Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

Country: ITALY

La ragazza che sapeva troppo
The Evil Eye

Although certain plot elements of imported murder mysteries had been absorbed into Italian cinema (see Visconti’s Ossessione [1943]) Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) was the first to foreground them in a self-conscious manner. The protagonist Nora Davis (Letícia Román) is a voracious reader of murder mysteries, she clearly enjoys losing herself in the fantasy world, and craves a mystery in the real world that mirrors the exciting events on the written page. The instant she arrives in Rome from America to visit a bedridden aunt events are in motion over which she has no control. An early encounter in the airport with a drug smuggler is quickly followed by the death of her aunt, and this is soon followed by a mugging, and most importantly of all a murder to which she is a witness. These plot events and contrivances would be laughable were it not for the darkly humorous streak that runs through the film, and the filmmakers less than serious approach to the subject matter. In addition Bava and his collaborators choose too include a third person narrator who comments on Nora’s predicament and gives expression to her thoughts. Rather than weaken the narrative, this serves to tie the film very strongly to the literary source, and it becomes another self referential device along with on screen references to Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Giallo Poster Gallery

For your viewing pleasure The Celluloid Highway is proud to present a selection of poster images for some of the more distinctive productions in the giallo cycle. There are 30 in all, which is only the merest fraction of the films classified as gialli. The criteria for inclusion was entirely subjective, so if any of your favourites have been omitted I apologise beforehand. The only thing left to do is pour yourself another triple measure of J&B, make sure your windows and doors are securely locked, and enjoy this fine selection of images.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much aka The Evil Eye (Mario Bava, 1963) - US poster

Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964) - US poster

Naked You Die aka The Young, The Evil and the Savage (Antonio Margheriti, 1968) - US poster

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Trailer Tuesday: Giallo Special

Here is a selection of trailers for some of the Gialli reviewed this month. I suggest you open that bottle of J&B Whiskey, pour yourself a triple measure,  sit back, and enjoy!

Monday, 24 January 2011

Sleepless (2001)

Country: ITALY

Non ho sonno
I Can't Sleep

It’s no surprise at all that Dario Argento’s return to the giallo form in 2001 with Sleepless divided critics and fans. Within the context of Argento’s output at the time (don’t forget that the despised Phantom of the Opera [1998] directly preceded it) Sleepless has to be considered a semi return to form. But within the context of Argento’s career as a whole Sleepless is an unexceptional thriller. It was the first film since 1993’s Trauma that didn’t feature the minimal talents of his daughter Asia, and this is of immediate benefit to the film. Furthermore Argento was able to cast Max von Sydow as the retired detective Moretti. The screen presence of von Sydow adds immeasurable quality to the proceedings and is a vital aspect of the film, because the other performances (with the notable exception of Gabriele Lavia, who isn’t in the film anywhere near enough) are utterly abysmal. The screenplay was written by Argento in collaboration with Franco Ferrini and in many places shows plot ingenuity the likes of which had become rare in Argento’s cinema. But at the same time Sleepless abounds with the distant echoes of more creatively successful Argento films. Fortunately this self-referential quality never destabilises the film, as it might in lesser hands. But the realisation that this has all been seen and done before damages the films ability to stand on its own.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974)

Country: ITALY

La polizia chiede aiuto
Coed Murders

The title might be a mouthful but Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters? is an extremely efficient and energetic mixture of giallo and poliziottescho. By 1974 the giallo had seen its share of the domestic marketplace eroded and the poliziotteschi cycle, with its elements of conspiracy and vigilantism was finding favour with audiences. Dallamano was one of the first filmmakers to see the potential in combining elements of the two and had achieved a notable creative success with his earlier effort What Have You Done To Solange? (1972). Although Daughters recycles the thematic substance of the earlier film, this second attempt ups the quotient of action considerably and focuses its attentions on the police investigation. The films attitude to its law enforcers and detectives marks the first notable shift from the territory of the giallo. This is very much a celebration of dogged detective work, and the principal investigators are imbued with charm, charisma and intelligence. There are no ineffectual bunglers here. Instead the cops emerge as powerless as the public in the face of the mysterious authoritarians that prowl the corridors of power. Our sympathies lie with the police because they are an unusually frustrated bunch - good men and women trying to do the right thing for the public, but unable to mete out justice because the reins of power are held firm by those who abuse power and privilege.

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971)

Country: ITALY

La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba
The Night She Arose from the Tomb
The Night That Evelyn Left the Tomb

The beautifully titled The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave is an unusual and distinctive giallo from Emilio Miraglia. Miraglia only directed six films, but his two contributions to the giallo cycle (the other being The Red Queen Kills 7 Times [1972]) are unusual for their foregrounding of the supernatural. But the supernatural never becomes more than a storytelling device, a sophisticated red herring which acts as a suitable peg upon which to hang the principle themes of obsession, mental illness, and sexual perversion. The supernatural elements work extremely well with a visual style that bathes the film in gothic atmospherics. The sumptuous production design and art direction of Lorenzo Baraldi is a key element of this strategy, and his efforts to extend the decadent perversions of the central character to the principal locations of the film adds immeasurable depth to the proceedings. The Cunningham estate is an excellent space with which to play out this tale of death, decay, sexual depravity, blackmail and moral emptiness. The castle is a schizophrenic space which dramatises a clash between chic interior design and kitsch modernity and the cold stone walls and corridors of a gothic past. It also offers a metaphor for the mental fragmentation and fluctuating psychology of the central character Sir Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen).

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Designated Victim (1971)

Country: ITALY

La Vittima Designata
Slam Out
Murder by Design

The Designated Victim is an intriguing Italian curiosity from 1971. Its position within popular Italian cinematic cycles of the 1970’s is highly contestable. A lazy scholar would simply just classify it as a giallo and move on, but its resemblance to that cycle is somewhat superficial. It lacks plot convolution and multiple red herrings, it does not have a narrative driven by deduction and detection, and does not have set piece moments of exaggerated stylisation. However what it does have is the look of a giallo. The film is largely set in the more salubrious reaches of Milan and Venice, and its characters hail from the arts and the aristocracy. This is an expertly realised world of bored and wealthy noblemen, and the machinations and artifice of the world of advertising and photography. We are without a doubt in the culture of the giallo, but structurally The Designated Victim plays out more as a straight thriller, and at times actually looks forward to the Poliziotteschi films that would become increasingly popular. In this case the hybridity of the film and its successful plundering of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock works in its favour. However what really makes the film a standout is the sparks that fly between Tomas Milian and Pierre Clémenti.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Autopsy (1975)

Country: ITALY

Macchie solari
The Magician
Sun Spots
The Victim

Released under the more appropriate original title of Macchi solari which translates as Sun Spots writer/director Armando Crispino’s gialli is a very peculiar little film. Although Crispino only directed nine films he had previous knowledge of the form with the dour and dreary The Etruscan Kills Again (1972). In light of the other pictures that make up Crispino’s filmography Autopsy has to be considered his best film. But unfortunately that isn’t really saying much. This film is elevated slightly by a competent cast that includes Mimsy Farmer (a gialli semi-regular by this point), television actor Barry Primus, and the ever watchable Ray Lovelock sporting his trademark beard. Behind the camera the contribution of composer Ennio Morricone is vital. Morricone’s weird and eerie music that makes use of whispered voices and a repeated theme that is subtle and plaintiff does much to instil a sense of the unnatural. It is by no means the maestro’s best work, but it gives Autopsy a touch of class it badly needs. Crispino is further aided by the beautiful lighting and cinematography of Carlo Carlini who captures the stark and stifling heat of Milan and juxtaposes it with some wonderfully lit night time sequences. Crispino himself is a somewhat pedestrian director, but even he is unable to undermine what is an astonishing opening ten minutes.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A Bay of Blood (1971)

Country: ITALY

Reazione a catena
Twitch of the Death Nerve
Blood Bath
The Last House on the Left Part II

This multi-titled picture from Italy’s greatest visual stylist Mario Bava (it was even passed off as a sequel to the inferior Last House on the Left [1972]) has achieved an influence in the horror genre far out of proportion to its modest means of production. It provided a blueprint for less talented filmmakers like Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Sean S. Cunningham, so indirectly we have Mario Bava to blame for the cinematic excrement inflicted on the world by these amateurish filmmakers. Its status as the slasher film in embryonic form often detracts from the fact that A Bay of Blood is a ruthlessly efficient giallo that owes its own debt of gratitude to the Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None (1939). It also emerges as a withering satire in its own right, refreshingly bereft of the self-conscious post-modern prattling of odious and arrogant films like Scream (1996). It takes a rare talent indeed to not only put in place a plot structure with obvious potential for imitation, but also to send up such a plot structure. This is by no means a one man show and although their names have largely been written out of slasher history Bava’s collaborators on the screenplay Fillipo Ottoni and Giuseppe Zaccariello deserve a mention. Indeed these three men wouldn’t have had a screenplay to work on were it not for the original story by Franco Barberi and Dardano Sacchetti. I’ve been critical of Sacchetti in the past, but the man has an undoubted gift for creating complex plots that somehow hold together and a myriad of distinctive sequences and scenarios. Its just he has the same aptitude for writing dialogue as a deaf mute.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Blade in the Dark (1983)

Country: ITALY

La casa con la scala nel buio
House of the Dark Stairway

I first encountered Lamberto Bava’s second feature film A Blade in the Dark about a decade ago. My memories of this viewing experience were unanimously positive, so I felt a certain amount of upbeat optimism as I slotted the Blue Underground DVD into my player and screened it for the second time in preparation for this month long giallo season. To say I wasn’t expecting such a bad film might be the understatement of the year. A Blade in the Dark is living proof that returning to films every few years is a vital part of film scholarship. This is Lamberto Bava’s gushing and masturbatory tribute to the giallo productions of Dario Argento. You can almost see Bava kneeling at the altar of Argento and genuflecting before his messiah. Or perhaps better still flagellating his flabby form too appease his filmmaking master. The starkly lit visual presentation (even night time scenes are bright) is a complete lift from the previous years Tenebre, a film upon which Bava also worked. The protagonist who is stalked by an unseen assailant as the bodies stack up is clearly a nod to Marcus Daly from Deep Red (1975). The only difference is that one composes avant-garde jazz music (and represents high culture) and the other is employed to compose a score for a horror film (and represents low culture). Although both musicians approach the art from different perspectives and both characters are weedy A Blade in the Dark’s Bruno (Andrea Occhipinti) is so lifeless, lame, and pathetic one prays for his extermination. If you want to see the difference between father and son watch this film. Mario Bava was a brilliant visual stylist who was heavily imitated by others, Lamberto is devoid of ideas and imitates others.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Country: ITALY

La casa dalle finestre che ridono
House with the Windows That Laugh

Most directors of gialli spend their time so preoccupied with stylistic details that many of the films have an artificiality to them. It is quite difficult to become fully absorbed into the filmic world because the makers of gialli are continually foregrounding the means of its construction. However there are one or two notable exceptions and Pupi Avati’s 1976 gialli The House with Laughing Windows is one such exception. Avati’s movie is the polar opposite to the pretence and formal experimentation of Dario Argento and Mario Bava and manages to get under ones skin in a manner rare for this popular Italian cycle. All the normal devices that are utilised to distance an audience emotionally are almost entirely absent, which makes this an incredibly unsafe viewing experience. The viewing safety of the audience is also undermined by Avati’s determined disavowal of generic convention. There are no black gloved killers here, there are no major set piece murder sequences, and there is very little use of a subjective point of view shot. The filmmakers are instead concerned with the slow and subtle realisation of an unsettling atmosphere of repression and perversity.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

Country: ITALY

What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body?
Erotic Blue

One of the great unsung heroes of Italian gialli is screenwriter and novelist Ernesto Gastaldi. His contribution to the cycle is inestimable and his influence all pervasive. There is an argument to suggest that Gastaldi holds greater prominence than either Mario Bava or Dario Argento. The former created a visual and stylistic template from which all other gialli sprang and the latter made it a commercial proposition with the legs to succeed in other territories. But Gastaldi continued to develop and refine the thematic landscape of the form in numerous productions. His highlights as a screenwriter include So Sweet…So Perverse (1969), Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971), Death Walks on High Heels (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Torso (1973), and The Scorpion with Two Tails (1982). This is just a fraction of his gialli output and indicates that without a doubt he was the author who returned most persistently to the cycle. He also wrote the film under discussion here The Case of the Bloody Iris and whilst it sets itself up to be not taken wholly seriously I can’t think of a better example that sums up the kitsch and camp appeal of the form. The humour is decidedly oddball, and the mysterious elements of the plot less than engaging, but the gallery of grotesque and eccentric characters that Gastaldi creates makes this a delightful way to pass an evening.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Pyjama Girl Case (1977)


La ragazza dal pigiama giallo
The Girl in the Yellow Pyjamas

Part of the attraction of Italian giallo productions is their luridly exotic titles. It’s hard to resist films with such striking titles as The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971), Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) or Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972). The titles promise much but only on occasion do they fully deliver. One of the worst titles for a film is surely The Pyjama Girl Case. It doesn’t promise a great deal and expectations are subsequently low, but the film constantly upsets ones expectations. This is one of the most obscure of the batch of gialli DVD’s released by ace US distributor Blue Underground a few years back, and is in my view one of the best. It was released in 1977 at a time when the production of gialli was beginning to slow down, and to its credit does a number of different things with a form that had become stale. The director Flavio Mogherini was best known as an art director and production designer, he was the man behind the larger-than-life art deco designs of Mario Bava’s spoof spy adventure Danger: Diabolik (1968). His directorial career was less distinguished, but Mogherini who co-wrote The Pyjama Girl Case with Rafael Sanchez Campay deserves attention for his precisely plotted narrative and an ingenious piece of misdirection that takes one by surprise.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)


Chi l'ha vista morire?
The Child

1971-2 was the period in which the Italian giallo reached saturation point in the marketplace. In 1972 alone twenty five films were produced, two of which were directed by Aldo Lado. Lado’s debut was the remarkable Short Night of Glass Dolls which he also wrote. It was a hugely disturbing gialli set in communist Czechoslovakia which offered a nihilistic view of a political and cultural elite feeding on the younger generation like decadent vampires. It was also noteworthy for an audacious method of storytelling which saw the protagonist recounting his experiences in flashback form while paralysed on a mortuary slab. His second giallo of the year was the less accomplished but still impressive Who Saw Her Die? Lado was joined in the writing by Massimo D’Avak, Ruediger von Spiess and Francesco Barilli, the latter would go on to write and direct the striking Perfume of the Lady in Black in 1974. Unfortunately the four minds are unable to concoct anything as special as Short Night of Glass Dolls and instead this particular gialli is considerably more formulaic and conventional. This is not a major criticism though because Who Saw Her Die? is a very efficient effort that attains a position of prominence due to an incredible Ennio Morricone score and a deeply unsettling thematic core that resonates due too an inspired choice of location.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Giallo Timeline

5 Dolls for an August Moon (Mario Bava, 1970)

Compiling a definitive list of those films that come within the giallo cycle is nigh on impossible. Part of the problem is the generic fluidity of the form. From 1980 onward there was a very fine line between gialli and slasher films, some might argue no line at all, and the 1980’s and beyond is a particularly under-researched area of the cycle. This list was hard work and a glowing testament to what can be achieved under the influence of boredom. Those titles highlighted in yellow indicate a film I consider important for reasons that are wide and varied. The 1990’s and 2000’s is particularly barren and I feel that despite my best efforts I have probably missed out loads of titles. If you notice any omissions (be there glaring or obscure) please let me know in the comments box and I can add it. Hopefully this can become one of the most definitive lists on the net. A quick note on titles; I’ve tried wherever possible to use the title that I consider to be the most well known. This of course is fraught with potential error, so once again if I’ve used a less common title let me know and I can correct it. This piece wouldn't have been possible without Adrian Luther Smith's Blood and Black Lace: The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies (Stray Cat Publishing, 1999). Thanks for reading!

The Girl Who Knew Too Much - Dir Mario Bava

Blood and Black Lace - Dir Mario Bava
Death on the Fourposter - Dir Jean Josipovici and Ambrogio Molteni
Marked Eyes - Dir Robert Hossein

Assassination in Rome - Dir Silvio Amadio
Libido - Dir Ernesto Gastaldi and Vittorio Salerno
Monster of Venice - Dir Dino Tavella
Night of Violence - Dir Roberto Mauri
The Possessed - Dir Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rosselini

Sunday, 2 January 2011

An Introduction to the Italian Giallo

The Bloodstained Butterfly (Duccio Tessari, 1971)

January 2011 marks the first anniversary of The Celluloid Highway and what better way to celebrate this minor milestone than with a month dedicated to that most fascinating of Italian filone the giallo. The term filone recognises gialli as a cycle rather than a self-contained genre. An indigenous attitude to the production and distribution of popular cinema in Italy which goes some way to explaining the hybridity of the form and the cross pollination with other popular cycles. This month long festival of black gloved psychopaths, eye watering camp fashions, bourgeois artisans and their neurotic women, and exaggerated acts of eroticised violence is due in no small part to my readership who voted for it. As a result I am consigned to walk the plaza’s and squares of European capitals in search of madness and murder. The age of DVD and Blu-Ray has given audiences uncut and pristine transfers replete with supplementary material and many of the titles have acquired cult followings. Films that were at one time barely remembered obscurities are now presented as lovingly as the Italian art films which took all the critical plaudits in the 60’s and 70’s.

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