A Starter Kit for Getting Into Giallo Movies, the Wild Italian Horror Genre
The bloody, sleazy world of giallo can be intimidating, but it's best to just dive in.
With its implicit promise of death, bloodshed, and a touch of sleaze, the world of giallo films can be intimidating to outsiders. Even the titles—Lizard in a Woman's Skin or Black Belly of the Tarantula—are both enticing and alarming. In recent months, films like Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho, a London-set psychological thriller, and James Wan's Malignant, a Seattle-based supernatural freak-out, arrived with press tours where each movie-obsessed director referenced their love of giallo, name-checking filmmakers like Dario Argento and Mario Bava. So, where do you start if you've never really sought out the genre before? And what does "giallo" even mean?
Depending on who you're talking to, giallo can be a very wide term, one that encompasses a number of stylish slahsers, or it can refer to movies made in a specific place (Italy) at a specific time (roughly the 1960s through the 1980s). As critic Noel Murray points out his excellent recent Polygon piece on the genre, the word "giallo," which means "yellow" in Italian, was used to evoke the yellow covers of pulpy, violence-filled crime novels published in Italy, but it "was never an organized movement." Though certain style elements reoccur—like black gloves, sharp knives, ambitious tracking shots, eye-popping close-ups, and moments of stomach-churning violence—there aren't necessarily fixed features that each movie must check off in order to count as a giallo.
As with most genres, the best approach to understanding giallo is to simply dive in like you're recklessly investigating the tragic death of a friend or lover. (If it's giallo, there's going to be a murder.) You may have already seen giallo-adjacent films like Nicolas Roeg's chilling classic Don't Look Now or Brian de Palma's unnerving Hitchcock homage Dressed to Kill, two works that can be understood within the genre's parameters. Maybe you saw 2018's Suspiria remake with the spooky Radiohead score and the creepy Tilda Swinton performance. If so, you may know more about giallo than you think.
For the purposes of this guide, which is by no means meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive, I'd like to keep things simple by focusing on one film from different directors and keeping the suggestions limited to Italian productions from the '60s and '70s. Though many modern directors might be riffing on giallo tropes, nothing beats going back to the scene of the crime.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Director Mario Bava, known for horror classics like Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, directed this delightfully stylish mystery set at—where else?—a bustling fashion house in '60s Rome. If you're looking for a refined entry point into this often unsavory genre, Blood and Black Lace is the perfect gateway drug, a gripping mystery executed with Bava's total control of tone, pacing, and mood. Martin Scorsese once called it "an incredible moment for cinema,” and, listen, he knows what he's talking about.
Watch it now on the Criterion Channel
Deep Red (1975)
For a giallo novice, Dario Argento's haunting Deep Red is probably an ideal place to start. This is as wild and expressive as horror movies get, but there's a potential downside to kicking off your journey here: The rest of the films you watch simply might not satisfy in comparison. Still, I think it's worth the risk. An occasionally confusing yet still alluring tale of a jazz musician (David Hemmings) investigating a series of murders, Argento transforms the film with his bracing camera movements, his unparalleled use of color, and his willingness to shock. With each sequence, the movie just builds and builds, drawing you in until arriving at one of the most startling endings of a horror movie you'll ever see.
Watch it now on Shudder
Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)
In the early '80s, filmmaker Lucio Fulci made a movie called The New York Ripper, which featured a duck-voiced serial killer. Honestly, that one might be an intense place to start. Fulci, who also directed the genuinely upsetting and terribly moving gothic stunner The Beyond in 1981, has a vast filmography, one that hopscotches across genres in a way that might be unimaginable to contemporary audiences used to directors staying in their chosen lane. Don't Torture a Duckling has the word duck right there in the title and it's about a murder investigation in a sleepy Italian village with dark secrets, taking on almost procedural quality in many scenes, but it's not as out there as The New York Ripper, and therefore probably makes for an effective way to dip your toe into Fulci's sensibility.
Rent it now on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or iTunes
What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)
Fabio Testi plays an adulterous bearded professor with a fondness for leaving the top few buttons on his shirts undone in this richly layered, morally unsettling psycho-sexual thriller. He's an intellectual skeeze-turned-detective, and the case here, which involves abortion and a sex club, is almost too much for him. Luckily, it's not too much for director Massimo Dallamano, the cinematographer on Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, who approaches each perverse moment of black-gloved terror with a keen, watchful eye. Also, there's an excellent score from Ennio Morricone.
Watch it now on Shudder or Kanopy; rent it on YouTube
Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
What a great title, right? This disturbing tale of a cruel, miserable, racist boozehound (Luigi Pistilli) and his long-suffering wife (Anita Strindberg) is partially based on Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Black Cat, a frequently adapted narrative of righteous fury, black fur, and all-consuming guilt. Compared to some of the more aesthetically florid films on this list, director Sergio Martino keeps YVIALRAOIHTK grounded in the dynamic of the twisted, uncomfortable relationship at its center, making this one of the more difficult yet ultimately powerful options on this list. If you're comfortable with movies about fucked-up behavior––and if you made it to the end of a list of giallo movies, then, congrats, you probably are a genuine sicko––this is an essential watch.
Watch it now on Shudder; rent it on iTunes