“Hanging Shadows: Perspectives on Italian Horror Cinema”: Exploring the gory giallo film genre

By on May 12, 2016

Hanging Shadows: Perspectives on Italian Horror Cinema — a fascinating documentary we’re featuring on our Night Flight Plus channel — has been described online as an “informative historical overview of the giallo genre, exploring its genesis and chronicling the films, directors, and personalities that made up its golden age.”

The film — 60-minutes long, and directed by Paulo Fazzini — showcases interviews with Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava (director and son of Mario Bava), Antonella Fulci (daughter of director Lucio Fulci), Ruggero Deodata (director or Cannibal Holocaust), and many others who provide the “perspectives” referred to in the film’s title.

Like most Italian horror films at the time, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (aka Mask of Satan, 1960) — one of the great Italian horror films, coming along at the beginning of the Sixties, which is a good place to start — still reflected the influence of German expressionism, and American-made horror films of the 1930s, filmed in gorgeously Gothic black-and-white.

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More significantly, however, Bava (who died in 1980) may have directed what many consider to be the first “giallo” film in 1963 — The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, aka Evil Eye).

Giallo — which means “yellow” in Italian — is actually the nickname for pulp paperback detective stories and thrillers popular in Italy’s post-fascist era whichhad brightly lurid yellow covers.

The first the giallo films of the 60s began as literal adaptations of these books, but soon the filmmakers (sometime in the next decade) began to place more emphasis on the sordid nature of the murders instead of focusing on procedural aspects of the homicide investigations.

In the process of increasing the intense visual aesthetics of the horror, Italian filmmakers ended up creating a stylized new genre (nicknamed “Spaghetti horrors”), which in turn ended up being hugely influential on American “slasher” films in the 1980s, which merged the murder mystery with the splashier, bloodier elements of horror fiction and sexy eroticism.

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Avid cinephile Dario Argento — along with Bava, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodata and a handful of others — became one of the masters of the giallo form. He’d previously worked as a culture and film critic for Paese Sera, a Roman newspaper, before collaborating on the first draft screenplay of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1967), working alongside 26-year old screenwriter/director Bernardo Bertolucci.

A few years later, Argento would be directing his first giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), which was followed by Profundo russo (aka Deep Red; Dripping Deep Red; The Hatchet Murders; and, The Sabre-Tooth Tiger, 1975), featuring visual special effects by Carlo Rambaldi, best known for winning an Academy Award in 1983 for his work on Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

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Argento continued to explore the bold visual aspects of giallo storytelling after Deep Red, increasingly shocking filmgoers with bloody and violent murder scenes punctuated by spiky musical motifs (Bernard Hermann’s Psycho theme was hugely inspiring too).

The horror in Italian giallos tended to focus more upon the serial killers — masked or disguised murderers with their assorted sordid psychological and sex mania hangups — and not on vampires, werewolves, or other supernatural monsters.

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Argento also frequently showed us the killer’s POV instead of that of the victim, which changed the way audiences looked at those crimes, making them visual participants in the killing instead of passive victim/viewers, frequently focusing on terrifying objects like puppets, sharp knives and black leather gloves, all shot in extreme close-up (ECU) angles that were captured with a special Snorkel camera originally designed for endoscopic exploration.

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One of the last films shot in Technicolor, Argento’s Suspiria (1976) was an extremely graphic horrorshow, filled with gratuitously bloody violence, but from a filmmaking standpoint the director also used striking visual symbols and vividly rich primary colors — not to mention a haunting and eerily mesmerizing soundtrack by the band Goblin — all of which provided themes which Argento continued to explore with his next films: Inferno (1980), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomenon (1985) and Opera (1987).

By the early 1980s, there was a decline for a few years until the filmmakers began additionally turning to thematic storylines which involved cannibals, zombies and demonic possession, no doubt inspired by the box-office success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and his earlier zombie flick, Night Of The Living Dead (1968).

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Mario Bava’s son Lamberto would combine zombies and demonic possession in two of his films, Demons (1985) and Demons II (1987). Bava had, of course, learned a lot from his father Mario and had also served as an assistant director (second unit director) on a number of classic films and fan favorites, including Danger: Diabolik (1968) and Ruggero Deodato’s controversial Cannibal Holocaust (1979), about a group of American explorers trying to find out what happened to a missing documentary film crew who had disappeared while searching deep in the Amazon jungle for a mythical tree-dwelling tribe of cannibals.

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Deodato’s horror film pioneered the “found footage” genre, and it has often been billed as the most controversial film ever made given its graphic, grisly depictions of rape, violence and real-life on-camera animal killings, which may be the reason why it was banned in 33 countries.

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Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell, 1980) featured a scene in which a character vomits up her own intestines, but Fulci (who died in 1996) is probably better known for next film, The Beyond, which many consider his magnum opus.

Last year we told you about the sold-out screening of the uncensored film at the Beyond Fest festival in Hollywood, which was described in the program notes as the director’s “most feverish and accomplished film released during his horror and gore heydays of the 70s and 80s.”

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Many of these films and filmmakers are today well known, of course, nearly three decades after these films first began to appear on VHS rental tapes and occasionally on cable TV, but it’s nice to have their perspectives in this documentary to tell us more about Italian giallos and the methods behind their madness.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.