Monday, February 16, 2015

Giallo Films

"The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder." --Tenebre (1982)

The most famous and enduring type of horror cinema to come out of Italy is undoubtedly the giallo film. Meaning “yellow” in Italian, the giallo was inspired by mass-produced pulp novels that often had yellow covers. A blend of Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace-style mysteries, Hitchcockian psychosexual thrillers, the French fantastique, and more, giallo films began in 1963 with director Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and developed a set of fairly rigid characteristics by his next, more fully developed giallo, Blood and Black Lace (1964). 

In addition to the central plot of a murder mystery, giallo films (or gialli, the correct plural form) are highly stylized, full of exploitative nudity, blood, memorable soundtracks, and operatic levels of violence. There is typically a killer wearing a black raincoat and black leather gloves while he murders beautiful women, often models. The detectives are sometimes police officers, but are generally ordinary citizens. These protagonists are typically foreigners visiting Italy.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, I’m going to take a look at a wide range of giallo films from their genesis in the mid ‘60s to their slow death in the late ‘80s. I’ve organized them chronologically and then by director when I think it’s appropriate to mention someone independently, as there are a number of giallo auteurs. 

Of course, the man to begin it all was Mario Bava, the maestro of the macabre. Bava helped kick off Italian horror cinema in the ‘50s (alongside his mentor, director Riccardo Freda), and though he explored numerous genres, he is primarily remembered for his horror films. I’ve already done an extensive series on them, so I won’t be reviewing any here, but he made the first Hitchcockian proto-giallo, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), the first bona fide giallo, Blood and Black Lace (1964), and some of the first films to play with and subvert the giallo formula, such as Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969), Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), and Bay of Blood (1971), which is considered the first slasher film.

On a final note, I’ve included both the common American title and the original Italian title, as many of these films go by multiple names and it can be quite confusing where some of the more obscure entries are concerned.

There were only a handful of giallo films that emerged in the '60s after Bava's Blood and Black Lace, and those that do exist are relatively difficult to track down (particularly if you want English subtitles). Here a few notable early entries. While some are certainly more unusual than the cookie-cutter mold that was to emerge in the mid-‘70s, they obviously helped shape the genre.
The Possessed aka La donna del lago (Luigi Bazzoni, 1965) – A visitor arrives in a small village searching for a woman, only to be told that she has committed suicide.
Deadly Sweet aka Col cuore in gola (Tinto Brass, 1967) – Italian erotic auteur Tinto Brass tried his hand at the giallo with this incredibly stylish effort about a man who falls for a woman who may have committed murder.
Death Laid an Egg aka La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Giulio Questi, 1968) – This underrated effort concerns a love triangle at a chicken farm that erupts into violence.
A Quiet Place in the Country aka Un tranquillo posto di campagna (Elio Petri, 1968) – Spouses Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave star in this rare rural example about art and madness.
Naked You Die aka Nude… si muore (Antonio Margheriti, 1968) – Veteran horror director Margheriti made this early giallo with a script from Mario Bava about a killer in a girls’ school.
The Frightened Woman aka Femino ridens (Piero Schivazappa, 1969) – This unusual film concerns the developing relationship between a wealthy sadist and the woman he kidnaps.

Lucio Fulci:
The Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci, is primarily known for supernatural flesh-rippers like Zombi and City of the Living Dead, though he did also direct a few excellent giallo film, as well as some later twists on the genre.
One on Top of the Other aka Una sull’altra (Lucio Fulci, 1969) – A doctor’s wife is murdered and he’s the main suspect, until clues begin to suggest that she isn’t dead after all.
Lizard in a Woman’s Skin aka Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (Lucio Fulci, 1971) – A woman has a dream about her promiscuous neighbor’s death, but when the woman turns up murdered, her life takes a strange turn.
Don’t Torture a Duckling aka Non si sevizia un paperino (Lucio Fulci, 1972) – When boys are found dead in a rural village, a reporter and a young woman try to find the killer.
The Psychic aka Sette note in nero (Lucio Fulci, 1977) – A woman has a strange vision about another woman’s murder. The police are reluctant to believe her, until a body is found walled up in her own home.
The New York Ripper aka Lo squartatore di New York (Lucio Fulci, 1982) – In one of the most brutal, misogynistic envisions of the giallo, vicious killings begin in New York, but the only evidence is a that the murderer quacks like a duck.

Umberto Lenzi:
One of the giallo genre’s most prolific directors, Lenzi dabbled in many horror and exploitation genres, and made some of the most underrated gialli. While most giallo films are set in urban environments, many of Lenzi’s take place in the Italian countryside.
Paranoia aka Orgasmo (Umberto Lenzi, 1969) – This giallo is one of the first of several to star Carroll Baker and concerns a wealthy American widow who befriends some young Italians that may be up to no good. 
So Sweet... So Perverse aka Cosi dolce… cosi perversa (Umberto Lenzi, 1969) -- Carroll Baker returns here in this tale of a love triangle between a woman, her husband, and his mistress, gone wrong.
A Quiet Place to Kill aka Paranoia (Umberto Lenzi, 1970) – Carroll Baker is back again for the story of a woman who is invited to her ex-husband’s country estate by his new wife, who has murder on her mind.
An Ideal Place to Kill aka Un posto ideale per uccidere (Umberto Lenzi, 1971) – A young couple stranded in the Italian countryside find their way to the home of a wealthy officer’s wife, but things aren’t quite as they seem.
Knife of Ice aka Il coltello di ghiaccio (Umberto Lenzi, 1972) – A woman struck mute as a teenager when she witnessed the deaths of her parents is traumatized again when a serial killer stalks the countryside.
Seven Bloodstained Orchids aka Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso (Umberto Lenzi, 1972) – Probably Lenzi’s most famous giallo, this concerns the “Half Moon Killer,” a murderer targeting women with a mysterious connection.
Spasmo (Umberto Lenzi, 1974) – A couple walking on the beach find the body of woman, though she turns out to be alive and introduces some strange events to their lives.
Eyeball aka Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro (Umberto Lenzi, 1975) – Lenzi’s last giallo concerns a red-caped killer gouging out the eyes of tourists on a bus.

Dario Argento:
Indisputably the most famous Italian horror director, Argento built upon Bava’s formula and made some of the most popular giallo classics, as well as two supernatural riffs on the giallo – Suspiria and Inferno – that I’m including here even though they aren’t strictly giallo films.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage aka L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (Dario Argento, 1970) – A writer visiting Italy witnesses a woman’s attempted murder at an art gallery and is then stalked by her would-be killer.
The Cat o’ Nine Tails aka Il gato a nove code (Dario Argento, 1971) – A blind journalist and newspaper reporter team up to try to solve a series of murders.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet aka 4 mosche di velluto grigio (Dario Argento, 1971) – A musician is tormented by an unseen killer possibly getting revenge for an accidental death. 
Deep Red aka Profondo rosso (Argento, 1975) – A musician witnesses the murder of a psychic and is drawn into catching the killer with the help of a journalist.
Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) – An American dancer arrives at a German school for ballet only to find murder and witchcraft.
Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980) – In the sequel to Suspiria, a brother and sister continue to investigate a coven of witches.
Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982) – An American murder mystery novelist visiting Rome finds that a killer is copying scenes from his book on real-life victims.
Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985) – A young girl who can communicate telepathically with insects arrives at a girls school that also happens to be home to a murderer.
Opera (Dario Argento, 1987) – After an understudy is called to play the lead in Verdi’s Macbeth, a psychopathic fan ties her up and makes her watch him kill.

Riccardo Freda:
This underrated director was a mentor to Mario Bava and made the very first Italian horror film, I, Vampiri (1957), which spawned a whole genre of Gothic horror movies. His scant giallo output deserves a mention here:
The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire aka L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (Riccardo Freda, 1971) -- In Dublin, a young woman's body is found in the trunk of a local ambassador, sparking a difficult police investigation as the bodies pile up.
Murder Obsession aka Follia omicida (Riccardo Freda, 1981) -- An actor returns to his family mansion in the country to shoot a movie with some of his friends, but they begin to drop dead and he admits that as a child, he abruptly killed his father.

These early years in the ‘70s were the most prolific and rewarding period for the giallo film. I’ve kept this section to around 25 films, but there are far, far more.
In the Folds of the Flesh aka Nelle pieghe della carne (Sergio Bergonzelli, 1970) – The guests of an estate are killed off one by one, possibly connected to some horror from the past.
Weekend Murders aka Concerto per pistola solista (Michele Lupo, 1970) – When a wealthy man dies, his relatives are horrified to learn they aren’t inheriting any of his money – except one young woman – and violence is brewing.
Death Occurred Last Night aka La morte risale a ieri sera (Duccio Tessari, 1970) – A disabled young woman is killed, setting in motion a hunt for her murderer.
Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion aka Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (Luciano Ercoli, 1970) -- A bored young housewife is stalked by a blackmailer who tells her that her husband is a killer.
The Bloodstained Butterfly aka Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate (Duccio Tessari, 1971) – A man is convicted for killing a girl in a park, but the murders continue.
The Fifth Cord aka Giornata nera per l’ariete (Luigi Bazzoni, 1971) – Franco Nero stars in this film about a troubled journalist forced to hunt down a killer when he is made a suspect.
The Red Headed Corpse aka La rossa dalla pelle che scotta (Renzo Russo, 1971) – Farley Granger stars in this surreal effort about a troubled artist who accidentally brings one of his creations to life.
The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave aka La notte che Evelyn usci dalla tomba (Emilio Miraglia, 1971) – After the death of his beautiful wife, a neurotic aristocrat loses his mind and begins to torture and kill women who resemble her.
Black Belly of the Tarantula aka La tarantola dal ventre nero (Paolo Cavara, 1971) – Giancarlo Giannini stars as an inspector who must catch a horrifying murderer killing women by paralyzing them and ripping their stomachs open.
Slaughter Hotel aka La bestia uccide a sangue freddo (Fernando Di Leo, 1971) – Klaus Kinski stars in this film where a masked killer begins slaughtering people in a hospital for disturbed wealthy women.
Cold Eyes of Fear aka Gli occhi freddi della paura (Enzo G. Castellari, 1971) – A lawyer and the prostitute he brought home for the evening are surprised by a gunman in this blend of giallo and home invasion thriller.
Short Night of the Glass Dolls aka La corta notte delle bambole di vetro (Aldo Lado, 1971) – An American journalist visiting Italy searches for his girlfriend after her sudden disappearance.
Death Walks on High Heels aka La morte cammina con i tacchi alti (Luciano Ercoli, 1971) – After a jewel thief is murdered, his daughter becomes the killer’s new target.
Death Walks At Midnight aka La morte accarezza a mezzanotte (Luciano Ercoli, 1972) – Ercoli’s follow up concerns a model who has a vision of a woman’s death while on an experimental drug, and soon the killer begins stalking her.
A White Dress for Marialé aka Un bianco vestito per Marialé (Romano Scavolini, 1972) – This underrated giallo follows a disturbed woman who invites her friends for a costume party at the family castle with disastrous results.
Who Saw Her Die? aka Chi l’ha vista morire (Aldo Lado, 1972) – A young girl is murdered and her estranged parents team up in Venice to find her killer.
The Killer is on the Phone aka L’assassino… è al telefono (Alberto de Martino, 1972) – Telly Savalas stars in this film about a woman stalked by her husband’s killer.
Naked Girl Killed in the Park aka Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco (Alfonso Brescia, 1972) – This luridly titled film is concerned with a family inheritance and the murder and mayhem that follows.
Red Queen Kills Seven Times aka La dama rossa uccide sette volte (Emilio Miraglia, 1972) – After two sisters inherit a castle, a mysterious woman in a red cloak begins murdering their friends.
What Have You Done to Solange? aka Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (Massimo Dallamano, 1972) – A teacher having an affair with one of his students at an all-girls school witnesses a murder and becomes the chief suspect when other girls are killed.
My Dear Killer aka Mio caro assassino (Tonini Valerii, 1972) – Giallo staple George Hilton stars as an inspector drawn into a case of murder and kidnapping.
French Sex Murders aka Casa d’appuntamento (Ferdinando Merighi, 1972) – After prostitute is murdered, her killer is determined to wipe out any witnesses.
The Case of the Bloody Iris aka Perche quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972) – A model moves into a swanky apartment where the previous tenant was murdered and soon finds herself stalked by the killer.
Delirium aka Delirio caldo (Renato Polselli, 1972) – A doctor becomes the main suspect in a string of murders in this completely insane film.
So Sweet, So Dead aka Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile (Roberto Bianchi Montero, 1972) – A murderer begins dispatching unfaithful wives in this film starring Farley Granger.
Amuck aka Alla ricerca del piacere (Silvio Amadio 1972) -- A possibly unstable writer's new secretary is trying to find her missing friend.
Death Smiles on a Murderer aka La morte ha sorriso all’assassino (Joe D’Amato, 1973) – Klaus Kinski stars in this D’Amato film about a murderer who uses an ancient Incan magical formula to kill.
Seven Dead in the Cat's Eye aka La morte negli occhi del gatto (Antonio Margheriti, 1973) – The residents of a Scottish castle are allegedly cursed by a killer cat and they are the first to be suspected when bodies turn up around the countryside.

Perhaps lesser known than Fulci, Argento, or Bava, director Sergio Martino made a number of Italian action, horror, and exploitation films, including some excellent giallo films with the most knockout titles.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh aka Blade of the Ripper aka Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh (Sergio Martino, 1971) – An ambassador’s wife is targeted by a killer and she thinks her complicated love life may be to blame.
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail aka La coda dello scorpione (Sergio Martino, 1971) – When a millionaire unexpectedly dies, an investigator is hired to trail the man’s wife and explore the possibility that he was murdered.
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key aka Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (Sergio Martino, 1972) – In this elaborate, Gothic-fueled giallo, a depraved writing living in a country estate considers killing his wife. 
All the Colors of the Dark aka Tutti i colori del buio (Sergio Martino, 1972) – An increasingly paranoid woman stumbles into the arms of a satanic cult.
Torso aka I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (Sergio Martino, 1973) – College students are being killed, so a group of friends decide to spend a quiet weekend away from it all in the country. Unfortunately, the murderer decides to follow them…

This mid-period includes some of the most unusual, oneiric entries in the genre, many of which are underrated must-sees.
Puzzle aka L’uomo senza memoria (Duccio Tessari, 1974) – Penned by giallo master Ernesto Gastaldi, this film follows a man with amnesia plunged into a life of crime and mystery.
The Perfume of the Lady in Black aka Il profump della signora in nero (Francesco Barilli, 1974) – In this haunting film, a woman begins to have troubling hallucinations connected to her mother’s suicide.
What Have They Done to Your Daughters? aka La polizia chiede aiuto (Massimo Dallamano, 1974) – After a young girl’s suicide, the police uncover a prostitution ring involving underage girls.
Footprints on the Moon aka Le orme (Luigi Bazzoni, 1975) – A woman has odd dreams about an astronaunt and arrives at a small town where the residents seem to know her.
Autopsy aka Macchie solare (Armando Crispino, 1975) – A pathology student tries to get to the bottom of a string of suicides, which may have a sinister connection.
Strip Nude for Your Killer aka Nude per l’assassino (Andrea Bianchi, 1975) – After a botched abortion, a model dies and someone begins murdering everyone involved.
The Killer Must Kill Again aka L'assassino è costretto ad uccidere ancora (Luigi Cozzi, 1975) — A man has wife murdered, but the car gets stolen along with the body.
House With the Laughing Windows aka La casa dalle finestre che ridono (Pupi Avati, 1976) — An art restorer is called to a small, rural village haunted by the memory of a deranged painter.

Giallo film production was beginning to die down during this period, but there are still a few interesting efforts.
Pensione Paura (Francesco Barilli, 1977) — After a hotel owner dies, her daughter is left to the mercy of the perverse guests, until a mysterious killer intervenes.
Pyjama Girl Case aka La ragazza dal pigiama giallo (Flavio Mogherini, 1977) — Ray Milland stars in this giallo about a waitress who may be involved in a murder plot.
Bloodstained Shadow aka Solamente nero (Antonio Bido, 1978) — Murders in a small town resume when a man returns to his childhood home.
Sister Of Ursula aka La sorella di Ursula (Enzo Milioni, 1978) — Two sisters arrive at a seaside hotel just as a murderer begins targeting local women.
Rings of Fear aka Enigma rosso (Alberto Negrin, 1978) — Three teenage girls may be culpable in the murder of some of their friends.
Giallo a Venezia (Mario Landi, 1979) — After a couple is founded murdered near a Venice canal during tourist season, an inspector learns that they played a series of perverse sex games that may have led to their deaths,

Giallo films all but died out in the ‘80s, during the last gasp of Italian horror. Some of these films, such as Demons, don’t qualify in the giallo genre, but there are a few interesting ‘80s mentions.
Macabre aka Macabro (Lamberto Bava, 1980) — After the death of her lover, a traumatized woman becomes completely insane.
A Blade in the Dark aka La casa con la scala nel buio (Lamberto Bava, 1983) — A composer writing the score to a horror film is stalked by a killer.
Delirium aka Le foto di Gioia (Lamberto Bava, 1987) — A former prostitute running a men’s magazine has some of her models murdered by an obsessive admirer.
Stage Fright: Aquarius aka Deliria (Michele Soavi, 1987) — An acting troupe rehearsing for a musical about a serial killer finds themselves the target of said killer when he escapes from a mental hospital.

Sharpen your straight razor, slip on a pair of black leather gloves, decorate your house with unbearable primary-colored lights, and -- most of all -- open up that bottle of J&B whisky and watch along with me.


  1. Thanks for this. I love the gialli and your list has turned me on to a few I've overlooked and must now search out.

    1. Thank you so much! Looking back on it, I feel like I could easily do a second series -- there are so many that get passed over.