Last Thurday my fellow horror fiend Matt hosted Dario Night at his place. This consisted of a lot of snack food and a double bill of Dario Argento movies. Now this was an educational date, as my experience of the godfather of Italian Horror is shaky at best and consists of just three of his films – Phenomena, Two Evil Eyes (segment “The Black Cat”) and perhaps his best known work, Suspiria.
Now my opinion on 1977’s Suspiria is very mixed. On one hand I completely respect his/its vision, the premise and the aesthetic – on the other, I found it repellent, jarring and quite unpleasant. Though now I think this might have been exactly how I was supposed to feel. So to say I am an Argento fan is only partly true – but I knew I wanted to explore more and who better to show me than my horror partner-in-crime?
We watched two of Argento’s best known movies which I’ll go into below. But we began with an intro into Giallo and what that actually means. Again, I only had a vague idea of what it was and only from watching Berberian Sound Studio in which Toby Jones plays a sound engineer in an Italian film studio that produces Giallo movies.
I know, right? For a horror fan I have a lot to learn and you know what? I love that. I love and enjoy this genre – and yet can still learn so much from other horror lovers. There is still masses to explore, so many sub-genres, so many previously overlooked (by me) horror auteurs – I’ll never be done. Thank god!
For the uninitiated, Wiki says this about Giallo:
Giallo (Italian pronunciation: [ˈdʒallo]; plural gialli) is a 20th-century Italian genre of literature and film. Especially outside Italy, giallo refers specifically to a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, exploitation, sexploitation, and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements. In Italy, the term generally denotes thrillers, typically of the crime fiction, mystery, and horror subgenres, regardless of the country of origin.
The term giallo (“yellow”) derives from a series of crime-mystery pulp novels entitled Il Giallo Mondadori (Mondadori Yellow), published by Mondadori from 1929 and taking its name from the trademark yellow cover background. The series consisted almost exclusively of Italian translations of mystery novels by British and American writers. These included Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Edgar Wallace, Ed McBain, Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler.
Sorry not to put the above in my own words but I think Wiki’s got this. So there you have it, a sub-genre of horror with very defined characteristics. Gialli are noted for their exploration of psychological themes such as madness, alienation, sexuality and paranoia. As the page says:
The protagonist is usually a witness to a gruesome crime but frequently finds their testimony subject to skepticism from authority figures, leading to a questioning of their own perception and authority.
And I think the above it one of the reasons I love Giallo so much. One of the most frustrating but also satisfying elements of horror is when the little woman is convinced of something, be it supernatural or whatever – and she’s not believed. Until she’s proven right! This isn’t exclusive to female characters as Argento proves but it’s often brushed off as hysteria, a stereotypical female trait.
You know what else I love? Amateur sleuthing – and I got it x 2 last night – and it was perfect. To the movies!
Deep Red (1975) or Profondo rosso (original title)
A jazz pianist and a wisecracking journalist are pulled into a complex web of mystery after the former witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic.
We begin with the hint of a brutal murder, the camera focused on the legs of a child standing next to a bloody murder weapon on Christmas Day. What’s that all about? In present day, we meet Englishman-in-Italy, Marc Daly (David Hemmings ). Marc is a jazz pianist by night and a would-be detective by day – ever since he witnesses a horrific murder and doesn’t get much sense or assistance from the cops.
Convinced something is not right about the crime scene (a missing painting that he swears down was there when he got there, gone when he left), Marc sets off on a mission of his own – to find out whodunit? Along for the ride is journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), a sassy broad with a tongue to match.
While Marc seems mostly impervious to Gianna’s charms, there is an undeniable chemistry between the odd couple – and I’m gutted there was never a spin-off detective show starring only them. However, during a battle of wits, Marc states that women are
weaker gentler than men and Gianna beats him at arm wrestling – so he vows to go off and solve everything alone, while she can do the same. Which means we’re cheated of a true partnership and that’s my only criticism of this movie honestly.
There are murders aplenty, each one a feat of true imagination and seriously, although we get the Argento signature head through a window death – it’s the slaughter of one of the male characters halfway through the movie that will haunt my dreams for the rest of eternity. And when Marc explores an abandoned (and allegedly) haunted mansion – things get really good.
Will he find out who and why? I will say I spend an awful lot of time falling for every red herring put in my way and was convinced of who the killer was pretty early on – and was completely wrong. This experience was so much fun, I found it genuinely tense and stressful trying to work it all out – and I loved the way it looked. The framing of certain shots is flawless – and there’s a lot of claret flowing (blood) and copious POV shots, which I enjoy immensely.
I definitely recommend this and as an intro to Argento, if like me you’re no pro, I think you can do worse. Maybe don’t start with Suspiria.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Tenebrae (1982) or Tenebre (original title)
An American writer in Rome is stalked by a serial killer bent on harassing him while killing all people associated with his work on his latest book.
Something interesting about Tenebrae: it was on the infamous video nasties list and banned from sale in the UK until 1999. Which is fair play when you consider how gory it is.
It’s also quite unsettling in terms of the male gaze but I understand from my teacher for the evening that this was a conscious clapback by Argento to his haters who accused him of the over-sexualisation of his female characters. Which he is so totally guilty of which is problematic for me. Maybe I’ll save that for another post.
Anyway. Skeezy author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) visits Rome after the publication of his latest bestseller and finds himself being stalked by a killer. The killer is bumping off vicitims associated to the book and to Peter himself in wild and wonderful ways – and mostly beautiful (and near identical) women with questionable moral priorities (lesbians, adulterers, sex workers – you know the drill).
There’s an incredible scene with a dog that really stood out and had me screaming from my seat so I wanted to give snaps for that. Argento can build tension like a pro, there’s no denying it and I really do feel that his movies stand up in that respect. What dates them is the blatant sexism, in both movies each of the male leads have an awful lot to say about traditional gender roles – and that just wouldn’t wash today. You’d hope.
What I liked about Tenebrae was the super-sleuthing, as Neal and his apprentice/assistant Gianni piece together an image of what’s going on. As Neal’s own life is threatened in letters from ‘the killer’, his involvement ramps up – but nothing is as it seems. We also meet lovely Daria Nicolodi again, who plays Anne, Peter Neal’s lover and PA (?). She doesn’t get quite as juicy a part here as in Deep Red but she’s still a joy to behold.
Throughout the movie we’re treated to abstract flashbacks/fantasy segments of a beautiful woman in red stilettos who may or may not be key to the whole plot. Plus there’s a side story involving Neal’s ex-fiance sexy Jane (Veronica Lario) and his agent Bullmer (Nancy’s dad in Nightmare on Elm Street John Saxon). Could this too have more to do with things than we think?
Well, there’s only one way to find out! Just be prepared to enjoy your movie with lashings of blood, boobs and big beautiful eyes.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I had a lot of fun with these movies and still have a considerable Argento catalog to work my way through. Perhaps I’ll share my journey with the group.