Tom and Jenny’s week at the movies included the intriguingly bizarre, arty remake of Suspiria; the feel-good Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody; and the rather meh Disney fantasy, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
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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!
Holy shit, you guys, I just realized that the last time I posted one of my long-form horror movie breakdowns was back in goddamn NOVEMBER (it was an appreciation of the British made-for-TV classic Ghostwatch, if you’re interested), so I felt the need to remedy that situation with a quickness. The reason I haven’t posted as many is because I’ve been working on the weekly 13 O’Clock podcast as well as finishing up my new book, The Unseen Hand, which I’m happy to announce is now available in print and ebook formats, with the audio version coming very soon!
Anyway, I’ve got a double dose of giallo goodness for you today, since I’ve been researching an upcoming podcast episode on giallo films and have been spending some time revisiting some old favorites as well as watching some lesser-known examples of the genre. First in the lineup is The Bloodstained Shadow from 1978, known in Italy as Solamente nero and also released under the title Only Blackness. Directed by Antonio Bido and featuring Stefania Casini (of Suspiriafame) in a prominent role, this one didn’t knock me out with awesomeness, but it was still an enjoyable, if fairly derivative, slice of bloody giallo fun.
In many ways, The Bloodstained Shadow, with its focus on the church, its use of a strange painting as one of the key plot points, and the appearance of Lino Capolicchio playing a protagonist named Stefano recalls Pupi Avati’s fantastic House with the Laughing Windows (which I wrote about here). Its Venetian locations and the featuring of a creepy psychic also give it a passing whiff of Nicolas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now (which I wrote about here).
In brief, Stefano travels to the Venetian island of Murano to visit his brother, a Catholic priest named Don Paolo. Almost as soon as he arrives, he discovers that something odd is afoot; the aforementioned psychic seems to creep his brother out for some reason, a wealthy pedophile is molesting children left and right, and Stefano starts having flashbacks of a screaming little boy that seems to be somehow tied in with the murder of a schoolgirl that took place on the island years before.
There is also the matter of a murder in the town square that Don Paolo witnesses; the victim turns out to be the psychic, whose séances were notorious for attracting all of the town’s most reviled residents and who Don Paolo had actively campaigned against. Don Paolo begins receiving threatening, typewritten messages, presumably from the killer, and Stefano teams up with his brother and his new lady-friend to try to get to the bottom of the mystery.
As I said, this one wasn’t super memorable, but it was a satisfying, workmanlike giallo that hit all the correct beats. There were lots of plot twists, some gory murders, and several red herrings to lead viewers in the wrong direction (though I have to admit I figured out who the killer was before the end). Recommended for fans of the genre who haven‘t seen it, but for neophytes I’d suggest House with the Laughing Windows before this one.
Next up is the 1974 Francesco Barilli film, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, starring Mimsy Farmer. I hesitate to even call this movie a giallo; a couple of the elements are there, and it’s usually listed as one, but to be honest it’s more a straight-up psychological horror film, obviously very heavily influenced by Roman Polanski, particularly Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. The movie as a whole is intensely dreamlike, and even after watching it, you’re really not sure how much of what you saw unfolding on screen actually took place and how much was the fantasy of the main character.
In fact, if you come into Perfume expecting the requisite steady murder count of the standard giallo, then you’re going to be disappointed; there are almost no deaths and no gore until the end, and even the bizarre final scenes leave more questions than answers. This film is much more like the creepy slow burn of a good ghost story, or like the unsettling, atmospheric weirdness of Polanski’s The Tenant: nothing is as it seems, everyone seems shifty and sinister and out to get the protagonist for some reason, and the movie goes on quite a long time without really revealing what the hell is going on and why all these strange things are happening.
Mimsy Farmer plays Silvia, a chemist whose dedication to her work causes tension with her jackwad boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglia), who doesn’t understand why Silvia can’t just blow off her job to go play tennis with him and who wiggles his ass in the most disturbing way when he has sex with her. After an argument, Silvia seeks to make amends by bringing Roberto a present of a mounted butterfly (which he collects), but when she gets to his house, it looks like he isn’t there, and she sees what seems to be the ghost of a woman in a black and white dress in a mirror in Roberto’s bedroom.
From here on out, the viewer is taken on a strange ride, as weird shit starts happening all around Silvia: people on the street eye her suspiciously, she sleeps through an entire day without knowing why, a tennis racket she grabs has a nail in the handle that slices her palm and her tennis partner drinks the blood from it with a bit too much enjoyment, a treasured photo she takes to have reframed mysteriously gets stolen, a bratty little girl in a white dress turns up in her apartment and refuses to leave.
As the movie goes on, the strange events escalate, and we’re led to believe that Silvia has become the target of a vast, black magic conspiracy that seemingly includes everyone she knows, including her boyfriend, her best friend Francesca, and everyone in her building, and appears to be engineered by a mysterious African professor who is friends with Roberto. Are all these people trying to drive Silvia mad? If so, why? Or is she simply losing her mind of her own accord? Flashbacks of her possible past may provide the solution, but it’s still far from straightforward how much of the plot takes place in Silvia’s imagination; in this aspect, the many references in the film to Alice In Wonderland make total sense.
I actually really dug this one, though as I said, don’t go into it expecting a textbook giallo, because it really doesn’t have many giallo elements at all, other than the mystery angle. It’s also pretty slow-moving, which I quite liked, but I can see how the pace might be too leisurely for some. I think it did a great job of building tension slowly, of unraveling Silvia’s sanity at a measured, surreal pace, and it had some really great, eerie moments and unsettling shots that were pleasingly disorienting. Recommended less for giallo fans and more for Polanski aficionados and those who like their horror with a sense of subtle unease.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
Witches are badass, let’s just agree on that right out of the gate. Especially the old, scary, haggy ones that mix potions by moonlight and smooch the devil’s butt and turn people into toads and shit. They are the ultimate expression of unlimited female power, a fantasy representation of the point at which a woman no longer gives a fuck, refuses to put up with anyone’s crap, and decides to just plague her enemies with suppurating boils. Despite witches’ obvious excellence, however, I feel as though they’re a sort of under-utilized baddie in recent horror movies. I briefly survey the horror landscape and see it littered with countless shambling zombies, vampires both sparkly and otherwise, and big bad werewolves, but witches…not so much, especially if you’re discounting “sexy” witches and Wiccans, which I am because they aren’t scary. I was actually so distraught by the lack of old-school witchy shenanigans in recent horror that I decided to make a small, insignificant contribution toward their little image problem by writing a novel called Red Menace (out October 1st) that features some of that wicked witchcraft that I love so much and never see enough of. There are withered old crones! Spells! Glamours! Also, some serial murder, if you’re into that! Okay, plug over, let’s get on with today’s scene!
Let’s talk about Dario “Italian Hitchcock” Argento, shall we? Specifically, let’s talk about him when he was still collaborating with Daria Nicolodi and making beautiful, surreal, violent, and kick-ass horror and giallo films, and let’s not talk about his more recent output because it just makes me sad (do not think of The Card Player, repeat, DO NOT THINK OF THE CARD PLAYER). Back in that mythical time known as “the day,” Argento couldn’t put a foot wrong: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Deep Red, Opera, Tenebrae…all fantastic shit. But because I opened with witches, you guys know what movie I’m gonna be talking about, right? Of course you do.
Suspiria (1977) was the first film in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, loosely based upon Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis. The other two films were the excellent Inferno (1980) and the massively disappointing Mother of Tears (2007). Basically, the mythology behind the trilogy is that of three dreadful witches (Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum) who get up to all sorts of worldwide evil from their bases in Rome, Freiburg, and New York; the films sort of take the mythos in three different directions, though, so they actually stand very well as individual movies. Suspiria is the nightmarish tale of an American ballet student, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) who travels to an elite dance school in Freiburg, Germany and slowly discovers that it’s a front for an evil coven of witches, headed by the terrifying Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs.
First off, I have to say that Suspiria is probably one of the world’s most beautiful films to look at. Argento not only shot the spectacular set in super-saturated hues and utilized special lenses and light filters, but he also used the same unusual Technicolor process that was used for The Wizard of Oz. Every frame of the film is like a strikingly composed light painting of a particularly gruesome fairy tale, with stark shadows and garish shafts of red, blue, green, and yellow light falling across the baroque and hyper-violent murder tableaus. I mean, just check out some of these stills:
I mean, that is so splendid that it’s almost ridiculous. Fun personal fact: in the house I used to live in, I took great care in decorating the whole space in a Suspiria theme. Every room was painted a different, dark, saturated color, and all the doors were painted black with red art-nouveau-style insets, just like in the movie. It looked wicked cool, and even though I had to leave the house behind, I still have fond memories of my one and only attempt at free-reign interior design.
Anyway, on to the scene. There are actually two scenes from Suspiria that are usually called out on various “scariest scene” lists, both of which are suitably amazing. The first is that tense, dynamite opener where Suzy is first arriving at the school in a torrential downpour, intercut with the grisly murder of expelled student Pat Hingle (Eva Axén). The other scene, fittingly, is the closing one, where Suzy finally confronts the ghastly figure of Helena Markos (as well as the reanimated corpse of murdered student Sarah, played by Stefania Casini) and kills her with a beautiful, glass peacock-feather spike. Italian killings are clearly far more elegant and aesthetically pleasing than other kinds of killings, you see.
But true to the spirit of this blog series, I’d like to discuss a lesser-recognized scene that had that subtle, unsettling vibe that I’m so fond of, particularly as it appears in a film as over-the-top operatic as this one. In the scene, the catty ballet students have just been subjected to a literal rain of maggots in their respective quarters, which is probably like the last thing you’d expect to happen at one of the most snooty and elitist ballet schools on the planet. The teachers and staff (read: witches, you guys, they’re all witches) are all like, NBD, there was just some rotten food stored in boxes up in the attic or something, that’s all, and the maggots just squirmed out through the cracks in the ceiling and kinda ruined everyone’s day. It’s all cool, tho.
While the students’ rooms are being de-grubbed, the staff set up an impromptu dorm in the practice hall, with rows and rows of fold-out beds, and the girls and boys separated by high white curtains. All the women are getting into their beds and trying to make the best of things, saying it’ll be just like camp. One of the heads of the academy, the sternly efficient Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett), walks through the dorm to make sure everyone is comfortable. One of the students asks if the teachers will all be sleeping in the dorm too, to which Madame Blanc replies that all of them certainly will be, except for the directress, of course. Then Madame asks if it’s all right if she turns the lights out. She disappears behind one of the curtained walls, and immediately the whole space is plunged into a saturated, blood-red dimness, like a photographic darkroom.
There is some banter and chicanery, as one of the male students climbs up to say hello from the other side of the curtain, and then the students settle into bed and begin gossiping and arguing until one of the girls tells them to put a sock in it so they can all get some sleep. Then there’s a creepy panning shot across the dark red dorm, and on the soundtrack are the eerie sounds of sighs and wails and screams, threaded through an ominous prog-rock beat (provided by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin). We can see shadowed silhouettes of presumed staff members sleeping on the other side of the curtain, filtered through that intense red light. Then we close in on a silhouette of one empty bed. A weird shadow approaches the bed and sits down on it. It appears to be a woman, but something about her is…off. She almost looks bald, for one thing, and as she lies back on the bed, the silhouette of her body through her nightgown looks like a skeleton, almost like an x-ray. The background music gets louder and weirder (and I have to say that I absolutely love Goblin’s score for this film, which actually doesn’t seem as though it would work, but does, beautifully). We see Suzy and Sarah lying in their beds side by side, and behind them is that creepy-ass silhouette on the other side of the curtain. Then we start to hear this weird, rattling wheeze.
Sarah sits up in bed, listening, then whips her head around to look at the silhouette behind them. There’s a shot of Sarah from the other side, as though someone is peeking through the curtain at her. She shakes Suzy and asks if she’s awake. “Do you hear that snoring?” Sarah asks. “It’s weird.” And indeed, it is very weird and intensely unnerving. The chest of the silhouette rises and falls in time with the rasping horror-noise. Sarah gets out of bed and kneels next to Suzy’s bed so she can whisper to her. “They lied to us,” Sarah says. “The directress is here. That’s her, the one who’s snoring.” She points back toward the sheet. “How do you know?” Suzy whispers. “Last year, for a while,” Sarah explains, “I lived in one of the guest rooms. The ones at the top of the stairs. One night, I heard someone come in very late, and get into bed in the room next to mine.” As she’s saying this, in a creepy whisper, she’s looking around the room and Suzy is just staring ahead, wide-eyed and obviously frightened. “And then…I heard this weird…kind of snoring. I tell you it was so weird I never forgot it. Listen! Do you hear that whistle? It’s…exactly…the…same.” Then she says, “The next morning, Madame Blanc told me that the directress had spent a few hours at the school, and had checked in the room next to mine. So you see, I know that’s the directress. She’s here. She’s theeeeeeere,” Sarah hisses, peering over her shoulder at the silhouette. “Right…behind…that…sheet.” And then there is a closeup of the head of the silhouette, and then another creepy wheeze, and then fade to black.
At this point in the film, we only know the directress by reputation, and are not yet really aware that she is indeed the powerful witch Mater Suspiriorum. Even so, you know something is going on with that scary-ass woman behind the sheet, and the scene is perhaps even more affecting, given what we don’t yet know about her. Coming about halfway through the film, it’s a fantastic tension-building scene, laden with mystery and foreboding. Had Argento continued to make movies in this particular and distinctive style, instead of losing his mojo somewhere around 1996, just think of the further masterpieces he could have produced as he grew as an artist. Alas, that’s not how the cauldron bubbled, but at least we’ll always have Suspiria.