Where would we be without the Italian giallo, I ask you? The genre has a bright and varied history, mixing pulp thriller with outright horror, extensive gore and outlandish scenarios that would be ridiculous if they weren’t so amazing at the same time. The “classic” American slashers of the 80s hold a huge debt to these films and you can see in the best of them shades of the crazed psychological underpinnings and obsession with violence gallo built its bones on.
For this month’s edition of Blood Red I wanted to take a little space to talk about a pair of classics that have influenced generations of horror films. So if you’re new to giallo there’s no better place to start than Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood and Dario Argento’s Deep Red.
A twisted take on an Agatha Christie mystery, Bay of Blood (aka Carnage, aka the wonderfully titled Twitch of the Death Nerve) may not be the earliest example of the genre, but it’s the one to my mind that launched a thousand bloody ideas. A mysterious man slips a noose around an old wheelchair-bound woman’s neck and kicks the wheelchair out from under her. Before we know what’s happening the man in turn is stabbed to death and away from the scene to be dumped in the bay (of BLOOD!). All this within the first 10 minutes and we still don’t know what’s happening, but it sets the stage for a series of exquisite murders as the mystery of who the woman was and why she died come to light.
If much of the film feels familiar it should: large chunks of the film have been re-cycled over and over again, most notably in Friday the 13th which utilizes the killer POV, the basic setting (trading a set of houses on the bay for a camp on the lake), and even some of its more audacious kills. But where Bay of Blood truly shines is in the glee it derives from its despicable cast of characters whose motivations slowly come to light over the course of the film. Bava, who not only directed the film but also co-wrote the screenplay and acted as his own DP makes the most of a limited budget: the film may not look very expensive, but it doesn’t look cheap. There are moments of great black humor reminiscent of Hitchcock, particularly in the ending which gives a big middle finger and a raspberry to everything that went on before, all to a bright, sunny soundtrack. As a history lesson Bay of Blood shows exactly where so many of the tropes we’ve come to expect from our slasher horror comes from, and shows it can be executed with a sense of style missing from its larger budgeted descendants. All around it’s a great introduction to Bava’s work as well as a film worthy for any midnight marathon.
Bay of Blood is available to rent and purchase now, and can be found streaming on Shudder
Oh, Dario Argento. You wear your obsessions on your sleeve, and that sleeve is covered in the blood of beautiful women both innocent and guilty. If Mario Bava can be said to have ushered the giallo in with Bay of Blood, then it’s arguable that Argento perfected it a few years later with Deep Red. This is where it all happens: your Goblin soundtrack, your infatuation with hands, extreme camera angles and close-ups, lush, vibrant colors and enough gore to fill a swimming pool. While the premise is fairly simple – a series of unexplained murders is investigated by a plucky musician and reporter – the execution is anything but. Rather than go into a standard review instead let me offer a few words on things that continue to delight me on my latest re-watch:
- Somewhere in the infinite realities of our universe, there is a world where Daria Nicolodi and David Hemmings went on after DEEP RED to do a series of buddy/rom-com thrillers. I love the chemistry between the two leads, and the overt comedy bits (the car ride, the arm wrestling match) have a lot of little nuances that really flesh out both characters. Argento is known for switching tones on a whim, sometimes to the detriment to the movie, but when you have leads as game as Nicolodi and Hemmings, it works.
- Let this sink in: Deep Red hinges on a jazz pianist running a murder investigation. I don’t know if this is a satirical poke at Italian law enforcement or sheer insanity but the movie features cops eating sandwiches, offering each other cups of espresso; meanwhile the junior reporter, the jazz pianist, and the doctor are crossing police lines, interviewing suspects, and generally being threatened. It’s crazy, but Argento’s trick is to do it all with a bit of a wink so you understand you’re in a completely heightened world (if the vibrant colors, close-ups and music don’t already clue you in) where realism is not only in short supply, but little in demand.
- Damn, that scene where the [REDACTED] comes wheeling in through the curtain? Terrifying.
- I know the majority of the music is by Goblin, and is (rightfully) considered classic. But originally the score was by Giorgio Gaslini, and some of his music remains. Whoever scored the sequence where Hemmings is hanging on to a ledge outside the old house should be given all the awards. IT IS HILARIOUS.
I could keep going, but instead I’d rather just watch it again. If you haven’t seen Deep Red, rectify that. If it’s been a while, rectify that as well.
Deep Red is available to rent and purchase now, and can be found streaming on Shudder
Once again, we’re still playing with format but I’d love to hear what you think and what you want to see reviewed or addressed in this column. Until then, keep it Blood Red.