Few genres in Cinema are as synonymous with a specific country as the Giallo film is to Italy. The term itself is Italian for yellow, referring to the cheap pulpy murder-mystery novels adorned with yellow covers that the films were based on. However, this genre is deeply entrenched in an English/American sensibility as the source material for these films were translations of novels by prolific authors such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Rex Stout. It wasn’t long before Italy left their own stamp on these stories and a pattern for the genre began to emerge.
Giallo films are essentially mystery-thrillers that incorporate elements of the crime procedural. Common archetypes for these films include the following: a black-gloved killer on the loose, a series of suspects who turn out to be red herrings, and a protagonist who is usually a fish out of water that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other common traits include bold colors, unique architecture, and a focus on imagery involving eyes. A central focus on the psychological damage the killer inflicts on the characters differentiates these stories from the typical potboiler detective story. Also, long drawn out murder sequences that indulge the killer’s voyeuristic tendencies are a hallmark of the sub-genre.
The director most responsible for birthing the genre into existence is Mario Bava. His 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is credited as the first true Giallo film. But it was his 1964 film Blood and Black Lace that cemented the rules of the genre. Bava’s background as a cinematographer lent his films lurid color palettes that could be described as psychedelic.
The ante for how much violence and sexual imagery could be crammed into these films was raised by Dario Argento. He’s the most adored figurehead of the genre. His early films The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 4 Flies on Grey Velvet, and Deep Red adhered strictly to the Giallo formula. Suspiria, his 1977 crossover hit in America, brought supernatural elements into the genre. Giallo films were now defined by a specific aura or feeling rather than a list of of plot devices. Other notable films by Argento include Tenebrae, Phenomena, and Opera. Other notable directors who worked within the genre include Lucio Fulci (Gates of Hell Trilogy, Don’t Torture a Duckling), Sergio Martino (Torso, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), and Umberto Lenzi (Spasmo).
It wasn’t long before the movement’s efforts were felt in America. Many horror directors of the New Hollywood era such as George Romero, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper were fans of the genre and Dario Argento. In fact the entire slasher genre that dominated 1980’s horror originated as an offshoot of Giallo films. Mario Bava’s 1971 film Bay of Blood’s premise about a series of gruesome murders at a campsite surrounding a lake inspired the most successful and long running horror franchise in history, Friday the 13th. Even directors who claim not to be overly familiar with the sub-genre such as Brian DePalma have directed several films that bear Giallo elements in spades.
This is a list of North American films, mostly “whodunit” thrillers, whose plots and style are informed by the influential film movement known as Giallo. Some are intentionally influenced by the genres stylistic flourishes while others are more coincidental or unconscious.
10. Happy Birthday To Me (J. Lee Thompson, 1981)
More famous for its infamous cover art than anything contained within the film itself, Happy Birthday to Me is an early slasher film that came out in the post Friday the 13th boom. Released in 1981, the busiest year for slasher films, Happy Birthday competed with the likes of Madman, The Prowler, Halloween 2, My Bloody Valentine, and Graduation Day. It was almost required for your film to be named after a holiday.
The narrative centers around a clique of popular kids called the “top ten” who are picked off one by one by a black gloved killer. The designated final girl Ginny fears that her repressed memories and childhood trauma could be causing her to commit the murders herself. From here, the story is loosely connected by a series of drawn out murder sequences that are impressive on a technical level.
The similarities to the Giallo genre are superficial here with a killer whose figure is out of view besides a pair of sleek black leather gloves. The cinematography is what shines in this film as there are numerous uses of the split diopter field, a technique where objects close and far from the camera are presented with deep focus right next to each other. The spinning transitions are also gorgeous to look at. However, this film lacks the sensual attitude and inherent danger most Giallo films contain. While this is far and away the most ineptly written film on the list, it is worth a watch to get some context on how influential Halloween and Friday the 13th were in codifying what horror films would be for the next ten years.
9. Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980)
By far the most infamous film on this list, Cruising was directed by William Friedkin, who defined the 1970’s era with films The Exorcist and the French Connection. Cruising is set up around the premise of a killer who targets gay men circulating the leather bars of New York City. The title itself is a double entendre, referring cops on patrol or men “cruising” for anonymous sexual partners. Al Pacino plays Steve, an undercover cop tasked with infiltrating the leather bar scene to find the killer. Gradually, he begins to question his own masculinity and sanity.
Dripping with sweat and lit by neon street marquees, Cruising is a time capsule of a New York long gone. The film employs subliminal messaging by inserting frames of sexual imagery before each murder to further link sex and violence. Similar to most Giallo films, there are several suspects who turn out to be red herrings. The film plays with what’s objectively real because certain scenes are ambiguous and dreamlike.
The film definitely has some problematic aspects in how it portrays the LGBTQ community at the time. Gay rights activists had more than enough reasons to be angry with the way it presents their group as dangerous, where relationships and sex are purely transactional. While I don’t believe William Friedkin is homophobic, I simply believe he was misguided and struggled to craft a movie around a community he didn’t really understand.
8. Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)
There isn’t much to say about this influential slasher film that hasn’t been said before. Made to cash in on the popularity of Halloween, Friday the 13th went on to define 1980’s horror for better or worse. While the subsequent sequels would rely on hockey masked killer Jason Voorhees killing teenagers through creative means, the original is a far moodier affair.
The story is iconic. A group of horny teenage camp counselors (Kevin Bacon included) are systematically murdered at Camp Crystal Lake by an unknown assailant. The film starts with a cold open of two teens about to engage in sexual intercourse. Like Halloween, they are murdered by an unseen killer through a point of view shot. Over twenty years later, the campground is said to be cursed by the towns folk. A mentally disabled boy is said to have drowned there. As with most prototypical slasher films, teens who engage in sex or take drugs are vilified.
Overall, this film has some interesting cinematography. During the scenes at night, the characters are enveloped by the shadows and darkness. It really does capture the isolation of the wilderness and the pace is patient. Divorced from the rest of the series, it really does function as a classic “whodunit”. The makeup effects by Tom Savini are a treat and The last 15 minutes are wrought with tension as the killer is revealed and the final showdown ensues.
7. Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992)
Far and away the best erotic thriller of the early 1990’s, Basic Instinct utilizes a classic trope, the femme fatale. Directed by satirist Paul Verhoeven, Basic Instinct is about Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), a detective investigating the murder of a rockstar. He becomes involved in an affair with prime suspect Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone).
Catherine is a writer of pulpy mystery novels, the same kind that inspire Giallo films. The murders mirror events in her own writing. This is similar to Tenebrae, a Dario Argento film where an author is seemingly framed for murders inspired by his work. The film flips the Giallo formula by having a female killer.
Thematically, the film explores the sexual appeal of transgression as Nick becomes more and more infatuated by someone who is morally reprehensible. Trying to atone for his own sins and behavior, he is still weak to Catherine’s charms.
6. The Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)
Written by John Carpenter and directed by Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner, Eyes of Laura Mars is a supernatural take on typical Giallo fare. Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) is a female fashion photographer plagued by visions of murder where she sees through the eyes of the killer. These waking nightmares seem to foreshadow the real life acts of a sadistic serial killer. Before long, she realizes they share a psychic bond and resolves to stop him.
The process of getting this film made was torturous. Rewritten several times and originally intended to be a star vehicle for Barbara Streisand, Eyes of Laura Mars is one of those rare films where too many cooks in the kitchen did not ruin the final product. Although the original script was simpler with the killer remaining unseen and without identity, the final film delves quite deep into the psychological profile of the killer.
Eyes are recurring motif in this film and Giallo films in general. Usually they belong to the would be victim and are photographed dilated and quivering with fear. Laura’s occupation plays a role as well as she begins to incorporate imagery from her visions into her work. This results in lurid suggestive photo spreads that cause a sensation. The film implies that the media plays a part in glamorizing criminals, inspiring those seeking validation. The film does have romantic elements and a tragic ending that’s rather heartfelt for a Giallo or crime thriller.