Down and Dirty Cinema explores exploitation films and how they helped shape the cinema of today.
Watching the opening sequence of Blood and Black Lace, it feels like you’re in for a ride. There’s a hall of mannequins lit in colorful neon lights; jazzy music plays in the background as the camera pans over to show the actors posing like mannequins—perhaps an attempt to foreshadow the kind of ridiculous experience you’ll see where all logic is thrown out the window. It’s groovy and kind of incoherent and absolutely gorgeous to look at.
This is Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, a 1964 murder mystery and an early example of the giallo film. It’s a bloody and enjoyable feature where half the fun is in how things make so little sense that it feels like a dream; a state of unreality that borders on maddeningly incoherent. It’s very typical of giallo, a genre that helped push the creation of other pulpy genres like slasher films and crafted a place for voyeurism in the language of modern cinema.
Giallo films originated from the cheap paperback detective stories that were popular during the pre- and post-World War II society in Italy. Its name comes either from the yellowed pages of the paper they used to make those books or from the book Il Giallo Mondadori, which is a popular series of detective novels in the 1930s that had covers printed with a yellow background. These are basically Italian pulp fiction, using the trappings of the detective genre to tell wild, scandalous stories.
The giallo film is an early example of a postmodern genre. At its core, the self-reflexive and sometimes nonsensical nature of the stories work with a mise-en-scene that is provocatively unnatural and surreal to create a disorienting experience for the audience. The plot and the experience are fragmented down the center to confuse the audience on who and what we root for.
A lot of giallo is a photocopy of Hitchcock’s films: the flashy camera angles, the murder mystery plots, the obsession with beautiful women, and the gory deaths that capture imaginations. But while Hitchcock tends to build bulletproof narratives around his murder mysteries, giallo films like Blood and Black Lace or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are twisted in the sense that the narratives are mostly a basic framework where the gruesome murder scenes can tenuously hang onto.
Also, giallo films take Hitchcock’s obsession with beautiful women to a really uncomfortable place, and a lot of it seems to be laser-focused on punishing women, in an attempt to glamourize the murders.
It’s a blueprint that’s been tried and copied and improved upon as the history of film trudges on, and a lot of it started out with Mario Bava’s strange and paranoid vision of the detective mystery.
Blood and Black Lace’s plot absolutely does not make sense. If it was a detective film, it would be a pretty awful one. But as an exercise in voyeurism, it allows you to watch undeniably gruesome things that surprise you with their violence.
The film follows a group of models for an ailing fashion house who are being targeted and murdered by an unknown assailant. It starts with one death, then it spirals to one meaningless murder after another, with the police baffled with the connection of each killing and why.
They throw a lot of red herrings, but the twist of who the killer is feels so inconsequential to the actual plot that spoiling it doesn’t actually ruin the pleasures of watching the film. The logic seems to be—and I’m paraphrasing Dario Argento a bit here)—that a bunch of beautiful women killed in brutal ways will look better than if men did it, and the people watching will be too enamored by the image to question the logic being put forward.
Giallo films, especially Blood and Black Lace, have very little substance, rarely a message or even a thematic focus to impart to their viewers. A lot of it is just finding new and fantastical ways to kill women, which gives out a sense of sickening taboo-ness as we watch: many times, even as I’ve enjoyed the glorified violence of the genre, I’ve also questioned why it had to be so violent against women, and why there doesn’t seem to be a thematic message around it that could blunt or give meaning to the stylish brutality at hand.
But, in a weird way, the giallo film’s seeming lack of thematic focus does create a ripe commentary on how we consume our violent media today. Do audiences really care about these characters, or do they care more about the murder itself? The best filmmakers tend to use violence as a force to be reckoned with, whose effects on society can be deadly and permanent. Giallo films show this force as meaningless, an impotent person’s rage made in an effort to find catharsis from the drudgery of life.
The violence against women in these stories—and there are a lot, enough to feel the merit of people who call this genre misogynistic—depicts the crumbling values of a more modern Italy, a nation attempting to hold on to antiquated values and ideas whilst battling with a new world that pushes back against them.
It feels like a lot of giallo films unintentionally make the same point about how toxic masculinity and holding up old patriarchal attitudes don’t do any good to the world. Instead, toxic masculinity kills people and stalls our progress as a society. It’s the same story, and though giallo films exaggerate it, it’s a great way of showing the world where insecure men try to take down women in an effort to feel cool and powerful.
In Blood and Black Lace, for example, we learn that the killer is the husband and wife owners of the fashion house the film is centered in. It feels like a commentary on how, in a lot of stories and real-life events, husbands use the implied power men have over women to get them to go against their feelings and morals. They coat it in shallow expressions of love and care, but it’s still the same misogynistic ideals that ensure that their authority always ends up on top.
He dies in the end, but so does the wife and so do a whole lot of women. Giallo films, without intending to, make a case for how misogyny and the patriarchy destroy women’s lives.
In a way, giallo films are self-reflexive reminders of the sensationalistic and taboo thrills that people enjoy. Society has built an interesting culture of tall tales and legends based off of nothing but rumors and gossip. We enjoy hearing stories where people break the rigid rules of society, and we get a secondhand kick out of feeling like we’re doing those forbidden things, too, even if we are certainly not.
People don’t just gravitate towards true crime or pornographic stories about taboo relationships because they are scandalized by it; they also enjoy the idea of partaking in that scandal itself, even if not directly.
So it goes in giallo: it’s not the mystery we enjoy, but the thrill of the forbidden, of participating in a collective bloodlust of pain and misery. It’s the same reason why one would watch pornography, or a romance, or an amusement park ride: the very basic thrills provided by the experience.
A lot of how you can enjoy giallo films comes down to the heightened aesthetic pleasures that the films tend to have, and whether or not those aesthetic pleasures presented by giallo would appeal to you. It’s well-done craft, of course, but it’s also very artificial and very low-budget, which can affect folks who like to get engrossed by what they’re watching.
The aesthetic focus of the genre really shines through in how it allows us to get lost in this magical, multicolored world that crafts the most stunning visions of death film has ever produced. From the bright red blood to the colorful nondiegetic background lights to the seemingly crumbling old Italian architecture, a lot of giallo films provoke a reaction of unreality, of terror as an art form.
Ian Olney makes a good point in their book Euro Horror about the giallo genre being “spectatorship-as-performance”. Writing about Blood and Black Lace, he said, “The characters are puppets at the disposal not of the director, primarily, but of the viewer. Bava is encouraging us here to see them as masks to be tried on, worn for a time, and exchanged for others as we progress throughout the movie.”
Speaking about that, there’s always a point in these films where the viewer realizes that, as serious and horrific the actions happening on screen are, they’re not actually supposed to take it seriously. Maybe it’s the fact that the main character likes reading giallo novels so much that she feels like she created a murder mystery in her head (The Girl Who Knew Too Much); or maybe it’s in the fact that the serial killer hides his voice with a stupid Donald Duck impression (Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, not as easy-to-watch as that Donald Duck impression implies).
Giallo films always start at the unreality, and the way it is filmed and the aesthetic pieces in place ensure that there’s a level of levity to the performance that allows you to cheer for the murderers instead of cowering in fear or disgust.
People who watch giallo films aren’t here for the plot, but for the voyeuristic thrill that we get at watching these murders take place, which ties into the idea of “spectatorship-as-performance”. It taps into our most monstrous selves and allows us to indulge in these behaviors with little guilt. When we watch these films, we are all murderers, and for once, the viewers are privy to the kind of bloodlust that only exists in frenzied mobs demanding blood or serial killers who get their thrill in death.
Bava surrounds the film with artifice, making sure that the world the film happens in is as surreal as it can be: different settings have weird neon lights that seem to come from nowhere, the spaces they filmed in are constructed like a puzzle and not like anything resembling actual buildings, and the blood is just so bright that it doesn’t even register as blood anymore. Every element of the piece is heightened just to ensure that the audience can actively participate in the bloodlust without feeling guilty about it later.
It’s a weird thing to commend a film (and a genre) for. But in the right mood, giallo films can be delightfully strange pieces with easy thrills that crib the detective novel without being religiously rigid in how it applies those genre conventions.
You can see the influence that giallo films have on slasher films, the way that they put you in the point of view of the killer at times—and pushing forward the idea that audiences themselves are responsible for all the death on screen, that their bloodlust is what contributed to this in the first place.
I love slasher films, and a lot of them were influenced by the violent trappings that the genre has: the unstoppable killer, the twisty and somewhat knotted plotting, the fact that we sympathize more with the killer instead of the victims. Giallo films are grounded in the idea that this world has no internal logic, that everyone is a target to die, and that the killer is unstoppable. In a way, it helped create the tropes that are accepted in slasher films today.
Today’s horror and thriller landscape is different enough that something like giallo wouldn’t translate well today. In the past, however, its bastardization of Hitchcock and focus on visceral, emotional shock and disgust can be seen in a lot of films in the 1970s and 1980s: Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill, John Carpenter’s Halloween and its many imitators, any half-hearted gory 1980s cheap direct-to-VHS features that get distributed exclusively by sleepovers and video store geeks.
Actually, with the right direction, I do think that giallo could make a comeback. It’s not like people have stopped watching and enjoying gory horror films, and filmmakers have been intentionally exploring the misogynistic ideals of our society with newer horror flicks like It Follows or The Invisible Man. It’s not too hard to imagine younger, hungrier filmmakers taking up the mantle to create something in the vein of giallo to comment on society through horror.
James Wan even made a giallo-inspired film this year with Malignant. Having seen it, the film definitely gets better once it leans into the absurdity of its concept and some of the traditions of giallo films. And, surprisingly, the rhythms of a giallo film work well when combined with Wan’s careful, timing-dependent scares, mostly because it adds a flavor of absurdity and fun to the almost-rote haunted house jump scares that Wan tends to rely on (though that’s another discussion entirely).
However giallo films live on, I do hope that it continues to influence many filmmakers with their own takes on the genre. I imagine their postmodern take on murder mysteries and detective stories can be a fertile ground for filmmakers to intentionally explore the effects of misogyny and toxic masculinity in society; possibly even catering directly to its absurd violence as a way to create an enjoyable film.