The Giallo Collection
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The Italian film industry has never shied away from good doses of violence and sex. And while other Italian genres -- most notably the supernatural gothic -- have fused those twin passions to sometimes exceptional degrees, it is only the giallo film where the fusion of gratuitous sex and violence really comes into its own.

The term giallo (which literally translates as "yellow") was originally coined to describe a series of lurid mystery/crime pulp novels printed by the Mondadori publishing company in the 1930s through the 1960s. The cheap yet enticing yellow covers promised the reader excursions into a netherworld of forgettable whodunits and page-turning thrills, much like their American counterparts of the 1920s and 1930s. The giallo novels were so popular that even established foreign mystery and crime writers, such as Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich, were both labeled gialli when first published in Italy.

But when we talk about the giallo outside of its paper legacy, we're talking about celluloid and the unrepentant joys of exploitation filmmaking. Although it's a lot more difficult to properly define what makes a film giallo -- unlike, say, those other Italian staples of 1960s cinema, the Spaghetti Western, the supernatural gothic, or peplum (Sword and Sandal) -- the genre does contain many distinctive characteristics that would be instantly familiar to a non-giallo moviegoer. From the faceless black-coated killer with a knife (played out, of course, through a subjective camera point-of-view) to the neurotic heroine/victim who establishes an almost perverse psychic link with her assailant, the giallo genre at its best offered up bizarre serpentine plots, ingenious crime solving from its main characters, and frequent, spectacular violence. At its worst, the genre could be illogical to the point of detachment, contain careless and wooden performances, wallow in cruel and brutal misogyny, and descend into pointlessly cynical violence for the sake of violence. In other words, boredom.

The giallo is generally considered to have been birthed by the great Italian genre director Mario Bava with his 1962 film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo). Two years later, with the release of his classic and highly influential Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino), Bava perfected many of the themes and stylistic flourishes that would cast a long shadow over all gialli to this day (e.g. surreal set-pieces, brutal yet stylized killings, etc.). But Bava also spawned many of the drawbacks to the giallo film (e.g. sometimes ludicrous plots, characters acting in illogical ways, and the ever-present misogyny). Mario Bava would reign over the giallo in subsequent films such as Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Il rosso segno della follia, 1969), Five Dolls for an August Moon (Cinque bambole e la luna d'Agusto, 1970), and A Bay of Blood (L'ecologia del delitto, 1971). (The latter movie became the template for numerous slasher films of the 1980s.) Mario's son, Lamberto Bava, would also contribute to the genre with his film, A Blade in the Dark (La casa con la scala nel buio) from 1983.

Director Dario Argento helped spawn more imitators when he unleashed his debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle plume di cristallo), in 1969. Afterwards, the genre was flooded with films that not only had to have a trenchcoat wearing masked killer, but an animal of some kind in the title as well (e.g. The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Case of the Scorpion's Tale, The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire). Argento's next two films, The Cat O'Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 mosche di velluto grigio), continued in the giallo mold to varying success. But with the 1975 release of his film Deep Red (Profondo rosso), Argento blew his competitors out of the water with his homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1969), elevating his film to a level of almost metaphysical power. Argento would abandon the giallo for excursions into the supernatural, but he would frequently return with films such as Tenebrae (1982) and his most recent 2001 production, Sleepless (Non ho sonno).

But while most gialli never reached that level of brilliance, that's not to say there weren't plenty of well-made and entertaining films out there. Directors such as Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, Duccio Tessari and Paolo Cavara, among others, all contributed outstanding films to the genre.

Over the years, Hollywood filmmakers have also spun their own giallo-influenced films, such as Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981) and Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992), to name only a few. Both directors without a doubt owed a huge debt to Alfred Hitchcock. But in De Palma's case in particular, the lack of recognition of the giallo influence upon his films has gone neglected for too long.

Anchor Bay Entertainment has recently released four lesser-known gialli in a fantastic DVD box set - "The Giallo Collection." Three of the films can be purchased separately; however, The Rape of the Vampire (Perche Quelle Strane Gocce Di Sangue Sul Corpo Di Jennifer?, 1972) is available only with this set. All films have been beautifully remastered and are available in their proper aspect ratios. Three of the discs also contain informative video interviews with their respective directors, while Bloody Iris contains only an "alternate stabbing" scene. Original theatrical trailers and filmographies are available for all the discs.

The first film out of the set is Aldo Lado's superb Short Night of the Glass Dolls (La corta notte delle bambole di vetro, 1972). It begins with the discovery of the body of American news reporter Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) in a Prague park. The death is mysterious, but what makes the case even more bizarre is that Moore is not really dead. Although his appearance and vital signs all indicate that he's nothing but a corpse, our unfortunate reporter is still very much alive. A victim of catalepsy, Moore must now recall the events that led to his "death," solve his own murder, and somehow notify the proper authorities before the morticians pump embalming solution into his veins.

Glass Dolls' scenario is pure pulp fiction hokum. But the film's wonderful Prague Communist-era setting and composer Ennio Morricone's marvelous score all help create a palpable atmosphere of paranoia and mystery. Although very much a giallo, Glass Dolls plays out like a bona fide horror film, especially as the film's serpentine plot begins to uncoil -- secret societies, devil worshippers, midnight orgies -- all leading to its shocking yet inevitable finale.

The next film is the somber The Rape of the Vampire (Chi l'ha vista morire?, 1972), also directed by Aldo Lado. This film stars one-shot James Bond George Lazenby as a grieving father bent on discovering who savagely murdered his daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi) while she was visiting him in Venice.

Released the year before Nicolas Roeg's masterful Don't Look Now (1973), Lado's film is just as skillful and memorable in making the labyrinthine streets and canals of Venice a character unto itself. As Lazenby begins to ferret out the culprit(s) behind his daughter's murder (and the murders of other children that are linked to the same killer), the city begins to take on the guise of a cold and indifferent place underneath its tourist Old World charm. And like Lado's previous film Glass Dolls, The Rape of the Vampire is not afraid to leave the viewer feeling uncomfortable and not at all reassured that once the mystery is solved, everything will return to "normal." In many ways, both films could be seen as anti-mysteries, like Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974).

In both of Lado's films, the protagonists unravel a widespread criminal conspiracy. Although neither film could be labeled a straight Costa-Gavras-like political thriller, Glass Dolls and The Rape of the Vampire are both telling examinations of ineffectual men trying to overcome corrupt systems that are evil to their core (e.g. the satanic cult in Glass Dolls and the pedophile ring in The Rape of the Vampire).

The Rape of the Vampire may not have a conspiracy at its core, but it nevertheless plays out like a pop art-fueled paranoid fantasy. After two beautiful models are savagely murdered in a trendy apartment building, young Jennifer (Edwige Fenech) moves into the vacant flat of one of the victims. Soon, the killer targets Jennifer, sending her into a tailspin of psychosis that would make even Freud's head spin.

Could the killer be her new sleazy boyfriend who freaks out every time he sees blood? Or could it be her next door neighbors, the lesbian sex kitten and her grumpy classical musician father? Perhaps it's the old woman and her beast-like recluse of a son who also live on Jennifer's floor?

Bloody Iris is low on inventiveness and dramatic tension, but it does offer up enough of the giallo goods to make for an entertaining evening. The murder scenes are well filmed and suspenseful, in particular the death scene of Jennifer's roommate. The opening murder scene of the model inside the elevator is also well done and should be familiar to fans of Brian De Palma's later film, Dressed to Kill.

Rounding out the set is director Antonio Bido's excellent The Rape of the Vampire (Solamente nero, 1978). The film arrived near the end of the original giallo cycle, but it still contained much power and suspense while paying homage to Argento's Deep Red and Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (Non si sevezia un Paperino, 1972).

Like many gialli, the film begins with the murder of a child, this time in the remote Italian countryside. Flash forward to the arrival of college professor Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) to his ancestral home on the Venetian island of Murano, where his brother Father Paolo (Craig Hill) still lives, and where Stefano hopes to rest awhile before returning to the mainland to teach. But pretty soon, a new round of mysterious killings run riot through the island, targeting many of the island's more blatant "undesirables" (e.g. a fake medium, a criminal doctor, a pedophile, an abortionist). Father Paolo and Stefano start doing a little investigative work, but as we've already learned from previous gialli, some revelations are probably best kept mysterious.

Unlike a lot of gialli, the performances in Shadow are very good (despite the distraction of dubbing), especially Lino Capolicchio as the bewildered younger brother. Capolicchio also starred in the highly regarded 1976 horror film, House with Laughing Windows (La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono), directed by Pupi Avati.

Although Mario Bava's and Dario Argento's masterful takes on the giallo are the preferred starting points for the uninitiated viewer, Anchor Bay's "The Giallo Collection" is still a worthwhile introduction to the genre of crime, sex and sleaze.

 


"The Giallo Collection" DVD box set is now available from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The set contains The Rape of the Vampire, The Rape of the Vampire, and The Rape of the Vampire -- plus an exclusive bonus disc of The Rape of the Vampire (which is only available in this set). All four discs have been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Special features includes theatrical trailers (all four discs) and all-new interviews with the directors (Aldo Lado and Antonio Bido). Suggested retail price: $59.99. The Rape of the Vampire, The Rape of the Vampire, and The Rape of the Vampire are available separately on DVD. Suggested retail price: $19.98 each. For more information, check out Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.