But what is a giallo? Much as “film noir” had its roots in the French Série Noire imprint, the term giallo – Italian for “yellow” – is derived from a series of crime and mystery paperbacks published in Italy with yellow covers. Italians use the term to describe any old mystery yarn, but anglophone film buffs apply it to a specific type of lurid Italian psychothriller which had its heyday in the 1970s. The typical giallo is extremely stylised and the directing often inventive, some of the best-known practitioners being Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino.
Here’s how to spot a giallo movie.
1) The title. Being Italian, these films go by assorted different aliases, but don’t go looking for banal monikers like Le Week-end or We’re the Millers. Giallo titles are as baroque and preposterous as the films themselves. Hence we have Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?
2) The plot. The typical giallo plot concerns a quest to solve a series of bizarre and gruesome murders perpetrated by a killer wearing a mask and gloves, either black leather or surgical rubber (as seen in, for example, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Black Belly of the Tarantula). Before we learn the murderer’s identity, we sometimes get glimpses into their troubled past via fragmented flashbacks. (Deep Red, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Tenebrae, The House with Laughing Windows)
Occasionally the protagonist is a woman who may or may not be going mad – cue psychedelic hallucinations – or who is troubled by hints of the supernatural, precognition, or devil worshipping conspiracies. (The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, All the Colours of the Dark)
Some gialli were inspired by or even directly adapted from Edgar Wallace mysteries. (The Bloodstained Butterfly, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, What Have You Done with Solange?) They are also near kin to slasher movies – Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (also known as Bay of Blood, 1971) is often cited as a precursor to the likes of Friday the 13th. Which brings us to…
3) Gruesome death. The giallo killer’s weapon of choice is the knife, but anything else will do – scalpels, razors, axes, motor vehicles, strangling, defenestration, decapitation. Preferably with lots of screaming and blood.
4) Clues. Gialli are packed with police procedural elements, witnesses (who either can’t quite piece together what they’ve seen, or are murdered before they get a chance to tell anyone), crime-scene photographs and forensic science, some of it quite bonkers, such as the notion, expounded in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, that the last image seen by a murder victim is recorded on their retinas. (See also Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s story Claire Lenoir, cited by J.K. Huysmans in À rebours (aka Against Nature), and the 1999 blockbuster flop Wild Wild West, in which a decapitated head is used as a sort of slide projector.)
5) Misogyny. The victims aren’t always beautiful women, but it often seems that way as you watch yet another semi-naked babe being stalked and ogled prior to being horribly done to death. Dario Argento once famously said, “If they have a good face or figure I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.”
On the other hand, sometimes it’s the beautiful woman who turns out to be the killer. You never know with gialli. Decades before preposterous plot twists became popular in Hollywood thrillers such as Basic Instinct, gialli were already unmasking the murderer as… the last person you suspected.
4) Design. The 1970s used to be known as The Decade That Style Forgot, but now its furnishings, decor and fashions look as though they might have been designed expressly for dressing movie sets. Hence we get mouth-watering shots of art nouveau light fittings (Black Belly of the Tarantula), or shabby-chic walls that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of Elle Deco (The House with Laughing Windows), or wallpaper like the one in The Cat o’Nine Tails, which resembles a recurring exploding brain motif.
And the decor isn’t always just for show. One of the unofficial rules of giallo is that, if you spot a spiky modern sculpture in the first act, be assured that someone will end up impaled on it in the third. (Tenebrae)
5) Music. Composers such as Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai, Stelvio Cipriani and the Italian prog rock band Goblin provide music so distinctive that Cattet and Forzani have simply lifted some of the original 1970s scores for use in their own neo-gialli. The Giallo Sound is typically an intoxicating mix of groovy lounge music, nerve-jangling discord, and the sort of soothing lyricism that belies the fact that it’s actually accompanying, say, a slow motion decapitation – such as this lovely track by Morricone for Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
6) Characters who seem pathologically compelled to say, “I know who the killer is! But I can’t tell you over the phone. Let’s meet tomorrow…” They might as well add, “in a dark and lonely place, where I’ll be horribly murdered before I get a chance to spill the beans.”
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in November 2013. It has been lightly edited.