestrated in such a way that we could imagine any one of them happening to us. These aspects serve to bring the audience closer to the movie (and the danger) and create a spectacle of genuine, authentic terror. All of this is delivered using Argento’s sublime cinematic style (including some of the distinct abstract colour and set design used to defamiliarize and disconcert the audience, put to even greater use in his 1977 masterpiece Suspiria) to make a true genre classic. An absolute must-see.
1976 – The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati)
After Fulci’s 1972 masterpiece, another rural Giallo – this time about a sleepy community once terrorized by an insane artist, and new murders begin when a visiting man begins restoration on one of the artist’s works.
This movie is one of Giallo’s lesser known gems, despite being championed in the modern day by American directors such as Eli Roth. Like Fulci before him, Pupi Avati opts for a rural setting, eschewing some of the traditional motifs to add to the coda of what would become a recognized sub-genre of Giallo. Not unlike Martino’s All The Colors of the Dark, Windows straddles (and at times crosses) the line between Giallo and Horror, recognising the importance of the horror content in Giallo and playing it up to magnificent effect.
The film has an incredible atmosphere, largely thanks to Avati’s ability to defamiliarize the audience – everything about the movie is strange, incongruous, at odds with what we know and trust. It is a film full of cinematic enigmas. From the outset Avati and his cameraman Pasquale Rachini combine unfamiliar angles and framing with desaturated colours and slow motion action to present truly disconcerting set pieces such as a brutal torture scene, overlaid with the recitation of a macabre poem. Like Martino’s Torso, Avati conflates art with murder, as the deaths are inextricably linked to a Church fresco, and the film holds it most important cards very close to its chest until the final moments, which makes for a shocking and satisfying conclusion.
The House with Laughing Windows is an exercise in discombobulation. Avati’s mastery of cinematic language ensures the viewer is in the palm of his hand throughout. A truly nerve-rattling movie with chills to rival any traditional horror film.
1977 – Seven Notes in Black (Lucio Fulci)
AKA The Psychic. A tale in which a woman has psychic visions of a murder apparently committed by her husband.
A bright red room; a shattered mirror; a taxicab; the corpse of an elderly woman – Fulci’s movie begins with a macabre psychic vision shattered into obfuscating jigsaw pieces. Once again, Fulci shows his desire to be playful with the conventions of Giallo. Absent is the gore, the fetishistic violence upon women, the nudity and sexuality. In their place, he simply presents us with the mystery…although one not as easily solved as it first appears. Aided by a masterful script from Dardano Sacchetti (their first occasion of working together, the beginning of a partnership that would produce some of Fulci’s finest, most ambitious movies) Fulci explores every piece of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle, finding first the corners, the edges and then the interlocking and tessellating pieces that reveal the final details of the mystery. He does so with masterful strokes – relying on atmosphere and storytelling to bring all the elements together.
This stylish and captivating thriller is a near-perfect mystery movie, marrying the technical skill and genre-hopping savvy of Fulci with the abstract, expressionistic narrative ideas of Sacchetti to great effect.
1978 – Red Rings of Fear (Alberto Negrin)
An Italian/Spanish/German coproduction that deals with the aftermath of a brutal sexual assault and murder, and the lengths people will go to, to protect their name.
After the body of a murdered teenage girl is found wrapped in plastic, a detective (genre regular Fabio Testi) investigating the murder begins to focus his suspicions on the three girlfriends of the victim, who call themselves "The Inseparables." Testi’s detective uncovers a dark underbelly of vice at the school, and finds himself adopting immoral methods to solve the murder and protect the schoolgirls.
A familiar theme, already explored to great effect in Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done To Solange (1972) and What Have They Done to Your Daughters (1974). Negrin’s film takes the premise and ups the sleaze factor considerably. The film is set in a girl’s school where the pupils get naked at every opportunity, and there is more than a hint of questionable sexual activity. One particular sequence, intercutting between and orgy and an abortion, is presented in particularly bad taste and is perhaps an ominous omen – by this end of the decade, the Giallo’s popularity was waning, leading some directors to push further into exploitation to titillate audiences.
Despite this, the film’s mystery remains front and centre and unfolds in a satisfying way, and Negrin uses lots of classic Giallo elements to good effect. It has plenty of shocks and thrills and is an entertaining watch from the sleazier end of the spectrum.
1979 – no recommendation, but a note on the decline of Giallo and Italian cinema’s Sfruttamento (Exploitation) environment.
Italian movies, particularly genre fare, did not traditionally perform well on home soil, where UK & US productions competed with films from elsewhere in Europe for moviegoers’ attention and money. It was therefore essential that the Giallo perform on the wider stage, and by the end of the decade this was proving to no longer be the case.
Sex comedies and crime dramas remained popular in the Italian domestic market and Giallo’s directors and stars would soon be seen in Poliziotteschi and Commedia sexy all’Italiana productions. In the US and UK, gialli would be sidelined by the simpler, more formulaic conventions of Zombie movies, the Slasher and the exploitative sex and splatter of Video Nasties. Many Italian directors had already jumped ship to work in schlocky horror, and those without access to the UK and US markets would find themselves having to adapt to the changing tastes at home.
A cursory glance at the recent history of Italian cinema should remove any surprise at this turn of events. Since the US success of Pietro Francisci’s Le Fatiche di Ercole/Hercules (1958), picked up and distributed by Joseph Levine’s Embassy Picture Corporation with a dubbed soundtrack and extensive marketing campaign, Italian genre cinema would largely become an export market. Italian films would be pre-acquired by marginal US distribution companies (those working in the drive in market, or in local fleapit theatres) at a flat rate. This meant that Italian genre cinema was guaranteed a run in a larger market, but it also meant that Italian cinema had no control over its own product – the US distributors that had funded them would make any and all decisions as to when, where and how frequently Italian films would be screened.
From then onwards, Italian genre directors had become used to relying on these conditions, which were both tremendously restrictive and incredibly liberating. Directors used the distribution advances to fund production, tight schedules and budgets which would often be very visible in the final on-screen product, and a desire to appeal to foreign markets which led to the incorporation of western actors, settings and motifs. Horror films fared particularly badly at the Italian Box Office (where, unlike the UK and US, there was no history of horror or of gothic literature, therefore no culture to receive them), but the likes of AIP were working to fill as many drive in schedules as they possibly could, meaning providing content for double and even triple features. Cheap foreign genre imports therefore became very important, as they could open for the company’s own productions and ensure the drive in theatres had enough content to boost attendance and satisfy their young audiences.
Italian cinema therefore became the first truly ‘exploitative’ cinema. The country sought to exploit both itself and the already successful movies of the US, creating films that could pass as American productions, and that could tap into the existing audiences of western cinematic successes. Thus Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster Jaws and George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead (Zombi in the Italian market) would inspire a raft of locally produced ‘sequels’ (such as Lucio Fulci’s 1979 Zombi 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters and Enzo Castellari’s L’ultimo squalo/Great White, 1980) made purely to keep those quick bucks rolling in.
This would continue in the 1980s, with the likes of George Miller’s Mad Max and Walter Hill’s The Warriors (both 1979) ‘inspiring’ Italian productions such as 1990: Bronx Warriors (1982, dir Enzo G Castellari) and 2019: After The Fall of New York (1983, dir Sergio Martino), while Sam Raimi’s low budget classics Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 would be released as La Casa and La Casa 2 in Italy, and quickly followed up by Umberto Lenzi with La Casa 3 / Ghost House (1988). These movies were put into production and turned around quickly, in order to benefit by association with already successful foreign properties.
This potted history of Italian genre cinema serves as an explanation for why, going right back to Mario Bava and Antonio Margheriti, the country’s horror and giallo directors were genre hoppers, dabbling in comedy, drama, family, western and erotic movies. In between distribution advances from US producers, directors had to remain in gainful employment and put food on their tables, so would work in whatever genre would assure them a paycheck. More than ever in cinema, auteur/audience relationships depended upon fragile distribution networks both at home and abroad, so it is all too understandable that Giallo had all but died out by the end of the 1970s. As popularity waned at home, those directors without access to US distribution sources would have little option other than to work in whatever genres could secure a production budget in Italy.
This leaves 1979 as a slim pickings year for the yellow genre. Films branded with the tag, such as Sergio Corbucci’s Giallo Napoletano, Mario Landi’s Giallo a Venezia and Mario Gariazzo’s Play Motel were either outright comedy, or essentially sleaze with a few trace Giallo elements to distinguish them from softcore pornography. There may be others I am unaware of, so if any readers would like to offer recommendations please do so.
The Giallo would rise again in the 1980s, as genre heavyweights Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, alongside newcomers such as Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava and Michele Soavi exploited the popularity of the Slasher subgenre in the US (which, as already established, Giallo had played its part in the creation of). Films such as A Blade in the Dark, Tenebrae and The New York Ripper would present a meaner, more violent arm of Giallo for a new decade.
1970 – In the Folds of the Flesh (Sergio Bergonzelli)
Plucked from the vaults of genre obscurity, I stumbled upon this curious little film accidentally and have been unable to forget about it - so of course I have to share!
From the farthest fringe of Giallo comes this bizarre offering by writer/director Sergio Bergonzelli (co-written with Fabio De Agostini). This psychedelic offering is Giallo in the loosest possible sense - as it does have a whodunit mystery at the centre of the story, conflates sex and death, and oozes lurid style.
The story is hard to summarize, but it is the tale of a family whose members have suffered a deep trauma that has left their psyches fragile if not shattered entirely (as suggested by the kaleidoscope-meets-shattered-glass images that permeate the film). The narrative is cyclical, as a succession of faces from the family’s past return to their house, torment them and are subsequently murdered and disposed of in an acid bath. With each cycle comes a flashback reminder of the deep trauma from the family’s past, and each replay gives a different interpretation of events.
There is an identity puzzle at the heart of this movie, of the sort that populates films like Mulholland Drive (2001, dir David Lynch) and Trance (2013, dir Danny Boyle). Indeed, these more modern thrillers have seen themselves praised for their boundary-pushing narratives, but this Italian curio managed the same feats as Lynch and Boyle’s work, but decades earlier.
Bergonzelli’s direction is sublime, using lots of in-camera effects, unusual angles, filters and techniques to bring surrealist and expressionist touches to the production. The film is bright and lurid and bloody, full of style and sex and death. Not a million miles away from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s gorefests (Blood Feast, Color me Blood Red) it has enough to satisfy gorehounds and splatter fans. The costumes (by designer Giuseppe Cesare Monello) and art production (by Eduardo Torre De La Fuente) is one part Armani, two parts Strawberry Alarm Clock and the blistering score by (Jesus Villa Rojo) adds to the trippy feel.
In short, a psychedelic splatter film but with incest and nazi gas chambers (yes, you read that right). In the Folds of the Flesh is an easy recommendation to make.
NEXT WEEK: All The Colours Of Fenech! A look at two of the finest performances of one of Giallo’s leading female actors – Edwige Fenech.
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Aarontom (2015) Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) (1975)
Anderson, Shaun (2012) Puzzle
Barone, Matt (2017) The 50 Scariest Movies of All Time: 42. The House with Laughing Windows (1976)
Benbenek, Matthew (2015) 30 Essential Films for an Introduction to Italian Cinema
Croce, Fernando F (2009) Torso
Dowd, A A (2013) Don’t Torture a Duckling is an uneven but memorable addition to the giallo canon
Ebert, Roger (1970) Bird With Crystal Plumage
Edwards, Matt (2008) Strip Nude for Your Killer DVD review
Fischer, Russ (2015) Black Gloves And Knives: 12 Essential Italian Giallo
Gonzalez, Ed (2001) Deep Red
Hays, Loron (no date) Enigma Rosso AKA Red Rings of Fear (1978) Blu-ray Review
Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra (2014) A Brutal Nobility: Painting Death in The House with Laughing Windows (Pupis Avati, 1976)
Kerswell, Justin (no date) Slash with panache? Giallo A Venezia (1979, it) aka Thrilling in Venice
Laughlin, Will (no date) Lucio Fulci’s Sette Note in Nero
Nastasi, Alison (2015) The Beyond: Lucio Fulci’s Seven Notes in Black (aka The Psychic)
No name (no date) Strip Nude For Your Killer
Parker-Edmonston, Adam (2014) 10 Essential Dario Argento Films Every Horror Fan Should See
Savlov, Marc (2006) The Black Belly of the Tarantula
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.