Giallo January: Birds & Spiders

Giallo January: Birds & Spiders

Throughout January, I wanted to take a look at one of my favorite sub genres. The Italian Giallo! I first became aware of these in the 90's when Anchor Bay were in their prime, releasing title after title on DVD, many of them for the first time in home video format. Having watched a ton of black and white murder mysteries in my youth, I was ecstatic when I learned that Giallo films are generally characterized as gruesome murder-mystery thrillers, combining the suspense elements of detective fiction with scenes of shocking horror. They generally feature excessive bloodletting, stylish camerawork and often jarring musical arrangements. Essentially, Giallo is what Hitchcock always wanted to make (see Frenzy, his closest work to a Giallo), but studio limitations and interference prevented that.

So before we go any further, you might be asking yourself, "What does Giallo mean?" Well, the word "giallo" is Italian for "yellow". Its use as a genre label derives from its association with a series of cheap paperback mystery novels, popular in Italy, which were adorned with yellow covers. The crime-mystery pulp novels entitled Il Giallo Mondadori ('Mondadori Yellow'), published by Mondadori in 1929 consisted almost exclusively of Italian translations of mystery novels by British and American writers, such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Raymond Chandler.

The archetypal giallo plot involves a mysterious, black-gloved killer who stalks and butchers a series of beautiful women, straight blade razors are involved to excess, so is J&B whiskey (for some unknown reason J&B turns in up many Gialli), and the main protagonist is usually an outsider of some type, often a traveler or tourist, who is generally unconnected to the murders before they begin, and are drawn to help find the killer through their role as a witness to a crime.

The mystery is the identity of the killer, who is often revealed in the climax to be another key character, having concealed his or her identity with a disguise (usually some combination of hat, mask, sunglasses, gloves and a trench coat à la Scooby Doo) whilst lurking in shadows, often concealing their voices with a sinister hiss-like whisper. The structure of the genre varies, some contain a basic narrative structure while others throw that out the window, sometimes featuring nonsensical plot elements unrelated to the story whatsoever. Style over substance. I can dig that.

Some of the first Gialli came courtesy of the great Mario Bava. Genre classics such as Blood and Black Lace (more on that title and the fabulous Arrow Blu ray Reissue later in the month) and The Girl Who Knew Too Much AKA The Evil Eye, both among the best the genre has to offer. Which leads us to my favorite Italian filmmaker Dario Argento. The first Argento film I saw was Suspiria from 1977. It had a profound effect on me, and interestingly enough, this supernatural Witch tale (Argento's first departure from Gialli) is not a Giallo, although it is often lumped into the genre. From Suspiria I went back and discovered Deep Red, Tenebrae, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Cat o' Nine Tails, and last but not least, Argento's first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

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The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
1971 d. Dario Argento

The Bird With Crystal Plumage is as fine a thriller as you're likely to see. It has that Hitchcockian mastery of suspense coupled with the hip urban paranoiac intrigue of a film like Blow Up. Only with J&B whiskey involved, and, naturally, a black gloved killer! The Bird with the Crystal Plumage concerns American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who is living in Rome with his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall). While visiting an art gallery, Sam witnesses an unsuccessful murder attempt by a mysterious figure. Sam is trapped between locked glass doors and unable to help until the police eventually arrive. As the assailant is believed to be an infamous serial killer, Sam quickly becomes a key witness in the ongoing police investigation and his plans to head back to America are halted by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Salerno). Soon after, he begins working hand in hand with Morosini, searching for clues that may help him identify the killer, And discovers that he may be the next victim. Sam starts to receive menacing phone calls from the killer, from which the police manage to isolate an odd cricketing noise in the background, which is later revealed to be the call of a rare bird from Siberia, called "The Bird with Crystal Plumage" due to the diaphanous glint of its feathers.

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Argento's first Giallo (and feature film debut) Is anything but amateurish. Oozing with style, tension, atmosphere and intrigue, the attention to detail, whether it be the flick of a blade or a splash of blood, is top notch. This film has aged incredibly well and is a great introduction to one of the Italian Horror Masters. The first in his "animal" trilogy (followed by The Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) is also my favorite of the three. Oh yeah, it also features an amazing Ennio Morricone score.

The Black Belly of the Tarantula
1971 d. Paola Cavara

Up next is the Crystal Plumage inspired, The Black Belly of the Tarantula. Director, Paola Cavara, is famously known for directing the highly influential, Cult Classic shockumentary, Mondo Cane in 1962.

The film stars the great Giancarlo Giannini (modern audiences will recognize him as Mathis from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace as well as Inspector Pazzi from Ridley Scott's Hannibal) and a trio of actresses who also appeared in Bond films; Claudine Auger (Thunderball 1965), Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me 1977), and Barbara Bouchet (the bond spoof Casino Royale 1967).

Now, if you haven't noticed, many Giallo titles seem to involve numbers, colors, and animals, usually mixing at least two of those together. Sometimes the connection of the title and the actual film is extremely minor, or of very little importance to the plot. Black Belly is an exception to that. The title refers to the sadistic means by which the killer is dispatching the victims. An acupuncture needle is inflamed with a paralyzing poison that the killer inserts into the victim's neck, thus insuring that they are paralyzed, yet aware, while the killer finishes off the victims much in the same way tarantulas are killed by the black wasp. That's pretty freakin' intense right there, and an idea Eli Roth wishes he could have thought of! 

The story primarily surrounds the investigation by Inspector Tellini (Giannini) of the murder of Maria Zani, who was being blackmailed before her death. Other murders follow, as the Inspector's trail leads to a Fashion Boutique, a Science Laboratory, and finally a Health Spa, which are all linked to drug traffiking and sexual deviancy. 

Some highlights include a great rooftop chase, Giancarlo Giannini's fine performance, a cameo by Walter Eugene from The House With Laughing Windows (another must see), one of Ennio Morricone's best scores, another guest-starring appearance by J&B scotch! Cavara's direction is quite flashy, and the highly stylized cinematography by Marcello Gatti (who worked on The Battle of Algiers, and Polanski's What?) is a treat for the eyes!

These films are not just for horror fans. If you can appreciate a good Mystery/Thriller with the delightful addition of ramped up violence and sex, than look no further! Both are stellar entries in the genre, and also a great starting point for newcomers as well. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has a Blu-ray available from VCI and The Black Belly of the Tarantula is available on DVD via the fine folks at Blue Underground. Both are reasonably priced and readily available!

Until next time, Ciao!

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