The mid 60s introduced a new era of Italian filmmaking to the world of cinema, one with a heightened sense of expressionism that contains bright colors, violence, and sex. Introduced by Mario Bava, thanks to films like Blood and Black Lace, then further popularized and perfected by Dario Argento, the Giallo genre took it’s inspiration from the yellow back pulp novels that were gaining popularity in Italy. Taking influence from the greats like Alfred Hitchcock, the giallo genre is more times than not centered on a black gloved killer whose grisly murder is witnessed by an innocent bystander who ends up investigating the murder. These films gained quite a bit of popularity through the 70s and into the 80s and their influence can easily be seen in the films of Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, and Eli Roth to name just a few! - Below are some of the essential Giallo films you should check out if you want to get into the genre!
BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964)
Mario Bava’s pivotal film Blood and Black Lace changed the course of Italian cinema. It inspired future Giallo filmmakers like Dario Argento to pursue the genre themselves, and further re-invent during the 70s. Blood and Black Lace is so important, because while it was not the first Giallo film by Bava, it’s the one that cemented the stylistic and thematic tropes that would define the genre. The black gloved killer, the eccentric and stylish color palette, and the Hitchcockian mysteries centered on scantily clad women all combined to make for some of the most exciting films n history. This film went on to influence other filmmakers around the globe such as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and John Carpenter to name a few.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)
Dario Argento, the mastermind behind Suspiria, made his directorial debut with the genre-defining film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. While Bava helped create the grammar that made up Gialli, Argento popularized it with this film. A mainstream hit, The Bird took a lot from Blood and Black Lace yet was able to break through to the mainstream around the world. It’s popularity brought in an intense wave of films that would attempt to copycat the formula presented by Argento. Films like Dressed to Kill by Brian De Palma definitely owe a lot to this film, both in its style and in its technique.
A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)
Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood took the Giallo form and, in turn, created a new genre altogether. Many critics and fans will argue that A Bay of Blood is actually the firs slasher film. With tons of POV shots, gory killings, and nudity, it’s interesting to see just where franchises like Halloween and especially, Friday the 13thgot their inspiration!
A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (1971)
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is the perfect mix of Giallo mystery with American Counter-Culture exploitation. This film is a literal trip and is one of the more strikingly vibrant and surreal Giallo films of the era. This film proves that whole the traditional tropes of Giallo proved successful, it’s possible to dissect and re-invent it successfully, as director Lucio Fulci proved with this one. This hypnotic murder mystery intersects between realities, making it one of the true stand out Gialli of all time.
DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972)
Lucio Fulci’s gritty countryside thriller is more straight forward than his previous, more hallucinatory outing with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Florinda Bolkan, who also played the lead in the previous film, plays the local witch who people believe to be behind the murders of children in town. This film deviates from traditional Giallo tropes, and again shows that Fulci is one of the most dynamic filmmakers from this era.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972)
1972 proved to be a prominent year in the Giallo genre, darker films like Don’t Torture a Duckling and What Have You Done to Solange? showcased just how deep the genre could go with its subject matter and use of symbolism. Solange is one of those films that can be tough to watch, but Massimo Dallamano’s direction is among the Giallo genre’s finest, and makes incredibly tough subject matter intriguing without downplaying any of the extremes
Torso seems to have taken more notes from films like A Bay of Blood as opposed to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. More of a slasher film than anything, Torso is another great example of Italian filmmaking that was heavily borrowed by Americans for the Horror craze of the late 70s and 80s. Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth are both huge fans of this somewhat aimless who-dun-it slasher, with the latter being particularly fond of it, saying it’s actually his favorite Gialli!
DEEP RED (1975)
Dario Argento’s 1975 masterpiece, Deep Red, is often cited as the quintessential Giallo film. Encapsulating everything that is Giallo, Deep Red takes you on a hypnotic thrill ride that shows Argento at his most confident, creating a nightmarish world of mystery and violence at the hands of a Black-gloved killer. With an amazing as always performance by David Hemmings, Argento laid a new groundwork for the genre, which makes it no question why Argento is considered the Italian Hitchcock.
After a few years of deviating from the Giallo genre with films like Suspiria and Inferno, Argento returned to the genre with his riveting Gialli Tenebrae. Argento took from experiences he had with a crazy fan sending him letters to come up with this story of an American writer in Rome whose book inspired some grisly murders. Argento’s almost meta-script, which contains a few subliminal nods to the art of filmmaking, shows him creating a dialogue with the viewer that brings you in so much that you don’t want to leave the world he created when it’s all said and done. While the ending itself might seem improbable, keep in mind that it’s not impossible.
Arguably Argento’s last great film, Opera is a Giallo that came in the late 80s when the genre started to slow down quite a bit. The story follows a young opera singer who gets the lead in a production of Macbeth after the lead gets into an accident. However, this understudy-turned-star gets a ravenous fan who places needles under her eyes so she’s forced to watch brutal murders taking place in the opera house. – Argento has always had an eye for intricate camera work and some of his most jaw dropping cinematography is in Opera. While the mystery in and of itself isn’t anything special, Argento once again proves that 17 years after his debut, he can still create a visual spectacle centered on pure cinema.
Honorable Mentions: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)