Menu
Home / Film / Feature Articles / Black Gloves and Black Magic: Investigating the Gothic Giallo (part one)

Black Gloves and Black Magic: Investigating the Gothic Giallo (part one)

Over 120 years ago early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès made Le Manoir du diable (1896), an ambitious film considered now by many to be the first example of cinematic horror because of its Gothic themes, even if the genre of ‘horror’ did not enter into contemporary cinematic thinking. Present almost from cinema’s inception, on screen Gothic has evolved in tandem to the development of cinema itself. It is represented in every significant development and movement in American and European film, from early cinema through Weimar and the studio system, to 1960s and 1970s Eurohorror and the special effects spectacles of the twenty-first century like Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) and Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness (2016).

In the Italian context, the central locus of cinematic Gothic was the late 1950s and 1960s. There had been earlier attempts to make films that dealt with the horrific and macabre, as observed by Russ Hunter, but much like Universal Studios’ first Gothic films of the early 1930s, the early Italian examples “were not designed to be horror films and neither were they marketed as such (Hunter, 2016: 15-29).” The first Italian film produced and marketed with the idiom of ‘horror’ in mind was Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957). Its producers looked abroad to the Quatermass films in the UK and backwards to European expressionism, and sought to incorporate the lurid themes and macabre aesthetics of these pictures into an appealing popular form for the Italian market. At the time of its production I Vampiri was somewhat of an anomaly, along with Caltiki the Immortal Monster (Caltiki, il mostro immortale 1959), although it did provide the paradigm for the successive Gothic cycle that produced around thirty films between 1960 and 1966. I Vampiri pre-dated Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (La maschera del demonio, 1960) as well as Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960) and Jess Franco’s The Awful Dr Orloff (Gritos en la noche, 1962), cementing its status as a pioneering Gothic forerunner of 1960s and 1970s Eurohorror.

I Vampiri (1957).

Set in contemporary (late 1950s) Rome, the film resurrects the legend of virgin-hungry Countess Elizabeth Báthory, as a journalist investigates a spate of grisly murders.  I Vampiri’s strength lies in its ghostly, macabre atmosphere – cobwebbed castle interiors are captured with expressionistic flare by cinematographer Mario Bava. The film introduced an aesthetic appreciation of the gothic that would be adopted repeatedly during the 1960s, as well as foundational elements of the giallo: a horror tale set in the bustling modern city, focused on an amateur detective investigating a string of killings. It was even completed by Bava, after Freda allegedly walked off set, and later went onto make The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, 1963) and Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino, 1964), which Leon Hunt notes are two films “are often accorded seminal status in teleological accounts of the giallo (Hunt, 2016: 145).”

Blood and Black Lace took the murder investigation narrative, contemporary location and transgressive themes of I Vampiri and blended with it with the German krimi (it was a co-production with West Germany) to make a film that went far further in terms of onscreen sadism and aestheticised violence, as one by one six women are brutally and creatively despatched in vivid colour. Blood and Black Lace is not an obviously gothic film (a contemporary murder investigation with no supernatural leanings) but it would be hard to deny the film’s excessive gothic flavour. The scene set in the antique store, with its dark shadowy corridors, sadosexuality and lacing of the Freudian uncanny is a prime example. This intertwining of giallo and Gothic would be seen again in Lionello De Felice and Elio Scardamaglia’s The Murder Clinic (La lama nel corpo, 1966), in which a hooded figure murders people with a razor blade in a nineteenth century insane asylum. A more traditional giallo structure envelops story about a mad scientist attempting a skin graft onto his sister’s mutilated face.

The Murder Clinic (1966).

The coalescence of the giallo and the Gothic continued into the 1970s with films like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Il rosso segno della follia, 1970); Emilio P. Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba, 1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (La dama rossa uccide sette volte, 1972); Aldo Lado’s Short Night of the Glass Dolls (La Corta notte delle bambole di vetro, 1971); Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark (Tutti i colori del buio, 1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave, 1972); Antonio Margheriti’s Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes (La morte negli occhi del gatto, 1973); Giuseppe Bennati’s The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (L’assassino ha riservato nove poltrone, 1974) and Franceso Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Il profumo della signora in nero, 1974). These gialli fused mystery narratives with transgression, excess, macabre atmosphere and Gothic themes, such as a revisiting of past horror, Satanic cults and the supernatural. They also displayed typically Gothic elements: dark castles, shadowy corridors, spooky portraiture and emblematic lightning, as well as a pre-occupation with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. But there are a number of other films, less obviously Gothic, that on closer inspection exhibit similar traits such as Ferdando Di Leo’s The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (La bestia uccide a sangue freddo, 1971), Silvio Amadio’s Amuck! (Alla ricerca del piacere, 1972) and Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976). Although less obviously gothic in their atmosphere and mise-en-scene, they display a definite Gothic influence because of their adoption of particular transgressive themes and macabre aesthetics.

Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970).

Studies of the giallo often focus on its sub-generic qualities, attempting to evaluate its many strands both in isolation of each other and as part of the wider filone. Recent examples include two chapters in Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter’s Italian Horror Cinema looking, respectively, at the ‘rural giallo’ (Fisher, 2016: 160-174) and its relationship to the fumetti neri (Hunt, 2016: 145-159). In Mikel J. Koven’s widely referenced study La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (2006), the filoni of the giallo are discussed at length, with a number of different forms identified that delineate it. One of these is the ‘giallo fantastico’, as Koven notes:there are…a small number of gialli-like films, which draw from the visual rhetoric of the giallo but situate that rhetoric into the context of a more supernatural horror film.” Referring to such films as All the Colours of the Dark and Short Night of the Glass Dolls because of their Satanic cult narratives, Koven states: “these “giallo-fantastico” are largely infrequent, worth mentioning in passing but not significant enough to dwell on.” Koven’s definition of the giallo-fantastico focuses more on the supernatural elements of the giallo but even if we are to remove the notion of the supernatural altogether, Koven’s broad definition of the giallo and his examination of its various filoni does not take into account the prevalence of Gothic themes and aesthetics employed in a large number of gialli.

The Gothic is likewise mostly excluded from Gary Needham’s esteemed and frequently quoted definition of the giallo, aside for an appreciation, like Koven, that there is certain Gothic gialli within the larger filone: “[the giallo] functions in a more peculiar and flexible manner as a conceptual category with highly moveable and permeable boundaries that shift around from year to year to include outright Gothic horror (La lama nel corpo [The Murder Clinic, Emilio Scardimaglia, 1966])…police procedurals…crime melodrama…(Needham, 2002).” Needham’s only mention of a Gothic influence is indirect, referring to the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on some directors of gialli (Needham, 2002).

When the Gothic and giallo are discussed together, approaches tend to focus on the industrial relationship between the Gothic cycle of the 1960s and the giallo cycle of the 1970s, or the transnational approach to production employed in both cycles. There is particular attention paid to the overlapping of personnel during the period, specifically on directors like Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti and Riccardo Freda who began their horror work in the Gothic mode and later moved to giallo (Bondanella, 2009; Baschiera and Hunter, 2016; Hutchings, 2016). Xavier Reyes, who specialises in the literary and cinematic Gothic, has touched on the relationship between the giallo and the Gothic but their aesthetic and thematic involvement is rarely covered in great detail in critical and academic discourse. Generally discussion highlights the contrasting aesthetic appreciations of both cycles or examines the conflation of Gothic and giallo in the later work of Dario Argento (Hunt, 2000). What I propose is that thematically and aesthetically, the Gothic and the giallo are more deeply intertwined than has been appreciated, a notion that becomes even more acute when analysing the giallo through a ‘Eurohorror’ lens of transnationality.

All the Colours of the Dark (1972).

Transnationality

Recent studies of Italian horror have tended to present it within the transnational European context. In his recent essay on Mario Bava, Peter Hutchings observes the centrality of Italian horror to Eurohorror, citing Danny Shipka who wrote, “[if] European exploitation films were to have a central geographic point, that center would be Italy.” International co-production was a defining industrial method of genre film production in the 1960s and 1970s, and this has lead to the recent transnational historical approach among scholars and critics. Co-production between companies in different countries bought an international pooling of funds and a cross-pollination of staff and ideas. Co-production meant lower risk and greater funds when financing pictures, as well as access to wider distribution networks across Europe, but also the USA. This method of production underpinned European horror from the beginning of the 1960s; Eyes Without a Face was co-produced between Italy and France, and Blood and Black Lace between West Germany and Italy. Of the gialli mentioned in this chapter, the following were international co-productions: The Murder Clinic (Italy/France); Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Italy/Spain); The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (Italy/West Germany); All the Colours of the Dark (Italy/Spain); Short Night of Glass Dolls (Italy/West Germany/Yugoslavia); Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes (Italy/France/West Germany).

Fascination (1979).

One notable facet of this mode of production was a cross-pollination of personnel, which lead to the development of a transnational form of horror cinema, appealing to a broad European and American market. Many similarities can be seen between the films mentioned in this chapter and other non-giallo films produced during the period. Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon bears a striking similarity to Spanish horror A Bell from Hell  (La campana del infierno, 1973), owing to the fact both films were screen written by Santiago Moncada, who would later go on to write All the Colours of the Dark with Ernesto Gastaldi. The Beast Kills in Cold Blood foreshadows Jean Rollin’s Gothic masterpiece Fascination (1979), with its use of a grim reaper cloak and scythe to murder victims. Operating from the other direction of influence, Short Night of the Glass Dolls echoes Jean Rollin’s The Nude Vampire (La Vampire Nue, 1970) with its dreamlike tale of a wealthy, decadent cult, and the skin-grafting storyline from Eyes Without a Face (an Italian-French co-production) serves as a narrative backdrop for The Murder Clinic.

The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971).

 

Works cited

Bondanella. Peter. A History of Italian Cinema, Continuum, 2009.

Botting. Fred. Gothic. Routledge, 1996.

Fisher. Austin. ‘Political Memory in the Italian hinterland: locating the “rural giallo”’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Hunt. Leon. ‘A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film’ in The Horror Reader, edited by Ken Gelder, Routledge, 2000.

Hunt. Leon. ‘Kings of Terror, Geniuses of Crime: Giallo Cinema and Fumetti Neri’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Hunter. Russ. ‘Early Italian Horror Cinema’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Hutchings. Peter. ‘Bavaesque: the making of Mario Bava as Italian horror auteur’ in Italian Horror Cinema, edited by Stefano Baschiera and Russ Hunter, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Koven. Mikel J. La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, The Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Needham. Gary. Playing with genre: an introduction to the Italian giallo, https://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php. 2002, (accessed on 19 May 2017).

Punter. David. ‘The Uncanny’ in The Routledge Companion to Gothic edited by Catherine and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007.

Spooner. Catherine and Emma McEvoy. ‘Introduction’ in The Routledge Companion to Gothic edited by Catherine and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007.

Reyes, Xavier. Italian Gothic Horror. https://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/guestblog/italian-gothic-horror/, 2013, (accessed on 7 May 2017).

 

About Alex Morris

Alex Morris studied MA History of Film at Birkbeck, University of London, writing his dissertation on gender in the Italian giallo. He now works for a charity that advocates for the use of moving image in higher education and research, and also freelance for a distributor specialising in cult and exploitation cinema. Follow him on Twitter @necrobaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Stay Informed. Subscribe To Our Newsletter!

You will never receive spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

You have Successfully Subscribed!