The word “giallo” is Italian for “yellow” and is derived from a series of cheap mystery novels that featured a trademark yellow cover. The giallo film genre was heavily influenced by these novels and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Visionary Italian directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento created and defined the genre with films like “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (1963), “Blood and Black Lace” (1964) and “The Bird with Crystal Plumage” (1970). The later becoming an international box-office sensation. The financial success of the film gave birth to countless intimations and a new genre of Italian cinema.
The films all shared several distinctive characteristics: a murder mystery featuring a psychopathic stalker who wears black leather gloves and brutally murders a series of young beautiful scantily-clad woman with a sharp blade, explicit sexual content, whodunit storyline and graphic violence are infused with Italy’s tradition of operatic melodrama. The films usually feature a twist ending, revealing the killer to be a mentally disturbed madman or woman who usually poses as normal and subdued person.
Critics have often looked down their nose at the genre and deemed it to be nothing more than sleazy exploitation cinema that erotizes murder. Many of the films are visually breath-taking, utilising elaborate set and costume design, innovative editing and flashy cinematography technics. The films are also known for their bizarre and sometimes baffling plotlines, seemingly placing greater importance on visuals and atmosphere than making perfect sense.
The only other country to officially adopt the genre was Spain. While the rest of Europe and Hollywood never officially embraced the genre, there is no doubting that it has had a prevailing influence over many of their filmmakers. Giallo is often cited as having been a major influence on the American slasher film. “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” being prime examples. However, I feel that both those films lack the visual flair, style and eroticism to be classified as giallo-esque.
15. Color of Night (Richard Rush, 1994)
Universally derided on its release and having the dubious honour of winning The Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture of 1994. The film has gone on to become a guilty pleasure for many. The nonsensical plot wouldn’t be out of places in an Italian giallo. New York psychiatrists Bill Capa (Bruce Willis) blames himself for a patient’s suicide. He move to Los Angles to stay with a friend and recover. When his friend who is also a psychiatrist is murdered, the police suspect it might be someone from his therapy group. Capa decides to take over the group in the hope of flushing out the killer. He also embarks on a passionate affair with a mysterious young woman named Rosa (Jane March).
The members of the therapy group are a colourful collection of characters. In classic giallo fashion all the most popular psychological disorders are present. You have an obsessive compulsive, a nymphomaniac, a suicidal ex-cop, a sadomasochist and a gender identity disorder sufferer. A black leather gloved killer lurks in the shadows, several members of the group and Capa himself are targeted. The film features several highly explicit scenes between Capa and Rosa that caused quite a stir upon its release. The film has a playful tone and over the top characterisations that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s this kookiness and absurdity that makes the film entertaining and endearing.
14. Still of the Night (Robert Benton, 1982)
Dr. Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) is a psychiatrist to wealthy Manhattanites. He’s life slowly beings to be turned upside down when one of his patients is discovered with his throat slashed. The victim was a curator at a large auction house in the city, as well as the remarkably successful lover of a succession of much younger woman. On the same day the body is found Dr. Rice receives a new patient. Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep), the curator’s most recent mistress. She admits that she’s glad the curator is dead but swears she knows nothing about his murder. Dr Rice and Brooke embark on a passionate love affair. The police begin to suspect Brooke of the murder and so does Dr. Rice as her behaviour becomes increasingly suspicious and erratic.
Most people will probably claim the film is more Hitchcockian than giallo inspired. While this is true there are several giallo influences in the film: a surreal dream sequence featuring ghostly children and bleeding teddy bears, strange flashbacks, an unseen killer lurking in the shadows, as well as a haunting musical score. The film is quite subtle and lacks any elaborates set pieces and some of the visual flare of other films on this list. Director Robert Benton who is better known for his human dramas like “Kramer vs Kramer”, isn’t quite at home with this material but he still creates a solid and engaging picture.
13. Faces in a Crowd (Julien Magnat, 2011)
A serial killer is terrorising New York. Anna (Milla Jovovich) witnesses one of the murders, but in her struggle to escape she falls off a bridge and hits her head developing a condition known as prosopagnosia. Which means she loses the ability to recognise or remember faces, it also means she can’t recognize the killer, who could be anyone – her lover, friend, family member and she would never know.
The film has fun playing with Anna’s newly acquired condition, every time she looks at herself in the mirror a different actresses face looks back and her, and every time she meets up with her boyfriend, he too is played by a different actor, this works well in building up the tension as just like Anna the audience doesn’t know who is who and who can be trusted. Although the film might lack some eroticism and bloodshed associated with the genre, there is definite giallo feel to proceedings.
12. Knight Moves (Carl Schenkel, 1992)
A chess grandmaster Peter Sanderson (Christopher Lambert) becomes a prime suspect when a woman he has been seeing is murdered. Several more murders occur, all of attractive young woman in various stages of disrobing. The murderer starts sending Sanderson clues and cryptic messages. He joins forces with the local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) and a beautiful psychologist (Diane Lane), who he inevitably becomes romantically involved with. Sanderson’s mysterious behaviour and attitude mean the police remain suspicious of him while still working together. The killer goads him into a cunning game of strategy and skill, turning the whole town into a giant chess board and its young woman into his pawns.
The film follows in the great giallo tradition where logic and reason are secondary to style and titillation. The visuals are striking and inventive, especially a black and white opening sequence which might make you think you were about to watch an early work of David Lynch. The serial killer’s cat and mouse game in the film is very much in the vein of “Seven” and “Saw”, although this pre-dates both of those films. The film defiantly has a European sensibility about it, perhaps due to its French leading man and Swiss director Carl Schenkel, who has created a worthy piece of genre pulp.
11. Eyes of a Stranger (Ken Wiederhorn, 1981)
This little know gem is generally disregarded as just another early eighties sleazy slasher. Directed by Ken Wiederhorn whose credits include “Return of the Living Dead Part 2” and the Nazi zombie flick “Shock Waves”, it’s easy to understand why. However this film has a lot more going for it than first meets the eye. A serial killer terrorises and stalks the woman of Miami. A plucky young television newscaster (Lauren Tewes) suspects her neighbour of being the killer. However no one believes her theory, so she decides to investigate the suspect herself. Inevitably she puts herself and her flatmate, her adolescent deaf and dumb sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh, making her screen debut) firmly in the killer’s sights.
The story differs from the usual formula in that you know who the killer is from quite early on in the film. However, this doesn’t diminish any of the suspense. There are several well-crafted set pieces where the killer stalks beautiful young woman, initially by tormenting them with abusive phone calls before attacking and murdering them. The tension ratchets up nicely towards the end of the film as the killer focuses his attention on the newscaster and her extremely vulnerable sister. The film has a strong visual style and eerie atmosphere that sets it apart from other early eighties slasher films.
10. Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)
Danielle (Margot Kidder) is a struggling model/actress who meets a nice young man on a television game show and takes him home. But, Danielle has a separated Siamese twin sister, Dominique, who is not happy about this and murders her sister’s guest. A neighbour Grace (Jennifer Salt), who also happens to be a journalist witnesses the murder. When the police arrive all evidence of the body is gone. Determined to prove she’s right, Grace decides to investigate the sisters herself.
The film is widely regarded as a homage to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. While the influence of Hitchcock is undeniable, it’s more of a reinterpretation of the material for a new generation. Audiences of the seventies were no longer shocked by the works of Hitchcock, it would take something new and unseen, and that is exactly what Brian De Palma did. His Italian counterparts were simultaneously doing exactly the same thing although with far more blood and eroticism, something De Palma would take note of and incorporate into his later works.
9. Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)
Of all the films on this list, this is probably the best example of where the filmmakers went out with the specific intention of making an American giallo. Made during the height of the genres popularity it boasts all the essential ingredients. Set in the glamourous New York fashion scene of the seventies. Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is a renowned fashion photographer, her work consists of fashion models surrounded my death and destruction, either at a constructed scene of an accident or a murder. Her critics accuse her work of glorifying violence and objectifying woman. An accusation often levelled at the giallo genre.
A copycat killer begins to commit murders that imitate Laura’s work, the murder scenes being staged exactly like her photos. Laura then begins to suffer from visions that allow her to see through the killer’s eyes, witnessing the murders as they happen. All that can be seen of the killer are his/her leather gloves. Detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) teams up with the photographer to try and catch the killer. Laura begins to unravel as she has visions of the killer stalking her. The story throws up several red hearing and mandatory twists.
The script is by John Carpenter, although he claims several aspects were altered to his displeasure. The film might lack some of the excess that lie at the heart of its continental counterparts, but it does contain enough beautiful models, stylish camera work, surreal plot points and gaudy murders to make any giallo fan happy.