In a scene from Mario Bava’s seminal 1964 film Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino) we witness a fashion model, Nicole (Ariana Gorini), as she is pursued through a cluttered antique store and then sadistically murdered with a medieval torture device. The scene is (pardon the pun) laced with eroticism due in part to the expressionistic, pulsating lighting which shrouds the scene in darkness and lurid colour, rendering the contents of the antiques store in an uncanny and illusory light. As Nicole is hounded through the store she is followed by a Carlo Rustichelli score of sleazy jazz, adding to the scene’s eroticism. When she views the killer facing her across the room, our gaze is aligned with hers and the music stops. The killer vanishes. Nicole runs confused through the store but is eventually captured by her pursuer who forces the three-pronged weapon into her face, penetrating her eyes and mouth. This penetrative murder set against the erotically charged lighting and music make a sexual reading of the scene obvious. This is but one such scene in a film punctuated by long, violent and spectacular set pieces in which five more women are murdered. These are scenes that arrest the narrative and emerge as focal points of the spectator’s attention.
Writing on the subject of spectacular violence, sadism and masochism in Italian horror, Leon Hunt notes there is a rift in sexual desire between the gothic horror film cycle which preceded the giallo and the giallo itself; a shift from a position of masochism to a position of sadism. Hunt contends that in the gothic cycle male pre-Oedipal masochistic desire is directed towards the monstrous feminine villainesses of these films whereas in the giallo desire is figured as one of Oedipal sadosexuality. The killer’s position in Blood and Black Lace is clearly sadistic but what of Nicole and the other victims? They are clearly victims but do they fulfill any extra purpose? Is there any provision for masochism in the cruel world of the giallo?
When I mention the ‘world of the giallo’ my emphasis is not just on the diegetic space navigated by these films – there is also an industrial aspect to this world. The giallo cycle is just one example of many cycles of films produced under the Italian filone system. Others include the previously mentioned gothic horror cycle of the 1950s and 1960s, the spaghetti western (1960s and 1970s), and the peplum film (1950s and 1960s). The filone system was a network of filmmakers whose aim was to produce specific film forms again and again for little money, and with the aim of maximum takings at the box office. It was an attempt to recreate and re-adapt successful pictures by both staying true to convention and at the same time deviating from it.
In the giallo cycle, there exist a number of sub-level film forms, which have been identified by Mikel J. Koven. The first, and most easily identifiable, is the ‘classic giallo’ which is most often structured around an amateur detective’s investigation into a killer’s identity, examples include: Blood and Black Lace, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, Mario Bava, 1963), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, Dario Argento, 1970), Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino, Lucio Fulci, 1972), Torso (I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, Sergio Martino, 1973) and Deep Red (Profondo rosso, Dario Argento, 1975). The killer of the classic giallo is often adorned with black leather gloves, a long dark coat, a hat and a mask to veil his or her identity. These items have become visual signifiers of the giallo. The second highlighted by Koven is the ‘suspense-thriller giallo’ which locates itself in a far-more internally-driven world of paranoia, vice and claustrophobia, examples include: The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, Luciano Ercoli, 1970), Bay of Blood (Reazione a catena, Mario Bava, 1971) and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una Lucertola con la pelle di donna, Lucio Fulci, 1971). Thirdly is the ‘poliziotteschi- giallo’ which blends the classic giallo with the poliziotteschi, examples include: The Black Belly of the Tarantula (La Tarantula da ventre nero, Paolo Cavara, 1972) and What Have They Done to Your Daughters (La polizia chiede aiuto, Massimo Dallamano, 1974).
Fourthly, Koven identifies the ‘giallo-fantastico’, or the ‘gothic giallo’ as I would term it, which includes supernatural and gothic elements. Of all the forms this is perhaps the most intriguing, examples include: All the Colours of the Dark (Tutti I colori del buoi, Sergio Martino, 1972), and Emilio Miraglia’s gothic gialli The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba, 1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Time (La dama rossa uccide sette volte, 1972). Koven does not make mention of it but I believe there to be another category of these films, let us call it the ‘sexy-giallo’, that fused elements of sexploitation and sex-comedy with the giallo in an attempt to diversify the form as box office takings began to wane in the mid-1970s. Examples of this include Strip Nude for Your Killer (Nude per l’assassino, Andrea Bianchi, 1975) and The Sister of Ursula (La sorella di Ursula, Enzo Milioni, 1978). And then there is some of the more anomalous titles: The Bloodstained Butterfly (Una farfalla con le ali insanguinate, Duccio Tessari, 1971), which blends the classic form with elements of courtroom drama, and The New York Ripper (Lo squartatore di New York, Lucio Fulci, 1982), which viciously moved the giallo into the realms of grindhouse exploitation in the early 1980s.
With this (somewhat exhaustive) definition, I hope to highlight the diverse, sub-generic nature of these films, while also highlighting their common ground. One might think the diverse nature of the giallo operates at odds with itself, and on some surface level, stylistically and thematically, this is apparent. The sub-generic qualities of Torso, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and The Sister of Ursula do differ, however, all four films contain a suspenseful investigative element and repeated violent activity, most often aimed at women. The suspenseful and repetitious nature of the giallo in the field of violent murderous activity is, as I shall demonstrate, precisely what determines the sexual landscape of it.
In his writings on sadism and masochism, Sigmund Freud assigned the terms to individuals that possess particular sexual perversions that require specific outlets in order to achieve sexual gratification. The sadist he defines as a “puzzling person[…] whose tender endeavours have no other aim than to cause pain and torment to their object, ranging from humiliation to severe physical injuries.” Freud goes on to describe the sadist’s ‘counterpart’, the masochist, “whose only pleasure it is to suffer humiliation and torments of every kind from their loved objects either symbolically or in reality.” The Freudian account of these ‘perversions’, both in terms of fantasy and the physical sexual act, is very one of sexual gratification on the part of the subject at the hands of the loved object – in a sense, but not exclusively, these two points of sexual existence exist in union with one another.
The attacker of Blood and Black Lace’s actions are very much figured on the Freudian account of sadism. The killer’s satisfaction is attained through his torment and mutilation of the subject and although there is diegetic remark for the killer’s actions, the extremity of his methods and the lengths of the sequences and their privileging as the focal points of the film suggest that a sadosexual impulse is manifest. Indeed, on discovering one of the mutilated bodies the film’s investigator, Inspector Silvester (Thomas Reiner) remarks to his colleague that the killer is a “sex-maniac in a homicidal fury” who kills at the sight of a beautiful woman.
What then of the woman who befell the attacker? To return to the scene first described in my introduction, although the illusory and expressionistic characteristics of the scene points to a lacing of sexuality, Nicole’s position is not one of submissive sexual desire for her attacker. Ariana Gorini’s performance is one of sheer terror. Sharp, abrasive tones emit from her vocal performance and her bodily movements are tense and unwilling. There is no sense of pleasure in her facial performance and her eyes are open wide and fixated with fear, on the mask that is about to be plunged into them. It cannot be said that she adopts a position in which she is seeking or obtaining sexual gratification from the object.
To complicate matters I would now like to turn to another film, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, which head-on tackles the issues of sadism and masochism in its narrative. The film’s narrative is constructed around the actions of its central character Minou (Dagmar Lassander). Near to the film’s beginning she is attacked by an unknown man who violates her and informs her that her husband is a murderer. The film’s events then take the form of repeated violations of Minou at the hands of the attacker and a police investigation into the murder her husband has been implicated in. During the opening moments of the film the spectator is party to some of Minou’s thoughts by way of a voiceover. Anticipating the arrival home of her husband she fantasises about how their sexual re-encounter will occur. Hypothetically addressing her absent husband, she contemplates:
“I know what I’m going to do tonight, I’m going to eat out – and then I’ll phone you and say I’ve been invited out by a friend. Dominique is right, I dress too much like a housewife, maybe I should loosen this a little, the way you like it. When you return tomorrow night I won’t make love to you right away, I’ll say that I’ve fallen in love with another man and that we have to get a divorce but we can still be friends. Then, after you make a terrible scene…”
Her thoughts audibly tail off, however, there is no doubt how this fantasy ends. What is interesting about these opening minutes is how they relate to the sexual dynamics of the rest of the film. In the next scene Minou is walking along a beach at night (presumably either prior to or following the dinner she had been contemplating in her mind). She is accosted by the attacker and he pursues her through a nearby harbour. Once the black gloved man, his face fully in view, catches her, he tells her, “no I’m not going to use force with you, I want you to beg me, to plead for my kisses…Plead! You will.” He pins her down on the ground and runs a blade across her body, cutting open her dress. Although violated by her attacker she obtains sexual gratification; her facial expression emits sensuality, lust and desire. (In a later scene she awakes screaming from reliving the attack in dream form; here I would argue her screams are in orgasmic pleasure rather than terror.) What is striking is the swift reversal of sexual roles from the opening scene to the latter scene. The sadist has become the masochist. In the opening scene Minou is toying with the idea of psychologically punishing her husband for her sexual gratification. However, in the later scene her position has switched to one of submission. The Forbidden Photos of Lady Above Suspicion is a film that uses the positions of the sadist and masochist throughout and these two notions are integral to the film’s plot. What is also true is that these positions are unfixed and shifting – fantasies become inverted realities.
The example of The Forbidden Photos of Lady Above Suspicion is a seemingly obvious one for this article but it complicates matters when compared with Blood and Black Lace. The latter utilizes sadism wantonly in its narrative but not masochism, the former uses both sadism and masochism. How can we say that there is any parallel between the sexual universes of these films and also the giallo in general? By a simple application of the Freudian texts to the narrative this cannot be stated. What I would propose however is that on some level these films do share a platform; they are both intended to illicit in the spectator a certain kind of viewing pleasure, which will be further discussed in part two of this series.
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, ed. James Strachey and Angela Richards, London and New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Hunt, Leon. “A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian Horror Film.” Velvet Light Trap 30 (1992): 65-75.
Koven, Mikel J. La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 2006.