What is Giallo?

It depends on who you ask. The word giallo is Italian for yellow and there is a history of why that word was coined for the subgenre it was attributed to. Originally it referred to a series of cheap paperbacks issued beginning in 1929 by Mondadori Publishing Company whose covers had a yellow background. Other publishers soon copied the Mondadori style. These paperbacks were basically thrillers and detective stories, murder mysteries and crime stories. Authors such as Edgar Wallace, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain and many other popular as well as lesser known authors were translated into Italian.

The gialli film began in the early sixties. When it comes to film Italian audiences refer to any murder mystery, thriller or even horror thriller as giallo no matter what country it comes from. Everyone else, however, designates giallo as strictly Italian in origin. These films are sometimes referred to as giallo all'italiana. There are a number of specific characteristics that are generally thought of as giallo. At least for many giallo aficionados. Then there are those that allow for much in the way of diversity in what they term as giallo. Purists, on the other hand, allow only murder mysteries. The difference between a regular murder mystery and giallo is style, flare, panache. Also lots of sex and blood. My feeling is the more the merrier. I am willing to incorporate some horror, psychological thriller, sexploitation and even some supernatural horror and stylized slasher type films in my definition as long as some of the other giallo characteristics are present.

There are a range of characteristics that can be present in the giallo film. The hooded or masked killer that is not revealed until the end. Gloved hands wielding large knives. Quite often scenes are shot using the killers point of view even though his or her face is not shown. Flashbacks that reveal a childhood trauma to explain why the killer became who he or she is. If you include supernatural killers in your giallo definition then the supernatural element will also often be cloaked in mystery until the big reveal. The victims are usually beautiful, and usually naked, women that meet a bloody and ghastly death. Often they are alone and or new to the area. Quite often the protagonist is male and just a regular guy who either ends up stalked by the bad guy or becomes embroiled in investigating the murders. Sometimes he is also a witness to a murder which brings him to the attention of the killer. In giallo, the more murders the better. Women protagonists are usually more sexualized and sometimes have their own hang-ups and psychological problems.

Quite often, but not always, style supersedes character development and plot development. In a lot of these films budgets are small. They are not as gritty as police procedurals. Instead they employ lots of color, mostly red, shocking murders, unusual camera work and more elaborate sets and locations. Sometimes the pace is also slower than action oriented detective type stories. It takes time to stalk someone. Even the music score can be stylized to enhance the mood or gruesomeness of the film. In giallo the display is more important than what you are selling. The old adage “if it bleeds it leads” can also be attributed to giallo. The murder, the mystery, the killing and how they are presented are all more important than the characters or the plot. Sometimes they will also have unusual titles. Animals, numbers or colors in the title are also seen a lot.

If many of the other elements of giallo are missing the style will tip the scales and place the film within the giallo subgenre. Style not only applies to the overall film composition but also to the method of murder. The more fanciful the better, especially if the victims are women. Many killers in giallo have women issues. They are misogynists with imagination.

Themes in gialli range from insanity, paranoia and any number of sexual perversions. If the killer is a man then he usually has problems with impotency or trauma from an overbearing or overprotective mother. Women killers are usually portrayed as delusional or victims of sexual trauma in the past. Their impotency is from loss of power during a past victimization. In either case the killer’s perception of reality has been warped to a degree where some trigger has sent the killer into a killing frenzy that appears whenever certain circumstances align. The study of giallo films would make a good course in psychology.

Sometimes referred to as anti-detective novels, whatever your interpretation of giallo is, there is a cult for it. The subgenre has evolved from Mario Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” 1963, which is said to be the first giallo film, to films such as “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears” 2013. It has been influenced and has influenced other genres and filmmakers from other countries. The slasher film, for example, is a spinoff of giallo. Noir, on the other hand, has influenced giallo. Some British and American mysteries have incorporated the giallo style. Films such as “Eyes of Laura Mars” 1978, “Dressed to Kill” 1980, “Basic Instinct” 1992 and some Alfred Hitchcock films can actually be considered giallo. Whether you call it giallo or euro-trash there are lots of good ones out there and lots of bad ones too. There is a wide range of what constitutes a giallo movie and a lot of it depends on your own view. To tie yourself to one form of giallo could mean you are missing out on some really good, or even some so bad it’s good movies.