The thing about giallo is that you can get your audience to watch some life-alteringly unsanitary shit as long as you’ve got a good soundtrack. Splattery farm-tool murder and Eyeball Stuff and buckets and buckets of orange-red blood – you get some hippie noodling on the electric organ and a highly motivated but confused drummer, you can make people bump their heads to crimes against nature.
If you’re not already watching them, giallos are Italian horror films that started in the late ‘60s and peaked in the ‘80s. They’re tasty, but very bad for you, like a Philly cheesesteak for your eyes. They follow a lot of the same beats – black-gloved killer creatively murders a shitload of people while the grizzled protagonist wades through the gore in search of the truth. But it’s what each giallo does to subvert the format that makes the genre so much goddamned fun. Wildly impressionistic directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci weave surreal, impossible images and emotions while ostensibly telling mystery stories, because in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, nobody actually gives a shit what the answer to the mystery is.
THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA
If you were brought up on American slashers, maybe you’re like “I’m into the murder scenes written via Mad Lib, but they’re so ugly and mean and full of weird disco.” That’s valid. It takes some getting used to, because the folks getting merked by the black-gloved killer aren’t Cool Teens – they’re grown-ass adults, covered in ‘70s body hair and working ‘70s adult jobs such as Hardboiled Detective and Haunted Museum Curator. You’ve probably seen enough American slashers. And if you’re like me, it’s because you grew up in a country that plants a Puritanical microchip in the back of your head so that you want to see teenaged sinners put to the sword for fucking in a tent. Italian horror doesn’t give a shit about your Protestant work ethic – it’s much more interested in what you’re keeping secret from people, and the ways in which your friends and neighbors will get fucked over once it all comes to light.
Giallo still has familiar problems with the male gaze, obviously. It’s crammed full of naked bodies, and just because those bodies happen to be old enough to vote when the killer shishkebabs them on a fire poker doesn’t make the depiction of their death more virtuous than a FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel’s. But the way we arrive to those death tableaux is as important as the deaths themselves. Where an American slasher is interested in the sins of the father crashing the foam party, giallo is more preoccupied with the characters’ own present-tense choices that bring them to their deeply upsetting fates.
NEW YORK RIPPER
Even the soundtracks are obsessed with bleeding-edge adult modernity, no matter how kitschy that shit comes across in the harsh light of 2018. Where early American slashers are stuck firmly in the past (invariably ripping off Bernard Herrmann’s PSYCHO score and sound cues from Hammer films), giallos like Argento’s FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET feature a rock band that sounds like The Doors’ evil twin brothers who got locked in an attic with a bucket of amphetamines. The surreal paranoia of FOUR FLIES wouldn’t be half as effective without that band going hell-for-breakfast and pushing the whole thing toward its conclusion, which doesn’t make even a little bit of sense, because it doesn’t need to.
This emphasis on the present makes the mystery element so much more vital than a simple paint-by-numbers Scooby Doo reveal. The point of a giallo is very rarely Whose Black Gloves Are Those, but rather, what’s to be done once those gloves come off? Can anybody’s lives be the same after the process of dragging the lake brings horrible truths bobbing up to the surface? How can any of us trust our fellow man, who’s got a greasy mustache and shifty eyes and hands we can’t see? How do we maintain the thin membrane between our bodies and a world full of knives and disco?
If you’re going to figure it out, you’re going to need a good soundtrack.
Ryan Boyd’s work can be found in Spectacle of Excess, Literary Orphans, Stirring, Leveler, Blast Furnace, Rust+Moth, and Fodor’s, and a bunch of other places. He’s the co-host of Rank & Vile, a podcast dedicated to ranking every single horror movie ever made, so he spends most of his time putting garbage in his eyeballs. He’s been watching the same VHS copy of Purple Rain for the last twenty years. He lives in Los Angeles and he never sleeps. You can find him on Twitter @ryandroyd