Top 10 Giallo Films
Editor’s Note: This is the third part of the list. Click here for the top 30.
Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martini and more; we’ve finally come to the end of the list of the greatest Giallo films ever made by our favourite Italian directors. These films continue to be discussed and debated and have inspired and influenced countless filmmakers over the decades. Sound off in the comments below and let us know what you think we’ve missed!
10: Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key |1972
The title of the film, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave) is actually a reference to Sergio Martino’s earlier Giallo film Lo strano vizio della Signora Wardh (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), in which the same phrase appears in a mysterious note apparently sent by a killer. Better known under its export title Gently Before She Dies, the film stars Edwige Fenech, Luigi Pistilli, and Anita Strindberg, and uses many elements from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Black Cat (acknowledging this influence in the film’s opening credits).
While most horror aficionados always praise Dario Argento, many are unfamiliar with Sergio Martino, an underrated talent who, while paying homage to the established stalk-and-kill approach of early Giallos, revitalized the genre in new and interesting ways each time. What Martino did better than most was emphasize the complex motivations of all his characters and find ways for the audience to understand them clearly. Giallo films usually don’t feature great acting, but Martino’s films are a cut above in this respect which makes most of his Giallo films worth seeking out. Giancarlo Ferrando’s budding cinematography, the catchy score and the colourful art direction are also noteworthy. Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is Martino’s fourth of six Giallos, and arguably his best.
9: Don’t Torture a Duckling |1972
The best Giallos boast two main components – horror and mystery. Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino) doesn’t quite have a mystery, nor does it actually succeed as a horror film, but this stylish modern-day murder mystery which follows a serial child killer on a rampage in a remote southern Italian village is considered a Giallo by the majority, so let’s just go with it. Lucio Fulci is often criticized as a misogynist and Don’t Torture a Duckling sure won’t help in his defense but the film is also quite entertaining and features a clever and complex social commentary on the effects of mob mentality on vigilante justice, pedophilia, and the disrespect youth have for traditional values. Despite a few shortcomings, Don’t Torture a Duckling is a beautifully realized horror film with shades of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and a plot that will have you guessing right until the end.
8: Blood and Black Lace |1964
Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino) is light on story but rich in style. One of Mario Bava’s most accomplished works, Blood and Black Lace is a beautiful piece of workmanship executed with dazzling, unparalleled use of bright colours and deep shadows. Choreographed with cruel precision, with an always mobile camera (mounted on a child’s wagon due to a lack of budget), Lace is a web of murder and intrigue, elevated to a higher level through Bava’s visual flair. Some argue this started the Giallo genre; others credit Bay of Blood, but as noted further down this list, I’ve always considered The Girl Who Knew Too Much to be the first true Giallo.
7: Bay of Blood / Twitch of the Death Nerve |1971
In 1971, Mario Bava unleashed Bay of Blood (Reazione a catena), a film that pushed beyond the levels of gore that had yet been seen in a murder mystery thriller. Bay of Blood has a body count of 13, spread across multiple killers – that is more dead bodies than the total of victims in the first Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday The 13th movies combined. In place of a single psycho, Bay of Blood hosts a large cast of characters, all related (and all insane), and all trying to claim the lofty inheritance of a deceased Countess. It is by far Bava’s goriest film, soaked in top-of-the-line practical effects, dripping in blood and featuring the most innovative kill sequences for its time. Bava was a cinematographer-turned-director, and Bay of Blood was the first film since 1962’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much for which he took credit in both capacities. Released as Twitch of the Death Nerve, the film would become a predecessor to the slasher sub-genre and is said to have heavily influenced Friday the 13th. Frederico Fellini once commented that he worked on writing a horror film for an acquaintance who gave him a script with numerous depictions of murders, but not one thread of story connecting them. Many believe it was Bava he was referring to, specifically this movie. Meanwhile, Dario Argento loved the film so much he had a friend (a projectionist) steal him a print of the movie during its first run in Italy. One last piece of IMDb trivia: Roberto Rossellini (whom Bava had previously worked for) shot a day’s worth of second-unit footage for Bava. While he was uncredited, most of the footage appeared in the final cut.
6: Hatchet For The Honeymoon | 1970
The general consensus on Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Il rosso segno della follia) is that it’s a departure from the traditional Giallo formula and not one of Bava’s best, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Hatchet for the Honeymoon is further evidence of the legendary director’s brilliance and in fact, the film held a special place in Bava’s heart since his own marriage, like the protagonist’s, was quickly coming to an end at the time of making the film. Hatchet is a clever mix of style and tone. The murder sequences are directed with panache – shy on blood but ratcheting up the tension to the max and I especially love the opening scene in which John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) announces in his narration that he’s mad, channeling the best of Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The standout scene, however, is the killing of Mildred, interrupted halfway through by the arrival of the film’s sleuth, while the most peculiar aspect is the introduction of the Mildred as a ghost. All in all, Hatchet for the Honeymoon is beautifully shot, well-acted and sharply written – something usually lacking in Giallos. By the time we see Forsyth decked out in a wedding gown wielding a knife, we quickly come to realize that Hatchet for the Honeymoon is another Bava masterpiece.
5: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage | 1970
One of the most self-assured directorial debuts of the ‘70s, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) was a box office hit and breakthrough film for the master of Giallo. Here, Argento is more interested in building suspense in tense but clever plot twists and focused less on gore. The acting is excellent across the board, the camera work is fluid, Vittorio Storaro’s stylish widescreen photography is ambitious, and the score by Ennio Morricone is superb. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage laid the groundwork for later classics like Deep Red and still remains one of Argento’s finest. It also features one of the best twist endings of all time.
4: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (The Evil Eye) | 1963
Mario Bava’s final black and white production is regarded as the seminal work in what would become known as the Giallo genre. Much Like Brian De Palma, Bava was very influenced by the master of suspense and borrowed heavily from Alfred Hitchcock throughout his career— the title itself spoofs The Man Who Knew Too Much, a story Hitchcock adapted twice to the big screen. The Girl Who Knew Too Much helped kick-start a whole school of Italian thrillers, but only a few were able to surpass the genius of Bava. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is beautifully shot, composed of pristine blocking, framing, pans, dollies, and sharp edits, creating suspense amid all the shadowy photography. Bava’s films might not always make a lick of sense, but as a former cinematographer working for directors such as Roberto Rossellini, his movies always looked better than other Giallo entries. With a solid performance from the always reliable John Saxon, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is incredibly entertaining, features a few twists, and a surprise ending as to “whodunit” and why. Part mystery, part horror, part comedy, part romance, The Girl Who Knew Too Much ends seemingly as an anti-drug/anti-smoking feature-length film but is regardless, essential viewing for any fan of the genre.
3: Terror at the Opera (Opera) | 1987
Opera collides with horror in this gory Giallo from director Dario Argento, fitting neatly with Argento’s lavish stylistics and dark trademarks as a filmmaker. Opera was Argento’s most expensive production and it shows in his colour schemes, use of music, grand set design, and camera work – all of which are wildly inventive and appropriate. The film’s chosen opera is an avant-garde rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, historically known for bringing bad omens to its cast and crew. Though Opera was never plagued by post-production problems, the director has been quoted as saying that “Opera‘s loveless tone was intended in part as a kind of AIDS metaphor” since star Ian Charleson learned during the filming that he was HIV+. Much like most of Argento’s work, the dialogue is over-the-top, and the acting is at times hammy, but one can’t deny its style and spectacular mood. Opera also features many incredible highlights including some truly brilliant POV shots—at one point, Betty is immobilized, as the killer ties her up and places a row of needles below her eyelids, forcing her to witness the excruciating deaths of her friends. We see the torture of unsuspecting supporting characters through her obstructed, terrifying view. It’s scenes like this that dare you not to blink.
2: Suspiria | 1977
The king of Italian horror, Dario Argento, directs what many consider to be his masterpiece. Suspiria is one of the most important and influential genre movies ever made and essential viewing for all horror fans. Argento’s first major non-Giallo directing job doesn’t stray too far from the style he established in his previous film Deep Red, but Suspiria’s overall charm resides in its technical triumphs and visual style, and not so much its story or surprise twists. Taking his cues from Mario Bava, Argento, together with his director of photography Luciano Tovoli, creates a vibrant, colorful film quite apart from the standards of the genre. Argento’s masterful use of intense primary colours (he acquired 1950s Technicolor stock to get the effect) and stunning set designs gives the whole film a hallucinatory intensity. The dissonant, throbbing score composed by Argento and performed by his frequent collaborators, Italian rock band Goblin, drives the picture with the occasional distorted shriek of “Witch!”. A strange combination of the arthouse and horror film, Suspiria, although cited as one of the scariest movies ever made is, ironically, one of Argento’s least violent films. It relies more on tone and atmosphere than on blood and gore. Surreal and frightening, however, Suspiria still shocks audiences decades after its original release.
1: Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) | 1975
Many will argue Suspiria to be Dario Argento’s full-fledged masterpiece, but for my money, it is Deep Red— a gorgeous, gory and gruesome thriller, and undoubtedly his finest picture. The alluring David Hemmings steals much of the show as a music teacher who investigates a series of murders performed by a mysterious figure wielding a hatchet. Argento’s trademarks are all visible here in copious amounts, as it prefigures some of the elaborate stylistic choices that he would carry on for the remainder of his career. Add in the superb, jazzy score by Argento’s band Goblin, and you have one of the most distinct-sounding and looking horror films of the decade. From a technical perspective, the film is a masterwork, but Deep Red also excels where most Giallos fall short by carrying an engaging narrative heightened by an unpredictable course of events and a truly surprising twist ending.
Autopsy, The Psychic (Seven Black Notes), Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion, All The Colors Dark, Short Nights of the Glass Doll
Eyeball, Eyes of Crystals, A Perversion Story, Knife on Ice, Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Red Rings of Fear, So Sweet So Dead, Who Saw Her Die, La Dona Del Lago, Avere Vent Anni, and Watch Me When I Kill
Not making my list. Sorry I just don’t like these movies:
What Have They Done to Solange?, French Sex Murders, Shock, Macabre, Do You Like Hitchcock?, French Sex Murders, Slaughter Hotel, Short Night Of Glass Dolls, Night Train Murders, The Night Evelyn Came Home From The Grave, Strip Nude For Your Killer, Sister Of Ursula, The Bloodstained Butterfly, Death Walks At Midnight, Pyjama Girl Case, Giallo. Mother of Tears