I live for a good giallo or, truth be told, a really bad one. You see, even the most mediocre giallo holds something special, be it the location (especially spooky, foggy, perfect Venice), the over-the-top murders, the kick-ass soundtracks, or the unmasking of the killer (hint: it’s always the priest). As Women in Horror Month kicked off, I kept thinking about my obsession with gialli and what made them so special to me. It finally dawned on me that, despite their flaws, these films are incredibly feminist. The women in gialli are unlike anything seen in American slashers or thrillers during the 1970’s. For me, this is one of the reasons why these films are still refreshing and captivating over forty years later.
Giallo, the Italian word for ‘yellow,’ has come to encompass the Italian slasher film genre as a whole. In post-fascist Italy, paperback mystery novels were given yellow covers, and it was the content of these dime-store novels that served as the plots for many giallo films. This subgenre usually features a black-leather-gloved killer, armed with a knife; bold colors (the genre’s giants Mario Bava and Argento heavily favor blood-red); and ample amounts of nudity and sex. While Italians certainly cornered the market on gialli, there are some solid British and American contributions to the genre such as Peeping Tom (1960), Frenzy (1972), Klute (1971), and The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).
The women of gialli are always stunningly beautiful (seriously, google Edwige Fenech) and incredibly fashionable. But despite this seeming superficiality, we are offered complicated, multi-faceted women who hold down a variety of positions in their worlds. These aren’t just wives, girlfriends, mistresses, or even convenient victims. We see high-profile fashion photographers (Strip Nude for Your Killer), industrial scientists (The Perfume of the Lady in Black), heads of fashion houses (Blood and Black Lace), or co-owners of an avant-garde art gallery (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). These are women who have their own sprawling apartments, who take and leave lovers, who blackmail, who solve the film’s mysteries on their own, and, perhaps most important of all, women who kill. In gialli, we see a reflection of the women’s rights movement of the time, something conspicuously absent in American slashers of the era, despite the rise of the Final Girl in films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978).
For me, female killers are what truly set gialli apart from anything contemporaneous. In her seminal book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover dissects gender roles in modern horror and argues that female killers have drastically different motives for killing, which usually boil down to revenge, anger over abandonment, or being scorned, often by men (I Spit On Your Grave; Carrie; Sisters; Alice, Sweet Alice). In gialli, the women who kill have motives that rival their male counterparts, including childhood trauma, mental instability and even sadomasochistic release (The House with the Laughing Windows).
In Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), the willowy Mimsy Farmer plays Nina, a woman who gives off the appearance of stability but who is in fact struggling with childhood trauma and mental illness. In the film’s final scene, Nina tells her husband, Roberto (Michael Brandon), of her abusive stepfather, who had her committed to an asylum when she was young. Although her illness was cured after the death of her stepfather, it was triggered when she met Roberto, who naturally is the splitting image of Nina’s dead stepfather. This sets Nina off on a rampage of murder and blackmail in her quest to obtain revenge against her stepfather via surrogate victims.
Nina’s complicated backstory gives depth to her character: her gender is not simply a plot twist added for shock value; instead, the psychosomatic reason behind her actions rivals that of famous male killers such as Norman Bates (Psycho) or Michael Myers (Halloween). And Nina is not just an anomaly either; similar female characters can also be found in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970); The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974); and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972).
Gialli are not without their problems, however. Out of the three films that I could think of that do feature women of color (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key; The Case of the Bloody Iris; Plot of Fear), two dispose of those characters quickly and all three relegate the actresses to minor, short-lived roles. Homosexuality also features problematically in gialli, as it is only represented by fetishized lesbian sex scenes or campy, effeminate gay men. While there does seem to be a suggestion that female bisexuality is acceptable, this is only due to its ability to titillate, and there is still an expectation that these women will also sleep with men, thus ensuring male gratification on multiple levels. Gay men are worse off, as there is an outright condemnation of the gay male lifestyle: it is relegated to seedy sex clubs, stereotypes, and secrecy.
Despite these very real problems, I do think the role of female characters in gialli was crucial to the shifts we have seen in both Final Girls and female characters overall in modern horror films. Robust female characters are vital on so many levels. First, they allow the audience to invest emotionally in the characters, giving any deaths an even greater payoff. Second, they allow female audience members (whose numbers have steadily increased over the years) to see themselves equally represented on screen as more than a victim or a Scream Queen, but as competent, strong, resourceful and triumphant. For me, this is why inclusion, and not just of white women but all women, is so important to the genre. The more conscious we are of the importance of representation on screen, the stronger our films will be and, in turn, those films will go on to inspire a whole new generation of kickass Final Girls and Giallo Goddesses who we can root on for years to come.
Jamie Righetti is a writer, journalist and musician from New York City. She attended Columbia University, where she received a joint degree in Human Evolutionary Biology and Creative Writing. Jamie spent two years as a freelance journalist with CNN, and has also worked for BBC Worldwide and Sesame Street. Follow Jamie on Twitter (@JamieRighetti) and learn more about her debut novel, Beechwood Park, here: http://www.jamierighetti.com