The Art of Fear: What Is Italian Giallo?

Giallo is a genre of horror cinema that appeared in 1960s Italy. These movies centered around stories about masked killers.

Mar 30, 2024By Akram Herrak, MA Cultural Management and Policy, BA English Literature
italian giallo art fear

 

Giallo is a cinematic genre that emerged in 1960s Italy, but to understand its origins, we need to travel back in time. The late 1920s and early 1930s America, the era of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, was also a great time for mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Raymond Chandler. Their works, grim and full of crime, reflected the tumultuous state of American society which was deeply affected by the Depression. In the early 1940s, their works were adapted into film noir pieces. However, their influence on cinema is not limited to Hollywood only.

 

Giallo Mondadori: Murder Mystery Comes to Italy

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The Striking Red Visuals in Blood and Black Lace, 1964. Source: TheMovieDb

 

In 1929 in Italy, a publishing house decided to translate these works and publish them in paperbacks that had a signature yellow cover. The series was named Il Giallo Mondadori—Giallo being the Italian word for yellow and Mondadori the name of the publishing house. These paperbacks proved to be a major success, prompting more publishing houses to jump onto the wagon and print their own versions. As Italian audiences consumed more and more of these yellow paperbacks full of mystery and crime, the word and the color Giallo became almost synonymous with this dark genre. As the years passed, Giallo would come to mean murder mystery for Italians.

 

The period between the 1940s and the 1960s was one of the most important for cinematic art. It consists of what is now known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, where great directors like Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, John Huston, Elia Kazan, and so many others introduced the world to cinematic masterpieces. Around the world, cinema was continuously defining and redefining itself as filmmakers from all corners of the globe had their shot at it. In Italy, the neorealists showed a nation at its lowest. In Japan, film painted heritage, change, and the societal structure of a country in motion. In France, the Nouvelle Vague forever changed what cinema could be.

 

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The Famous Fountain Scene in La Dolce Vita, 1960. Source: TheMovieDb

 

At the beginning of the 1960s, the Hollywood system, dominated by the big studios, began to crumble, making space for independent artists to emerge into the scene. This change influenced the movie-making process in other countries as well. Italy, specifically, had some of its greatest filmmakers in that period: Fellini, Rossellini, and Antonioni were at their prime and pumping out one masterpiece after the other. But in the 1960s, other directors started their careers, and the films they wanted to make were the complete opposite of Bicycle Thief and La Dolce Vita.

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Giallo Emerges

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Poster for Mario Bava’s 1964 film Blood and Black Lace. Source: IMDb

 

Just like with any genre or movement in art, it can be very challenging and often controversial to try to pinpoint exactly just what work is the first of its kind. However, generally, there is one that is agreed to be the first, encompassing all the major elements that would later define a genre. For Giallo, it is Mario Bava’s 1964 film Blood and Black Lace.

 

Its original Italian title Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (Six Women for the Murderer) bears the basis of its plot: in a fashion house, a model is brutally murdered, and as the investigation progresses, more murders occur. The identity of the killer is literally masked as gloves, a mask, and a hat conceal his face. His identity is revealed in the end, bringing closure to the chain of plot twists that the film contains.

 

Perhaps without realizing it, Mario Bava set the standards for an entire genre with this low-budget picture. In Blood and Black Lace, everything Giallo is present. The villain is the masked, gloved killer with minimal screen time and no dialogue for the majority of the film. This grants him a more penetrating sense of danger and a certain mystical nature, which is one of the reasons why the terrible stories of Gialli remain entertaining and never really plunge into anything morbidly real.

 

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Jessica Harper in Suspiria, 1970. Source: TheMovieDb

 

These movies were also shot in an interesting way. Blood and Black Lace, for example, is radiantly colorful, every frame of the film is soaking in color. The camera moves in a very peculiar manner; while it doesn’t exactly put the viewer in the shoes of the criminal, it still feels very perverse and voyeuristic. Its odd low angles, door-framed shots, and long shots make the viewers feel like impotent and helpless spectators as they witness one murder after another. A generous amount of sexual explicitness is present, and in a very morbid manner, one might note, since it is always the victims who are used as erotic material. As the murder is being committed, the killer always reveals the private parts of his victims which adds to the perverse voyeuristic viewing experience of the film.

 

The stories of Giallo are often very simple: a masked murderer causes mayhem in very graphic ways, and at the end of the film, the killer is revealed to be an unsuspected character. Giallo films, favoring style over substance, had very little emphasis on the plot, and attention was subsequently poured into the visuals and style. The chosen color palettes contrast with the dark themes and are amplified by great scores made by Goblin, Ennio Morricone, and Piero Umiliani. These stories often overlapped with other genres or themes, primarily police thrillers, or poliziotteschi as they are known in Italy. Sometimes they included fantastical elements, influenced by authors like Edgar Allan Poe.

 

Suspiria: Dario Argento’s Genre-Defining Film

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A Gruesome Scene in Suspiria, 1977. Source: TheMovieDb

 

The most emblematic film of the genre is Dario Argento’s Suspiria which was released in 1977. This film, which was remade in 2018 by director Luca Guadagnino, is a great starting point for anyone new to Giallo. Jessica Harper stars as Suzy, a new student in a German ballet school. Her arrival coincides with a series of murders in the school, later revealed to be due to terrible secrets that were held within its walls for generations. Blending psychological horror with fantasy elements, Suspiria is a prime example of just how creative Gialli could be.

 

This creativity is not exclusive to its plot. From a visual standpoint, the film is an absolute masterpiece. The opening sequence of the film, featuring Suzy riding a cab to her school during a rainy night, is artistically phenomenal. The contrast between the dark of the night and the red interior of the school, the way the light is cast on her face to display her fear and paranoia, and the movements of the camera that shift between calm and steady to sudden outbursts of speed all give a masterclass in horror filmmaking.

 

Opera: Horror Meets Glam

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A Torture Scene in Opera, 1987. Source: TheMovieDb

 

Dario Argento is one of the great directors of the genre. He directed Inferno (1980), Tenebrae (1982), Deep Red (1975), and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), among other films. In his 1987 Opera, the story unfolds in an opera house when an actress refuses to play what she believes to be a cursed role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She is replaced by another actress, and the chain of murders begins. In Opera, the Glam Rock musical genre follows the story. Giallo film scores vary from jazzy tunes to progressive rock made by the Italian band Goblin, which provided incredible scores to many of Dario Argento’s films.

 

Stagefright: Giallo’s Underrated Gem

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The Masker Killer in StageFright, 1987. Source: TheMovieDb

 

There is much debate as to whether Michele Soavi’s 1987 Stagefright is Giallo or not amongst the fans of the genre. Giallo started in 1960s Italy and its influence is greatly felt in other horror films from around the world, most notably in the American Slasher films of the 1970s. The plot lines, the masked villains, and the creative ways of coming up with horror stories can all be seen in films like Halloween (1978) for example. In movies like this one, every little detail is thought through—for example, the ways in which Michael Myers holds the knife.

 

Stagefright was made after the Golden Period of both Gialli and Slashers. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic example of how the two genres overlap. The story takes place in a theater as a troupe is locked in and subjected to an escaped maniac in an owl mask who haunts them down one by one and murders the actors and the crew members in grotesque and theatrical ways. The ending scene of this film deserves the status of the greatest of the genre, as the killer sits in a chair with his iconic owl mask all bloody, after a long series of brutal murders. This horror movie is a hidden gem that should not be missed.

 

Italy has always been one of the greatest hubs for cinema. Italian authors blessed the world with countless masterpieces. However, Italian horror productions from this era are often neglected compared to film giants like Fellini. Horror movies are often not taken seriously as art forms, but for those of us who are looking for a thrill, there isn’t anything better than the horrifying and colorful stories of Giallo.

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By Akram HerrakMA Cultural Management and Policy, BA English LiteratureAkram Herrak is a writer, musician, and photographer from Casablanca, Morocco. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a Master’s Degree in Cultural Management and Policy. He has been writing about film and literature for the past five years. His work has appeared in High on Films, A Fistful of Film, Independent Book Review, and Reader’s Digest. In his spare time, he plays chess and competes in tournaments.