Tag Archives: Giallo

CAPSULE: THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996)

 La sindrome di Stendhal

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Marco Leonardi, Paolo Bonacelli, Thomas Kretschmann

PLOT: A female detective investigating a serial rapist finds herself stalked by her quarry, while intermittently experiencing hallucinations when she looks at works of fine art.

Still from The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

COMMENTS: A little over halfway through The Stendhal Syndrome, Anna announces (slight spoiler) that she’s overcome the Stendhal Syndrome. She’s not kidding; she doesn’t hallucinate again (although her psychological struggles are far from over). Argento had used the Syndrome, a fanciful and dubious affliction in which viewers supposedly swoon into a fugue state when confronted with great works of art, as an excuse to stage a handful of hallucination sequences which, it turns out, were inessential to the plot.

The fact that syndrome supplying both the film’s title and its high concept would basically serve as a red herring indicates either a certain sloppiness, or an admirable disregard for conventional plotting by an auteur who’s always favored atmosphere over storytelling, depending on your point-of-view. Combined with the script’s predictable final twist and a number of superfluous scenes, I lean towards the confused execution opinion. There are other missteps, such as some clumsy and unnecessary CGI (pills down a throat, a bullet passing through a head), which comes across as the director playing with a new toy rather than as an element enhancing the story. All of which is not to say that The Stendhal Syndrome is a failure. It borders on the psychologically profound: Anna’s shifting identities and a recurring theme of gender confusion reflect a sympathetic, believable, and engaging view of a rape victim’s trauma. As always, Argento sniffs out poetic camera shots, e.g. Anna’s reflection trembling in a blood-red glass of wine. And the movie’s opening—a dialogue-free seven minute sequence of Anna wandering through Florence’s Uffizi, scored to Ennio Morricone’s deceptively simple, increasingly ominous theme, and ending with the heroine passing through the canvas surface of Bruegel’s “The Fall of Icarus,” then the diving under its painted water, where she eventually locks lips with a bulbous fish—is one of this director’s best standalone sequences. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can’t live up to the mysterious promise here. The Stendhal Syndrome not quite the resurrection of the classic giallo form it might have been, but Argento fans will find enough spooky psychodrama to savor to make it worth a watch.

It’s awfully creepy to reflect on Dario directing his daughter Asia through the brutal rape scenes (though to be fair, she was only cast after a couple of other actresses, Bridget Fonda and , withdrew from the project). Asia’s acting here gets mixed reviews, but she has a classic beauty in three incarnations—regular Anna, tomboy Anna, and glamorous blonde Anna—and indulges in enough B-movie histrionics to carry the film. She positively shines compared to the rest of the blandly European cast. The English dubbing is atrocious, almost perfunctory like in a bottom-shelf vintage 1970s giallo, and the Italian soundtrack is recommended.

Blue Underground’s 2022 Blu-ray release is identical to their 2017 three disc limited edition, minus the DVD. Originally, this set shipped in a substandard video transfer; that issue was rectified and should not be a problem anymore. This version restores an additional two minutes of dialogue that were missing from previous U.S. releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as fans of the Italian horror director may have guessed, [the syndrome is] little more than a suitably arcane jumping-off point for another of the filmmaker’s bizarre examinations of madness, obsession, and bloodshed.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (1999 US release)

CAPSULE: KILLER NUN (1979)

Suor Omicidi

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DIRECTED BY: Giulio Berutti

FEATURING: Anita Ekberg, Paola Morra, , Lou Castel, Alida Valli

PLOT: Sister Gertrude, fresh off cancer surgery and crippled by  morphine addiction, experiences a crisis of faith as she finds herself entertaining impure thoughts and harboring murderous feelings.

COMMENTS: What a wonderfully depraved world we live in that could not only be a thing but be so plentiful that it would merit its own Wikipedia entry. The calling carries with it such a rich combination of power and repression, of mystery and denial, of sex and frustration, that it was probably inevitable that it would become a cinematic fetish object. So, now that we’ve got it, what do we do with it?

Killer Nun never comes up with a particularly satisfying answer to that question. Which is odd, because all the pieces seem to be in place. We’ve got grisly murders. We’ve got deliciously nasty Bible readings. We’ve got Paola Morra ready to walk around the room completely starkers for no particular reason. Heck, look at that title. It sure feels like we’ve got all the elements in place for a delightfully smutty evening at the movies. And yet it never clears that very low bar.

Ultimately, the filmmakers aren’t willing to get down in the mud, which would be fine if they didn’t spend so much time showing off their rich and bountiful mud fields. Consider a scene where the central character, a nun with a history of drug addiction, goes into town, swaps out her habit for a dress, scopes out a local bar, and picks up a man for a no-strings-attached assignation. What a bold sacrilege this presents. Is this a swipe at the restrictive morals of the Church? A signifier of a mind resolutely on the road to madness? No, it’s just something to do, a scene that any self-respecting giallo is supposed to have, and it never comes up again. And that’s Killer Nun’s problem in a nutshell. It’s brought all the accoutrements of trash, but it’s not willing to do the work. I mean, for crying out loud, to cast Joe Dallesandro in your movie as a straight-laced model of propriety without a trace of irony is some kind of malpractice.

So thank heavens for Anita Ekberg, who is the only thing in the film that works on either side of the line. With her piercing blue eyes surrounded by ninja-star lashes, her Sister Gertrude cuts an imposing figure as she marches through the halls and practically bullies the strange variety of patients into every morning salutation and evening vespers. This lends potency to her own loss of control, because she knows that’s all that’s keeping her from being purely cruel. When she’s on the screen, accompanied by Alessandro Alessandroni’s hyperactive score with its wailing theremin and sinister plucked strings summoning bad vibes, Killer Nun flirts with the kind of low art it promises.

The Mother Superior’s declaration that “It’s a nun’s vocation to suffer” is as much a mission statement as the movie has. But it also regrets putting its heroine through that suffering, and that split personality makes Killer Nun a misguided and dull watch. Get thee to a more interesting nunnery.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one doesn’t really watch KILLER NUN for its wrenching drama. No, the true pleasures to be found here are gleefully grotesque and often hilariously cruel…. A remarkable, macabre and truly mad movie…”–Chris Alexander, Alexander on Film (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by Phoenix, who argued ” I found it to be surprisingly disturbing and effective. Some of its themes are sexual repression and lesbianism. And it’s hilarious. But weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2012)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Strickland

FEATURING: Toby Jones, Cosimo Fusco, Fatma Mohamed, Antonio Mancino

PLOT: Gilderoy, an English foley artist, takes on a job at an Italian studio to work on a horror film, and his mind begins unspooling.

COMMENTS: My dear Mr Strickland—I so very much wish that you could keep focused! Having now seen half of his feature-length output, it is clear that he’s a man with many, many ideas. Too many, perhaps? More likely, he suffers from too little discipline. Berberian Sound Studio is a fascinating movie, with a creepy vibe that fills like a soap bubble slowly ballooning until it pops two-thirds the way through, leaving a splattered mess of shiny viscosity on the eyes (and ears) of the viewer. Ground this film all you like with a shy, affable performance from Toby Jones; the moment you turn him into a sadistic Italian, all bets are off.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an awkward Englishman with an awkward name who arrives at an Italian sound studio both ready to work and to receive compensation for his flight expenses. The work ahead of him is ample; the reimbursement, less so. Never mind; under the alternately conciliatory and remonstrative guidance of producer Francesco Coraggio, Gilderoy dives into the project. The brainchild of giallo director Giancarlo Santini, The Equestrian Vortex is, from the sound of it, a hyper-violent, hyper-stylized film involving a witch’s academy, featuring plenty of flashes back to horrible (and “historically accurate”) interrogations of suspected witches. Gilderoy finds the on-screen violence increasingly hard to handle.

The “on-screen violence” is never actually displayed. In fact, other than the opening credits for The Equestrian Vortex (its score composed by a “Goblin”-esque band called “Hymenoptera”), we see none of Santini’s opus. But we hear so very much. The droning introduction of the scenes for post-production dubbing almost always involves the phrase “flashback to witch’s interrogation.” Countless fruits and vegetables, both large (chopped watermelon) and small (plucked radish stems), act as the aural stand-ins for violent stabbings, hair-tearing, and everything in between. (The sound effect method for red-hot poker inserted vaginally is almost comically mundane.) Gilderoy’s practical effects team, two gents by the name of Massimo and Massimo, perform their slices, bubble-blowing, and wrenchings with deadpan professionalism.

The “behind the curtains” view of foley in the 1970s is by far the most interesting aspect of Berberian Sound Studio. There are plenty of sinisterly odd characters: aside from Massimo and Massimo, there’s the secretary from hell, the creepily congenial director, and the tragi-cryptic leading lady. But while this homage to giallo and sound becomes rather confusing, this never translates into weird—the sudden onset of head-scratchers undermines the atmosphere at the same time as it blasts a hole in the plot’s coherence.

As in his latest movie, In Fabric, Strickland (who also wrote both films) cannot keep himself from branching out to the point of muddying otherwise compelling experiences. These captivating messes are done with some kind of precision, I have no doubt, but I wish he could turn down the background noise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…utterly distinctive and all but unclassifiable, a musique concrète nightmare, a psycho-metaphysical implosion of anxiety, with strange-tasting traces of black comedy and movie-buff riffs. It is seriously weird and seriously good.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KNIFE + HEART (2018)

Un couteau dans le coeur

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Vanessa Paradis, , , Jonathan Genet

PLOT: A troubled director tries to figure out who’s killing off the actors in her gay porn troupe.

Still from knife + heart (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although there are a few odd touches, Knife + Heart essentially rehashes familiar old giallo territory, but with a new queer slant.

COMMENTS: Knife + Heart (the French title translates to the more euphonious A Knife in the Heart) is basically a modern, queer giallo that plays out in the unique setting of the 1970s French gay porn industry. Gruesomely, it features a killer who strikes with a knife sheathed in a dildo. The protagonist is Anne, an alcoholic lesbian still hopelessly in love with Lois, her film editor, long after the latter has rejected her for her wine-sodden unpredictability. When the cast and crew of her latest pornographic opus start turning up dead, Anne develops a new obsession. She makes a tasteless porno adaptation of the real life crimes, including an interrogation scene that echoes her actual interview with the police, but this time with typewriter boffing. (After considering a couple of titles, she settles on Homocidal.) An accidentally discovered clue leads her to a remote French village where a mysterious bird is said to live, and then indirectly to the actual killer.

Knife + Heart stays true to the giallo form, with fetishistic shots of phallic knives in black-gloved hands and an obvious tribute to Suspiria’s colorful rainstorm driving scene. Ultimately, the solution to the mystery isn’t particularly convincing,—which is also true to the genre. Although there are a few mildly surreal bits—including a surprise bird claw you won’t forget—the main novelty here is the transposition of the erotic locus from the hetero- to the homo-sexual world. The sex is graphic, but not actually hardcore (although it comes close enough to rate this as an 18+ production).

Although Knife + Heart is a stylish and more-than-competent homage, I wondered about the purpose of the whole experiment. It’s an entertaining throwback, but besides queer inclusiveness, it doesn’t add much to the genre. The film has a superficial artiness—check out that post-credits Roman orgy!—that primes you for something deeper than a mere thriller; yet, disappointingly, it never really dives beneath its pretty surface.

This is Yann Gonzalez’s second feature film after 2013’s even more explicitly erotic (and even more surreal) You and the Night [Les Rencontres d’après minuit]. Both films screened at Cannes to generally positive receptions. Americans can catch them on physical media or streaming services (both are on Kanopy). Both are also scored by Yann’s brother Anthony, a popular electronic musician with the band M83.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It feels like a giallo take on ‘Phantom of the Paradise,’ with heavy influences from ‘Peeping Tom’ and Todd Haynes’ 1991 feature debut, ‘Poison.’ This magical, erotic, disco-tinged horror-thriller is like cinematic candy.”–Katie Walsh, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

A GIALLO HALLOWEEN DOUBLE FEATURE

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Here in the States, we associate Halloween with the colors orange and black. Naturally, in the haunted house biz, we tend to ramp up the horror quota by adding  several gallons of splattered red. But since many of the holiday’s customs spring from Italy, let’s head there and focus on the color yellow—“giallo,” in the native tongue—for this 366 Halloween. It’s more apt than one might suspect. While both van Gogh and Gauguin utilized yellow to convey a pacifistic warmth, they also used it to convey sheer horror. Leave it to the Romans to stylishly hone in on the visceral symbology of the pigment and craft an entire genre around it.

I’ll start our giallo Halloween with Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971, directed by Paolo Cavara), which features three Bond girls:  Claudine Auger (Thunderball), (Casino Royale), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me). The plot is about a serial killer who dips his weapon of choice in tarantula venom and pursues the ladies, all of whom can be seen in various stages of undress. Despite it’s paper-thin misogyny, Cavara composes with stylish precision. It is paced well and a grisly enough affair to satisfy genre geeks (let’s just say that the antagonist mimics the black wasp). Composer Ennio Morricone lends a helping hand, as he always does. It’s one his wackiest scores, which is saying a lot.

Still from Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)Tarantula is a virtual smorgasbord of giallo clichés: primary colors, rubber gloved killers, knife-wielding POV, subtle-as-a-pair-of-brass-knuckles eroticism, animal motifs a la Bird with the Crystal Plumage, intense chase scenes, razor sharp cinematography, big windows, modish apartments and spas. This makes it something of a starter kit for newcomers, although it is hardly the best giallo. In fact, it’s kind of like the Airport or Towering Inferno of giallo (we’re in for the treat of seeing celebs get whacked… in this case, the celebs being Bond girls).

I have never subscribed to the cult of . He is grossly overrated by his fanatical following, but still he has a few bright spots in his oeuvre. We have already covered A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, so let’s go with Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) instead. Together, they are probably his two strongest early films. 

Duckling is only marginally giallo, although Fulci’s worshipers swear it is one, so we’ll go with that. Fulci’s trademark misogyny is on hand here, and while there’s no denying its repugnance, there’s also no denying he was aesthetically skilled in displaying it—as he was in mocking the pedestaled traditions within Catholicism and expressing his loathing for its perversions and hypocrisies. These themes are full-blown in this murder mystery that begins with a series of brutal child murders. The bourgeoisie Catholic locals blame the societal misfits, including town whore Barbara Bouchet and voodoo priestess Florinda Bolkan—who is erroneously blamed, tortured, and savagely butchered by the ignorant male vigilante swine. But lo and behold, when there’s pedophilia and murder involved, it leads right back to the patriarchy. 

Still from Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)Don’t Torture a Duckling was a box office and critical success, but it cost Fulci much, and he was more or less blacklisted for years for criticizing the Church. This is a film that could not be made today, and although it is not as well-known as the director’s later, more surreal efforts, it’s beautifully horrific and has something to say.  Fulci says his piece with a level of subtlety that would be appropriate for .

CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF GIALLO (2019)

Recommended (recommendation applies to Severin Film’s three disc set, not to the title documentary)

DIRECTED BY: Federico Caddeo

FEATURING: Fabio Melelli, Umberto Lenzi, Lamberto Bava, , , , , Susan Scott, , ,

PLOT: A documentary describing the rise and nature of Italian giallo thrillers of the 60s and 70s, with reflections by many of the original practitioners.

Key art from All the Colors of Giallo (2019)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely supplemental material—but a worthy package for those cultivating an interest in this stylish but disreputable genre.

COMMENTS: Standing alone, the competent titular documentary would not be of exceptional interest; it’s the extras that put this three-disc set over. For those who don’t know, giallos were a peculiarly Italian subgenre of film: murder mysteries, typically with very convoluted plots and stylish, dramatic visuals influenced by psychedelic culture. As the genre developed, giallos took advantage of growing cultural permissiveness of the 1970s and became increasingly  exploitative, pushing the censor’s boundaries by including more and more graphic sex and violence. Especially in later films, the plots turned perverse and psychological, dealing with delusional heroines stalked by black-gloved killers. The giallo period in cinema lasted from approximately 1963 (with ‘s The Girl Who Knew Too Much) until the late 1970s/early 1980s, when this  daring “adult” fare was gradually absorbed into dumb, repetitive teen-skewering slashers.

All the Colors of Giallo starts strong, with an overview of the giallo’s roots in sensational crime literature (with trademark yellow covers that gave the genre its name). But the strict chronological format—interviewing to a succession of directors and collaborators in the approximate order they make their appearance on the scene—means the general viewer’s interest starts to flag as the genre itself peters out. The material is presented with the conventional mix of talking heads, poster shots, and illustrative clips (mainly taken from trailers). All the Colors of Giallo does have the virtue of convincing all of the genre’s major contributors to chip in a sound bite or two—and not just the directors and actors, but screenwriters and producers, too. Lucio Fulci even takes time out to get catty about his more celebrated rival Dario Argento, whom he argues is a “great craftsman who thinks he’s an artist” and “a good director” but “a terrible writer.” The lack of professional courtesy there is fun and refreshing.

But it’s only after the documentary ends that the real fun begins, as you dig into the extras. Not to slight a separate short interview with John Martin, editor of the fanzine “The Giallo Pages,” but it’s the “Giallothon”—over four hours of trailers, some rare, covering every major film in the genre—that’s the pick of Disc 1. You watch All the Colors of Giallo to earn your bachelor’s degree; “Giallothon” is research for your doctoral dissertation. It has 82 trailers spanning 20 Continue reading CAPSULE: ALL THE COLORS OF GIALLO (2019)

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Luigi Bazzoni

FEATURING: , Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Renato Romano

PLOT: A newspaper investigative reporter is obligated to turn full detective as a series of murders seemingly tie together everybody in his life in a labyrinthine web of intrigue.

Still from The Fifth Cord (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only remotely possible way you could call this movie weird is if you had never seen a giallo before. It’s not just a giallo, it’s a stereotypical giallo just short of a scathing parody of the genre. It wouldn’t even make the list of the 366 mildly quirkiest movies.

COMMENTS: I have to break my usual mold with this one, because The Fifth Cord is just a special case. On the one hand, make no mistake, this is a good movie overall. It’s breathtakingly shot, handsomely mounted, beautifully scored, and is in fact a stand-out example of its genre. But when it comes to the plot… Italian giallo is a genre known for soap opera plotting that stretches credibility, but The Fifth Cord just takes that sucker to another level. It’s like twenty seasons of “Days of Our Lives” packed into a clown car. Giallo also has a reputation for being derivative, but this movie goes straight to the movie cliché Dollar Store and maxes out its credit card. This gives you two choices: try, in spite of the pumpernickel fruitcake structure, to follow the story (bring a notepad and a bottle of adderall), or ignore the yammering yarn and resign yourself to oohing and aahing at the pretty pictures and atmospheric scenes. Let us start down the first path and see how far we get into The Hyperthyroid Yarn From Hell:

Through the opening credits we witness a New Year’s Eve party at an Italian watering hole. Normally that’s movie-talk for “go ahead and get your drink, nothing important is happening yet.” But no, this is actually the most important New Year’s Eve party in film history, because everybody here is interconnected, and most of them are going to end up dead. At the party is one Julia, who takes her date under a bridge the next day, and Walter, a teacher who happens to be walking through a nearby tunnel at the same time. Walter is clubbed by a shadowy attacker, and Julia is first on the scene as the assailant flees. Walter ends up in the hospital. The main character, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero), is a newspaper reporter dispatched to cover this crime, although Bild is in fact more of a hardboiled detective straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. At the hospital Bild meets Dr. Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano), who stonewalls him, and the more helpful police inspector (Wolfgang Preiss), who directs him to Julia, who slams a door in his face.

Bild goes back to the home he shares with his cheesecake mistress Lu, but she checks out, so he visits his old flame Helene (Silvia Monti), who knows Walter, since they teach at the same school. While he’s following up on her leads, Dr. Bini is at home with his crippled wife Sofia. The doctor gets called out on an emergency that Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)