“Giallo” translates to “yellow” in Italian, plain and simple — but when the word is used to denote a particular style of literature and film, it is terrifyingly more. The giallo genre comprises a stylish thriller that generally involves a masked killer stalking women and men alike, usually with revenge or psychosexual issues at the core of the murderer’s intentions. Filmmaker Dario Argento became a master of the genre, and this week Theresa Mercado’s Scream Screen series at the Sie FilmCenter will start cutting into the director’s little-seen but important entries in this cult canon.
Decades ago, publisher Mondadori would produce inexpensive Italian translations of popular titles by Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Raymond Chandler, slapping yellow covers on the books; printed on cheap paper, the pages quickly yellowed. Giallos were big hits in Italy, and ushered in many more entries in the stalk-and-kill format. Beginning in the ‘60s, Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava began to bring these lurid tales to life in movie theaters. As a predecessor to the slasher movie genre, the films were rooted in the thrills of Hitchcock — and his 1960 Psycho fits right in with giallo’s dark, sexual themes. But they also dabbled in the format of Agatha Christie, who usually wrapped her whodunits in increasing body counts and red herrings, all played out in stylish tableau and locations. That was a concept that Argento could sink his dente into.
The demented director’s bloody giallo calling card was 1970’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, which kicks off this new series. The film is the tale of a man who witnesses a woman attacked by a masked figure who must remain in Italy to help solve the crime and avoid meeting his fate at the end of a big knife himself; it uses giant art pieces and modern architecture to create a world as elegant and twisted as the killer’s own reveal at the film’s end. “He truly defined the visual style of the genre,” says Scream Screen curator and host Mercado. “Extreme murders and deaths, deep red blood, sharp knives, masked murderers, killer POV shots and always a surprise murderer reveal. He loves art and beautiful locations and sets that became their own characters in the film. His films are a visual feast for sure.”
The series will follow Bird with three of Argento’s giallo-est greats: Deep Red (1975), preceded by a live performance by local death-metal outfit City Hunter; Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987). And yes, your eyes don’t deceive you: Dario’s most popular title, Suspiria, is absent from this list — but for educational reasons. Though the film is considered a giallo for its bloody brushstrokes, the label doesn’t count too many entries with supernatural themes, moving the classic Suspiria into the “Italian horror” sub-genre reserved for ghosts, witches and zombies.
The bulk of this series is perfectly placed in October to provide proper chills for Halloween season. And once you’re done with your Argento 101 class, here are five more bloody benchmarks of the genre that cut straight down to the bone:
5) Bay Of Blood (1971)
Another powerhouse of Italian horror, Mario Bava knew his way around this subgenre like the back of his blood-covered hand. In this giallo staple, the strangulation of a countess brings out a greedy bunch with murderous intentions of collecting her inheritance, as well as an unlucky group of oversexed hippies who get caught in the deadly crossfire. Blood isn’t in the film’s title for nothing, as the victims are dispatched in harsh, violent ways that inspired some of the body count in 1981’s Friday the 13th Part 2. That film lifted, nearly shot for shot, three of Bay’s gruesome deaths for its own blood-soaked lakeside tale.
4) Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Giallos are never afraid to tackle issues of religion, sexual repression and child death, and Lucio Fulci’s Duckling hits the trifecta. In a small Italian village, someone is murdering small boys — and it’s up to a reporter and a sexually boisterous young lady to solve the crimes and avoid getting caught up in the town’s superstitions and distrust of outsiders. Fulci would become better known for gore-soaked films like Zombie and The House by the Cemetery, but Duckling was where he developed his first taste for visually shocking death and dismemberment.
3) Torso (1973)
Curiously, Carlo Ponti, the producer of War & Peace and Dr. Zhivago, put his touch on this giallo that promises “a gripping motion picture about a killer’s perverted hunger, aroused to an animal frenzy!” Someone is strangling co-eds on a university campus, but in an effort to protect a witness, she and her friends go to a secluded cliffside house to get away only to find that the killer has followed them. Long considered an early inspiration for the slasher film — although most giallos can claim some credit for that honor — Torso was director Sergio Martino’s most popular giallo, with a healthy dose of exploitation and spaghetti westerns to follow.
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2) New York Ripper (1982)
By the 1980s the American slasher film had a foothold on audiences everywhere, and blood and guts were the tools that made a memorable film. So the giallo had to up the ante not just on those items, but in psycho-sexual dementia. Welcome to New York Ripper. Already dizzy with bloodlust, director Lucio Fulci continued stabbing through the boundaries of subtlety as he crafted this tale of a demented killer who stalks his victims with a weird Donald Duck voice and a terrifying method of attacking his victims in the vagina. Seriously, vagina trauma is on full display here. If you can get through that, you will experience a giallo that truly captures the essence of weirdo exploitation and murder that fuses the pulp of the very books on which the genre was built into one bloody mess of dirty horror.
1) The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014)
If you make it through Scream Screen’s series and these added features, then you deserve a sumptuous dessert — so dig in to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s love letter to decades of giallo cinema. The duo’s debut film, 2009’s Amer, showed two visionaries cutting their teeth on all of the tones, colors, camera tricks, sounds, music and styles of giallo, creating an experimental, sumptuous cinematic soup. With Tears, Cattet and Foranzi are serving up the meaty main course with a full-fledged giallo that follows a man investigating the disappearance of his wife — only to find that the elegant building he lives in houses more lies, sex and murderous intentions then he could ever imagine. Sit back and let the film’s orgiastic style and intrigue wash over you like, well, a river of blood. Just be careful where it puts its hands.
Scream Screen: The Giallo Films of Dario Argento kicks off at 10 p.m. Thursday, September, with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Deep Red, Tenebrae and Opera will screen at 9:30 p.m. on October 1, October 8 and October 22, respectively. Tickets for each film are $11 or $7 for Film Society members and available at denverfilm.org.