Criminal Italian Cinema: All Hail Giallo!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Netflix will take you only so far.
By Eugene S. Robinson
They trip off the tongue so lovingly, the names of the giants of cinema that are holy writ for those who love film: Antonioni, De Sica, Fellini, Visconti. Born in the hothouse bustle of the films they made was an industry whose ground zero was Mussolini’s Cinecittà, what some called Hollywood on the Tiber.
All of which held very little interest for those directors who were resolutely all about giallo.
Called giallo, Italian for “yellow,” since their plot lines clung to the yellow-covered pulp novels of the 1920s and ’30s, it was to films from the so-called golden age of Italian cinema, films ushered in by the greats, what initially Beth B, Jim Jarmusch or Quentin Tarantino was to mainstream Hollywood: a giant stifled yawn.
“What corporate producers of music and film always miss,” says Toni Schifer, a Berlin-based artist and director whose record label Crippled has released lots of giallo music, “is that some of us, lots of us, come for the rough edge, and the not-so-perfect is always going to be cooler and more like life.” An ethos taken to heart most famously by Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Bava’s son, Lamberto, in the films they directed during the giallo heyday, from about 1970 to 1975.
Sometimes called “spaghetti thrillers” by those outside the fence, the half-dozen directors doing giallo got knee-deep not into the stylization of a noir setting but into gruesome bloodletting in the service of mysteries. And not only mysteries but also cop dramas, the supernatural and, in latter-day times, at least for Argento, some of the early significant slasher cinema.
Well acted? Not always. Nor well made, necessarily, but made with a brio evident in titles like Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels, the Sergio Martino–helmed Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Argento’s classic Deep Red. Classic not only because it was a clever nod to the masters — Argento slyly reran Antonioni’s great 1966 flick Blow-Up — but also because Argento used it to lay down markers for all kinds of great giallo. Filmed in Turin due to the high percentage of satanists living there at the time, featuring a jazz to the freaking gills score and starring a smattering of “It” actors, Deep Red was tough, hard to digest and crazy cool to watch.
“There are few films better or more brutal than Deep Red. It’s got everything,” says Filmfax movie critic and best-selling author Bob Calhoun. “Creepy children’s music, creepy art, blood running down knives, elevator decapitations. Argento’s sometimes uneven, and his Dracula is an incalculable disappointment, but Deep Red can’t be beat, and this alone makes giallo, films that are still being made, well worth watching.”
Campy, crazy, cool. Believe it, baby.