Within horror film discourse and in film theory more generally, it is accepted by some that one of the primary visual pleasures of viewing violent scenes, as repeatedly witnessed in giallo films, is a sadistic, projective viewing pleasure. That is to say, (generally male) spectators occupy a sadistic-voyeuristic viewing position with relation to (generally female) victims. Essentially, the spectatorial subject derives pleasure from the cruel and violent treatment of the object of the killer’s sadistic attack or adopts a position of voyeuristic-scopophilia. This is a notion that is highlighted, (although not aimed at horror) by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In this essay, Mulvey’s assertion is that in mainstream Hollywood film we often see a man or group of men gazing on a woman (the primary sexual object of the film) and the spectatorial gaze is aligned with theirs. The spectator identifies with the male figures in these films and shares their voyeuristic gaze.
In a scene from The Black Belly of the Tarantula in which the first victim, Maria Zani (Barbara Bouchet) is murdered the spectator is positioned outside her window and a voyeuristic gaze is constructed on her body. We are not placed inside the killer’s head but the shot is in some way embodied, and we share a voyeuristic pleasure with them. Similar scenes abide in many films including All the Colours of the Dark, in which we gaze upon the film’s protagonist Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech) through the bannisters as she ascends the stairs in an eerily quiet building prior to her attack at the hands of a hatchet-wielding assailant, and notably in the films of Dario Argento. In the opening minutes of Deep Red the camera locates itself to the killer’s point-of-view position, stalks the first victim prior to her violent murder. In this scene, and many others in Argento’s films, the spectator shares subjectivity with the killer or is positioned to view the events of the film voyeuristically and sadistically.
This theory of the sadistic gaze is challenged by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover’s focus is on American horror, specifically slasher and rape/revenge films, although she does also incorporate texts with occult themes into her argument. Clover’s assertion is built upon the notion that the spectatorship of American horror films is typically young and male, the victim position in these films is most often occupied by a young female and the killer is male – even in their anonymity the killers in slasher films are still coded as masculine. Instead of punishing the victims with a sadistic gaze, which is often aligned with the anonymous and masculine killer through point-of-view cinematography, the point of identification in slasher films is actually the “final girl.” That is to say the young male audiences of slasher films masochistically identify with the last surviving female member of the film who survives the killer’s attacks and in the last moments of the film takes the symbolic phallus, adopts the masculine position of the killer and reverses the violence onto him. As the basis for interpretation of these films Clover draws heavily on Freudian thought. Freud theorised on the subject of masochism, that masochism was essentially feminine. In his writing on masochistic fantasies Freud stated that “feminine masochism” is feminine in that it is considered “natural” in women – a girl’s masochistic fantasy is heterosexual, she wants to be beaten (loved) by her father; and a perversion in men – to be beaten and loved by the father is to engage in a homosexual relationship with the object of the masochistic fantasy. In “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” Freud described typical male masturbatory fantasies as told by his patients:
The manifest content is of being gagged, bound, painfully beaten, whipped, in some way maltreated, forced into unconditional obedience, dirtied and debased…[I]f one has an opportunity of studying cases in which the masochistic fantasies have been richly elaborated, one quickly discovers that they place the subject in a characteristically female situation; they signify, that is, being castrated, or copulated with, or giving birth to a baby.”
Clover makes use of the evidence of Freud’s writings on his male patients and configures it into an understanding of the male spectatorial position when viewing horror films, in which the violence is typically masculine and the object of that violence, feminine. For example, she transposes the female situation of the fantasies into diegetic events: “castrated” or maimed, “copulated with” or raped, “giving birth to a baby” or possessed by some evil force. Clover notes that these kinds of scenarios occur again and again in horror films:
Horror in any case bears a startling resemblance to the masochistic fantasies recounted by Freud…It tells the same sort of stories (over and over), creates the same sort of protagonists as ‘feminine’ (in the sense outlined by Freud), is predicated on a particular kind of turn-taking suspense, privileges vision in the creation of that suspense, and openly trades in fear and pain.”
This retelling of horrific events, predication on “turn-taking suspense” and visions that openly trade in fear and pain are integral attributes of the giallo. In both Blood and Black Lace and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion there are violent instances that can be viewed in Clover’s Freudian light. In both films a position of masochistic identification can be attributed to the viewer, as both films align us with the female victim – in Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion we immediately assume subjectivity with Minou during the film’s opening minutes and in Blood and Black Lace our gaze is aligned with Nicole’s when she views the killer facing her in antiques store. Taking Clover’s argument means a reversal of the argument proposed by Leon Hunt, that the giallo is not a sadistic but a masochistic entity. This, I feel, is insufficient to represent the giallo. Blood and Black Lace has oscillating points of identification (the film’s victims), with which spectators assume masochistic positions, but there is also a privileging and an aestheticising of sadistic violence; in Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion there is a strong point of spectator identification (Minou) but her sexual position is one of fluidity, and both sadism and masochism receive remark from the film’s diegesis. As a disparate and varied filone, a sexual definition is, I feel, one of far greater complexity that either posited by Hunt or Clover.
Sadism, masochism and their aesthetic applications have been discussed at length by Gilles Deleuze in his essay Coldness and Cruelty (1969). In this work Deleuze returns to the original sources of these notions – the literary works of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. One of Deleuze’s primary assertions is to dispel the notion of a combined, complimentary entity of ‘sadomasochism’. Unlike Freud who viewed the two perversions as counterparts Deleuze sees them as opposing and distinct from one another. The distinction is one of negation and repetition in sadism, and disavowal and suspense in masochism.
In sadism this negation takes the form of an idealised and unreachable pure negation – the Freudian Thanatos (Death Instinct) – and negation on a lower level of destruction. The sadist wishes to pursue victim after victim in repetitious fashion, “thinking out the Death Instinct (pure negation) in a demonstrative form, and is only able to achieve this by multiplying and condensing the activities of component negative or destructive instincts.” That is to say, because the Death Instinct remains essentially silent in psychic life, as determined by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the sadist acts upon the destructive instincts that negate life and cause destruction as a way of speculatively engaging the mythic Death Instinct that drives all life to its ultimate conclusion. It is this which causes the repetition of sadism.
In contrast, disavowal, rather than negating that which is, instead contends its validity and suspends belief in it. Deleuze uses the example of fetishism to explain this. For Freud a fetish is an image replacement for the female phallus and that means by which denial of the female lack occurs. Deleuze states that it is not a symbol but a “frozen, arrested two-dimensional image, a photograph to which one returns repeatedly” that represents a pre-phallic era. Disavowal is, as Deleuze puts it, “a protective and idealizing neutralization.” In other words, the female phallus is suspended in the ideal world in which a woman does not lack and this acts as a barrier to the painful world in which female lack is a reality. A painful reality is suspended by a pleasurable disavowal. This is but one example of a disavowal and concomitant suspension. In masochism, pleasure is consistently disavowed and suspended for as long as possible. Pain is applied and applied which disavows and suspends pleasure and this is so extensive that the “masochist is able to deny the reality of pleasure at the very point of experiencing it.”
The aesthetic applications of the differing positions of sadism and masochism posit equally different ideas about spectator identification. Deleuze notes that the “art of suspense places us on the side of the victim and forces us to identify with him” whereas the “gathering momentum of repetition tends to force us onto the side of the torturer.” I would argue that these two main aesthetic positions are integral to and facilitate the thrilling nature of the giallo. Nowhere are the two positions more apparent than in the highly influential The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
The film’s actions revolve around Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnessing an attack on a young women at the hands of black-clad assailant. Although Sam perceives the scene to be that of a black-clad man attacking an unarmed woman with a knife, he doubts his perception of events. He feels he has missed something vital to explaining the scene he has witnessed. Disavowal, then, is achieved through a process of denying perception (or in this instance, misperception). The image, like that of a Freudian fetish, is constantly suspended in Sam’s minds, delaying the end. Negation emerges from the murderous subject’s destruction of life and their sadistic and repeated gazing on the object. This is achieved most notably in the opening minutes of the film when the camera locates itself into a diegetic camera which photographs and tracks the movements of young women on the streets of Rome. By the end of the film the disavowal is undone, as is the sadistic negation of life. The killer is identified and the murders cease.
In Sergio Martino’s Torso, a similar shift between sexual positions emerges. In the film a masked killer is stalking and violently murdering young women in a small Italian town. The first murder scene takes place at night. A young man and a young woman are making love in a car. There is a point-of-view shot from the killer’s perspective as he advances towards the car. The young couple catch him staring at them through the window and he runs away. The man pursues him and does not return. There is a cut to another point-of-view shot gazing at the young woman in the car as the killer advances towards her. The killer grabs her from inside the car. His black-gloved hands strip her chest bare and he plunges a knife into her naked torso.
The next murder scene features another young woman who, after leaving a squat party following her sexual harassment by two young men, walks into an isolated, misty forest. She is pursued by the black-gloved killer and there are voyeuristic shaky camera shots of her through the trees, although on this occasion we are not subject to a gaze alignment with the killer. The young woman views the killer stalking her through the trees, before he vanishes and eventually tracks her down. The camera assumes a dominant downward position as she scrabbles along the forest floor away from him. The killer catches her, strangles her with a handkerchief, drowns her in a muddy puddle and plunges his fingers into her eyes. He rips open her blouse with his black-gloved hands, and then caresses her breasts before stabbing her.
The highly violent ways in which the women are murdered is the focal point of both scenes. They are similar in the occurrence of events – only really the locations, and the methods of mutilation differ. These scenes are ones of negation and destruction of life and this is heightened by the increasingly violent ways the women are dispatched. The sadism of the scenes is heightened further by subjective and dominating cinematography and the scopophilic presentation of female nudity.
The film’s climax comes later when the film’s central character Jane (Suzy Kendall) and three of her female friends travel to an isolated mansion in the Italian countryside. Whilst on their relaxing break, Jane takes a sleeping pill to help aid her sleeping. While she is sound asleep upstairs, her three friends are murdered. These murders are not displayed on camera, we merely see the killer entering the house, shot from behind as he passes through the door. The film cuts to Jane waking up from her slumber. She slowly walks down the stairs and discovers the mutilated bodies of two of her friends while the killer is outside burying the third. What follows is an extended sequence of concealment as Jane desperately seeks refuge among the ornate pieces of furniture that decorate the house. The lack of music for most of the scene heightens the suspense by providing a more realistic aural depiction of events in the house; although the low, sinister score does sound when the killer is advancing towards Jane, unaware of where she is hiding. What is important to note here is camera subjectivity has now switched to Jane as she views the killer from behind pieces of furniture and cupboard doors. Our point of identification has shifted. What also stands out is that this is a scene based around the suspenseful concealment of a victim and not her violent attack. By moving action away from repeated and varied violent attack to a suspenseful cat and mouse scenario the sexuality of the film has shifted from a position of sadistic negation to masochistic suspense. The presentation and function of events has changed and this revises the spectatorial position.
In her work on masochism in the cinema of Luchino Visconti, Veronica Pravadelli cites one of the key characteristics of the masochistic aesthetic that can assist with a sadistic and a masochistic reading of Torso. Pravadelli asserts that:
While the sadist wishes to possess the object, masochistic pleasure depends on the subject’s distance and separation from the loved object. This is why masochistic plots often show sudden departures and arrivals, ceaseless movements from one place to another…”
The moment the killer enters the house shifts the film’s sexual position. During the sadistic murders in the earlier moments of the scene, the killer’s wish to possess the object was displayed by extended murder scenes that focussed on one person in one location and an attack on their body. The aesthetic dynamic of the film shifts once the killer enters the house – repeated violent attack and negation of life is no longer the film’s emphasis and we no longer identify with the killer. Instead, our spectatorial perspective has shifted to a position of masochistic identification with the victim. Suspension and disavowal of the death, has replaced repeated negation and destruction.
What is privileged in the giallo is a varied approach to the telling of generic murder and investigation stories. These films are varied in their sub-generic qualities but also unified in their repetition and regurgitation of particular scenes – most notably scenes of violence aimed at young women and the suspenseful pursuit of a victim. It is in this oscillation between the two aesthetic positions of sadistic repetition and masochistic suspense that the distinction of the giallo as a form of horror film comes to the fore. Rather than purely a sadistic entity as Leon Hunt argues or a masochistic entity, much like the slasher film described by Carol Clover, the giallo is a far-more diverse sexual entity that oscillates and shifts between differing positions of sadism and masochism. Both the negation of existence and disavowal, or postponement of resolve, are underlying traits of the giallo and its fluid shifting between these alternative positions produces a thrilling and highly effectual style. What will be apparent from this underlying point is something common to all fictional stories, that at the end, there is resolve. However, I view, as Carol Clover does, the middle as the critical temporal point of a film, and not the beginning or its resolve. Much like the mythical Death Instinct that Freud believed drives all life, giallo films push forward to resolve themselves and by doing so ultimately nullify the sadistic negation of life and the masochistic suspension of death.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press, 1992.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Coldness and Cruelty.” Masochism, by Gilles Deleuze and Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, translated by Jean McNeil, Zone Books, 1991.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Martino Publishing, 2009.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism, translated by Leo Brady and Marshall Cohen, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Pravadelli, Veronica. “Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers: Identity, Melodrama and the National-Popular.” Annali d’Italianistica, vol. 24, 2006, p. 3.