A long time ago I held a bias of sorts for foreign films. Sure, I watched Hitchcock’s pre-American, British movies, but those obviously didn’t count. Other than one lone exception (Germany’s excellent Run Lola Run), I stayed away from films involving subtitles; why read when I didn’t have to? In any event, I rationalized, American films were superior; after all, we practically invented the medium. And it was that snob mentality that kept me away from Europe’s finest exports for years. Besides, pre-Netflix, you didn’t really have access to anything foreign; there were only a select few to choose from in the video stores, and those consisted mainly of the cream of the crop (Bergman’s cerebral The Seventh Seal comes to mind). You didn’t have companies like Criterion or Blue Underground, for example, acquiring the rights to hidden gems. And even if they did, how would they have even gone about spreading the word? The internet only really came to life in the late 90’s. To use historical terminology, anything pre-DVD was the Dark Ages; the advent of DVD/Blu-ray brought on the Renaissance. Not only could the cinephile purchase or rent a film he previously had on VHS, but the DVD, already of a better quality, included bonus features that weren’t available beforehand. Great and not-so-great movies were enhanced by this extra material. Along with your favorites, you now also had previously hard-to-find, out-of-print, or as yet unreleased films flooding the market. Getting older, my biases started disappearing, and I found myself reading synopses of countless movies…American or not. Since I was a horror/thriller fan, I thought that that’d be the perfect place to start.
My first foray into foreigns films was with a genre called “giallo”. Giallos (“Yellow” in Italian, and so named for the pulp novels they were based on) were Italian murder mysteries that nearly always revolved around a black-gloved killer. The majority were by-the-book, paint-by-number efforts (i.e. beautiful models getting killed by the unseen psychopath, a stranger to the country somehow getting sucked in when his wife/sister/relative ends up dead, and plenty and plenty of “red herrings”; basically, the filmmaker throwing monkey wrenches at your guess(es) of the identity of the real killer). However, there were a few that stood out from the pack. Directed by the likes of now legendary Italian filmmakers Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento and Sergio Martino, among others, more than a few of these giallos packed a powerful cinematic punch. They were stylish (these films took place in the liberated ’60’s/’70’s, and you could expect mod fashion, music and bottles of J&B scotch to invade your senses…oh, and did I mention sex?), suspenseful and, most importantly, fun. The people in these movies were the essence of cool and they knew it; handsome leading man George Hilton and Algerian-born French hottie Edwige Fenech headlined more giallos than should have been allowed by law. But, by God, they were great at what they did! Not everything they churned out was gold, but you knew that if they were involved, it would at least be semi-interesting. If nothing else, I had Edwige to stare at for 90 minutes…and that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Now that I’ve (hopefully) whetted your appetite, I’ll pass along a short list of what I consider the best of the best of the genre. Again, these movies are not for the faint of heart, although they’re tame by todays “torture porn” standards (e.g. Saw, Hostel, etc). These films were made in simpler, and, in my opinion, better times when men were men, women were women, and everyone smoked, drank and and, basically, enjoyed life. There was no “battle of the sexes”; the Europeans understand that the times, they were a-changin’, and went with it. Strong female leads anchored many of these movies. They had the ingenue look, but could and would defend themselves when the need arose. And the need invariably arose because–who knew–psychopathic killers really like murdering young, beautiful women.
Yoni’s Favorite Giallos
1. What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)- Directed by Massimo Dallamano, this murder mystery set in an all-girls boarding school is an outright mindf***. Keeps you guessing right until the very end: “Seriously, what the hell have they done to Solange??
2. All The Colors of the Dark (1972)- Sergio Martino, who helmed a few films on this list, hits a home run with this spooky effort involving a woman (Fenech) unwittingly getting involved with a satanic cult. What’s a gorgeous brunette to do?
3. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)- Martino, Hilton and Fenech team again in a bizarre tale of an ambassador’s wife who suspects that either her husband, ex lover, or current lover may be a vicious killer. Great twist ending.
4. The Case of the Bloody Iris (1971)- Fenech is a model living in a swanky high-rise apartment where, wouldn’t you know it, some maniac is terrorizing her. A potential “wash-rinse-repeat” story is elevated by Fenech and Hilton’s performances, and a creepy pervasiveness throughout.
5. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)– Lucio Fulci’s seminal entry in the genre that this time involves a child killing psycho. Extremely unnerving with a “holy cow!” end.
6. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)– Considered by some to be the greatest giallo of all, the strange plot centers on a woman whose violent death dreams come true in real life. Coincidence or a psychic connection?
7. Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)– Spanish giallo involving a British couple who find themselves in an eerie village where only children seem to dwell. What happened to the adults?? One of the greatest thrillers I’ve ever seen…period.
8. Tenebre (1982)– An American mystery novelist arrives in Rome on a book tour. Unfortunately, a madman obsessed with the author begins committing a series of grisly murders that echo Tenebre, the aforementioned novel. A Murder She Wrote on acid.
9. Secrets of a Call Girl (1973)– A guilty pleasure of mine, Fenech stars as a crime boss’ girlfriend, who flees her abusive beau one night. He comes looking for her. Exploitation to the max.
10. Deep Red (1975)– Dario Argento of (the overrated) Suspiria fame blends a mix of horror and mystery to produce a top notch film. Some might say that it’s more horror, but it’s got all the necessary giallo elements: a stranger (this time a British pianist in Rome) witnessing a brutal murder, an attractive female sidekick/love interest, and a black-gloved killer. But the deaths are way more bloodier, and protracted.
11. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)– Dario Argento made his directorial debut with Plumage, a story centering on an American writer living in Rome (with his model girlfriend, of course) who’s suffering from writer’s block. As you can imagine, after witnessing a murder, that’s the least of his problems. But Tony, our protagonist, won’t go quietly into the night; in addition to evading the killer, he’s determined to find out who the madman is and stop the shocking murder spree. Notable for being my first giallo!
Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. If I’ve convinced one person to give this exciting genre a shot, I’ve succeeded in my mission (?!). All these films should be on Netflix, as that’s where I originally saw them, but there’s a chance that some of them have been taken out of circulation. In any event, they are all worth checking out.