“Eros is sick,” Michelangelo Antonioni told the audience at the 1960 Cannes premiere of his L’Avventura—but it was his down-market colleagues in the Italian film industry who diagnosed, graphically, just how sick it was. Aptly named “Giallo Fever!” Anthology Film Archives’ 10-film series is comprised of movies well advanced into the throes of delirium.
The term “giallo”—Italian for “yellow”—comes from the long-running Il Giallo Mondadori mystery paperback imprint, distinguished by their yellow covers. With regard to cinema, the term is roughly synonymous with “crime fiction”—but rather than country house whodunits in which rational ratiocination leads to the restoration of order, these anti-logic films contain no restorative solution: The fever is incurable.
Mystery writers inflame the imagination of the American girl abroad in Mario Bava’s 1963 The Girl Who Knew Too Much, while the film’s title, wrongful-accusation theme, and postcard-scenic use of Rome’s Spanish Steps indicate another major point of reference for gialli: Alfred Hitchcock. Bava, a cinematographer-turned-director and rococo visual stylist, is widely considered to have inaugurated the giallo cycle with Girl—but though it looks backward to Christie’s prewar The A.B.C. Murders, Bava’s phantasmagorically colorful Blood and Black Lace of the following year predicts the psychosexual slasher of the future, introducing a new scopophiliac trope: black-gloved hands wielding a killing blade in the foreground of a POV shot.
Like the spaghetti westerns, whose popularity paralleled the giallo‘s, and which used many of the same directors and actors (Franco Nero, Tomás Milián, Fabio Testi), giallo was found in translation, its personality derived through pronouncing a foreign genre vocabulary with an Italian accent. Where the spaghettis transposed native political resentment to the American frontier, gialli drew on the hysteria resultant as parochial Italian conservatism collided with an ongoing upheaval in public sexual mores, abetted by sex-sells commercialism.
“Only 16 and surrounded by secret boyfriends, petty jealousies, orgies, and lesbian games,” muses Testi, in bargain-basement Sean Connery mode while solving the mysteries of Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). Shot in London and featuring a perfunctory visit to a Blow-Up–style softcore photographer’s studio, Dallamano’s film is Italian to the core nevertheless, its plot centered on the confessional booths at St. Mary’s Catholic College for Girls and a secret backroom abortion—which only makes sense if you remember that abortion was still illegal in Italy in ’72, unlike in the U.K.
Lucio Fulci’s greatest giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), stabs right at the heartland. An opening in which a new super-highway wends through baked, prehistoric hills sets the stage for a collision between the modern and archaic in a landscape where space-age bachelorette pads coexist with village idiots and hermit mystics, where Fuzztone guitar psych soundtracks what is essentially the persecution of a suspected witch.
Scoring is paramount in gialli, and composers like Riz Ortolani and Ennio Morricone are well represented. The latter puts a persecuting cacophony beneath Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), which muddles the roles of victim and killer in the mind of porn-addled painter Franco Nero, dominated by agent/wife Vanessa Redgrave. Dario
Argento “discovered” prog outfit Goblin when looking to soundtrack his 1975 Deep Red—unfortunately, only the film’s abridged version is available in 35mm, which eliminates the comic interplay between investigating duo David Hemmings (of Blow-Up!) and Daria Nicolodi. Corny stuff—she beats him at arm wrestling—but it gets at the insecurities at the dark heart of giallo: the battle of the sexes, and the fear of woman, ascendant.