Death Knocks Twice: The Resurrection of Giallo

First published by New Empress Magazine

If the term neo-giallo implies a long-buried palaeo-giallo that has more recently been disinterred and reanimated in a different form, then it ought to be possible to pin down an approximate date of death for the prior Italian subgenre.

Giallo had its peak in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – and just as it borrowed extensively from gothic contes, pulp mysteries and Hitchcockian thrillers, its own tropes too have gradually become absorbed into the more market-dominant slasher. Of giallo‘s most prominent practitioners, Mario Bava died in 1980, Lucio Fulci in 1996 – and Sergio Martino, though still alive and kicking, made his last theatrical giallo, Mozart is a Murderer, way back in 1999. Only Dario Argento kept flogging this increasingly dead horse in the post-millennial age, with a progressively desperate-looking, inferior string of gialli –  Sleepless (2001), The Card Player (2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005) – that, measured against the standards of his earlier, much better work, seemed to be the last nails in the moribund subgenre’s coffin. Still, in a twitch of the death nerve, the killer must kill again, and giallo was about to rise anew from its own ashes.

The second half of the Noughties saw Argento settling his accounts. Mother of Tears (2007) marked the rather disappointing completion of the giallo-esque ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy that had featured two of his very finest films, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) – and then with Giallo (2009), whose very title betokens a self-conscious summation, Argento simultaneously exposed the dead, ossified state of the subgenre that had made his name, while reviving it through uproarious pastiche. And so neo-giallo came to be spawned – although it could be argued that its stillborn twin was delivered two years earlier in the form of Chris Sivertson’s I Know Who Killed Me (2007) which updated many of the hallmarks of giallo (murder mystery, gloves, colour-coding, plot-driving pseudoscience, fluid identities, sensationalism and eroticism) with a contemporary American setting and bionic prostheses. Garnering a record-breaking number of Razzies (including Worst Picture), this was perhaps an inauspicious beginning for the subgenre’s reemergence – but for all the film’s stylish silliness, it is too baroquely odd a trip to be lumped in with bog-standard slashers.

Curiously, to date the only two Italian returns to this most Italian of subgenres, Argento’s Giallo and Federico Zampaglione’s Tulpa (2012), have both adopted a similarly parodic approach, foregrounding all the very worst aspects of the traditional giallo – the ridiculous dialogue, the overripe acting, the tone-deaf dubbing – to deliriously daft effect. Even more curiously, both directors claim, or perhaps feign, ignorance of any intended lampooning in their films, and when Tulpa premiered at FrightFest, some of the cast members were awkwardly reduced to tears by the audience’s mirthful response. [Tulpa was subsequently released to the public in an altogether less silly recut]. Still, in Giallo at least Adrien Brody (also credited as Byron Deidra) is in on the joke, overplaying his double-role as both detective and jaundiced ‘pattern killer’ with manic glee. Neither film is exactly good, but they are a blast to watch with a genre-savvy audience – and their own (putative) postmodern irony immunises them, to a degree, from too stern-faced a critical response.

The real irony is that giallo has been treated far more respectfully and innovatively by filmmakers from outside of Italy, looking from the outside in (and back) at a subgenre that, though idolised, is not their own. Belgian newcomers Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet dazzled viewers with Amer (2009), a lovingly crafted triptych of the key stages in a woman’s repressive journey through eros and thanatos. A near wordless psychodrama of the senses, Amer distils the familiar tropes of giallo into a tactile quintessence, familiar yet headily disorienting, all to the accompaniment of a score magpied from various Italian genre flicks of the Seventies.

If Amer shows the primal scenes of a woman’s evolving androphobia, then Forzani and Cattet’s follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) refocuses on the schizoid pathologies of one man’s gynophobia, as protagonist Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) searches an apartment building for both a missing woman and a well-buried memory. Expertly built from the same vintage materials as Amer (to which it plays out like a twisted younger brother), but far more complex in its interweaving of multiple stories (and storeys) in labyrinthine locations, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears also sees its filmmakers renovating their beloved subgenre with local Belgian colour – whether the Art Nouveau architecture of Victor Horta or the surrealism (and bowler hats) of René Magritte. Both films are as good as, if not better than, many of the classic gialli whose scenes and stylings they reappropriate.

In Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the abuses and cruelties of a (never seen) sleazy giallo-esque film-within-a-film bleed into the Italian post-production recording rooms where repressed English sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) painstakingly layers a soundtrack from analogue wizardry and his own memories. Like Forzani and Cattet’s films, Berberian Sound Studio places a modernist spin on its exquisite retro stylings – but it keeps its violence buried in the audio, even as its protagonist, a foreigner (like Strickland) to the subgenre in which he is working, flees into a very English reserve of detachment and denial when faced with his own small part in the misogynies all around. The resulting meta-giallo is a resonant mystery that matches the subgenre’s psychological depths to Lynchian psychogenic fugue.

Other contenders for neo-giallo status include Ryan Haysom’s disorienting, ambiguous, Mann-inflected short film Yellow (2012) – and Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s Red Nights (2009), an operatic slice of Franco-Asian cloak and dagger whose BDSM scenarios play like a giallo-coloured reimagining of Feuillade in Hong Kong. Compared to these bold experiments, the visually-impaired thrills of Guillem Morales’ Julia’s Eyes (2010) and Julien Magnat’s Faces in the Crowd (2011), though certainly fluent in the subgenre’s idioms, seem altogether too old-school to earn the neo- prefix.

© Anton Bitel