Genre cinema doyenne Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has written a fascinating and insightful book, on a set of fabulously garish and violent films made during the post-WW2 golden age of the Italian film industry. Known as giallo (plural ‘gialli’), the subgenre’s categorisation identifier derived from a literary source. In the 1930s, cheap paperbacks with yellow covers, popular with the Italian public, were published by Mondadori Publishing. When these lurid psychological thrillers began to appear in movie form, more or less kicked off by Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), the urtext for all subsequent giallo flicks, these titles were branded ‘giallo’. The rest is illustrious history.
In recent times, filmmakers producing works directly influenced by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi, among others, has led to a kind of historic progression and, indeed, a revival in genre cinema appreciation. The term currently used is ‘neo-giallo’, suggesting a stylistic trend has emerged. The subgenre has ventured out beyond the confines of cult concern into something almost mainstream. Quelle horreur! Thanks to a range of directors and the work of critics, there has been a real and concerted renewal of interest in films with often wonderfully baroque titles such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972), Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1992). ‘With their veneer of unabashed Eurosleaze, the Italian giallo film is revered in the hearts of horror films fans worldwide,’ Heller-Nicholas notes. To paraphrase Will Ferrell’s Jacobim Mugatu, the fashion designer psycho villain of Zoolander (2001), an unhinged fellow who would fit in perfectly in the world of haut couture and haute body counts, “Neo-giallo is so hot right now.”
Dismissed as mindless trash cinema for the plebs by those with a smug bourgeois mentality, those self-appointed gatekeepers with highfalutin stances on what constitutes high art and good cinema, Heller-Nicholas sets out, and succeeds in, showcasing a range of mad, bad and dangerous to know pictures as worthy of serious critical attention and study. As The Penguin puts it in Batman Returns (1992): “You flush it. I flaunt it.” The Giallo Canvas’ angle of approach is inspired and ploughs furtive ground, in its exploration of the giallo under an art history purview. As the author puts it in her introduction, ‘it is the power of art that not just permeates some of the most compelling and memorable giallo films, but in some of its most significant cases, effectively forms its central driving engine.’
The Giallo Canvas invites us to see these incredible films with new eyes, and that is something truly worthwhile. Like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Sister Wendy, Heller-Nicholas takes us for an art gallery style tour, highlighting the subgenre’s debt to art history, and indeed by extension the horror genre, with specific examples plucked for a closer gander. As well as an intro offering a whistle stop tour of the subgenre’s origins and stylistic precursors, we get chapters on famous paintings by Vermeer, Salvador Dalí, Francis Bacon, the importance of portraiture, excursions into the role of artists and creative types who are often centred in the maelstrom as protagonists, how looking at art is pivotal to unlocking bizarre mysteries wrapped in gonzo takes on Freudianism, and side topics such as fashion and photography. It’s a feast.
The Giallo Canvas is a must-read for those with a serious interest in art history, and of course giallo cinema. While the language and topic itself tips things towards the academic, Heller-Nicholas peppers her engaging writing with comic observations and blunt truths, meaning if this is academic writing, at least it comes with humorous asides, and is keenly self-aware so as not to send readers to sleep. A lot can be said for this style of intelligent and honest writing. But if you’re coming at giallo films totally blind, this might not be the best introduction, for sure, however for those who have dipped a toe already, and, to quote Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), ‘Would you like to know more?’, The Giallo Canvas is going to prove a worthwhile purchase. Quite rightly, the author argues convincingly for these pictures as not just style as substance, but that style as substance can be as rich as substance with dashes of style. Giallo cinema is astonishingly cinematic and primarily focused on the visual. Style over substance is the kind of boring thing somebody says when they’re too scared to admit they’ve enjoyed something or hold cherished literary principles of storytelling as superior to visual storytelling (mention plot holes one more goddamn time. I dare you. I double dare you). As Heller-Nicholas notes beautifully, gialli thrillers demand primacy of vision and emotion over cool and cold intellect, and that is far from a bad thing. But this might also be the reason they’re not taken seriously. The act of looking is paramount, an emotional, not intellectual response, is key. For giallo movies represent most of all stories of the eye.