Giallo: An Introduction
Part 1 – The 1960s
David Sodergren featuring special guest contributor Rachael Nisbet
After eighteen long months of working on it, my third novel, Dead Girl Blues, was published this week. It’s an exciting time, but also nerve-wracking. You never know how your work is going to be received by the public, particularly when your book is part of a little-known sub-genre that most people have never heard of.
Dead Girl Blues is heavily inspired by my love of Italian giallo films, and if that means nothing to you, I’m not surprised. While at least one director has sort-of broken through to the mainstream (I’m looking at you, Dario Argento), most of these films are pretty unknown outside of their small but rabid fanbase.
Therefore, I thought I’d write a couple of articles as an introduction, for those unfamiliar with the myriad charms and delights of the genre. This is by no means intended as a definitive history of the giallo, but should serve as a helpful primer for those wishing to explore further.
So what is a giallo? It’s a hard question to answer. There are no solid rules, though it’s widely accepted there should be at least one dead body, a mystery to solve, and someone — usually not the police — to solve it.
The term itself dates back to the 1930s, when Mondadori began publishing a series of crime and mystery novels with distinctive yellow covers.
Giallo is Italian for yellow, which is why the term giallo came to refer to thrillers. Now, many of these publications were not what we regard as traditional gialli today. Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries were found alongside Ed McBain crime thrillers, all translated into Italian. Cinema-wise, the film that is generally regarded as the first “true” giallo film didn’t come along until 1963, and that film was Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Bava was an immensely talented cinematographer who graduated to directing. Often working from very low budgets, he made one of the greatest European horror films of the 60s with Black Sunday. Like that film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much was shot in moody, noir-ish black and white. It set a template that would be followed by countless gialli, in which a young girl comes to Italy and witnesses a murder. Of course, no one believes her, and soon the killer is stalking her.
It’s a great film, stylishly shot, but it wouldn’t be until the following year that Bava would truly invent the giallo as we now know it.
Blood and Black Lace (1964) is everything most people associate with the genre, and a true progenitor of the giallo, from its convoluted, twist-filled plot, to the gorgeous candy-coloured lighting schemes, to the frequent violent deaths. Like so many gialli after it, the film takes place in a fashion house, populated by beautiful, wealthy, cruel people. Gialli rarely focused on the working class, preferring to follow affluent protagonists in designer gowns and hairstyles. Sometimes this allowed for political messages, but often it was just so that the cast could look as stunning as possible. Sex sells, and Blood and Black Lace was positively bursting with it.
It’s no coincidence that most of the ladies’ clothes fall off during the scenes where the killer is chasing them, often through elaborate sets drenched in pulsing red lights. Sex is almost as important as violence in the giallo. It motivates people, it brings them together, and — more often than not — it destroys them. Sex and violence, Blood and Black Lace…it’s all there in the title!
Bava’s film pretty much created the formula for the gialli of the 1970s, but the rest of the 60s would pretty much ignore it and do their own thing, because hey, it was the 60s, man.
There were gothic gialli, women-in-peril gialli, fun-in-the-sun gialli, psychedelic gialli…anything but the body count style of Blood and Black Lace. The giallo never really mixed particularly well with the popular-at-the-time gothic horrors, as the high-fashion, glamorous feel is so at odds with crumbling castles and mad scientists. One of the most successful fusions is Libido (1965), directed by Ernesto Gastaldi, who would go on to write many of the greatest Italian thrillers.
Libido takes place entirely on the grounds of a dilapidated mansion, where — giallo alert — our protagonist witnessed a traumatic sexual/violent event as a child. With just four actors and one location, Gastaldi expertly weaves a gripping tale full of twists and psychosexual madness.
As the giallo came to prominence in the mid-60s, there aren’t too many of them shot in black and white, which is a shame, as Libido makes terrific use of shadows and high-contrast lighting, and is well worth tracking down.
At the opposite end of the spectrum were films like Interrabang (1969) and Top Sensation (1969), two yacht-based gialli that were heavy on sexploitation elements and light on mystery. I don’t want to be cynical, but I would guess the settings were chosen to ensure the cast of hunks and starlets spent as much time in skimpy swimwear as possible.
You won’t hear me complaining, particularly when the cast of Top Sensation includes future giallo royalty Edwige Fenech and Rosalba Neri. In typical fashion, the goofy fun and sapphic frolics eventually give way to brutal murders, and an all-time WTF ending that must be seen to be disbelieved.
The 60s offered plenty of great thrillers, including the first gialli from Lucio Fulci, One on Top of the Other aka Perversion Story (1969), along with arthouse curiosity Death Laid an Egg (1968), Double Face (1969), and a personal favourite, Naked…You Die! (1968) which opens with a corpse disposal sequence set to the film’s title song, NIGHTMARE, which sounds like the 60s Batman theme reimagined as a James Bond song.
In 1968, Romolo Guerrieri gave us The Sweet Body of Deborah, one of my favourites of the decade. Starring the good-looking pair of French actor Jean Sorel and the American Carroll Baker, Sweet Body (written by Libido’s Ernesto Gastaldi, naturally) is a classic story of beautiful people doing terrible things to each other.
You’ll notice that gialli are frequently a thoroughly international venture, with actors from Italy, America, France, the UK, Spain, Germany…anywhere, really. It’s why you shouldn’t get too upset if you have to watch an English dub instead of the “original” Italian language — chances are, at least half the people on the screen aren’t speaking Italian anyway.
Carroll Baker would go on to headline several more gialli, most from a director almost as important as Mario Bava to the development of the genre — Umberto Lenzi.
Lenzi is best known these days for his outrageously gory early 80s horror films like Cannibal Ferox and Nightmare City, but he was an underrated director who could turn his hand to most genres. His first giallo with Baker was Orgasmo (1969), which followed the typical trope of a fragile woman being driven to the brink of psychosexual madness.
It’s a well-shot film, with enough twists to keep you guessing, and a delightful swinging soundtrack, something which would become synonymous with the genre. Lenzi and Baker followed Orgasmo with So Sweet, So Perverse (1969), which was a slightly less successful variation on the theme, and the pair would continue to make films together into the 1970s.
As the 60s ended, the giallo was gaining in popularity, but its peak years were just around the corner. In February of 1970, the debut film from a screenwriter and former film critic named Dario Argento would be released, and Italian thrillers would never be the same again. But that’s for Part 2, when the giallo launches into the stratosphere of wild plotting, crazy motivations, OTT violence and rampant sex.
Frankly, I can’t wait.
For this article, I asked giallo expert Rachael Nisbet to contribute her top 5 must-see gialli of the 1960s. Rachael is a freelance film critic specialising in Italian cinema, and has written for Blu-ray companies such as Arrow Video, 88 Films, and Indicator. Her blog Hypnotic Crescendos is a must-read for giallo fans, and she co-hosts the indispensable Fragments of Fear podcast. I’m thrilled Rachael agreed to contribute to this article, as she knows way more about gialli than I will ever know, and she’s also Scottish, and we Scots stick together.
You can follow Rachael on Twitter @rachael_nisbet
Listen to the brilliant Fragments Of Fear podcast HERE
Top 5 1960s Gialli by Rachael Nisbet
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Bava, 1963)
Considered to be the first-ever giallo and the origin of the genre, Bava’s foray into the thriller genre with 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, is a Hitchcockian inspired masterwork that is as equally indebted to the rich historical pulp fiction of the Mondadori publishing house as it is to the master of suspense. The film’s strength lies in its beautiful black and white photography and tense set-pieces, as well as the solid lead performances courtesy of Letícia Román and John Saxon. This historical giallo is indicative of what the genre would later go on to become.
Blood & Black Lace (Bava, 1964)
Perhaps the definitive film of the genre, Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace demonstrates the director’s visual mastery with his lurid, primary colour-hued tale of murder and deception in an Italian fashion house. The black-gloved killer, fashion house setting and visceral thrills of Bava’s film would go on to become hallmarks of the genre, inspiring Dario Argento and countless other horror and thriller directors of the era and beyond. But beyond the film’s exceptional visuals lies a perfectly executed thriller that takes the whodunit formula and filters it through an operatic, stylish Italian sensibility.
The Sweet Body of Deborah (Guerrieri, 1968)
Whilst the film’s lead, the delectable American actress Carroll Baker, is best known for her gialli with Umberto Lenzi, it is arguably Guerrieri’s thriller that contains some of her best work in the genre. Flanked by giallo royalty, Baker shines as an American heiress imbued in blackmail and intrigue in this Clouzot inspired tale that depicts the trappings of the bourgeoise in classic giallo fashion. The Sweet Body of Deborah is demonstrative of the genre’s predilection with the jet setter lifestyle and fantastical modish style of the period, and is a visual delight to behold, despite the film’s more leisurely pacing.
Death Laid an Egg (Questi, 1968)
Arguably one of the most experimental offerings of the decade, Questi’s Death Laid an Egg combines frenetic art house visuals with pseudoscience and an anti-consumerist political message, to create an avant-garde take on the giallo. Starring cinematic titans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Gina Lollobrigida, Death Laid an Egg is a wonderfully acted, hallucinatory trip that eschews expectations of the genre.
Perversion Story (Fulci, 1969)
Fulci’s Hitchcockian giallo takes the premise of Vertigo and filters it through a pop-art imbued lens. Set in 1960s San Francisco, Perversion Story bursts with modish visuals, eclectic fashions, and innovative photography reflective of the exciting counter-culture associated with the era. Marisa Mell gives a spellbinding performance in Fulci’s erotically charged giallo debut, which contains as many twists and turns as San Francisco’s very own Lombard Street.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug.
Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018. This was followed by Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle, in May 2019.
2020 will be Sodergren’s biggest year yet, with two new horror novels being published. Dead Girl Blues is a slasher-noir mystery, and it will be followed by a return to full-blown supernatural horror before the end of the year.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
Find David on Instagram here
Dead Girl Blues
When a young woman dies in Willow Zulawski’s arms, it sets in motion a chain of events that will push her to the brink of madness.
A mysterious video is the only clue, but as Willow digs deeper into the murky world of snuff movies, those closest to her start turning up dead. Someone out there will stop at nothing to silence her.
After all, when killing is business, what’s one more dead body?
Part noir mystery, part violent slasher, Dead Girl Blues is the latest twisted shocker from David Sodergren, author of The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot.
The Forgotten Island
When Ana Logan agrees to go on holiday to Thailand with her estranged sister Rachel, she hopes it will be a way for them to reconnect after years of drifting apart.
But now, stranded on a seemingly deserted island paradise with no radio and no food, reconciliation becomes a desperate fight for survival.
For when night falls on The Forgotten Island, the dark secrets of the jungle reveal themselves.
Something is watching them from the trees.
You can read the Kendall Review for The Forgotten Island HERE
A group of desperate student filmmakers break into Crawford Manor for an unauthorised night shoot. They have no choice. Their lead actress has quit. They’re out of time. They’re out of money.
They’re out of luck.
For Crawford Manor has a past that won’t stay dead, and the crew are about to come face-to-face with the hideous secret that stalks the halls.
Will anyone survive…the NIGHT SHOOT?
A delirious homage to the slasher movies of the 1980s, Night Shoot delivers page after page of white-knuckle terror.
You can read the Kendall Review for Night Shoot HERE