Note: Giallo received its world premiere last night at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. A second screening takes place on June 28th. Further details can be found here.
A sadistic killer is terrorising Turin. Posing as a taxi driver, he abducts, tortures and murders young women – tourists, loners, those who are unlikely to be missed. Fearing that her sister Celine (Elsa Pataky) has been kidnapped by the maniac, flight attendant Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) enlists the aid of Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody), a quirky, haunted cop who has been working on the case alone. Avolfi, by his own admission, is the ideal person to crack the case, because he understands how the killer’s mind works. Nick-named “Yellow” as a result of a rare skin condition, the killer has already proven that he means business; but will Linda and Avolfi succeed in tracking him down before he can do to Celine what he has already done to several other women?
If there is a single trait which characterises Dario Argento’s 21st century output, it is its self-referentiality. Always a cineliterate filmmaker, in recent years his material has verged almost on self-parody, with 2001’s Sleepless serving as a greatest-hits package of his career, Do You Like Hitchcock? paying homage to his Hitchcockian and German expressionist influences, and most recently the long overdue Mother of Tears concluding his “Three Mothers” trilogy in a manner that might charitably be described as a tongue in cheek romp through the iconography of the Italian horror movement.
Amid all this self-copying, a generation of filmmakers have grown up with Argento’s films and been influenced by them, some more profoundly than others. Some, like Tim Burton, have assimilated the maestro’s visual style into their own, to impressive effect. Others have been more flippant in their appropriation of Argentoisms, with Quentin Tarantino lifting the music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (as well as the image of a villainous psychopath surreptitiously photographing young women) for use in Death Proof, and screenwriter Diablo Cody including a conversation debating the merits of Argento relative to H.G. Lewis in 2007’s breakaway hit Juno. In effect, “Argento” has become something of a buzzword for a certain type of movie brat: a slightly edgy (but not too edgy) name they can mention to show that they’re a little off the beaten track (but not too far off). “Wow, this is even better than Suspiria!” breathes an awe-struck Ellen Page while watching a scene from Lewis’ shlock-fest The Wizard of Gore with Jason Bateman. Well, maybe, if your idea of “better” is a greater quantity of oozing ketchup and fake-looking intestines.
Oddly enough, Giallo, Argento’s eighteenth full-length film (nineteenth if you count the made-for-TV Do You Like Hitchcock?), represents something of a hybridisation of the director’s self-referentiality and the sort of fan idolatry that champions his films for their more superficial elements while ignoring the qualities that truly mark them out from the rest of the pack. Although the first credit at the end of the film reads “written and directed by Dario Argento”, the original script in fact originated from two American fans, Jim Agnew and Sean Keller, with Argento essentially being brought on as a director for hire. This is not the first time this has happened: the two episodes he directed for Mick Garris’ largely disappointing Masters of Horror series also originated from other writers, with Argento effectively showing up to cash a paycheque, much to their detriment. (If Pelts had been directed by Eli Roth, I doubt it would have been appreciably different.)
It’s difficult to ascertain precisely who was responsible for what in Giallo, but it’s safe to say that, while the script and story are nothing remarkable, the overall execution is handled with considerably more flair than either Masters of Horror episode. Part of that may be to do with the fact that Argento is on familiar stomping ground, with the Italian locations immediately lending an air of natural class. It may also be that Argento had more input on the script than in his Masters of Horror episodes, or that it was more specifically tailored to his style. Indeed, while Argento has reportedly all but disowned the film following a lengthy period of non-communication from its American financiers, and frustration at his perceived lack of creative input, Giallo is far from the bland, anonymous piece of work for hire that many feared it would be. While Frederic Fasano’s cinematography lacks the verve of, say, a Luciano Tovoli or even a Benoît Debie, and Marco Werba’s Herrmannesque score alternates between effective and intrusive, there are little Argentoisms throughout, mainly in the more lightly humorous moments. (A stand-out has Brody and a pathologist lighting cigarettes and puffing away while examining the mutilated corpse before them on the slab.) Likewise, an early sequence at an opera recalls Argento’s 1987 masterpiece of the same name, while the oddly ambiguous final frame is reminiscent of The Cat O’ Nine Tails.
That said, Giallo’s most direct counterpart is, I feel, The Card Player, and it’s tempting to see them as two sides of the same coin. Both are pacy, efficient cop thrillers about a maniac torturing young women. However, while the much-lambasted 2004 offering was clinical, high-tech and almost bloodless, Giallo seems to deliberately go in the complete opposite direction. Its set design, courtesy of Davide (Opera) Bassan, hearkens back to the past, from Avolfi’s dingy basement office to the foregrounding of Turin’s picturesque monuments and buildings. The violence is also ramped up a notch, with long-term collaborator Sergio Stivaletti’s gore effects generally coming across as effective, an ill-judged “hammer to the dummy head” moment notwithstanding. On some level, it’s actually tempting to view the film as Argento’s reaction to the recent spate of so-called “torture porn” movies. The director has made conflicting statements as to his opinion of these films, but the lengthy scenes of Elsa Pataky being menaced and tortured in the killer’s grimy underground lair are far more reminiscent of Saw or Hostel than anything in Argento’s past filmography.
And that’s the crux of the issue: for all that it has been marketed as a return to the sort of film that made a name for Argento in the 1970s, Giallo... well, isn’t actually a giallo. The plot has little in common with the baroque whodunits focusing on amateur sleuths that exploded on the Italian movie scene in the early 70s, operating more as a cross between a straightforward cop thriller and a gore-soaked torture flick. The title instead refers solely to the killer’s jaundiced skin, giallo of course being Italian for “yellow”. His face is seen almost from the start and his identity is ultimately not hugely important. Far more interesting is the way in which he and Avolfi are constructed as two sides of the same coin, with both of them pariahs who operate in dark underground lairs and have suffered violent and traumatic pasts. Argento seems to be actively encouraging a Jungian reading of the film, which is unsurprising given that much of his past work has been constructed in such a way. At times, this becomes a little too on the nose – having Emmanuelle Seigner repeatedly scream “You’re just like him!” was ultimately unnecessary, while the casting of the killer... well, it’s an intriguing choice but ultimately one that will either baffle people or have them slapping their foreheads at the obviousness of what’s going on. He was originally lined up to be played by Vincent Gallo, which would have been an interesting choice but one that I suspect would have resulted in a very different film.
With one very notable exception, the cast acquit themselves reasonably well. Emmanuelle Seigner and Elsa Pataky do what has to be done with their fairly two-dimensional parts, the latter spending most of her screen time screaming and writhing in agony. The elephant in the room is Adrien Brody, who not only receives top billing but also an executive producer credit, in addition to performing uncredited script doctoring duties and making key creative decisions about the score (including nixing Argento’s regular musical collaborator Claudio Simonetti). His role is an odd one, and it’s far from the vanity project that I expected it to be. Enzo Avolfi, as it happens, is not a particularly pleasant individual. He’s distant, smarmy and reckless, and an act he committed in the past further blurs the line between him and the killer. Unfortunately, the specifics of this event, when revealed around two-third of the way through the film, sent the audience at the screening I attended into a fit of hysterics, and was very much the point of no return. (Until then, the audience had generally seemed to accept the film and its idiosyncrasies, but from this point on virtually every line of dialogue was greeted with gales of derisive laughter, ultimately souring the mood of the final act.) More problematic in my mind, however, is Brody’s performance. Sporting a goatee and with a cigarette rarely far from his lips, he seems to be imitating any number of 40s film noir detectives, but more or less comes across as a mumbling buffoon whose reactions and line delivery always seems to be at odds with what’s actually happening. (He does, however, get some amusingly witty one-liners, which I’m not going to spoil here.) He’s not the first Oscar-winning actor to work with Argento (that would be Karl Malden in The Cat O’ Nine Tails), but he is one of Argento’s least convincing protagonists.
You can argue that Argento already delivered his deconstruction of the giallo with Tenebrae in 1982... and again with Sleepless in 2001. As such, a true retrospective on the genre would have been redundant at this stage, but I can’t help thinking that the name “Giallo” seeks to sell the film as something it’s not. It is, however, a decent offering from a director whose work of late has been decidedly patchy. While I’m sure the usual battle lines will be drawn, with fans alternating between branding it a return to form and proclaiming it to be proof that he is a has-been, the truth is, as is so often the case, somewhere in the middle. No, it’s not the next Profondo Rosso, but anyone who expected otherwise would simply be deluding themselves. It’s substantially better than either of Argento’s Masters of Horror outings, a step up from Mother of Tears, and a superior thriller to Do You Like Hitchcock? It’s also, for my money, more engaging than the overrated Sleepless and about on par with the underrated The Card Player, a film that for me improves with each subsequent viewing.
Problems aside, Giallo is surprisingly good fun and far more energetic and ballsy than one would expect from a 68-year-old filmmaker.