List of must-see films for the Giallo section of my taxonomy of horror sub-genres.

Bay of Blood (1971) Dir. Mario Bava

Credited as the first slasher film (it pre-dates both Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by three years), Bay of Blood combines the body count of an American slasher with the cinematography and narrative structure of a murder mystery. The film’s color pallet is a bit muted for a giallo film and much more closely resembles a dark Vincent Price/Roger Corman production (by this I mean Corman’s adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories in the 1960s, but also consider 1950s and 1960s Hammer Horror). Bay of Blood still relies on the extreme close-ups that help characterize giallo films. These close-ups serve two main purposes in the sub-genre, and in film in general. First, they produce a feeling of tightness, of limited visibility for the audience that builds tension and suspense. Second, and perhaps more interesting for my purposes, close-ups work to fragment the body. The frame dissects the body, breaking it down to its constituent parts and their functions (hands that stab, eyes that gaze) so that violence and victimization take on a different connotation that is severed from considerations of predator and target, or of personhood in general.

Stage Fright (1987) Dir. Michele Soavi

Not to be confused with the unrelated 1950 or 2014 films with the same title, Michele Soavi’s 1989 slasher Stage Fright is about what you’d expect The Phantom of the Opera to look like, had it been conceived of in the late 80s. In this sense it’s rather familiar and does a lot less to innovate this type of film than Dario Argento’s Opera does (see below). It is, however, particularly interesting as a consideration of the sexual politics in the 1980s and of exploitation in the entertainment industry. While the musical within the film isn’t explained fully, a conversation between the director and producer at the beginning of the film reveals that the musical is about a prostitute who is murdered and then (somehow?) returns to rape her attacker. While Stage Fright doesn’t follow through on this line of inquiry, it does highlight the influence of rape-revenge films on the rest of the horror genre.

Suspiria (1977) Dir. Dario Argento

Suspiria, and Dario Argento’s films in general, are the gold…or neon pink…standard in giallo film lighting and color design. His films also exemplify one of the more prevalent tropes in the sub-genre: mysterious, ancient, spiritual and/or religious evil that tends to attack pretty young women. Suspiria is the first in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, followed by Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007) which are based on a mythological triad of witches determined to unleash hell on earth, typically starting with old buildings in major metropolitan centers. What’s especially interesting about Suspiria are the nationality politics that its horror and conflict are grounded in; Suspiria’s villain, the witch plotting to destroy the world, is specifically a Greek emigrant in Italy. At the time of the film’s release in 1977 there weren’t any major, ongoing conflicts between Greece and Italy[1] but Italy’s occupation of Greece during WWII was still in living memory, so it may have influenced Argento’s choice of nationality for his antagonist.

Opera (1987) Dir. Dario Argento

If you have hang-ups about damage being done to eyes (first, go read some Freud, he has LOTS to say about you), you may want to skip this film. Whereas many horror films use the threat of blinding as a shock device and typically move on quickly, one of Opera’s most graphic scenes leans into this particular kind of terror, and its relationship to sexuality and violence. In the film’s most iconic scene,  Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is attacked, gagged, tied to a column, and has a row of straight pins taped below each of her eyes so that if she attempts to close her eyes, the pin will go through her eyelid. Her boyfriend (Stefano, played by William McNamara) then comes into the bedroom, spends an inordinate amount of time looking around the room, confused, and when he finally approaches Betty, he’s attacked by her assailant. Stefano is stabbed repeatedly (as Carol Clover reminds us, stabbing, especially in horror, is a form of psychosexual penetration). The attacker then returns to Betty, groping her while he tells her: “it’s not true you’re frigid, you’re a bitch on heat.”[2] This scene alone inextricably links sex, violence, and the gaze together in a clear and legible way that very few films have.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) Dir. Peter Strickland

This is the only film on this list that isn’t actually Italian, which is as it should be. Peter Strickland’s 2012 film is an entirely British production, with no financial support from Italy that I can find, but a majority Italian cast. The film is about sound design and sound effect production in horror films, specifically giallo films. In addition to its narrative connections to the genre, Berberian Sound Studio is also very intentional in its use of giallo aesthetics with the majority of the film shot in close-ups and sound design that is reminiscent of Dario Argento’s and Mario Bava’s aural sensibilities. The film also thematically opens up discussion of colonialism/infiltration, gender, and the subjectivity of power dynamics.

Bonus: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) Dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

I don’t personally consider this a giallo film, mostly because I think that classification largely belongs to Italian films (see exception above re: Berberian Sound Studio) but The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears is very, very often included in lists of giallo films, especially if the list-maker is trying to find more recent iterations. Despite this trend, I think it fits much better with the New French Extremity movement, so I’ll be discussing it when I get to the Film Movements section of this taxonomy.

[1] Keep in mind, I’m specifically referencing major wars and/or official diplomatic conflicts. I’m not a scholar in Greek and/or Italian international relations, so there may be a lot here that I’m missing. If you happen to know about specific conflicts or tensions of this nature in the 1970s, please feel free to comment on this post.
[2] This is the line in the English dubbed version, I’m not sure what the original Italian is but I’m sure it’s equally upsetting.


Image Credit: Orion Pictures © 1987

Author: Geneveive Newman