Gialli (plural of giallo) are Italian-produced murder-mystery thrillers which feature scenes of excessive violence – often originally choreographed – which blur the lines between art and exploitation cinema. Films of the giallo genre usually include strong elements of horror and eroticism, the latter often in the form of voyeurism.
A high proportion of giallo plots involve a masked black-gloved psychopath brandishing a shiny blade, preying on young beautiful women. However, while most gialli feature this archetypal narrative structure, not all do. Amer (2009) is a perfect example of a giallo which, although almost void of violence and produced outside of Italy, is still considered a member of the genre due to its use of stylistic and thematic tropes.
Recurrent themes in gialli include:
– paranoid and delusional young and beautiful female protagonists
– insane masked antagonists wielding shiny bladed weapons
– wildly exaggerated violence, bloodletting and body counts
– a total lack of characterization
– an incoherent narrative with illogical dialogue
– unrealistic performances
– unusual camera techniques
– highly-stylised production, incorporating vivid, occasionally surreal, colouring.
– jarring musical arrangements
– the unveiling of the antagonist’s identity in the final scenes
The Italian word giallo means “yellow”. Giallo was adopted as the film genre’s title as a reference to the Gialli Mondadori series of paperback mystery novels produced in post-fascist Italy which helped influence the birth of the film genre. These yellow-bound paperbacks, printed on cheap paper, contained translations of American and English crime/mystery novels popular in the early twentieth century by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
Mario Bava’s decidedly Hitchcockian The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) – a heady mixture of thriller, sexploitation and horror conventions – heralded the arrival of the giallo genre, crystallising its whodunnit framework. Bava’s next giallo, Blood and Black Lace (1964) established much of the genre’s visual style with lavish primary hues and exquisite production design populated by probably the most enduring image of the giallo: the killer with his distinctive trench coat, fedora, gloves, and mask. This film also ushered in one of the most enduring aspects of the giallo: a high body count. But it was Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) that cemented gialli as successful box office material. Building on the giallo template established by Bava, Argento dragged the genre into the modern era by adding an emphasis on urban malaise, masculinity in crisis and a challenging of gender norms.
The popularity of the giallo peaked during 1970-1975. The genre is considered a predecessor to – and significant influence on – the American slasher film genre.
Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is a suitably creepy salute to the giallo genre.