What Is Grindhouse?
Grindhouse is an American term for a cinema that mainly shows exploitation films. Grindhouse films are also referred to as "exploitation films." Grindhouses were known for non-stop programmes of B movies, usually consisting of a double feature where two films were shown back to back, sometimes these films would run for 24 hours.
A grindhouse film sacrifices the traditional filmmaking concepts such as good acting, character development, production values, creative directing and an understandable plot outline in favour for sex, gore, nudity, violence and other shocking themes, as well as avant-garde filming techniques and an incoherent narrative.
What is an exploitation film?
An exploitation film is a film that attempts to succeed financially by exploiting current trends, niche genres, or lurid content. Exploitation films are generally low-quality "B movies". They sometimes attract critical attention and cult followings.
Exploitation and Grindhouse Film
Exploitation films are typically low budget films that attempt to profit off popular trends or appeal to audiences with violence, sexual content, drug use and other 'shock' tactics.
Through the 1970's and 80's exploitation films were typically exhibited at independent cinemas, some of which were labeled "grindhouse" cinemas.
Subgenres of exploitation films include blaxploitation, sexploitation, Ozploitation movies and some elements of horror subgenres, such slasher or torture films. The latter of these last two subgenres became extremely popular in Japan amongst young people in the 1980's and 1990's, an example of which are the Guinea Pig film series.
Origins of Exploitation Films/Grindhouse Cinema In America And Beyond.
Like most commercial films, the aim of exploitation films is to make money. However, what sets exploitation films apart from typical mainstream film production is the extreme, lurid, taboo, or bizarre content. In addition, these films are typically produced on low budgets, since they are usually made (with some exceptions) without the support of a major film production studio, therefore lack the funds that these studios provide. Exploitation films often feature violent or sexual content beyond what is normally presented in a mainstream film, or at least are advertised as such in promotional material in order to attract a larger audience.
Exploitation films have their roots in smaller studios during the first few decades of commercial cinema. While major studios like MGM, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros created big budget features in the 1920s through to the 1950s, smaller studios created films on much lower budgets that followed popular trends. For example, many so called "Poverty Row" studios (because of their low budgets) created westerns because of the popularity of the genre at that period in time.
The popularity of exploitation films increased in the 1950s. Films were created for drive-in and independent cinemas, such as the so called "grindhouse", which showed more violent or sexually explicit features than standard cinemas. Though exploitation films are typically thought of as low quality or low brow movies by many audiences, a number of exploitation films have grown in stature to be considered cult classics. Films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Shaft (1971) have received critical acclaim and have been selected for preservation in the American National Film Registry.
Several early exploitation films were able to include material that wouldn't normally pass censorship boards by being presented as educational, like the 1930s anti-marijuana films Reefer Madness and Assassin of Youth, or as dramatised re-enactments of real life experiences (i.e., docudramas), like the 1943 anti-child marriage film Child Bride and Ed Wood's 1953 transgender film Glen or Glenda. In the 1960s, this concept was taken further with "Mondo" films (named after the 1962 Italian feature Mondo Cane), which present vignettes of shocking "real" behavior that is actually staged by filmmakers. Mondo films include the infamous horror series Faces of Death, which depicts gruesome and realistic imagery of death.
Exploitation Film Trends
Exploitation films often reflect cultural trends in order to profit off current popular interests. For example, the rise of motorcycle and car culture in the mid 1960s led to a number of low budget biker films, such as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Mini Skirt Mob (1968). Other exploitation films were produced quickly and released to capitalise off recent news stories, such as 1967's Riot on Sunset Strip, a "hippie exploitation film" inspired by the December 1966 curfew riots in Hollywood, California. Unsurprisingly, several other "hippie exploitation" films, such as Roger Corman's 1967's film The Trip, Richard Rush's Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and Psyche-Out (1968) followed over the next several years.
Other exploitation film trends began by attempting to recreate the success of an earlier hit independent film. For example, the 1969 film Love Camp 7 depicts a pair of female American World War II soldiers who infiltrate a Nazi female prison camp, where they undergo physical and sexual torture. The international success of the film inspired imitations in two distinct exploitation subgenres: the women in prison genre (such as 1971's The Big Doll House) and the "Nazispoitation" genre (such as 1974's Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS). Typically, the popularity of a particular exploitation film subgenre lasted only a few years.
Exploitation Film Subgenres
Blaxploitation is one of the most popular subgenres of exploitation films. They were created by African American filmmakers, starring African American actors, and were aimed primarily toward urban audiences. Two 1971 action films, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft, are credited for popularising the subgenre after they became minor box office hits on very low budgets. Many blaxploitation films are action movies, but the subgenre also includes other types, like horror, Blacula (1972) and Blackenstien (1973). One of the biggest stars of blaxploitation films is Pam Grier, who appeared in films like Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), helping popularise strong female leads in blaxploitation films.
By the mid 1960's cinema censorship rules in the U.S. had undergone a major overhaul and a growing number of independent cinemas played American and international films with increased sexual content. In sexploitation films, the promise of nudity or sex was a key part of the marketing (although many mainstream publications refused to advertise these films). One of the most popular early sexploitation directors was Russ Meyer, who directed films like The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), Vixen! (1968), which was one of the first films to be given an "X rating" from the Motion Picture Association of America, and Supervixens (1975). Like other exploitation films, many of Meyer's productions were made on very small budgets and were huge financial successes at the box office. Perhaps the most infamous sexploitation film is the Penthouse Films produced 1979 historical epic Caligula, which was banned in several countries for its explicit sexual content.
There are a number of subgenres of exploitation/grindhouse horror films, such as giallo films (Italian made horror films), creature features (like those made by Roger Corman), rape and revenge films (such as 1978's I Spit on Your Grave), and splatter films (gore heavy films like 1963's Blood Feast). Though the slasher genre grew into its own horror film genre with the success of major franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series, the slasher film genre originated as a low budget, gore filled exploitation film subgenre in the wake of the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and perhaps the most popular slasher film, Halloween (1978). Many more slasher style films emerged in the late 1970's and early 1980's such as The Toolbox Murders (1978), Tourist Trap (1979) The Burning (1981) The Prowler (1981) Sleepaway Camp (1983) and The Prey (1983). By the mid 1980's the popularity of the slasher subgenre was in decline, as by this time the cinema goer had grown tired of the repetitive formula these films used. The genre spiraled into creative bankruptcy as the 1980's continued. However, that was not the end of the slasher film, as it would regenerate itself in the mid 1990's, but that is another story...…..
Independent low budget film industries in several countries produced their own exploitation films, often filtered through their own cultures. One of the most popular is Ozploitation films, which originated in Australia in the early 1970's. Ozploitation films cover a variety of subgenres, including horror films, like 1971's Wake in Fright (which was released under the title of Outback internationally), sex comedies (1973's Alvin Purple), and martial arts (1975's The Man from Hong Kong). The most popular Ozploitation film is George Miller's Mad Max (1979), an action film which became a major international hit.
Modern Exploitation Films
Though the number of independent cinemas has declined in recent decades, many exploitation films still are released as straight-to-DVD and straight-to-VOD/online streaming, particularly creature features, martial arts films, and internationally produced horror films. In addition, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, and Ti West have been influenced by exploitation/grindhouse films and have incorporated aspects of these filmmaking techniques into their work.
Slash Me Up
A Concise History Of The Slasher Genre
Slashers are among the most prevalent types of horror films and they're a particular favorite of modern horror enthusiasts. The definition of a slasher film varies depending on who you ask, but in general, it contains several specific traits that feed into the subgenre's formula.
Every slasher has a killer. They're usually male, and the identity is often concealed either by a mask or by creative lighting and camerawork. Even if their identity is known, as in the case of Halloween's Michael Myers, they still tend to mask their face. This, combined with the fact that they're usually mute and seemingly unstoppable, heightens their ominous, threatening nature. Their back story often includes a childhood trauma that turned them into the homicidal maniac they are today, thus creating a level of sympathy in the viewer. After all, the real star of a slasher is the killer, not the hero. Throughout a franchise like Friday the 13th, heroes come and go, but the killer is constant: the iconic antihero valued for having a big weapon, that they slash their way through the fodder with.
What's a killer without the victims? In slashers, the victims tend to be young, attractive and often female. They're typically college/university aged adolescents who engage in vice ridden activities: sex, alcohol, drugs, crime, etc. Rarely does the killer pick these young people explicitly because of their behavior or character traits, but there is an unwritten moral code in these films that punishes bad behavior. As nihilistic as they might seem, slasher enthusiasts like to know that the people who die somehow "deserve it."
Although slashers are often criticised for being misogynistic, they're one of the few film genres that primarily feature strong, independent female leads. The heroine is almost always a peer of the victims, but unlike her peers, she's virtuous. She doesn't go along with all of the sexual activity and drug usage, and if she doesn't outright stop her friends from bullying the geeky outcast, (who may someday grow into a homicidal killing machine) she at least feels bad about it. The heroine is also known as the "final girl" because by the end of the film, all of her friends are dead, and she's left alone to deal with the killer.
One thing that separates slashers from thrillers and murder mysteries is the level of violence. Slashers shift the focus of the film from such trivialities as plot and character development and instead concentrates on the killing. Storylines are basically constructed around giving the killer reason and opportunity to do what they do best, murder and mayhem. The deaths are violent and graphic, and the more originality shown in the methods and tools used, the better.
John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) is often considered to be the first "true" slasher in terms of tying all of these components together, at least the first to gain mainstream exposure, setting the standard by which all other films are judged. However, earlier works laid the groundwork, including two films from 1960: Peeping Tom and Psycho. A lesser known film, 1963's Violent Midnight, foreshadowed in the long run, the mystery killers in slasher films and in the short run, it predated the development of the Italian slasher (Giallo) in the 60's and 70's.
Around the middle of the 1960's Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava and Gino Mangini began to focus their crime stories on the perverse beauty of bloody deaths, developing a style known as Giallo. Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) in particular forecasted the slasher movement to come, as did the Canadian entry Black Christmas (Bob Clark) in 1974. Others, like 1976's Giallo style Alice, Sweet Alice and the little seen American cheapie Wicked, Wicked (1973), incorporated elements that would later become associated with slashers e.g. a masked serial killer and the stalk and slash concept.
It took an American film called Halloween though, to put all of the pieces together and show that the slasher could be a major moneymaker. Made on a shoestring budget, Halloween became the most profitable independent film to date. Its success led to Friday the 13th in 1980, which then opened the door for hundreds of imitators during the 1980s, with 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street containing one of the few original concepts in its supernatural, dream-fed villain, Freddy Krueger.
By the late 80s, the slasher concept had worn thin, with fewer and fewer films succeeding at the box office. But in 1996, Wes Craven's Scream, an often tongue-in-cheek affair that played with the conventions of slashers, became the biggest hit the genre had ever seen. The slasher was reborn in a modern whodunit mold, generating similar films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend and Valentine, as well as, ironically enough, resurrecting the Halloween franchise.
In the early 21st century, the slasher has continued to search the past for its inspiration, as remakes of Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Halloween, The House on Sorority Row, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street have hit the big screen, while the latter two franchises both saw their biggest payday when they combined forces for 2003's Freddy vs Jason. However, this was a rather weak entry into the history of franchise's vaults.
As the century has progressed, the now well established slasher conventions have become popular fodder for parody, from outright spoofs like the Scary Movie franchise to more traditional horror comedies like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and The Final Girls that have turned slasher clichés into humour. 2014's Stage Fright even turned the subgenre into a lighthearted musical. The 21st century downturn in original, straightforward slasher movies is bound to be temporary however, as cinematic trends, particularly within the horror genre, tend to be cyclical in nature. Watch this space.....
Selected Notable Slashers
Peeping Tom (1960)
Violent Midnight (1963)
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
Black Christmas (1974)
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Friday the 13th (1980)
Prom Night (1980)
Terror Train (1980)
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
The Burning (1981)
Hell Night (1981)
The Prowler (1981)
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
Visiting Hours (1982)
The House on Sorority Row (1983)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
April Fool's Day (1986)
Child's Play (1988)
Maniac Cop (1988)
Dr. Giggles (1992)
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Urban Legend (1998)
Scary Movie (2000)
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
Haute Tension (2003)
Cry Wolf (2005)
House of Wax (2005)
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Cold Prey (2006)
When a Stranger Calls (2006)
Prom Night (2008)
Friday the 13th (2009)
My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)
Sorority Row (2009)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011)
The Final Girls (2015)
And Art House?
Art house is a film genre which encompasses films where the content and style (often artistic or experimental) adhere with as little compromise as possible to the filmmakers personal artistic vision. The narrative is often in the social realism style with a focus on the characters contemplation of their existence or immediate concerns and thoughts.
An art house film is typically independently produced, outside of the major film studio system. Major studios are reluctant to pour money into projects which are unlikely to return a profit due to the limited – often niche market – appeal of the material that is produced. Without major studio backing, art house filmmakers rarely acquire the finances for large productions nor strongly marketed releases.
Art house filmmakers commonly use a mix of lesser known and amateur actors, modest production sets, typically using real locations and no large stunts or special effects. The filmmakers may explore and develop new filmmaking conventions to realise their visions effectively on a limited budget and sometimes tight filming schedule. An art house is a cinema which runs art house films and typically is independently funded. Film festivals usually include a good proportion of art house films.
Art house films are usually of high quality, but may not be extremely popular or successful. Criticisms of art films include being too pretentious and self indulgent to be of any interest for mainstream audiences and major film distribution companies.
Film critics typically define an art film as possessing "formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream film productions". These qualities can include (among other elements), a sense of social realism, an emphasis on the authorial expressiveness of the director and a focus on the thoughts, dreams, or motivations of characters, as opposed to the unfolding of a clear narrative within the story. Some film scholars describes art cinema as a film subgenre in its own right, with its own distinct conventions.
Rise Of The Cult
Films like Pulp Fiction and The Godfather are hailed as masterpieces from almost the moment the first audiences see them, and their critical and box office success reflect that. But there are other films that manage to win crowds over a longer period of time, slowly gaining fans and admiration via word of mouth and spread by those who feel passionate about the film.
The term “cult film” (and later “cult classic” as the film ages) is used to describe a film that has developed a small, but significant and thoroughly dedicated fanbase that grows over time. The term “cult film” specifically refers to films that despite being much less successful financially, nonetheless have a passionate fanbase.
While there are films that bomb or underperform at the box office nearly every week that still manage to win over a few fans, few films inspire such deep devotion that they develop a dedicated following. The “cults” devoted to these particular films grow as those enthusiasts spread the word about this little known, but (in their opinion) must see film.
The History of Cult Films
In the era of classic Hollywood, few films had the opportunity to develop cult followings due to regular turnover at cinemas and the lack of subsequent distribution on media like television or home video that would allow audiences to see films outside of their initial theatrical runs. Nonetheless, a few non mainstream films attained notoriety in late night screenings, such as the controversial 1932 MGM horror movie "Freaks."
Years later, television channels in America and then the UK with the advent of digital TV (seeking cheap programming) would play obscure horror, thriller, or just completely weird films during late hours or as “midnight films.” Some of this programming would incorporate a ghoulish host, specifically in America such as Los Angeles’ Vampira and Philadelphia’s Zacherley, whose popular personas would help the programmes develop regular viewership and maintain a loyal following.
By the early 1970s, cinemas began playing “underground” films as “midnight films,” often for months long or years long runs if tickets kept selling. For example, "El Topo" (1970), "Pink Flamingos" (1972), and "The Harder They Come" (1972), which all had lengthy runs at cinemas like New York City’s famed Elgin Theatre. In fact, the most famous midnight film of all time, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," has been in continuous limited release since 1975. Regular attendees recite dialogue/songs along with the film, dress as their favourite characters, and throw objects at the screen (much to the irritation of the cinema owners and cleaning staff!!).
While the popularity of midnight films diminished with the introduction of home media, that did not change the enthusiasm audiences had for cult films. In fact, VHS and later, DVD and Blu-ray helped spread the popularity of an uncountable number of cult films, which gave many underappreciated films new life and presented them to a wider audience. While cult films range from campy science fiction to highly graphic horror films and just about everything in between, there are a few characteristics that most cult films share.
Outside the Mainstream
The one criteria that all cult films have in common is that they are not popular with general audiences or at the box office, at least not initially. After all, the very definition of “cult” means that these films have small but devoted followings.
In many cases, cult films begin as low budget films in limited release at underground/grindhouse cinemas. In others, they are big budget studio releases that fail to sell tickets during their theatrical run. In both cases, the audiences that do have the opportunity to see these films spread the word about what they’ve seen. Soon, the film's popularity grows in unexpected and unintended ways, even sometimes among audiences who overlooked the film during it's initial release.
So Bad They're Good
While many cult films inspire fan support by being underappreciated by general audiences, others become cult hits for the opposite reason, because they are awful films. "Reefer Madness" (1936), "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959) and "The Room" (2003) are generally considered to be three of the worst films ever made, but that is precisely why some fans find them so entertaining. These three films are just a few examples of hilariously bad films that are popular on the midnight circuit.
Other cult films are popular in spite of their low budgets and otherwise poor production quality. Troma Entertainment has released dozens of films that are widely regarded as cult classics even though many of the films had extremely low budgets. Troma’s most famous film, 1984’s "The Toxic Avenger," was so successful that the independent studio shifted focus from sex comedies to horror films (both scary and comical) after it's release in an attempt to recreate it's success.
On the other hand, cult films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Evil Dead (1981) became popular for being great films that didn’t receive the recognition they deserved when they were originally released. In fact, it’s arguable that both of these films have since outgrown their cult status as the recognition of their quality is now widespread.
Go to Extremes
Many cult films become popular because of their controversial or underground nature. Films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) broke sexual taboos, while The Boondock Saints (1999) became a huge success on DVD after an unsuccessful release in just five cinemas, for its violent content. While mainstream audiences and critics might find such content distasteful or even downright disturbing, others embrace these films for offering audiences something alternative.
For example, prior to digital distribution, horror films from filmmakers working in countries like Japan, Spain, and Italy were traded on VHS and DVDs by collectors/enthusiasts of the genre, including films that never saw an official cinema release in the United States, the UK and Europe. Among film enthusiasts being “in the know” about rare and little known films, has become a badge of pride in itself.
While many mainstream films fade from the public eye after the completion of their initial cinema run, the popularity of cult films continue to grow and reach new audiences through the years. Though the popularity of cult films used to spread through midnight screenings in cinemas and often borrowed VHS or DVD copies, the internet and digital streaming has increased the admiration of certain cult films exponentially.
Followers of these films worldwide can share their enthusiasm. Few films can have that type of effect on audiences and inspire such dedication from their fans, which makes cult films perhaps the best type of films, endless fun for their most devoted fans and other unsuspecting viewers. Keep watching.....
Giallo is the Italian term designating mystery fiction. The word giallo is Italian for yellow. The term derives from a series of cheap, mass produced paperback mystery novels with yellow covers that were popular in Italy in the 1950's and 60's.
In the context of 20th century literature and film, especially among English speakers and non-Italians in general, giallo refers specifically to a particular Italian horror/thriller genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller/horror, sexploitation, psychedelia and supernatural horror elements. This particular style of Italian produced murder mystery thriller/horror film usually blends the atmosphere and suspense of thriller fiction with elements of horror fiction (such as slasher violence) and eroticism (similar to the French fantastique genre), and often involves a mysterious killer whose identity is not revealed until the final act of the film. The genre developed in the mid-to-late 1960s, peaked in popularity during the 1970s, and subsequently declined over the next few decades. (Some examples continue to be produced). It has been considered a predecessor to, and significant influence on, the later American slasher film genre.
The term giallo ("yellow") derives from a series of crime-mystery pulp novels entitled Il giallo Mondadori (Mondadori Yellow), published by Mondadori from 1929 onward and taking its name from the trademark yellow cover background. The series consisted almost exclusively of Italian translations of mystery novels by British and American writers. These included Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Edgar Wallace, Ed McBain, Rex Stout, Edgar Allan Poe, and Raymond Chandler.
Published as cheap paperbacks, the success of the giallo novels soon began attracting the attention of other Italian publishing houses. They published their own versions and mimicked the yellow covers. The popularity of these series eventually established the word giallo as a synonym in Italian for a mystery novel. In colloquial and media usage in Italy, it also applied to a mysterious or unsolved affair or crime.
In the Italian language, giallo is a broad term that can be translated as "crime novel" including any literary genre involving crime and mystery, with all its subgenres such as crime fiction, detective story, murder mystery or thriller and horror.
In the movie context, for Italian audiences giallo has come to refer to any kind of murder mystery or horror thriller, regardless of its origin.
English speaking audiences have used the term to refer specifically to the type of Italian produced thriller/horror films known to Italian audiences as giallo all'italiana.
The film subgenre began as literal adaptations of the giallo mystery novels. Directors soon began taking advantage of modern cinematic techniques to create a unique genre that retained the mystery and crime fiction elements of giallo novels, but veered more closely into the psychological horror/thriller genres. Many of the typical characteristics of these films were incorporated into the later American slasher genre.
Critics disagree on the characterisation of a giallo film. Gary Needham wrote the following observation:
By its very nature, the giallo challenges our assumptions about how non Hollywood films should be classified, going beyond the sort of Anglo-American taxonomic imaginary that "fixes" genre both in film criticism and the film industry in order to designate something specific. However, despite the giallo's resistance to clear definition there are nevertheless identifiable thematic and stylistic tropes.
These distinct "thematic and stylistic tropes" constitute a loose definition of the genre which is broadly consistent, though various critics have proposed slightly differing characteristic details (which consequently creates some confusion over which films can be considered gialli). Author Michael Mackenzie has written that gialli can be divided into the male focused gialli, which usually sees a male outsider witness a murder and become the target of the killer when he attempts to solve the crime, and female gialli, which features a female protagonist who is embroiled in a more sexual and psychological story, typically focusing on her sexuality, psyche and fragile mental state.
Although they often involve crime and detective work, gialli should not be confused with the other popular Italian crime genre of the 1970's, the Poliziotteschi, which includes more action oriented films about violent law enforcement officers (largely influenced by gritty 1970's American films such as Dirty Harry, Death Wish, The Godfather, Serpico and The French Connection). Directors and stars often moved between both genres and some films could be considered under either banner, such as Massimo Dallamano's 1974 film La Polizia Chiede Aiuto (What Have They Done To Your Daughters.) Most critics agree that the giallo represents a distinct category with unique features.
Giallo films are generally characterised as gruesome murder mystery thrillers, that combine the suspense elements of detective fiction with scenes of shocking horror, featuring excessive murder scenes, stylish camerawork and often jarring musical arrangements. The archetypical giallo plot involves a mysterious, black gloved psychopathic killer who stalks and butchers a series of beautiful women. While most gialli involve a human killer, some also feature a supernatural element.
The typical giallo protagonist is an outsider of some type, often a traveller, outcast or tourist. The protagonists are generally unconnected to the murders before they begin and are drawn to help find the killer through their role as a witness to one of the murders. The mystery is the identity of the killer, who is often revealed in the climax to be another key character, who conceals his or her identity with a disguise (usually some combination of hat, mask, sunglasses, gloves, and trench coat). Thus, the literary whodunit element of the giallo novels is retained, while being filtered through horror genre elements and Italy's long standing tradition of opera and staged grand guignol drama. The structure of giallo films is also sometimes reminiscent of the so called "weird menace" pulp magazine horror mystery genre, alongside Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie.
It is important to note that while most gialli feature elements of this basic narrative structure, not all do. Some films (for example Mario Bava's 1970 Hatchet For The Honeymoon, which features the killer as the protagonist) may radically alter the traditional structure or abandon it altogether and still be considered gialli due to stylistic or thematic tropes, rather than narrative ones. A consistent element of the genre, is an unusual lack of focus on coherent or logical narrative storytelling. While most have a nominal mystery structure, they may feature bizarre or seemingly nonsensical plot elements and a general disregard for realism in acting, dialogue and character motivation. As Jon Abrams wrote, "Individually, each giallo is like an improvisation exercise in murder, with each filmmaker having access to a handful of shared props and themes. Black gloves, sexual ambiguity, and psychoanalytic trauma may be at the heart of each film, but the genre itself is without consistent narrative form."
While a shadowy killer and mystery narrative are common to most gialli, the most consistent and notable shared trope in the giallo tradition is the focus on grisly death sequences. The murders are invariably violent and gory, featuring a variety of explicit and imaginative attacks. These scenes frequently evoke some degree of voyeurism, sometimes going so far as to present the murder from the first person perspective of the killer, with the black gloved hand holding a knife viewed from the killer's point of view. The murders often occur when the victim is most vulnerable (showering, taking a bath, or in an unfamiliar environment). Giallo films often include liberal amounts of nudity and sex, almost all of it featuring beautiful young women (actresses associated with the genre include Edwidge French, Barbara Bach, Daria Nicolodi, Mimsy Farmer, Barbara Bouchet, Suzy Kendall, Ida Galli, and Anita Strindberg). Due to the titillating emphasis on explicit sex and violence, gialli are sometimes catergorised as exploitation cinema. The association of female sexuality and brutal violence has led some commentators to accuse the genre of misogyny.
Gialli are noted for psychological themes of madness, alienation, sexuality and paranoia. The protagonist is usually a witness to a gruesome crime but frequently finds their testimony subject to skepticism from authoritative figures, leading to a questioning of their own perception and sanity. This ambiguity of memory and perception can escalate to delusions and hallucinations or delirious paranoia. Since gialli protagonists are typically female, this can lead to what writer Gary Needham calls, "the giallo's inherent pathalogising of femininity and fascination with psychologically unwell women". The killer is likely to be mentally ill as well; giallo killers are almost always motivated by insanity caused by some past psychological trauma, often of a sexual nature (and sometimes depicted in flashbacks). The emphasis on madness and subjective perception has roots in the giallo novels (for example, Sergio Martino's Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I have The key, was based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat", which deals with a psychologically unstable narrator) but also finds expression in the tools of cinema. The unsteady mental state of both victim and killer is often mirrored by the wildly exaggerated style and unfocused narrative common to many gialli.
Writer Mikel J. Koven stated that gialli reflect an ambivalence over the social upheaval modernity brought to Italian culture in the 1960s. The changes within Italian culture can be seen throughout the giallo film as something to be discussed and debated. Issues pertaining to identity, sexuality, increasing levels of violence, women's control over their own lives and bodies, history, the state, all abstract ideas, which are all portrayed situationally as human stories in the giallo film.
Gialli have been noted for their strong cinematic technique, with critics praising their editing, production design, music and visual style even in the marked absence of other facets usually associated with critical admiration (as gialli frequently lack characterisation, believable dialogue, realistic performances and logical coherence in the narrative). Alexia Kannas wrote of 1968's La Mort Ha Fatto L'uovo (Death Laid An Egg) that "While the film has garnered a reputation for its supreme narrative difficulty (just as many art films have), its aesthetic brilliance is irrefutable", while Leon Hunt wrote that frequent gialli director Dario Argento's work "vacillate between strategies of art cinema and exploitation".
Gialli are frequently associated with strong technical cinematography and stylish visuals. Critic Maitland McDonagh describes the visuals of Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) as, "vivid colour and bizarre camera angles, dizzying pans and flamboyant tracking shots, disorienting framing and composition, fetishistic close-ups of quivering eyes and weird objects (knives, dolls, marbles, braided scraps of wool). In addition to the iconic images of shadowy black gloved killers and gruesome violence, gialli also frequently employ strongly stylised and even occasionally surreal use of colour. Directors Dario Argento and Mario Bava are particularly known for their impressionistic imagery and use of vivid colour, though other giallo directors (notably Lucio Fulci) employed more sedate, realistic styles to his films. Due to their typical 1970s milieu, some commentators have also noted their potential for visual camp and flamboyant sets, especially in terms of fashion and decor.
Music has been cited as a key to the genre's unique character. Critic Maitland McDonagh describes Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) as an "overwhelming visceral experience, equal parts visual and aural." Writer Anne Billson explains, "The giallo sound is typically an intoxicating mix of groovy lounge music, nerve jangling discord, and the sort of soothing lyricism that belies the fact that it's actually accompanying, say, a slow motion decapitation", (she cites as an example Ennio Morricone's score for 1971's Four Flies On Grey Velvet). Composers of note include Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and the Italian progressive band Goblin. Other important composers known for their work on giallo films include Piero Umillami (composer for Five Dolls For An August Moon), Riz Ortolani (The Pyjama Girl Case) Fabio Frizzi (Sette Note In Nero aka The Psychic).
Gialli often feature lurid or baroque titles, frequently employing animal references or the use of numbers. Examples of the former trend include Sette Scialli di Setta Gialla (Crimes of the Black Cat), Non Si Sevizia Un Paperino (Don't Torture a Duckling), La Morte Negli Occhi Del Gatto (Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye) La Morte Negli Occhi Del Gatto (Black Belly of the Tarantula); while instances of the latter include Sette Note In Nero (Seven Notes in Black) and The Fith Cord.
History and Development
The first giallo novel to be adapted for film was James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted in 1943 by Luchino Visconti as Ossessione. Though the film was technically the first of Mondadori's giallo series to be adapted, its realist style was markedly different from the stylised, violent character which subsequent adaptations would acquire. Condemned by the fascist government, Ossessione was eventually hailed as a landmark of neo-realist cinema, but it did not provoke any further giallo adaptations for almost 20 years.
In addition to the literary giallo tradition, early gialli were also influenced by the German "Krimi" films of the early 1960's. Produced by Danish/German studio Rialto Films, these black and white crime movies based on Edgar Wallace stories typically featured whodunit mystery plots with a masked killer, anticipating several key components of the giallo movement by several years and despite their link to giallo author Wallace, they featured little of the excessive stylisation and gore which would define Italian gialli.
The Swedish director Arne Mattson has also been pointed to as a possible influence, in particular his 1958 film Mannequin In Red. Though the film shares stylistic and narrative similarities with later giallo films (particularly its use of colour and its multiple murder plot), there is no direct evidence that subsequent Italian directors had seen this film.
Goffredo Unger as The Masked Killer from Blood and Black Lace (1964) would serve as the visual template for the stock giallo killer and later the American slasher films. The first "true" giallo film is usually considered to be Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). It's title alludes to Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, remade by Hitchcock in 1956), highlighting the early link between gialli and Anglo-American crime stories. Though shot in black and white and lacking the lurid violence and sexuality which would define later gialli, the film has been credited with establishing the essential structure of the genre. In it, a young American tourist in Rome witnesses a murder, finds her testimony dismissed by the authorities, and must attempt to uncover the killer's identity herself. Bava drew on the krimi tradition as well as the Hitchcockian style referenced in the title, and the film's structure served as a basic template for many of the gialli that would follow in years to come.
Bava followed The Girl Who Knew Too Much the next year with the stylish and influential Blood And Black Lace (1964). It introduced a number of elements that became emblematic of the genre, a masked stalker with a shiny weapon in his black gloved hand, who brutally murders a series of glamorous fashion models. Though the movie was not a financial success at the time, the tropes it introduced (particularly its black gloved killer, provocative sexuality, and bold use of colour) would become iconic of the genre.
Several similarly themed crime/thriller movies followed in the next few years, including early efforts from directors Antonio Margheriti (Nude Si Muore, Naked You Die in 1968), Umberto Lenzi (Orgasmo in 1969, Paranoia, A Quiet Place To Kill and Così dolce, Cosi Perversa, So Sweet, So Perverse in 1969) and Lucio Fulci (Una Sull'altra, One on Top of the Other in 1969), all of whom would go on to become major creative forces in the burgeoning genre. But it was Dario Argento's first feature in 1970 that turned the giallo into a major cultural phenomenon. That film, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage was greatly influenced by Blood and Black Lace and introduced a new level of stylish violence and suspense that helped redefine the genre. The film was a box office smash and was widely imitated. Its success provoked a frenzy of Italian films with stylish, violent, and sexually provocative murder plots (Argento alone made three more in the next five years) essentially cementing the genre in the public consciousness. In 1996, director Michele Soavi wrote, "There's no doubt that it was Mario Bava who started the 'spaghetti thrillers', but Argento gave them a great boost, a turning point, a new style. Dario made it his own genre, this had repercussions on genre cinema, which, thanks to Dario, was given a new lease on life." The success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage provoked a decade which saw multiple gialli produced every year. In English language film circles, the term giallo gradually became synonymous with a heavy, theatrical and stylised visual element incorporated into these films.
Popularity and Legacy
The giallo genre had its heyday from 1968 through 1978. The most prolific period however, was the five year timespan between 1971 and 1975, during which time 96 different gialli were produced. Directors like Bava, Argento, Fulci, Lenzi, and Margheriti continued to produce gialli throughout the 70s and beyond, and were soon joined by other notable directors including Sergio Martino, Paolo Cavara, Armando Crispino, Ruggero Deadato, and Bava's son Lamberto Bava. The genre also spread to Spain by the early 70s, resulting in films like La Residencia, (The House That Screamed 1969) and Los Ojos Azules de la Muneca Rota (Blue Eyes Of The Broken Doll 1973) which had unmistakable giallo characteristics, but feature Spanish casts and production talent. Though they preceded the first giallo by a few years, German krimi films continued to be made contemporaneously with early gialli, and were also influenced by their success. As the popularity of krimis declined in Germany, Rialto Films began increasingly pairing with Italian production companies and filmmakers, such as composer Ennio Morricone and director/cinematographer Joe D'Amato, who worked on later krimi films following their successes in Italy. The overlap between the two movements is extensive enough that one of Rialto's final krimi films, Cosa Avete Fatto A Solange? (What Have You Done to Solange?), features an Italian director and crew and has been called a giallo in its own right.
Gialli continued to be produced throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but gradually their popularity diminished and film budgets and production values began shrinking. Director Pupi Avati satirised the genre in 1977 with a slapstick giallo titled Tutti Defunti, Tranne I Morti.
Though the giallo cycle waned in the 1990s and saw few entries in the 2000s, they continue to be produced, notably by Argento (who in 2009 released a film actually titled Giallo, somewhat in homage to his long career in the genre) and co-directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani whose Amer (which uses music from older giallis, including tracks by Morricone and Bruno Nicolai) received a positive critical reception upon its release in 2009. To a large degree, the genre's influence lives on in the slasher films which became enormously popular during the 1980s and drew heavily on tropes developed by earlier gialli.
The giallo cycle has had a lasting effect on horror films and murder mysteries made outside Italy since the late 1960s as this cinematic style and unflinching content is also at the root of the gory slasher and splatter films that became widely popular in the 1980's. In particular, two violent shockers from Mario Bava, Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970) and Twitch Of The Death Nerve (1971) were especially influential.
Early examples of the giallo effect can be seen in the British film Beserk! (1967) and such American mystery thrillers as No Way To Treat A Lady (1968), the Oscar winning Klute (1971), Pretty Maids All In A Row (1971, based on an Italian novel), Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972), Vincent Price's Madhouse (1974), Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978) and Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill (1980).
Director Eli Roth has called the giallo "One of my favorite subgenres of film," and specifically cited Sergio Martino's Torso (I Orpi presentano Tracce Di Violenza Carnale), along with the Spanish horror film Who Can Kill A Child? as influential on his 2005 film Hostel, writing, "These seventies Italian giallo's start off with a group of students that are in Rome, lots of scenes in piazzas with telephoto lenses, and you get the feeling they're being watched. There's this real ominous creepy feeling. The girls are always going on a trip somewhere and they're all very smart. They all make decisions the audience would make". No doubt the legacy of the giallo film will have a lasting influence on filmmakers throughout the 21st and beyond.