With Italian director Luca Guadagnino's new film Suspiria, based on Dario Argento’s 1977 film of the same name, and last month’s Argento retrospective at Metrograph in New York, ‘giallo’ – Italy’s popular name for thrillers – would seem to be the genre della giornata. Yet with its supernatural core and hyperbolic stylization, Argento's Suspiria barely qualifies as giallo at all. As for Guadagnino's version – pointedly not a remake – it bears as much relation to the genre as the recent faux perfume-ad gialli tributes of director duo Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet.
That said, to pin down the precise nature of the filmic giallo is notoriously difficult. The definition provided by prolific genre screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi – ‘a difficult-to-explain event and its rigorously logical explanation based on the evidence and details provided in the story’ – is as opaque as many of his plots. Yet just as the spaghetti western can be identified by time and place, the giallo can be pegged to early 1970s Europe, and while motivation and behaviour may often beggar belief, apparently supernatural elements will always be a killer’s ruse, or a dream. Likewise, the genre is specifically Italian, although for exoticism’s sake may just as easily be filmed in London as Venice, nationality further obscured by co-productions and dubbing for the international market. In Italy’s film industry, any genre had a limited shelf-life, thus we can speak of ‘classic’ giallo growing out of the gothic horror and proto-giallo thrillers of the early ’60s, morphing into the poliziotescchi and the slasher movie. This evolution took place as the nation’s political climate became more unsettled and film-makers strove to outdo one another’s kill scenes and gore effects, often at the expense of character and plot.
One giallo staple that Argento’s Suspiria does include is the woman in peril, a direct descendant of the widely-acknowledged progenitor, Mario Bava’s 1963 The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Within the first ten minutes, Bava shows his protagonist reading a book; if the film were in colour, we’d see that its cover is yellow (giallo in Italian). More exactly, it’s one of the pulp paperbacks published by Milan-based Mondadori since 1929, by authors such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Donald E. Westlake and Raymond Chandler. These novels gained such popularity that giallo became synonymous in Italy with thrillers in general, and murder mysteries in particular. With this touch, stylish set-pieces, camerawork, and the Hitchcockian tone, Bava staked his territory and presaged a whole cinematic genre.
The director established the real giallo template a year later with his film Blood and Black Lace (1964), in which a group of fashion models are terrorized by a killer with stockinged face, trench coat, black gloves and gleaming razor blade, killing for the sake of a fortune. With a fading English-language star (Cameron Mitchell) and shot in vibrant, stylish colour, these elements of Bava’s film would become hallmarks of the genre; the last, perhaps, an essential. At first, the filmic giallo failed to take off, despite such atmospheric (black and white) efforts as Gastaldi's Libido, and Luigi Bazzoni's The Possessed (both 1965). The genre started to look more lively – and sexy – with the arrival in Italy of US actor Carroll Baker, in the title role of arguably the first giallo of the classic period, Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), followed by a run of films with Umberto Lenzi, featuring murder and nudity galore.
Although Argento would become synonymous with the genre, from Deep Red (1975) onward the supernatural starts to creep into his work, becoming central to the first two parts of his ‘Mother of Tears’ trilogy, Suspiria and the criminally unheralded Inferno (1980). The supernatural has no place in the true giallo, however – they are about the evil done by men, not witches or spirits. Prior to this, Argento was already stretching out, turning the regular thriller plot of Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1972) into a bewildering fever-dream experience for the audience. Such ambition and abstraction – stylization as opposed to stylishness – is atypical of genre cinema, commercial fare designed to entertain, not provoke or interrogate like the existential absurdism of Giulio Questi’s giallo deconstruction Death Laid An Egg (1968) and Elio Petri’s L’assassino (1961, also sometimes claimed as the first giallo) or, unlikely as it may seem, Tinto Brass’s Col cuore in gola (1967). All these films exhibit intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations beyond genre’s traditional scope. Argento’s debut film, however, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), was solid, stylish genre fare, and a box office hit, and the cash-in race began.
After abandoning neo-realism in the mid-’50s, the Italian film industry concentrated on chasing trends and cycling through genres – peplum, Eurospy, gothic horror, spaghetti western, Decamerotica – according to public favour. The period when giallo was most in favour lasted roughly from Crystal Plumage in 1970 to around 1975 (notwithstanding those fine ’60s entries). The industry was busy but relatively small, with filmmakers in friendly competition to outdo one another, ready to work in any genre (Argento in this context, along with Sergio Leone for the spaghetti western, was a rare specialist), and more than willing to recycle successful elements of whichever genre they happened to be working. Thus, certain tropes recur: the Bava killer; affluent, stylish, urban people and locations; money-motivated murder, almost always for an inheritance, usually with a sexual angle, and often involving gaslighting; incongruous English-language stars (personal favourite: Johnny Mills in Massimo Dallamano’s A Black Veil For Lisa, 1968); prolix (and frequently irrelevant) titles abounding with Argento-inspired animals, colours, numbers and ‘death’ or ‘killer’ (The Fox With The Velvet Tail or What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood On Jennifer’s Body?); and naked women’s breasts.
By these standards, it is not Argento but Sergio Martino’s four-film run that constitute the apex of the genre (three with sister-in-law Edwige Fenech, the delectable face of giallo). From The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971) to All The Colours Of The Dark (1972), Martino conjures slick, exciting entertainments with twisty plots and beautiful people – a roll call of giallo stars – consistently hitting the expected genre beats. But still not all of them - for example, Martino doesn’t use a foreign star until his next film, with Suzy Kendall in Torso (The Body Bears Traces Of Carnal Violence, 1973). As much as this looks like a giallo, Martino is here veering towards the slasher movie, with plot and character subordinate to the parade of killings. A similar transition is evident in Dallamano’s ‘Daughters’ trilogy: What Have You Done To Solange? (1972) has randy gym teacher Fabio Testi investigating a series of murders to clear his name; in What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974), the inciting circumstance has transitioned from private sex club to the more public crime of child prostitution – and concentrates far more on the cop’s investigations than on those of the grieving father. By the time of Enigma Rosso (1978, filmed with singular lack of distinction by Alberto Negrin after Dallamano’s fatal car crash) Testi is a cop himself, and we are in full poliziotesschi territory.
Try as the internet might to reach a definition of giallo, the dividing line between these genres is maddeningly indefinite. Likewise, if we want to include those ’60s films as giallo, what of Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), derived from Mondadori author James M. Cain? Or the nice handful of gialli from Spain and Greece? And what is de Palma’s Dressed To Kill (1980) if not giallo? Even Winding Refn’s Neon Demon (2016) looks a lot like a giallo (Argento’s 2009 Giallo however does not). A loose analogy may be with punk music, if one has it occur specifically in London and New York at the end of the ’70s, with regional variations, throwbacks and precursors. This would make Bava The Stooges but if that feels spurious, I am in the end tempted to think the most reliable indicator is a bottle of J&B whiskey. It’s confounding how often this holds.
Main image: Luca Guadagnino, Suspiria, 2018, fiom still. Courtesy: © MUBI