Giallo is a major hole in my film viewing history. I’d estimate, working with the sporadic, incomplete lists I’ve kept over the years, that I’ve seen around 7000 films, as I’ve been adding about 500 a year for the last five years. I’m particularly interested in horror and horror adjacent films, and have exhausted every list and compendium from every decade in the US and every country with a presence in the genre I can think of looking for films worth watching that I may have missed, and short of new releases, it’s kind of exhausted for me now except for Italian giallo. I don’t know why, other than having seen a couple of movies ages ago that I don’t really remember and feeling kind of underwhelmed, I guess I wasn’t drawn to the fairly plotless style, but I put the subgenre on the backburner and never got back around to them. I also saw, and actively hated because it felt so deliberate and contrived, the neo-giallo The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013) after it came out, which put me off the films again for awhile, but I decided to change that this week as Suspiria (1977) fulfills my self imposed limitation for this series, and I watched that film along with Deep Red (1975) and Tenebre (1982), all from Dario Argento, to get a taste for giallo. As has been usual, I exceeded the “double” part of this feature as I was excited to view the work of someone considered a major director that I was still unfamiliar with beyond a couple episodes of Masters of Horror, (Jenifer was one of the best in the series though), and I wanted to experience a good sampling of the man’s work.
Deep Red, Profondo Rosso in the Italian, is quite simply, fantastic, definitely more mystery-thriller than horror, and incredibly well crafted, with a screenplay by Argento and Bernardino Zapponi, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The tease of a bloody butcher’s knife and a child’s scream interposed in the opening credits work as a clever hint and lure into the story. After the quick introduction of jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings) rehearsing his group, the film bleeds into a seminar featuring prominent psychic and telepath Helga Ullmann (Macha Meril), flanked by a pair of male colleagues, who explain her ability to intuit other’s thoughts. As she is demonstrating her skill by identifying the name of an audience member and the contents of his pocket, she is overcome by terror, and flinching in pain, says there is a twisted and violent mind in the room. We soon get an ominous glance of a black gloved hand before fading into Helga’s apartment as she writes down her visions, and tells the person on the other end of a phone call that she can identify the killer that disturbed her mind. Her doorbell rings and she hangs up to answer it while a disturbing children’s song can be heard playing faintly, when she nears the door she screams in psychic terror and falls backward as the door bursts open, and the black gloved hand is now holding a cleaver that mercilessly hacks her body several times before removing the papers she was writing. Down below in the nearby plaza, Marc, who is returning home to his apartment in the same building, comes upon his friend and fellow pianist Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a drunk and self pitying mess, and tries to rouse and cheer him before he hears the screaming and looks up to see the fatal blow being delivered to Helga through the window above.
A few things really stand out in the opening sequence of events. Argento deploys graceful, energetic camera movements that draw the viewer into and define the space, and when the camera is stationary, he finds beautiful, symmetrical compositions, one from a distance with Carlo and Marc flanking a huge marble fountain statue of a supine figure representing the river Po, another as they seperate shows a bar in the background that is styled as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, and yet another canted from above when Helga is flanked by the two men at the seminar and throws her head back in pain are all wonderful. The set design and art direction is also fabulous, the intricate wooden cocktail table in her apartment with a pentagram etched in the glass top that casts the six pointed star in shadow onto the floor, and the amazing hallway with the charcoal drawings of macabre anguished faces interspersed with ornately framed mirrors reflecting them back is just awesome, I want a hallway in my home to look exactly like that. He also takes time for a brief interlude with close up shots of toy figures and tiny yarn dolls pinned as though voodoo killed along with rusty knives on black velvet that ultimately serve no real narrative purpose, and I imagine he just liked and decided to add for more atmospheric weirdness.
Marc goes up to the apartment and pulls the lifeless body from the window with glass shards artfully embedded in the neck, and catches a glimpse of a fleeing trench coated figure. He also believes that a painting from the hallway has mysteriously gone missing. The police question him with suspicion and have an amusing exchange when he tells them he is a pianist, and the cops are like, so, you’re unemployed, and he responds, no, I teach jazz and piano, and they’re like, yeah, but that’s not work, so you’re unemployed, leaving Marc not only flustered and bemused but a suspect. Reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s long time partner and mother of Asia Argento) also arrives at the scene and both she and Marc get drawn into finding the killer together, thus marking the second time David Hemmings is sucked into a mystery that’s really none of his business for an Italian director, after Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). The scenes of Marc and Gianna getting to know each other are played mostly for comedy, with Gianna embarrassing him for being so nervous and then also beating him at arm wrestling, which establishes her independent feminist bona fides as a hard charging journalist, but she also seems kind of desperate for his approval as being attractive and desirable, so it’s a little regressive as well, and that dissonance is solidly of its time I guess, and I was kind of surprised all the flirtation never led to an on screen hookup, it’s pretty chaste in that regard. And again, I’ll note how well Argento frames scenes, with the pair’s walk out of the cemetery when they first talk being particularly fine, and the eccentric touches, like Gianna’s little shitbox car with a broken passenger seat that frames Marc’s head at her shoulder height when he falls on his ass, and in which he also inadvertently locks the broken door so that they have to exit the vehicle through the sunroof, an abundance of nice details and choices throughout the movie.
Marc spends some time looking for Carlo at his home where his addled minded mother keeps confusing pianist with engineer and seems desperate for company, but eventually he breaks free with an address to find Carlo, who he finds with his trans lover, drunk, and rambling as to whether he did or didn’t see the killer. Marc returns home and is then menaced by the unknown killer, as he hears the same disturbing children’s song played on his own phonograph, and narrowly escapes by locking his study door before he can be assaulted. He makes his way to Ullmann’s colleagues Giordani and Bardi, who theorize about the childhood psychological trauma scarring the killer and send him on a search where he identifies the song, as it’s related to a folktale in the book The House of the Screaming Child by Amanda Righetti. He makes his way to Righetti, but is too late, as we see the gloved killer brutally murder the author by drowning her in a tub filling with scalding hot water soon before he arrives, and of course, not before Argento finds time for a few brief moments where some small character touches bring Righetti to life before the killer arrives to end it. At this point Marc assumes he’ll be an even more serious suspect and decides not to report the body and lay low with Gianna, but he keeps sleuthing and figures out where the house referred to in Righetti’s book is by use of a photo therein that contains some unique trees, and goes to find it after calling Giordani and sending him to survey Righetti’s place once the police have cleared out.
While Marc finds the creepy old mansion and poses as a buyer to check out the decrepit and reputedly haunted home that has gone unoccupied since the previous owner disappeared, Giordani stumbles on a clue in the bathroom where Righetti met her end after he has an amusing conversation with the housecleaner who found the body. Back in his home office, before Giordani can do much about it, the freaky song starts to play, and then, and you gotta love it, a demented robotic marionette looking little black suited four foot nightmare doll comes high stepping into his office, and he slashes into its head with a big old knife, and relieved, sees the gears spilling out like brains, before he then gets bashed in the head from stage right and curb stomped on the fireplace mantle and his desk. I’ll never forget when I first heard the term curb stomp and had it explained to me, at like 20, and I still can’t believe one human could actually IRL do that to another, but via the fireplace mantle edge, and then the edge of his desk, Giordani is bashed in the back of the head open mouthed while his teeth and jaw crunches before he is impaled through the neck to his desk with his big old knife. The first couple of kills were alright, a little nasty, but this delivers the over the top crazy and gore I was expecting.
Meanwhile the pace elsewhere quickens, Marc has discovered a disturbing childlike painting of bloody knives and murder behind the plaster in the old house, and after he leaves and returns at night, when he realizes an exterior window in the photo has been covered up, he discovers a hidden room with a rotting skeleton inside and is soon unceremoniously bopped on the head. He awakens in the yard, rescued by Gianna, the house and its evidence in flames. They go to the caretaker’s nearby home to call the police and Marc notices a drawing by the man’s daughter that echoes the one in the home, and this sends the amateur detectives to the archives of her junior high school looking for clues. Marc finally puts a name to the madness, while poor Gianna, off calling the police, is stabbed, and when the reveal comes I was nicely surprised, though I wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been so engrossed and was observing the law of the conservation of characters. The death scene that follows is totally gonzo and awesome as the stabber evades the police successfully, but is then snagged on some rebar hanging outside a passing garbage truck and is dragged and bloodied and bludgeoned to a pulp behind the truck while the drivers bullshit before the truck finally stops, I laughed and cheered, it’s a fucking great death, but of course, questions remain.
Marc sees Gianna to the hospital, and then mulling it over on the way home, he realizes that the person couldn’t have done it, and rushes to the scene of the original crime to puzzle out the mystery of the painting, where he figures out it was actually a mirror with the killer’s visage, and then ends up fighting for his life when the real killer comes a killing, while quick flashbacks reveal the sad family crazy and domestic violence in the spooky old house that led to all the fresh murders, and as their animated tussle spills into the entryway, a huge improbably well made chain around the killer’s neck gets caught in the collapsible elevator door and Marc pushes the button down to cause a final gruesome decapitation. This was a nice introduction to Dario Argento and giallo and it was easy to see why so many other filmmakers that I admire consider him great and influential. The care taken to compose interesting, well framed shots, the graceful moving camera at other times, all the eccentric set design touches, the fact that even the most minor of characters was given a little time and personality to register, the goofy humor, the atmospheric jazz and Goblin on the soundtrack, and given what I expected of giallo, the fact that the killer had actually already appeared in the film, and kind of made sense, was a big bonus.
So on to Argento’s most celebrated and well known film, Suspiria, and while my retinas are still sore from processing all the assaultive primary colors, and especially the red, so, so, much, red, I think I can still touch type. The film was co-written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi. I’ve read over the years that this film is plotless, an exercise in pure style, nothing more, and that’s simply not true. The story is very straightforward: a coven of witches is using an elite ballet academy in Freiburg as a clever front to hide their nefarious satanic rituals while they amass great wealth and power through the time tested method of running an elite ballet academy. A young American girl, Suzy Bannion (lovely, doe-eyed Jessica Harper) arrives to begin her scholarship and is then forced to fight and destroy the coven to save her life, this is clearly a plot. The opening sequence of events is justifiably revered. Suzy sets down in a torrential rainstorm and after finally hailing a cab is treated to the renowned German hospitality as the driver refuses to exit the cab and help with her luggage, I’m sure his lumbago was just acting up. She then tells him she wants to go to “Eschenstrasse,” she receives a blank stare and tries again, very clear, “Eschenstrasse,” receives another, more hostile, blank stare, so she wisely holds up her acceptance letter, “Oh, Eschenstrasse,” he says and takes her to the Tanz Academy for ballet dancers and spooky witches. A hysterical young woman exits the doors as she arrives, mumbling incomprehensibly, and runs off frightened into the driving rain without a word for Suzy, who is then denied entry to the locked building and driven off by the cab driver who somehow mercifully waited. They see the crazed woman sprinting through the woods along the road, and we presume the cab driver takes Suzy to a quaint German inn, but don’t know because we abruptly shift to the mystery woman’s perspective as she arrives at her insanely designed red red redrum art deco apartment building. The young woman, Pat, is comforted by her solicitous roommate, and then she is killed in one of the great frenzied murder scenes in film history, I have nothing but admiration for this indescribable sequence of sublime mayhem and for the design of the building’s atrium where both Pat and her roommate meet their gory ends, a complete triumph of vision, lighting, framing, editing, and sound. (The sound throughout is over the top Argento directed Goblin, lots of synth and drums and eerie doom, and it’s great.)
Suzy is greeted warmly upon arrival the next day, all apologies for being locked out in the rain, and the headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) couldn’t be more pleasant and civilized, though unfortunately they don’t have much time to chat as the police are investigating the death of a wayward student who foolishly associated with some unsavory man despite their best efforts to warn her, and come to think of it, Suzy thinks she saw the woman running away. (Unlike in American slasher films, I’ve noted in both these giallo that the police are an active and competent presence, even if their appearances are brief and they fail to actually solve the crimes.) The school is totally normal, the students are catty and maybe just a little bit greedy and fearful of the teachers and staff, and sure, the groundsman is sort of a hulking deformed monster with a big set of fake choppers, and Madame Blanc’s nephew is a pale creepy little fucker in a decades old buster brown suit who skulks about with the gigantic hulking babushkas that cook, or provide muscle, or something, and the piano accompanist is blind and has to leave his faithful seeing eye dog tied up outside, which all seems a little odd, but nothing, really, suspicious. The school itself is a riotous Escher drawing come to life in a Technicolor world without black or white, a fine place for the refined study of ballet by the sons and daughters of Europe’s elite.
Suzy soon balks at giving up her gorgeous sublet room in town (the wallpaper!) for full room and board at the school, and when a babushka somehow hexes and sickens her with reflected sunlight, she wakes to find herself all moved in, they’re so kind, and being attended by Dr. Mandel (Udo Kier). Suzy is unaware that having Udo Kier play doctor is bad, and she drinks the nightly glass of “wine” he prescribes to fortify her blood, while things begin to go downhill fast from there. Murders, betrayals, conspiracies, a plague of maggots descending from the ceiling, lots of fun stuff, the best being the demise of the piano player, who is kicked out of the school after his dog allegedly bites the creepy nephew, and then while walking home drunk from a bar, the dog turns on him and rips his throat out in an huge deserted plaza after spooky shadows descend from the sky. Suzy bonds a little with another girl, Sara, also Pat’s friend, and it turns out the girl who originally denied Suzy entry, but just as she is about to solve the mystery, she gets stalked and slashed in a demented fashion involving a desperate run for safety through the candy colored maze of the Tanz academy, -so many long disturbing birth canal corridors-, a pit of razor wire, and a straight razor to the throat from an unseen hand while she struggles. When Suzy hears that flighty Sara just up and left without word to anyone, she worries and contacts Sara’s friend, who happens to be an esteemed psychologist with an equally esteemed colleague who specializes in witches and the occult, outside the awesomely designed BMW headquarters that echoes Chicago’s Marina City. They exposition some stuff, and while we learn that the Tanz academy was started by a famous Greek witch who was kicked out of multiple European countries, her totally not witchy heirs just teach ballet now, and the most salient point is that if you kill the head of the witch coven, it is like striking off the head off the cobra, the body becomes useless.
The final scenes as Suzy solves the mystery and descends into the belly of the Tanz Academy beast are outstanding, the mysterious doorless room leading to the long winding decorative Gothic corridor of incantations and cabbala, Madame Blanc cursing “the American girl” to death, the hunt by the giant choppers mutant dude, the discovery of the fancy peacocked bedroom, and the reveal that the Greek witch Helena Markos survives as a withered crone with the power of invisibility and directs the coven from her inner sanctum, the attack by zombie Sara, the disintegration of the Tanz Academy as Suzy flees the chaos, so much delightful, creepy fun soaked in a sea of pretty colors and delicious set design and art direction. A fabulous film with a well deserved reputation, I am sad to have missed the recent 4K restored print from the original negative’s limited screenings. I guess now I’ll also have to watch the other two parts of Argento’s witch trilogy, Inferno (1980) and the long belated conclusion, Mother of Tears (2007) at some point. And I see that a remake, directed by frickin Luca Guadagnino, with a fairly A list cast and a returning Jessica Harper, is due out this year, will wonders never cease.
Tenebre, with a screenplay by Argento, is a return to murder mystery after he had detoured into supernatural horror for a couple of films. The central character Peter Neal (an adequate Anthony Franciosa) is the successful author of violent murder mystery novels who arrives in Rome for a book tour for his new novel, Tenebre, and becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer who is referencing the novel with his killings and taunting correspondence with the author. The film had opened with a black gloved individual (a consistent trope of giallo, I presume) reading from the book and concluding with, “Every humiliation which stood in his way could be swept away by this simple act of annihilation, Murder.” The film has a pretty metafictional feel from the premise onward as Argento had received death threats from an obsessed fan as well as criticism for misogyny in his films (a little off it seems to me in that Suspiria was basically all variously strong women, including the heroine) and chose to lean into the punch, going so far as to have a female reporter challenge the misogyny in the novel in a press conference, while then also presenting impeccably staged gonzo murders of beautiful women, including the same reporter and her girlfriend after a lover’s quarrel, who are then photographed by the killer reveling in his work.
Neal is attended by his literary agent, Bullmer (John Saxon, also adequate) and assistant Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and is interviewed repeatedly by police detectives Germani and Altieri from the moment he arrives at his apartment, as the killer had first struck a few hours earlier and stuffed pages of the novel in the victim’s mouth before slitting her throat and depositing a standard serial killer cut and paste provocation under Neal’s door. The film tosses out a few red herrings along the way with a disturbed ex wife vandalizing his luggage at the airport as he left for Rome and then following him there, and the creepy uber Catholic TV presenter Cristiano Berti who interviews him and reads the novel’s killings as describing a necessary cleansing of perverts from the world, maybe not such a red herring after all. Argento’s skill with staging elaborate murders is on full display throughout. The first is of a woman who shoplifts a copy of the novel, is caught and released after basically offering a sexual encounter to the store manager, and then is chased and threatened by an aggressive and grubby homeless vagrant before escaping terrified into her home, where just as she sees the vagrant leering through the window at her, he sees her brutal murder by the unseen killer; multiple layers of funhouse observation.
There is a great sequence somewhat later in the film when Maria, the young daughter of Neal’s building manager, takes off on a motorcycle with Neal’s driver/publishing intern Gianni, gets off his motorcycle after one presumes she refused an unwelcome proposition, and while walking home, she becomes menaced by a Doberman. The dog deserves a stunt work award for scaling a couple of nine foot fences along the way and performing all manner of tricks during the girl’s terrifying chase through a park before she runs into an urban estate and is cornered by the dog at a pretty awesome modern mansion and escapes inside when she finds keys dangling from the door. Unfortunately for Maria, we had seen black gloves pawing a thigh in anticipation while stalking some street prostitutes earlier, and a quick flashback from this perspective had shown a forgotten set of keys swinging in a door lock. She is at the killer’s home, and quickly finds evidence of the murders before the owner returns and chases her down with an axe in another well staged and gruesome kill. As an aside, the house is really sweet, a super location shoot with wild, landscaped grounds, a beautiful pool and patio, an awesome great room with close packed art all over the walls and lots of comfortable contemporary furniture and foliage, and the presumably quite wealthy owner is thanked in the final credits. The film also has strong police procedural elements as the detectives are prominent characters, they are engaged and competent and work hard for a solution to the case, and the cinematography by Argento and Antonioni collaborator Luciano Tovoli, he also lensed Suspiria, and in near total opposition to that reflects a more gritty realistic style that was intended to have a slightly futuristic feel as they avoid classical Rome features, and use locations and interiors that are modern in design.
Neal decides that solving the murders would really cement his fame, and along with Gianni investigates and discovers that the location where the young woman’s body was found is not only near his building, but near the home of the suspicious TV interviewer Berti. They go to investigate themselves rather than tell the police, and enter the same huge estate from earlier, where a paralyzed with fear Gianni ends up witnessing the murder of Berti with the axe, the killer unseen by him, while Neal is then discovered unconscious with a bloodied rock near his bloody head. They again choose not to speak to the police and inform them about their trespassing and what Gianni saw or didn’t see, but the police soon discover the murder anyway and believe they must have found the killer of the earlier victims given all the evidence. But then who killed the killer and why? The bodies still continue to drop, just about everyone with a speaking role falls to an axe or knife eventually, and Neal prepares to flee to Paris for his own protection as the film builds to a spectacular extended climax of artfully dropped bodies, with lost limbs and blood splattered walls, and ironic reveals and reversals. It is gloriously batshit crazy, orchestrated with aplomb, and filmed and edited with the controlled precision that elevates Argento from the rest. The killer’s motives are a little contrived, though they do explain a seemingly non-sequitur flashback earlier interposed in the film, and it all goes back to Argento’s preoccupation with repressed childhood trauma and sexual deviancy along with the voyeurism and complicity of both the filmmaker and his audience that glories in the bloodletting and fetishization of murdered women. The film seems a pretty emphatic statement and clear explication of his authorial intent, and I thought it was pretty great.
It was a pleasure to finally view the work of Dario Argento, and regardless of my general impression of giallo, his movies had always been on my to do list because of his status, it just took me awhile to get there. It was cool to finally see films that I have read endlessly praised over the years, particularly Suspiria, and not experience a letdown. I’ve read that his films post 1990 are a mixed bag of decent to disappointing while still relieved by some of his great set pieces, and aside from Mother of Tears, I probably won’t go out of my way for any of them, but his first three films, along with Phenomena and Inferno, and especially Opera, which I barely left off this feature in place of Tenebre, will be watched in the near future. I suppose I’ll have to check out Mario Bava now as well.
Deep Red is free with Amazon Prime and a stream can also be rented. Suspiria and Tenebre have both recently received the 4K Blu Ray upgrade from Synapse for purchase, and DVD’s are available with a Netflix subscription.