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The influence of Giallo on modern female horror directors

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Oct 26, 2018

The horror subgenre known as Giallo was based on the yellow pulp crime books of post-fascist Italy, which in turn morphed into a film genre known for its murder mystery subplots, violent and sexual imagery, and captivating color palettes. In Italy, the term is applied to all murder mysteries, but for American audiences, it refers specifically to films like Blood & Black Lace, All the Colours of the Dark, and Suspiria.

For a time, Giallo movies were immensely popular, and overall they went on to show a surprising amount of influence over the next several decades of horror films. The American slasher film was inspired by Giallo, as were several independent features in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Still, although a fan favorite, and worthy of the lengthy discussion it has received from film critics, Giallo was never a genre without its problems. The depiction of women is not often flattering, and the violence was the most graphic that many audiences had ever seen up to that point. Over time, horror took on a different visual style.

Some directors who took part in helping to create the visual style of the genre are still directing films, but the majority of them have departed from the standard tricks and tropes that defined their previous works to the point of redundancy once other filmmakers began to copy their tactics. In the modern age, there have been several films released that call back visually and thematically to these, many of which have been directed or co-directed by female directors. As with horror overall, Giallo can be problematic, but it has always had debatably feminist overtones to it.

During the peak of Giallo in the early ‘70s, the American film Messiah of Evil utilized the overall vibe of a Giallo film but shaped it into something different. Directed by husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who would later go on to direct Howard the Duck, of all things), this entry had a stark, haunting setting in a particularly desolate part of California. With an obscured, unclear mystery at its center and bizarre scenes of terror like a young woman chased to her death in the middle of the night at a supermarket, it views like Giallo mixed with a low-budget slasher. Although it’s far from a character study, it does have a female protagonist and centers around her quest as she searches for her missing father. When she finds him, she wishes she hadn’t. Messiah of Evil has been called one of the most underrated works of surrealist horror of the ‘70s.

The most prominent director of modern takes on Giallo has actually been two directors, the husband-and-wife team of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Besides co-directing several short films, one of which, O Is for Orgasm, made an appearance in the anthology The ABCs of Death, the couple have three heavily Giallo-inspired films under their collective belt.

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The first full-length film was 2009's Amer, which follows a young woman’s sexual awakening. The story is told in three vignettes. The first shows her as a child, terrified of a faceless entity that haunts her throughout her parents’ home. She witnesses her parents having sex, and we see the metaphorical effect of this on her psyche when she is drenched in water on her bed. Next, she is a teen girl who is chased by a boy and then lusted after by a gang of bikers before her mother sees her and slaps her across the face. Finally, she returns to her childhood home and squares off with a murderer who might just be herself.

Amer is upsetting but equally fascinating, and the surface-value look at its protagonist, while she terrorizes and is terrorized, is riveting. The cinematography and the locations are beautiful, and even its visual excess only goes to define the surrealist mood of the film. The deaths shown are almost entirely male characters, which is rare in horror. In the end, the thing about Amer that is groundbreaking is its perspective. It’s a story that we’ve seen before, but seldom if ever through the eyes of a female character.

In their follow-up film, 2013's The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, the pair tells the story of a man who returns home one night to find his wife missing and goes searching for her, discovering lurid stories and secrets that shock him. Although his wife doesn’t prominently appear as a character, the rumors around her create an intriguing portrait.

The most recent release by the couple, 2017's Let the Corpses Tan, is an adaptation of what would be considered a more spaghetti-western-style story, but as with their other entries, the overriding influence of Giallo defines much of the visuals of the film. In all their shared works, the pair utilize now-obscure soundtrack scores from old films, introducing new audiences to composers who have never fully gotten their due for work on classic horror films.

In one interview, Cattet and Forzani commented on their mutual insistence that men and women be shown as being capable of violence and murder in their films. They discuss how in Strange Colour they did indeed have a male killer standard to the genre, but in Amer, they show a woman murdering men in a highly eroticized fashion, giving a counterbalance to the way women are often sexualized in death in horror films. Furthermore, they discuss how both of them felt it was important when adapting Let the Corpses Tan from the novel that they centralize the formerly secondary female character of the book. Their collaborations strongly hearken to film movements before them, from Giallo to even German Expressionism and the French New Wave, but by viewing familiar tropes through a more feminist lens, they’ve worked to revolutionize horror in a very specific way.

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Daughter of the infamous husband-and-wife powerhouse couple of independent film John Cassavetes and Gena Rowland, Xan Cassavetes was starring in movies long before making them as a director. The resulting feature-length foray into the themes of classic vampire films, Kiss of the Damned, capitalizes on Giallo’s penchant toward painting scenes red with too-bright blood while telling a story more in line with Hammer Horror films of days gone by. As with most films on this list, the blend of several subgenres into one film is what makes this film stand apart from the many. The main characters are a married couple who just happen to be vampires who live relatively peacefully until the unruly sister of one shows up to cause problems. The look at interpersonal dynamics between the two sisters and the grim fate of the amoral younger sibling gives a personal emotional viewpoint to what might have otherwise been just another arty vampire film.

Director Anna Biller made the ’70s sexploitation homage Viva before her slightly more refined dark-humor breakthrough The Love Witch. Basing its story around a young woman who kills the men who try to leave her via witchcraft, the twisted feminist morality tale was a far cry from the message behind most Giallo films but stylistically fell strongly in line with the format. The film subverted the murder mystery by telling the mystery from inside out, with the murderer appearing as the protagonist and the detectives hunting her down as the villains. The Love Witch referenced many classic films; the bright color palettes and the extravagant use of the color red was a signature move of many '70s directors, notably in Dario Argento films like Deep Red and Suspiria.

Another film that combines the visceral energy of the New French Extremity with traces of Giallo is Raw, which borrows enough from the color palette and themes of both categories that it becomes its own thing entirely. Following a young woman who was raised adamantly vegetarian as she enters a new school and is forced to ingest meat, then becomes addicted to it, Raw is a horror film in which the monster is the protagonist’s loss of self-control. Scenes like a young woman blackout drunk at a party leaping after scraps of meat are mortifying on the level of the New French Extremity, but the vivid color palette and the focus on an enigmatic female protagonist suffering from an undefined ailment is Giallo all the way.

Of all genres, horror is one of the most repetitive, and it tends to self-reference and reimagine itself constantly. Many of these reiterations fail due to blatant plagiarism, while some succeed by improving on their inspirations. Giallo’s flaws are many, but the recent examination of the tropes through a female gaze has proven to be interesting. Perhaps the greatest surprise of Giallo has ultimately been the way it has metamorphosed.

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