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Giallo 101: Exploring the genre that shaped Suspiria director Dario Argento

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Oct 30, 2018, 3:30 PM EDT

What is giallo? Is it a genre, a sensibility, a feeling?

Giallo storytelling first sprung to life in 20th century Italy, encapsulating the horror, thriller, and mystery genres into something new and hard to define. Much like noir, giallo is not nearly as cut-and-dry a genre as one might expect; a story featuring a detective trying to solve a crime isn't noir by default and a story about a masked killer stalking women isn't always going to be a giallo.

Still, Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake has the original 1977 film's director, Dario Argento, a master of giallo, on our minds this October.

No, Suspiria isn't really giallo. But much of Argento's earlier, defining work falls into the category. Films such as The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) are hallmarks of the genre, but it's his later film Deep Red (1975) that stands out as one of the most effective entries in the giallo canon.


Credit: Seda Spettacoli

So what is giallo, anyway? The subgenre began in Italy in the 1960s, named for the yellow of pulp paperbacks from which giallo found such influence. It blends elements of horror, thriller, and noir to create a wholly unique and distinct category of film. Giallo often focuses on masked murderers and the men and women who set out to stop them. Gruesome murder sequences and a uniquely bright color scheme set them apart from traditional crime and noir films, as do the overarching themes of eroticism and sexual trauma.

In that respect, giallo films are often far from politically correct. Many, including the aforementioned Deep Red, posit that sexual trauma experienced at a young age can ultimately warp the victim's brain to the point that they become serial killers. The way mental illness and gender fluidity is painted is also often offensive at best and repulsive at worst, with some giallo featuring some of the worst depictions of dissociative identity disorder and gender dysmorphia you're likely to find.

Giallo is very much a product of its time, a genre stemming from both a fear and a misunderstanding of sex, femininity, and gender, as well as the trauma that can come with them. If you're considering diving into the genre it's best to keep that in mind, that today giallo read as beautiful trash more than fine art. That's not to say the construction and artistry behind the films are lacking, mind you. Quite the opposite, really. Many giallo films rank among the greatest suspense and horror movies ever made.

Take Torso, for instance, a legendary favorite of directors like Quentin Tarantino. Torso (1973) is firmly a part of the giallo genre but draws from elements of horror more so than those of suspense or crime noir. It's a notoriously bloody film — no wonder Tarantino's a fan.

You also can't talk about giallo without bringing up Mario Bava's seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964). Bava made a definitive entry in the genre with this 1964 hit about a masked killer hunting and killing fashion models. It's another film that prioritizes the murder and gore of it all over noir-tinged suspense. Bava was on record as finding the whodunnit aspect of giallo played-out and uninteresting. Instead, he put a heavy emphasis on the horror and sex.

Sound like, well, every slasher movie from the 1980s? That's no accident. In addition to defining giallo, Blood and Black Lace is one of the films most influential to the American slasher period. Films such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Prom Night (1980) draw inspiration from this one in addition to borrowing from, say, John Carpenter's Halloween (1978).

Torso movie

Credit: Sergio Martino

Giallo has also been a prominent-enough genre to lend itself to both metatextual criticism and outright parody. The former is heavily present in What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, a 1974 film that blends giallo with the Italian genre of poliziotteschi, which heavily resembles the American genre of police-centric action films. What Have They Done to Your Daughters? has all the trappings of a standard giallo: a masked killer, a subplot involving sex workers, trauma — the whole nine yards. Where it differentiates itself is in how it depicts these tropes. It takes none of the pleasure in its violence like Deep Red and Torso do. Rather, it's a sobering look at the seedier elements of the genre and seems to confront giallo fans. Why do you enjoy watching countless women get brutally murdered by traumatized men? What does this say about us? It doesn't provide any hard answers outside of its protagonists being no less frustrated and heartbroken after solving the case than they were before.

Halloween season is in full swing and with it, horror movies are in heavy rotation for all of us. This year, rather than sticking with your usual Friday the 13th marathon, consider branching out into one of the weirder, wilder corners of cinema. Watching giallo for the first time is like seeing a favorite slasher film told through a new lens, a new perspective. It's worth seeking out, and if you decide you want more, there's an endless library of excellent giallo to feed your newest horror addiction.