Film

Italy’s Fetishistic Giallo Genre Delivers Horror, Pleasure, and Allure

This week, the Quad is screening a series of the blood-spattered, sultry Italian thrillers from the 1960s and ’70s.

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (still courtesy of Arrow Films)

Starting today, July 19, the Quad offers a group of fleshy, blood-splattered thrillers in the series Fresh Meat: Giallo Restorations Part II, just in time for you to strip down bare for the summer heatwave. In Italian, giallo means yellow, and the sultry genre of “giallo” thrillers heralding from 1960s and 70s Italy, takes its title from the covers of paperback pulp fiction thrillers published by Mondadori (which incidentally celebrates 90 years of the series this summer). To Italians, the giallo genre typically refers to almost any mystery detective novel or thriller, ranging from Agatha Christie, to Dario Argento to, flimsy, nearly plot-less endeavors stitching together little more than knives, blood, and nude after nude. But the designation outside of Italy signifies the wave of sizzling thriller/horror films from the post-war heyday. “Too many coincidences, too many dead bodies,” says a character in Andrea Bianchi’s 1975 Strip Nude for Your Killer. Add too many naked bodies and too much leisure, and you have the basic formula for giallo film-making.

Gialli (plural for giallo) conjure up their own unique fetishistic gothic baroque: a sentiment steeped in shadows, bright red blood, leather, fur, well-curated home décor, and a general sense that the dolce vita is what makes this all possible. Almost everyone is classically beautiful, muscular, and posing as such. Men sport gorgeous mustaches. Women wear abundant fabrics and lovely eye makeup. People drink frequently and at all hours to calm their nerves. Truly phenomenal soundtracks by Ennio Morricone, Berto Pisano, Riz Ortolani, and others not only set the scene, but often the entire feeling for the giallo universe, where one certain combination of timbres from a twangy guitar and unidentified wind instrument can effect a unique brew of horror, pleasure, and the allure all at once.

There’s a lot to say about gialli, especially in terms of how their sensibility relates to our own peculiarly baroque moment (excessive in its own consumer-capitalist way, but arguably more puritan). The selection in the Quad’s series gives viewers a taste of several strains of gialli, each worth investigating for its foray into nuances of the genre. Here are some notes on three:

Strip Nude For Your Killer (Andrea Bianchi, 1975) 

Strip Nude For Your Killer (still courtesy of Arrow Films)

If you’re going to do gialli films, you might as well go full-throttle with Strip Nude for Your Killer, an unapologetically exposed melodrama crafted from voyeuristic delights. There are beautiful bodies aplenty, lesbian pimps, eerie faucet drips, and leather-clad killers in the most literal sense. But beyond that, there’s a brilliant scene in which an exquisitely overweight man attempts to force one of his wife’s employees (and lovers) into having sex only to break down into tears and ask for his momma, saying he’s never been able to do it. Inside a genre in which men easily and unrelentingly prey upon women, this scene seems exceptionally insightful in its barefaced criticism of masculinity. “I can only do it with you,” he says minutes later to a blow-up doll he pulls from a chest of drawers. And how perfectly equalizing that we should see both the luscious pin-up model and the cuckolded, tighty-whitey-clad husband killed in the same manner. Incidentally, someone should brand a tube of red paint named after the blood in this film.

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Luciano Ercoli, 1970)

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (still courtesy of Arrow Films)

In the giallo genre, it’s all in the eyes. Cameras zoom to extreme close-ups of cropped eyes, with lights reflecting off glaring pupils. The eyes are where pleasure starts, as well as the site for accumulating evidence to solve a mystery. Lust, suspicion, fear: they all rest in the eyes. Probing more deeply, the eyes are also a window into the perversions of the mind — where characters drift, alienated from themselves and reality. The eyes often act as the threshold between a character’s version of the truth and an intricate web of deceit spun by a scorned lover. The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion basks in eyes, as its main character Minou (Dagmar Lassander) wanders deeper and deeper into the realm of the unwell (or so she thinks). An overmedicated, whiskey-drenched beauty whose mind drifts from the start, Minou’s mental state is the focus of this psychological thriller. Interestingly, photography and photographers fill giallo films, another obvious connection to the eyes. In Forbidden Photos, the fine line between photographic evidence and what’s acceptable for a lady (or anyone) to be looking at receives special attention as Dominique, Minou’s confidant — a strong, sex-positive female lead played by Nieves Navarro — holds a collection of vaguely pornographic photographs that play a key part in the plot, and which she defiantly tells the police are her business, not the state’s.

The Fifth Chord (Luigi Bazzoni, 1975)

The Fifth Chord (still courtesy of Arrow Films)

While the film savors some of the usual frisky bedroom romps, the overall tone of this later Bazzoni piece is a little more withholding, devoting itself to perversions of space via masterful cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor). The architecture of a post-war, early 1970s city flanks characters. A labyrinth of offices, staircases, office buildings, parking garages, tunnels, and corridors ensnares victims and suspects. Spaces build anxiety by enclosing people and sequestering them. More often than not, the camera displays people through blinds, from behind glass, encased in vehicles or through trees. It’s as if they’ve already been estranged from themselves, caught inside a murderous loop, divorced from oneself and one’s sanity; or caught inside an architectural condition that begets murder and mystery precisely because of the way it rearranges social relations inside a burgeoning capitalist society with an escalating market. More so than other films in the series, The Fifth Chord’s visual tableaus straddle plush gothic bedroom and the austere exteriors of a future-forward country and its cold facades.

What kind of images of ourselves do we create? How do we watch them? Generally speaking, the giallo genre is indulgent, in no way politically correct, flesh-flaunting, and not exactly critical of the relationships it portrays. But beyond the dirty-deeds-done-dirt-cheap draw of these lustrous thrillers, one of the most compelling aspects continues to be the giallo examination of how we watch and what makes us want to watch — how we ornament ourselves, frame ourselves, gaze at our ourselves, and what kinds of facades we strive for. There’s voyeuristic pleasure to watching — watching fear; watching bodies; watching seductions; watching leather-clad killers’ knives stab handsome men and women; watching textiles hang on the body; watching exteriors, from skins to zip-up boots to taxidermy; watching men’s crotches, women’s crotches, groping; Watching the color of Italian liquors, turtles, and high heels. One might argue that in hindsight, their indulgence offers a critique of austerity. Giallo is synonymous with surface. And in surfaces, we traffic.

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