Friday, July 25, 2014

Giallo July - Five for Friday: Five American Gialli

As I said in the previous post, the Italians aren't the only ones to have made films one could arguably label as gialli. It's well known what a seminal influence this European sub-genre had on American horror cinema and specifically the slasher but for the most part these later films divert from their elder relations enough to be considered their own separate thing. Unsurprisingly though, there are times when these two worlds have overlapped, bringing things, as we'll see, essentially full circle

Before we begin though a quick controversy alert(!)... depending on your definitions, you may or may not consider some or all of these gialli at all... and if you don't, please feel free to hit me up with your two cents in the comments

For your consideration then, here are five "American gialli"....

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1945)

An appropriate film to start with for a couple of reasons... Firstly, it's very much a Transatlantic affair, having a German born director but being American made. But more importantly, there seems to be a direct line of decent from these old dark house thrillers to Italian gialli. For one thing, we know Argento is a fan as he's openly said so... and even if he hadn't, a murder scene from Tenebre, which is staged in a strikingly similar fashion to one from Siodmak's film, would make it pretty damn obvious.

The plot and trimmings are very much in the giallo vein, with a black gloved killer going around knocking off women who have various afflictions, the usual red herrings hanging about and us getting a psychological explanation for the killer's motivations during the finale. 

The film is a must see for anyone into thrillers, gialli and/or slashers, not only for it's importance in the overall history of these genres but also for its uniformly excellent cast (the stand out being Dorothy McGuire, who gives an amazing, almost silent movie-esque performance as the mute heroine), simply but superlatively staged murder sequences and some dazzling black and white photography which, along with the storm that assaults the old dark house for pretty much the duration, creates the ideal atmosphere for a great, late night movie.

Finally, I wonder if Mario Bava ever saw this prior to Blood and Black Lace? I only ask as there's a telephone seen swinging off the hook in the final shots of both that film and this one...

The Gore Gore Girls (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1972)

From class to trash, this next movie comes from what might be the greatest year of the giallo, '72 arguably being to that genre what '81 is to the slasher... so it definitely has an appropriate vintage about it. For gore and sleaze though, I think you'd struggle to find an Italian giallo from this era that can compete with the sustained extravaganza of bad taste, black comedy and ultraviolence that Lewis gives us here. 

A typically giallo-esque story about another black gloved maniac, this time knocking off strippers, The Gore Gore Girls is no mere pastiche... in fact it's got its tongue so far in cheek that it's more apt to class it as a parody... as evidenced by certain moments during the murder scenes and some downright bizarre humour strewn throughout.

As anyone familiar with Lewis will expect, no punches are pulled as far as gore goes, and in this film it seems the director pushed it as far as he possibly could. So it goes without saying that if you're squeamish, avoid this one at all costs as despite the humour, it gets seriously nasty.... I mean I'll put it this way... some of the violence in this gives Fulci a run for his money, and nearly ten years before the likes of The Beyond or The New York Ripper.

The last thing to mention, without getting too deep into plot and character here, is our "dashing" dandified private eye protagonist, Abraham Gentry, played by Frank Kress. As anyone familiar with the giallo will know, many of the male leads walk a very thin line between seeming strangely charming and acting like repellent assholes... and Gentry is certainly up there with the "best" of em. Lewis, Kress and writer Alan J. Dachman make it practically impossible to like this guy but despite his questionable conduct (to a modern audience) there's no denying it's quite entertaining watching this walking anachronism go about his business being a grade-A douchebag.

If you've the stomach for it, have a frankly sick sense of humour and are a giallo/slasher junkie, I'd say this is a must see... you certainly won't forget it in a hurry, I can promise you.

Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976)

Having only seen this once (as part of a double bill with Formula for a Murder, which is another giallo featuring a rain coat clad killer) I can only really give you my brief impressions on it but from this initial viewing alone I can see why it's lauded so highly by horror enthusiasts. 

Like many American movies of the period, Alice has a rather European vibe about it at times... in fact, if I'd known nothing about the cast or crew behind it before watching it I think I could have been forgiven for thinking it was Italian.

Following the search for the killer of a ten year old girl (Brooke Shields in her screen debut), the film compares favourably to  Aldo Lado's 1972 giallo Who Saw Her Die? with the two films both having moments of slightly trippy terror, a dollop of sleaze and a palpable sense of place. 

I'll say no more for now as I really need to re-watch this before I can really start getting under the surface of it but suffice to say it's essential viewing for fans of gialli and/or 70's American horror cinema.

Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

Though people more commonly cite Hitchcock as a primary influence upon De Palma (and rightly so), there are others one can point to as well... and I'd be willing to bet he's seen a few gialli in his time, as evidenced by this deliciously entertaining giallo-esque remake of Psycho.

Generally referred to as an erotic thriller/pastiche of the Master of Suspense's classic, Dressed to Kill certainly has enough tropes to be considered part of the yellow canon: a razor wielding killer (I forget if black gloves were worn as it's been a while since I've seen it), amateur investigators (the delightful combo of David Keith and Nancy Allen), indifferent/incompetent police, a psycho-sexual subtext (admittedly borrowed from Hitchcock) and more sleaze than you can shake your dick at.... I mean a stick at... ahem... And further cementing the Italian horror/giallo connection is the luscious score from De Palma regular Pino Donaggio who also composed music for gialli such as Argento's Trauma and Ruggero Deodato's Phantom of Death.

Basically, if you wanted to show someone what a giallo is but fear they may be averse to foreign films then you couldn't really go wrong here.

Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)

I did warn y'all it'd get controversial, so here it is... a wildcard if you will... From the same year as De Palma's movie, this is obviously more traditionally known as a slasher and most of the time when talking about it I'd certainly refer to it that way myself... but if you'll indulge me for a moment, I think we can make a case for it being viewed as something of a giallo too...

I'm assuming everyone reading this has seen the film (if not then frankly why are you here?) so I'm not gonna worry about spoilers.

Unlike the rest of the films in the franchise, the first Friday doesn't feature Jason (apart from during the famous shock ending) and instead follows the trajectory of a whodunnit/giallo with an unseen and therefore unknown assailant. And as is almost invariably the case with these things, the murderer is motivated by past trauma to punish those they see as similar to the people who caused their loss.

Admittedly this differs from most gialli in there being pretty much no focus on figuring out who the killer is... so it definitely still leans more towards the slasher side of things... but I think there's enough here to just about classify it as a giallo as well.

Finally, there's one last, slightly tenuous Italian connection to Cunningham's film I want to mention, which is its relationship to Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood. Now I'm not gonna accuse the former of ripping off the latter as frankly every slasher film owes Bava's movie a great debt... plus, it was really Friday the 13th Part II which borrowed more specific elements (i.e. kills) from that Italian classic. But the first Friday is certainly somewhat related by proxy... and as this image from the awesome slasher site Hysteria Lives illustrates, there may have been the odd hand me down in terms of wardrobe between the films to boot.  

There are certainly other movies equally deserving of a mention in discussions of American gialli, such as Silent Night, Bloody Night and Happy Birthday to Me to name just two, but we'll leave it there for now... and if anyone has any issues with any of the above or have some other titles they wanna give a shout out to then by all means drop me a line below.

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