Although Jean-Luc Godard said that all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl, where giallo is concerned, knives, nudity and black leather gloves may also come in handy. Enjoying its bloody heyday in the 1970s, this Italian mystery-slasher genre was as thrilling and popular as it was difficult to define.
Fans can be exacting about what a giallo film is. Some stipulate that it must be Italian, for one. The films in question tend to focus on a mystery element inflected with horror, usually involving a woman in peril and a killer with warped psychosexual desires. Thrumming with a paranoia that’s echoed by a soundtrack pulsing with synthy stabs, they’re also stylistically recognisable, with bold, neon colours and pulpy close-ups.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
With the upcoming releases of Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, it’s clear that there is an active appetite for giallo’s nostalgic, kitschy horror. In the last two decades, in fact, many filmmakers have attempted to overhaul giallo’s trickier trademarks, such as its accusations of misogyny and gratuitous violence towards women, into something palatable for contemporary audiences. Such films have retained the genre’s irresistible entertainment value and transgressive edge, while incorporating forward-looking politics, diverse protagonists and intriguing themes that simmer below the surface.
With knowing, meta-filmic winks at the audience, neo-giallo confronts our voyeuristic tendencies to make us appreciate these themes and images afresh.
Censor, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 20 August 2021. Last Night in Soho is due for release on 29 October.
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Thesis draws on the cinematic sway of murder mystery, giallo and horror to contribute to the plot’s bone-chilling menace. When a film student studying society’s obsession with violent media accidentally stumbles on a snuff film, she realises the girl in the video was a fellow student who went missing two years prior. Made while Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar was himself still a film student, Thesis’s low-budget feel and found-footage elements add to the stressful atmosphere, feeling somewhat more real, more possible, more frightening.
The giallo colours aren’t there, but the influences are numerous: on-foot chases soundtracked to synthy beats, blurred lines between violence and sex, close-up shots of eyes fearfully peeking through parted fingers. Continuously evading you until the final rug-pull, Thesis takes giallo’s affinity for the murder mystery and applies it to an era when the home video was wreaking havoc.
Red Nights (2009)
Directors: Laurent Courtiaud and Julien Carbon
In this ice-cool Hong Kong giallo, the colour red marries the genre’s blood-heavy hue with the colour associated with the east. With sadism and fetishism in queasy abundance and an interrogation of the link between pleasure and death, the directors turn cheap Orientalist tricks on their head.
Dominatrix of Hong Kong underground cinema Carrie Ng is extraordinary as the sybaritic femme fatale who relishes in pushing psychosexual boundaries. Not only is Red Nights a pastiche of giallo, but it’s laden with cinematic references, from Kim Novak’s blonde chignon in Vertigo (1958) to Jean-Pierre Melville’s trench-coated racketeers. With one torture scene so gory that some may need to avert their eyes, though, this is exploitation cinema at its most aberrant. The film’s central plot sees all players scrambling to possess an elixir – one that heightens the senses to immeasurable pleasure. Red Nights could be said to do likewise.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
Directors: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
A celluloid puzzle of disarticulated body parts, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears skilfully weaves the sexual with the macabre: one of the very tenets of a gialli. The plot sees a man navigating a series of rooms in an apartment building in order to locate his missing wife, but this is pretty inconsequential when viewing the film as a whole. Just like in Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2009 debut Amer, this follow-up is far more concerned with intoxicating cinematography and hyper-stylised tableaux, spinning out scenes that offer gore in the space of answers.
Cattet and Forzani’s sinewy camera offers an inventive approach to filming the body, deploying every trick up their sleeve to interrogate our corporeal identity. Scene after scene depicts yet more impossibly beautiful grotesqueries, a dizzying art exhibition that bifurcates endlessly into sinister antechambers. The frilly title and the film’s art-nouveau stylings are parts of its visual feast, but above all, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears exists to prove how giallo can be purified into a sensory feast of ASMR-esque sounds and textures.
The Neon Demon (2016)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
The physical and psychological dismemberment of beautiful women is an important part of giallo filmmaking, and is considered by some as one of its misogynistic downfalls. With The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn manages to tip his hat to giallo while making a film directly about that misogyny – both from men and the internalised misogyny that leads women to (literally) eat each other up.
Elle Fanning stars as a 16-year-old model who courts jealousy from a hecate of older women – Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee Kershaw – all enraged by the young girl’s premature success. This neon-spiked fairytale deploys its oddly stilted dialogue like a Calvin Klein commercial by way of David Lynch; each character is seemingly programmed at 80% brainpower, with oddly-paced characterisation and violent visuals clashing into something evasive and intriguing. Scenes of necrophilia, murder and cannibalism were considered by many as cheap shock tactics, but Refn’s hellish dollhouse is more guarded than it lets on.
Cold Hell (2017)
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Taxi Driver (1976) meets Promising Young Woman (2020) in this feminist vigilante tale, in which a young woman named Özge must fight for her survival after she locks eyes with a deranged serial killer. As a cat-and-mouse game ensues across neon-lit motorways, she has to fight tooth and nail for the men around her to take her seriously, and ultimately, for her own survival.
Despite a plot that feels pulpy and improbable – in other words, textbook giallo – Cold Hell works as a neo-giallo because it approaches its been-there plot from unique angles. Özge’s Turkish heritage, Islamic faith and gender are salient forces within the story, one which is littered with sinister micro-aggressions that add fuel to our protagonist’s rage. Cold Hell comes out guns blazing and knuckles bloodied. It’s invigorating, violent and deeply satisfying, so the occasional foray into cliché can be forgiven.
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Making an excellent case for the total avoidance of all psychedelic drugs, Piercing is a squeamish nightmare based on a short story by Ryu Murakami. It plays out in a series of veiled role-plays and questionable kink, but there’s something oddly tender in the twisted relationship between Mia Wasikowska and Christopher Abbott, the former being a sex worker and the latter a Patrick Bateman type who is trying to satiate his murderous urges. What could on the surface sound exploitative and misogynistic turns into a humour-flecked ride in which the power balance wobbles as the proceedings become more depraved.
Whether it’s a lit cigarette hovering millimetres from an eyeball or stomach-churning body horror, our limits are tested and our voyeuristic tendencies laid bare in forensic detail. While the use of split screen is a De Palma-esque flourish, it’s the tongue-in-cheek needle-drop from Dario Argento’s Tenebre (1982) as the credits roll that really has you laughing with knowing giallo glee.
In Fabric (2018)
Director: Peter Strickland
Both deeply silly and piercingly macabre, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric sees Marianne Jean-Baptiste star as a woman who must reckon with an evil red dress bought during the winter sales period. Similar to recent cursed-clothing films, Deerskin (2019) and Slaxx (2020), here the garment is initially alluring, yet soon afflicts its surroundings with violent misfortune. The feel here is pure giallo: neon reds, thudding score, 70s production design.
While intriguing framing cuts off body parts, dismembering protagonists with merely the camera, lurid aesthetics and extreme close-ups contribute further to the giallo-esque unease. Strickland ultimately understands that, despite its visual appeal, this genre is rather silly: one shop assistant, whose hair is styled into a bride-of-Frankenstein bouffant, exemplifies this. Just like the way the letter L in a ‘sale’ tag protracts like a dribble of blood, Strickland stitches details into the seams of the film, making a point about the horrors of capitalism with textured flair.
Knife + Heart (2018)
Director: Yann Gonzalez
Out of all the films on this list, Knife + Heart is formally closest to what we would consider a giallo to be, with its stalking killer, bright colours and heady mélange of fear and sex. In the place of a bumbling hetero everyman or a young ingénue, however, is a series of queer protagonists who are under threat of violent murder within their subculture. Vanessa Paradis anchors this balls-to-the-wall exploitation film with an expert vulnerability as Anne, a producer and director of gay porn whose actors are being picked off by a serial killer who wears a gimp mask and wields a switchblade dildo.
As with a neo- anything there are endless references here, notably to the erotic thrillers Cruising (1980) and Dressed to Kill (1980). Knife + Heart still manages to hold its own, though, partly thanks to M83’s score: a hypnotic, synthy nightmare that pulses into you. Above all, Knife + Heart manages to deploy the delicious neon camp of a giallo but filter it into something incredibly moving and melancholic.
Director: Joe Begos
A bloody, gnarly ride designed to make your eyes burn and skin itch, Bliss channels the neon colours and anything-goes violence of giallo into a hellscape tale about creative block. Our protagonist, Dezzy, is a foul-mouthed and perpetually strung-out Los Angeles artist who turns to psychedelic drugs in order to find inspiration to finish her latest commission. Once she tries the titular substance, however, things take a surreally vampiric turn. As proceedings get more dirty and desperate, there are unmistakable whiffs of Abel Ferrera and Gaspar Noé.
Filtered through 16mm scuzz with an ear-splitting heavy metal soundtrack, the film assaults us with blood and noise and pain until we’re fully immersed in Dezzy’s nightmarish predicament. For better or worse, Bliss is an audiovisual mess of filmic brain-splatter that doesn’t let up for a second of its 80-minute runtime.
The Scary of Sixty-First (2021)
Director: Dasha Nekrasova
A schlocky caper loosely about the ghost of Jeffrey Epstein told through a 70s slasher lens, some of The Scary of Sixty First’s detractors accuse it of ‘too soon’ bad taste. Directed by the host of the provocative podcast Red Scare, Dasha Nekrasova, it sees two girls succumb to psychosexual mania after moving into an apartment previously owned by the disgraced mogul.
Yet, to these eyes, the film is really mocking the faux-sleuth, QAnon-type keyboard truthers who dehumanise real victims, falling prey to the intoxicating, empty power of shared lies. The film gleefully bastardises the themes and aesthetics of giallo with grainy, kaleidoscopic production design, delivering a deliciously cineliterate look at the sheer horror of ‘being online’ in today’s age. The film itself isn’t insufferable, its characters are, and with lines like “Anglophilia is one thing, but pedophilia?”, we’re invited to pity them with plenty of laughs.
Where to begin with gialloWhere to begin with giallo
The murky world of video nasties: Prano Bailey-Bond on her gruesome retro-horror Censor
By Lou Thomas
Censor splices cut-throat video nasty violence with smart social commentary
By Ela Bittencourt