Is the giallo making a comeback?
Now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, James Wan’s exuberantly unhinged Malignant follows a young woman (Annabelle Wallis) grappling with past trauma as she experiences terrifying visions of a mysterious killer slaughtering those in her orbit.
At least initially, that premise is about as giallo as it gets; Wan has been upfront about his desire to put a personal twist on this Italian horror genre. And though Malignant ultimately tears off in directions equally influenced by ‘90s Dark Castle joints and the trashy mad-science kicks of ‘80s maven Frank Henenlotter, Wan is only the most recent in a long line of modern horror filmmakers to claim gialli—with their psycho killers, ornate aesthetica and sexualized violence—as a major influence.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s retro-styled Censor follows a film censor in ‘80s London who, upon watching scenes in a “video nasty” that uncover her own repressed memories, falls down a rabbit hole of psychological instability so vivid and dreamlike that it suggests Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci’s 1981 masterpiece The Beyond. Maxi Contenti’s just-released The Last Matinee stages its slasher carnage inside a Uruguayan movie theater as a madman works his way through unsuspecting ticket-buyers—takes its cues most from Lamberto Bava’s 1985 exploitation classic Demons. The film is overrun with visual references to gialli and creates inspired images of its own, like smoke swirling out of a slit throat.
Still ahead this year is Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, in which another young woman (Thomasin McKenzie) experiences another set of visions—psychically linking her to an aspiring lounge singer (Anya Taylor-Joy) in London’s swinging ‘60s—that begin as dreams before spiraling into a violent nightmare. And even before that reverent throwback hits theaters, audiences will have seen Julia Ducorneau’s Titane, which won her the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival; fusing bold colors to tactile metallic sounds, it’s been referred to as a neo-giallo by some critics.
But what makes a film a neo-giallo, or a plain ol’ giallo for that matter? Some fans insist that the original term only applies to a class of pulpy mystery-thrillers that emerged from Italian cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s, often made on the cheap and awash in splashes of lurid gore and titillating nudity. After all, the word giallo means “yellow” in Italian; it came to signify a specific genre due to the popularity of cheap paperback mysteries with yellow covers, first published in Italy by Mondadori in the 1920s, that veered toward the scuzzy and salacious.
Italian filmmaker Mario Bava single-handedly established the template for giallo cinema with 1963’s black-and-white The Girl Who Knew Too Much, about a young woman terrorized by visions of murder, and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace, which followed a mysterious killer as he stalked and slaughtered models in a Roman fashion house. A masked butcher of young women, his black leather gloves wielding a glinting knife, soon became the giallo’s defining symbol, and the opulent style with which films exploring such figures were made—especially once Dario Argento emerged in 1970 with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage—further distinguished the giallo as a uniquely aestheticized, textural genre.
Classics such as Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), and Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) are remembered as much for their unusually bright colors, desolate urban settings and puzzling camera angles as they are for their focus on sex, death and murder. The plots of gialli were rarely coherent and often inclined toward dream logic that better suited their sensory overload; even if complicated yarns involving confused eyewitness accounts, reluctant detectives and fiercely repressed traumas were commonplace in the genre, these storylines often spun out into crimson, orchestral fantasias.
In weighing the cultural significance of gialli, it might be helpful to consider them proto-slashers, given the sizable influence they exerted over American slasher films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Bava was especially influential here: His 1971 feature A Bay of Blood exemplified his approach to emphasizing sex and gore over story, but Blood and Black Lace was by that time considered a classic and had already inspired filmmakers stateside to follow his lead. As with slashers, not all elements of gialli have aged well. There’s an inherent misogyny to the genre, with its fetishistic treatment of violence against women, and its depictions of mental illness and gender fluidity are rooted in a certain neurotic repulsion.
Though forever linked to that bygone school of Italian horror filmmaking, the giallo lives on most today through postmodern genre practitioners, who see the narrative tropes, stylistic excess and technical opulence of gialli as a palpable atmosphere to selectively indulge or anatomize. Preserving the look and feel of the giallo but filtering out its problematic elements by letting in new voices, neo-giallo has in more recent years become its own kind of animal, concerned at once with replicating the genre’s visceral stimulations while interrogating their construction.
By reveling in the genre’s iconography but also twisting it into fresh, frightening, often self-critical shapes, filmmakers like Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Yann Gonzalez, Peter Strickland and Julia Ducourneau are engaging in an open-ended conversation about gialli, what they meant and how their most salient themes and striking images can be reproduced in a modern context.
Here’s our beginner’s guide to the neo-giallo:
Belgian duo Hélène Cottet and Bruno Forzani first made the leap to feature-length storytelling in this exquisitely unnerving 2009 gem, which they’ve described as a pointedly postmodern take on the giallo. Told across three color-saturated vignettes, Amer charts the gradual development of Ana (Cassandra Forêt, then Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud, then Marie Bos) through childhood, early adolescence and adulthood. Simultaneously, Amer positions Ana within the sexualized and victimized archetypes women were made to embody in old-school gialli, exploring and deconstructing the genre’s voyeuristic proclivities while letting us share the perspective of the would-be prey. Doing away with a discernible plot in order to focus on heightening atmosphere, the pair are arguably pursuing a more artistically pure and creatively distilled vision of the giallo. Through Amer, with its constant state of ethereality and psychedelic sensation, Cottet and Forzani first emerged as genre stylists too enamored of the giallo’s sensory overkill to make anything other than stupefyingly vivid tone poems.
Berberian Sound Studio
Set behind the scenes of a sleazy Italian slasher, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio tracks the mental deterioration of its sound engineer, the mild-mannered Gilderoy (Toby Jones), as he concocts all manner of unsettling audio accompaniments to match the project’s horrifying visuals. Before long, Gilderoy’s grip on reality begins to slip, and he’s drawn into the hypnotic atmosphere of the film in question: A (fictional) ‘70s curio called The Equestrian Vortex, about witchcraft at an all-girls riding academy. While this film-within-a-film goes unseen, Strickland turns the titular sound studio into its own analog circle of hell, tape loops running everywhere and machines looming ominously in the background as disembodied shrieks emanate from their industrial amplifiers. As all this might suggest, Berberian Sound Studio is a wonder of aural fixation; the film most forcefully channels the sonic sensations of giallo through a throbbing score of its own (by British indie band Broadcast) that evokes Goblin’s ever-mounting, increasingly hysterical prog-rock soundtracks to Argento classics like Deep Red.
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
One of the more inscrutable titles in this guide (which is saying something), Cottet and Forzani’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears opens as a man (Klaus Tange) returns home from a business trip to find his wife (Ursula Bedena) missing. Intercut with this sequence are unnerving black-and-white photographs, animated into a stop-motion montage, of a nude woman caressed by a long knife, leaving little doubt as to her fate. In his search, the man encounters an unhelpful neighbor (Birgit Yew), who’s wearing black lace and claims her husband vanishes into the walls through a hole in the ceiling. Set almost entirely inside one Art Nouveau building, the staircases and corridors of which are shifting and labyrinthine as the oneiric, so-baroque-it’s-barely-there plot, Cottet and Forzani’s film proceeds in a free-associating, psychosexual fugue state, its audiovisual concepts swirling endlessly and suggesting one bizarre interlude after another. Though a fetish object like The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is perhaps better-suited for exhibition in an art gallery than a movie theater, giallo fans will eat it up like spiked catnip.
The Editor (2014)
As directed by Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy (together billed under the larger banner of their Canadian film production company, Astron-6), The Editor is as much a broad-grinning pastiche of myriad gialli as it is an earnest homage to the genre; on its face, the film is a black comedy, guffawing rather loudly at its own onslaught of gore and stylistic gratuity. Still, there’s no shortage of affection for the forefathers of the giallo to be found in this story of a once-promising editor (Brooks), left one-handed after an accident, who’s suspected of massacring the cast of an Italian horror movie he’s working on. With its rich synth score (composed by Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti), fluorescent color palette, zoom lensing and garish lighting, this is one parody that absolutely looks the part.
The Neon Demon
Most indebted to giallo giants like Argento, with his eerily yonic Suspiria, and Bava, with his fashion-centric Blood and Black Lace, this fractured fairy tale follows a young aspiring model (Elle Fanning) in the glimmering underworld of Los Angeles’ fashion scene. Surrounded on all sides by wolfish men and ravenous veteran models (including a bloodthirsty, snake-like Abbey Lee), she’s all but certain to serve as someone’s next meal. Few auteurs working today can imbue horrific violence and the cavernous spaces in which it’s staged with the same savage, hyper-composed beauty that’s become writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s calling card; in this, he’s perhaps the most logical heir apparent to Italy’s giallo luminaries. The Neon Demon is particularly giallo-inspired within Refn’s oft-expressionistic filmography, with its hidden covens, fetishistic attention to knives and dreamlike pacing that turns every motel, catwalk and nightclub into a hunting ground.
Five years before storming this year’s Cannes with Titane, French-Belgian writer/director Julia Ducourneau cemented her place as one of modern horror’s most exciting new voices with 2016’s Raw. As close to a perfect first film as you’re likely to find in this or any other genre, it follows a young woman (Garance Marillier), raised a stringent vegetarian, who’s forced to ingest meat while studying at school—thereafter craving it with escalating intensity. A feminist fairytale indebted to David Cronenberg’s protean cinema of the flesh and steeped in the bodily violations of the New French Extremity, Raw also displays Ducourneau’s love of giallo through its artery-red color palette and otherworldly atmosphere. The young woman suffering a mysterious affliction is also a giallo trademark, and Ducourneau excels by reconfiguring that particular trope into the empowerment central to her coming-of-age story.
Elizabeth Harvest (2018)
Though writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez’s sedate, stylish spin on the Bluebeard myth is much closer to science fiction than horror, the saturated colors of its meticulous mise-en-scène are pure giallo. Its story focuses on a young woman (Abbey Lee) who learns she’s the latest in a series of clones, her DNA identical to that of a dead woman once married to a deranged scientist (Ciáran Hinds). Set in one gleaming, modernist palace—actually four different houses, plus stage sets, and a CGI’d exterior—the film is told as much through bold, dominant colors as dialogue; single-color palettes bathe the film in amber, green and cyan, and Lee’s fiery red hair is utilized to striking effect. As inspired as Elizabeth Harvest as by Argento’s Inferno and Brian de Palma’s giallo-inspired thriller Dressed to Kill, the casting of Lee—a former fashion model—is the film’s most invigorating choice: With her blazing eyes and doll-like demeanor, she effortlessly channels classic giallo star Edwige Fenech and her captivating work in Giuliano Carnimeo’s 1972 giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris.
Peter Strickland’s textile ghost story casts a powerful spell. Most enthralling in how it threads together classic Italian giallo with strands of gallows humor that feel distinctly British, In Fabric focuses on a recently divorced bank teller (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who purchases a blood-red dress during the winter sales at the prompting of an eerily insistent store clerk (Fatma Mohamed). Though enchanted at first by the decadent garment, the customer is soon tormented by a series of misfortunes, at which Strickland begins weaving her story into a larger, abstracted tapestry of consumerist greed, seduction and object fetishism. Throughout, that Argento-esque eroticism, and the sense of unseen forces conspiring in secret, bring In Fabric into a specific giallo tradition. A lesser-known offering from indie distributor A24, which has long since cemented its status as Hollywood’s premier tastemaker brand but deserves equal credit for its rejuvenating impact on contemporary horror, In Fabric confounds in the moment and lingers in one’s memory. It continues Strickland’s artistic penchant for sensual experience and tactile disorientation; often cutting his characters up into pieces by how he frames them, or layering together close-ups of bodies and fabric, he constantly draws attention to the corporeality behind sensation and the ways in which certain aesthetic designs can make us feel virtually unencumbered by those physical limitations—even endless.
Knife + Heart (2019)
Yann Gonzalez’s intoxicating neo-giallo lifts the genre out of its native Italy and sets it down in France, circa 1979, where the obsessive Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is rallying a group of gay porn stars to make their most ambitious feature to date—and hopefully win back her ex (Kate Moran), who’s also her editor, along the way. But a twisted killer is picking off her performers; an early scene finds a man in a leather mask approaching a stranger at a club, taking him home, tying him to the bed and whipping out a switchblade dildo. With its lurid blue-and-red neon aesthetic and psychosexual cat-and-mouse setup, Knife+Heart (the French title of which more accurately translates to “A Knife in the Heart”) is that rare modern giallo that understands the history of this genre well enough to entirely deconstruct it, yet adores the deeper feeling of the giallo in such a pure way that it succeeds in building it back up as well. A masterpiece in this way, Gonzalez’s film transgressively queers the giallo, and in doing so gives it a dangerous new edge. Of particular fascination are the resonances this neo-giallo uncovers by posing cinema as a site where all its outcasts can grieve, process, kill, avenge and reconcile their own missing pieces.
Nicolas Pesce first terrorized festival audiences with his esoteric 2016 debut The Eyes of My Mother, an American gothic told partly in Portuguese, that was shot in crisp black-and-white and played host to some of the decade’s most memorable ocular trauma. Piercing, his even more stylized follow-up, marries Italian giallo to J-horror in order to adapt Ry? Murakami’s chilling novel about a man (Christopher Abbott) desperate to impale his baby with an icepick and desperate to scratch this particular itch with the help of an unwitting sex worker (Mia Wasikowska). After some very giallo-inspired scene transitions, Piercing places the two in a Tokyo hotel room, she slips off her black gloves, and psychosexual warfare begins in earnest. A kinky, peculiar picture, Piercing is filled to the brim with nail-biting imagery of cigarettes hovering over eyeballs, tentacled creatures and unsettling hallucinations. Keep an ear out for Goblin’s Tenebrae score, perhaps the picture’s most amusing nod to gialli in a film full of them.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.