Giallo is one of those cult-movie terms that is more frequently name-dropped than it is actually understood. Where many will use it as a catch-all for any outrageously gory European horror film from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, it actually refers to a specifically Italian strain of mystery thriller, wherein the killer is frequently clad in black, and the deaths are almost always ridiculously sanguine. Giallo itself translates simply to “yellow,” a nod to a ubiquitous line of yellow-covered Italian crime paperbacks from the early twentieth century. To get a better handle on what constitutes giallo, it is helpful to know that the Italians use the term to describe any number of non-Italian mysteries, in the same generalized way we use the phrase film noir; to an Italian, Alfred Hitchcock is just as much of a giallo master as Mario Bava.
To an American layman, then, it might come as a bit of a shock how much Italian shock-master Dario Argento strayed from the giallo playbook. For all of its elaborately staged murders (and gallons of near-fluorescent stage blood), SUSPIRIA doesn’t quite fit the bill; the menace is clearly supernatural from the get-go, and the central question is less “Who dunnit?” than “What the fuck?” Nevertheless, Argento’s tree of batshit is firmly rooted in giallo soil, as evidenced in his directorial debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. The plot is typical of the genre – a writer witnesses a brutal attack by a black-gloved madman, and is enlisted by the local authorities to help track it down – but Argento infuses it with his signature use of brilliant color, oddball plot twists, and blaring music, all of which he would carry to even more dizzying extremes with each successive feature. (Soundtrack nerds should note that Argento had yet to begin his fruitful collaboration with horror-prog outfit Goblin, but finds a more-than-suitable substitute in legendary composer Ennio Morricone).
The Brattle is pairing BIRD with a lesser known, but no less cockeyed giallo thriller: Massimo Dallamano’s WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? Set in an increasingly claustrophobic boarding school for girls, SOLANGE once again opens with the protagonists witnessing a murder; the added twist here is that said protagonists are engaged in an illicit student-teacher affair at the time, and thus decidedly less forthcoming to the authorities. As the bodies unsurprisingly pile up, it becomes clear that the murders are somehow tied up with missing student Solange. While it never quite reaches the same heights of lunacy as the work of Argento or Bava, SOLANGE is an effectively lean thriller, with some genuinely shocking twists in the third act. Like many foreign films of the time, SOLANGE played overseas under a litany of sensational titles, including TERROR IN THE WOODS, WHO’S NEXT?, THE SCHOOL THAT COULDN’T SCREAM, THE SECRET OF THE GREEN PINS, and, confusingly, TRAUMA, a title Argento would use for a thriller of his own some twenty years later (in fact, it was this very confusion that brought me to first watch SOLANGE on a crummy VHS tape in high school!).
If the tropes of giallo sound familiar – all those masked killers and nubile co-eds and POV shots and graphic murders – it’s because they would prove hugely influential to filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Sean Cunningham in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Even more than films like PSYCHO, PEEPING TOM, and BLOOD FEAST, giallo is the most direct antecedent of the slasher film as we know it today. But no matter how many generic slasher pics you’ve sat through, there’s still something bracingly unnerving about a good giallo. (In case you haven’t had enough, the Brattle will be continuing its foray into Euro-weirdness this weekend, both with the new giallo-inspired THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS and with Argento’s classic CREEPERS. Watch this space for coverage of both in the coming days!)
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) dir. Dario Argento
Thursday, 9/18, 8:00 PM
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? (1972) dir. Massimo Dallamano
Thursday, 9/18, 10:00 PM
Brattle Theater (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)
$10 each ($12 for double feature)