Friday, April 13, 2007

Introduction to Italian Horror Series

For several years now, I’ve been interested in Italian horror films, particularly the giallo. I’ve decided to introduce an ongoing Italian horror series to The Film Walrus to collect reviews, information and random thoughts on the frequently maligned genre. But first some background info:

Giallo” is an Italian word that literally means “yellow,” referring to the brightly colored covers to mystery thrillers written in Italy as early as the 1920’s. As a film genre, it evolved into a distinct style in the late 1960’s and reached its climax in the 1970’s. The films were often distinguished by extreme amounts of gore (often during long and elaborate murder sequences), copious amounts of nudity, heavily stylized camerawork, eerie and frequently discordant music and tons of clever plot developments, twists and stunning (ideally) revelations.

Titles competed to be as lurid or grotesque as possible, such as “Bodies Show Signs of Carnal Violence,” “Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key,” “Don’t Torture a Duckling,” “What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing On Jennifer's Body?,” “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (also known as “Bay of Blood”) and the elegantly simple implications of “Blood and Black Lace.”

Killers in giallo almost always wear black trench coats and gloves. They favor knives over guns, but are not averse to using much more painful or creative means, including shards of glass, hatchets and modern art sculptures. In most cases the identity of the killer is kept secret from the audience and protagonist, even though all murders are shown to the audience as a rule. The criminal should be insane-- or at least extremely evil and cold-blooded.

Victims in giallo tend to be beautiful women whenever possible (Edwige Fenech, Daria Nicolodi, Susan Scott and Anita Strindberg tend to come up a lot). An undeniable misogynistic streaks runs through almost all Italian horror (even when the killer turns out to be a woman), and sex crimes, nude victims and phallic imagery (hence the knife thrust as a perennial staple) are rather ubiquitous. The excessive eroticism is partially a function of commercial interest preying on easy audiences and partially a side-effect of the 1970’s, but like the endless zoom shots and spouting gore, it contributes to the giallo’s cult charm.

The best gialli are marked by solid direction, particularly an aggressive individuality and stylistic excess. The most famous trio of directors is Dario Argento (the greatest maverick of the genre), Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci. Too often dismissed as the fourth wheel on the Italian horror tricycle, Sergio Martino also deserves the rank of master. After being submerged in the late 1980’s, the giallo saw an interesting comeback in the works of revivalist Michele Soavi whose late-comer oeuvre merits more recognition in Italian horror history.

Argento remains the most artistically acclaimed giallo director with a penchant for composition, editing and atmosphere not found in the others' works. He came the closest to mainstream of any of the great masters and earned a popular following in America. At least part of his crossover success is due to his general avoidance of nudity and his higher production values, although it is his genuine talent at image-making and eccentric selection of music which has made him a lasting icon still at work today (2007). Argento is also known for his elaborate death sequences, often involving multiple phases, daring special effects and strokes of brilliantly macabre insight. In addition, the famed director excels at set design and location scouting, often appropriating unusual works of European architecture. However, unlike Hitchcock, who used famous landmarks to trigger audience recognition, Argento twists his sites of mid-obscurity into landscapes of distorted ambiance and ominous fear. His wife, Daria Nicolodi, appears in many of his films and his daughter, Asia Argento, has gone on to some notoriety as an actress.

Mario Bava, more than the others, focused on strange-colored lighting, never shying away from non-horror colors like pink and lime. Bava had one of the longest, most prolific and most varied careers of any Italian director. He helped to pioneer cheap (but effective) special effects for his own films and other Italian masters and worked in almost every genre including comedy, sci-fi, thriller, mystery, gothic horror and capers. With “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (1963) he created the giallo subgenre, and with “Blood and Black Lace” (1964) he gave birth to the slasher film, or “body count” horror, as it was then known. His son, Lamberto Bava, became a director in his own right but never matched his father’s genius.

Lucio Fulci found his best work in make-up design, creating decomposing zombies, peeling burn victims and scar-ravaged disfigurements that were so effective because they always stayed uncomfortably close to the human form. His films usually have a distinctly low-budget feel, with less skill in terms of lighting and camerawork. He worked equally in giallo and zombie films over a prolific but uneven career, creating films that pushed the boundaries of good taste further than either Bava's or Argento's.

Each of the above directors has a unique style, but there are certain commonalities among them. Camera placements and angles are often completely bizarre, making use of framing devices that mainstream directors would never consider. Special effects, especially when it comes to bloodletting, are always welcome, and the use of rag-doll dummies (most overtly in “Don’t Torture a Duckling’s” over-the-top finale) helped to aid many a death.

The music in gialli is often one of the best aspects and offers some of the creepiest tracks from the horror genre at large. Ennio Morricone (who won a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2007) composed many of the best works, using synthesizers and unusual sound effects similar to his better-known spaghetti western tunes. A person favorite is the eerie demonic creations of frequent Argento collaborators Goblin, who herald from Brazil.

Now that I’ve laid out some of the basics to the giallo genre, I’d like to state my goals for this series. I plan to take a rather broad view of Italian horror that includes not just giallo, but also zombie films, supernatural cinema and traditional horror. Ultimately, I plan to expand the horror series outside of just Italy, but this makes a good place to start for a variety of reasons:

1) I have a personal love for Italian horror despite its faults.
2) It is not yet fully exposed to the masses and academically evaluated (academics tend to spurn such B-grade exploitative material although there are a few notable exceptions.)
3) I promised Mad Dog to write up some reviews to guide his own interest similar to the way that he has always guided my exposure to anime.
4) It’s a bit unusual and so fits with The Film Walrus’s highly specialize (read: elitist) tone.
5) It's Friday the 13th, a time to celebrate horror films. Incidentally, the film "Friday the 13th" is an uncredited remake of the far-superior Italian horror classic "Twitch of the Death Nerve."

I myself admit to being only just at the cusp of obsession, and dozens of unseen gialli still await my viewing, an exciting prospect for me and a chance to continue reviewing and commenting on new films as I see them. Currently I have viewed approximately 30 Italian horror films and I’ll try to write up reviews on the most notable of those. I also encourage interested readers to check out fellow giallo enthusiasts at their blogs: giallo fever and killing in style.

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