13 O’Clock Episode 34 – An Appreciation of the Giallo

A masked, black-gloved killer stalks the streets of Rome, hacking away at underdressed ladies with a flashing, phallic blade. A hapless tourist witnesses one of these murders, but is brushed off by the police, and is forced to try to reveal the killer on her own, before she becomes the next victim.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the most common story arc of the classic Italian thriller/horror genre, the giallo. This distinctive film style has many fascinating aesthetic and narrative flourishes, and is largely responsible for kicking off the American slasher film boom of the 1970s and 1980s. On this episode, Tom and Jenny discuss one of Jenny’s very favorite film styles, giving a history of the genre, a breakdown of the most commonly seen tropes, and opinions about the best giallo films. Sharpen your straight razor and shrug into your black trenchcoat as we take a deep red journey into the lurid, murderous world of the giallo. Bring in the perverts!

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

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To Buy Them Horror Tales, You Gotta Be Nuts: An Appreciation of “The Case of the Bloody Iris”

Happy hangover Sunday, fellow horror hos and bros. I’m dipping back into the giallo well for today’s post, and while our subject today leans slightly more toward erotica than horror, it was still fairly bloody and a lot of fun, so we’re just gonna roll with it. That cool with everybody? Good.

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1972’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (also known by the ridiculously convoluted title Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer?, or Why Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?) was directed by Giuliano Carnimeo under the pseudonym Anthony Ascott. It stars the gorgeous Edwige Fenech, who was in tons of European sex comedies and gialli back in the day, and it also boasts a pretty much nonstop cavalcade of perky, bouncing boobage, if you’re into that kind of thing (and who isn’t?).

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In fairly standard giallo fashion, the plot revolves around a killer with a black trenchcoat and hat, a black mask completely obscuring the face, and a wicked, scalpel-type knife which slices through pretty ladies with deadly efficiency and much spilling of garish crimson tempera paint. There is also the standard parade of red herrings, where almost anyone could be the murderer; is it main character Jennifer’s creepy ex-husband, who wants to draw her back into their nekkid orgy sex-cult days and keeps stalking her, leaving torn-up irises in her path? Is it her new beau/landlord, who has a strange aversion to blood and at one point tells her, “Wait until you find out what a bastard I am”? Is it the über-fey, walking-gay-stereotype photographer, who drinks like Dylan Thomas and has some of the movie’s most hilarious lines? Or how about that lecherous lesbian in the apartment next door? Or the busybody old bat in the building who rants about “whores” and buys piles of horror magazines from the newsstand every morning? Hell, what about the dismissive police inspector who gives more of a shit about collecting rare stamps from the crime scenes than he does actually solving the murders? The finger of suspicion falls on each one of them in turn, and the viewer doesn’t see the killer unmasked until the final five minutes, in what is actually a pretty fantastic, tense scene.

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As I implied earlier, this film is actually more like a mystery/sex farce with horror elements thrown into the mix than it is a traditional horror film. Yes, there are bloody murders aplenty, and there are creepy scenes of the victims being stalked in darkened streets and boiler rooms, but there are also psychedelic montages of the aforementioned nekkid orgies, topless blonde bimbos making light of shocking crimes while covered in soap bubbles, modeling sessions involving strategic body paint, and some good old fashioned erotic nightclub wrestling. There is also some patented early-70s misogyny (purported good guys smacking girls around and everyone being all NBD about it) and homophobia (personified in photographer Arthur, who is the gayest gay who ever gayed), plus a really bizarre, laissez-faire attitude that nearly all of the characters manifest toward the series of murders at the center of the plot. For example, at the beginning of the film, when a nameless call girl is stabbed in the elevator of the apartment building where the bulk of the action takes place, the residents who find her are all, “Eh, she doesn’t live here, so whatevs,” and that includes the first-on-the-scene, exotic dancer Mizar, who sees the bloody dead body and is all, “Huh, shame about that. Well, gotta split, got shit to do. Guess I’ll take the stairs.” Of course, she’s the next one to get offed, but still…kinda odd. Maybe the director was trying to make a statement about the modern world and its uncaring attitude toward others or something. Backing up this hypothesis is the scene where Jennifer’s goofball roommate Marilyn is stabbed to death on a crowded city street, and walks around bleeding and crying for help while pedestrians walk uncaringly around her. So yeah, could be a message there.

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Karma’s a bitch.

This is actually a decent giallo if you’re more into the softcore porn aspects of the genre, and if you don’t mind a copious amount of silliness and overdone seventies stereotypes. It’s a tad slow to get started, but the mystery is intriguing, and it’s unlikely that you’ll guess who the murderer is until the end (or at least I didn’t guess until right before the mask came off, but that might just be because I’m a big dummy). Of course it’s not up there with, say, Deep Red or Blood and Black Lace, but if you’re a giallo fan, it’s a pretty enjoyable little trifle.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

Tomatoes Feel Pain When You Poke Them: An Appreciation of “Short Night of Glass Dolls”

Greetings once again, my creepy companions! If you read my last post on The House with the Laughing Windows, you will perhaps have surmised that I’ve gone off on a bit of a giallo kick lately. Sure, I’ve always been a big fan of the best-known films in the genre, your Argentos and your Bavas, but recently I’ve gotten a bee in my bonnet about writing my own giallo-type story as a lark, and as such I decided to seek out a few of the lesser-known examples of the genre that I hadn’t seen, just to give me some additional inspiration. (And speaking of which, do you guys know about this random giallo generator? Because it is delightful.)

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So today I chose a 1971 film that has appeared on a few lists around the internet as one of the classics, though I admit I had never heard of it before I went hunting around. Originally known as Short Night of the Butterfly (which actually makes more sense to the plot), the film was eventually released under the title Short Night of Glass Dolls (or La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro, if you prefer) due to another movie with “butterfly” in the title being released around the same time. It was the directorial debut of Aldo Lado, who also directed another classic giallo, Who Saw Her Die? (which I might do a post about one of these days).

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In the film, an American journalist named Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) has been covering political unrest in Prague, and is planning to pull some strings to smuggle his smoking hot Czech girlfriend Mira (played by a very young Barbara Bach) out of the country and back to London with him at the end of his assignment. But one night after a party, he is called away on a story tip which turns out to be a distraction, and when he returns to his apartment, he discovers that Mira is missing. The weirdest thing about her disappearance is that she didn’t take her handbag, her passport, or apparently any of her clothes; even the dress she wore to the party is still in the apartment, flung over a chair as if she had just taken it off and then gone parading out into the night stark naked. The remainder of the main plot is Gregory’s investigation into what happened to Mira, which of course involves a bevy of shady characters who either stonewall him completely or mysteriously end up dead shortly after giving him information; police hostility and suspicion about his role in the disappearance; the discovery that Mira’s odd vanishing act isn’t the only such case by a long shot; and troubling hints at some pretty sinister forces lying just beneath the veneer of Prague’s supposedly respectable ruling class.

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I also neglected to mention that this film has an unusual conceit: The entire search for the lost Mira is detailed in flashback, as Gregory lies in a morgue awaiting autopsy. See, at the very beginning of the movie, he is found, apparently dead, in a public park, but a voiceover lets the audience know that he’s actually still very much alive, but frustratingly unable to let anyone else know about his terrifying predicament. The film flips back and forth between the doctors’ fruitless attempts to revive him and his memories of looking for Mira and falling into the big conspiratorial clusterfuck that led him to the sad state of affairs he finds himself in. It’s actually a great plot device, as not only is the viewer intrigued by the mystery of the missing girlfriend, but also held in nail-biting suspense over whether Gregory will be snapped out of his deathlike trance before the autopsy knife ends his life for real.

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Like The House With the Laughing Windows, Short Night of Glass Dolls has a definite political undercurrent, though it is much more overt than the former film, so much so that I would classify it less as an undercurrent and more as a pretty obvious allegory, which is why I believe its original title was more relevant. In the resolution if its mystery, I would actually hazard a guess that it was a precursor and/or inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, as it exposes the perverse and almost vampiric nature of those in society’s top echelons, as they drain the life, both literally and figuratively, from those unfortunate souls beneath them.

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Also like the formerly discussed film, the pace of the movie is rather slow, but there is a much more lurid sexual nature to the crimes than House with the Laughing Windows had. The Prague backdrop is also a highlight, oppressive and beautiful at the same time, which handily ties in with the movie’s themes. In addition, there is some lovely imagery of butterflies and glass chandeliers and those gorgeous baroque interiors that are often a fixture of these movies. I also liked some of the seemingly random, unsettling details, like the scientist who was experimenting on plants and trying to determine if they could feel pain. And as I mentioned before, the suspense throughout the film is fantastically well-done, as the whole story becomes something of an unbearable race against time. And I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it was quite wonderfully cruel and shocking, and something I really didn’t expect. Highly recommended.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

A Brief History of the Giallo Film

Born of the pulp crime novels of the 1930s, the giallo came into its own on screen, culminating in classic films from legendary Italian directors. The original article I wrote can be found here.

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An American writer is walking the streets of Rome one night when he passes an art gallery with enormous glass doors. Peering inside, he is shocked to see a woman struggling with a black-clad figure holding a knife. The writer rushes to help, but when he passes through the first door of the gallery, it closes and locks behind him, while the second glass door before him will not open at all. Trapped in the space between the glass panels, he can only watch in helpless horror as the black-gloved killer plunges the knife into the woman’s body.

This opening scene is taken from an early example of the giallo film genre, Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), which was loosely based on Frederic Brown’s 1950 pulp novel The Screaming Mimi. Giallo as a film style began roughly around 1963; though aspects of the stories and themes emerged from pulp novels, filmmakers were quick to add their own ingredients to the mix.

The Origins of the Giallo

Giallo is the Italian word for yellow, which was the predominant color on the covers of the pulp crime novels published by Mondadori, starting in 1929. Following their success, other publishing houses began getting into the act, starting their own lines of cheap mystery novels with yellow covers. These were so popular during the 1930s that the word ‘giallo’ became synonymous with crime and mystery fiction.

The First Giallo Films

It soon became apparent that the medium of film could be used to add interesting elements to the straightforward crime stories from the novels. Taking several pages from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook and spicing things up with elements of eroticism, horror, and madness, legendary director Mario Bava made what is generally considered the first giallo film, 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The plot revolves around a murder witness who is tormented by an important detail that she can’t quite remember. The following year, Bava followed with the now-classic giallo, Blood and Black Lace (known in Italy as Sei Donne Per L’Assassino, or Six Women for an Assassin), which featured a masked and gloved killer stalking the catty and underdressed models at an upscale fashion house. By this point, the particular tropes of the giallo were becoming de rigueur, and the early 1970s saw a flood of films that displayed variations on the theme.

Conventions of the Giallo Film

Films designated as giallo are usually murder mysteries, but they have many features that distinguish them from straightforward crime stories or police procedurals (which are known in Italy by a different name, Poliziotteschi). First of all, the murders that occur in gialli are often grotesque and horrific, and are filmed in artful, operatic, or even disturbingly erotic ways, with much spilling of blood. The killer in the 1972 film What Have You Done to Solange?, for example, dispatches his usually nude victims by plunging knives into their vaginas.

In addition, the structure of the films is often baroque, and sometimes contains dreamlike imagery. The killer almost always wears black leather gloves and usually a black trenchcoat or raincoat. The weapon of choice is nearly always a shiny and suitably phallic knife. A giallo’s plot often deals with an unlucky person who witnesses a crime and then spends the remainder of the film struggling to remember some aspect of the scene that they have forgotten or cannot make sense of. The psychological motivations of the killer nearly always have to do with madness or revenge triggered by childhood traumas, lending gialli a hint of gothic horror in juxtaposition to the more modern slasher-type violence that is usually featured. Finally, the films generally have a Grand Guignol feel, and tend to have bombastic or unusual film scores containing free jazz or prog-rock, for example.

Examples of the Giallo Genre

Genre pioneer Mario Bava, in addition to his first two gialli, made two other films in this line, 1970’s Five Dolls for an August Moon and the 1971 classic Twitch of the Death Nerve. Dario Argento has returned to giallo perhaps more than any other director, turning out films like The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, 1975), Tenebrae (1982), and Giallo (2010).

Lucio Fulci, a cult figure in America for his grisly zombie films, made movies in nearly every imaginable genre, and giallo was no exception; his psychedelic Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was released in 1971, and was followed by 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, the understated mystery The Psychic (aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, 1977), and 1982’s New York Ripper. Other directors who tried their hand include Umberto Lenzi (Knife of Ice, 1972; Eyeball, 1974), Michele Soavi (Deliria, 1987), and Pupi Avati (The House With Laughing Windows, 1976).

Sources:

Palmerini, Luca M. & Gaetano Mistretta (1996). Spaghetti Nightmares: Italian Fantasy-Horrors As Seen Through the Eyes of Their Protagonists. Fantasma Books. ISBN: 0963498274.

McDonagh, Maitland (1991). Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. Sun Tavern Fields. ISBN: 095170124x