Top 20 Giallo Films, the Best of Italian Slashers
Italian Giallo films have had a lasting effect on horror movies and murder mysteries made outside Italy since the late 1960s, most notably in the slasher and splatter films that became widely popular in the late ’70 and early ’80s. What follows is a list of the very best Giallo films.
Editor’s Note: This is the second part of the list. Click here for the top 30.
20: The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail | 1971
Like all of Sergio Martino’s films, The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale (La coda dello scorpione) is a visual treat. Martino always endeavored to do something interesting visually – here, prodigious zooming, a plethora of unconventional angles, strange compositions, and fluid camera work to help escalate the tension. Martino also uses innumerable colour gels to maximum effect here, moreso than in his previous work, and the score is truly mesmerizing, especially the main theme. There are enough devilish plot twists to keep viewers on their toes and guessing the identity of the killer right until the very end.
19: The New York Ripper | 1982
In the hierarchy of Italian horror, Lucio Fulci usually doesn’t get his due. Many fans will place him below Argento and Bava, but I’d argue many of his films are far better. Fulci is admired for his onscreen appreciation of violence and brutality, but the man could also shoot a picture like nobody’s business. The New York Ripper is often targeted as misogynistic, as Fulci relegates the detective story aspect of the film to the background, focusing more on the killer’s atrocities instead but the film is worth a watch for its intriguing cinematography, outlandish gore, sleazy 70s New York setting, flashy set design, and a pair of truly suspenseful scenes – and yes, the ever-present unintentional humour. The New York Ripper is Lucio’s attempt to make a Dirty Harry-esque crime thriller, albeit a highly sexualized one with excessive nudity, cheesy dialogue, a needlessly convoluted narrative and a live sex show which verges on pornography.
18: Black Belly of the Tarantula | 1971
Just as the wasp uses a deadly stinger to kill its arch-nemesis the tarantula, a psychotic murderer is mimicking the insect by inserting a poison-tipped acupuncture needle into the back of his victim’s neck. The venom paralyzes the victims and the killer forces them to watch their own death as he slices them up. The inventive killings in Black Belly of the Tarantula (La tarantola dal ventre nero) are orchestrated with remarkable visual flair and live up to similar works from Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The method of the killings is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Black Belly of the Tarantula, but there are many more reasons to recommend the film. Paolo Cavara started his career co-directing the highly controversial sleazy-docu trash Mondo Cane and Women of the World. Even though he would go on to direct a wide variety of genre films, he would only make two outright Giallo films, of which Black Belly is his most famous. Cavara directs the sordid proceedings with style and precision. Every scene is pieced together with suggestive compositions that give deeper meaning to what we witness, and the piercing score by the ever-present Ennio Morricone intensifies the tension throughout. Black Belly of the Tarantula is a virtual whos-who of Euro-cult actresses, with Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet and Barbara Bach all starring. It’s a perfect gateway into the world of Italian thrillers.
17: Death Walks on High Heels | 1971
Death Walks on High Heels (La morte cammina con i tacchi alti) and Death Walks at Midnight were Italian/Spanish co-production, and two of many Giallo films from director Luciano Ercoli. Made using most of the same main cast and crew, both High Heels and Midnight were vehicles for Spanish-born starlet Susan Scott (Ercoli’s wife), who stars in both films. High Heels (the best of the two) revolves around a famed jewel thief who is slashed to death on a train after performing a heist. His daughter, Nicole, a famous nightclub performer, is then stalked and terrorized in hopes that the prowler will discover where the stash was hidden. High Heels is the real gem from the director, constantly spinning a web of murder, mayhem, and masquerade. Although somewhat convoluted, the carefully revealed backstory actually makes sense (something of a rarity for the genre), and the script keeps the viewer guessing right to the end. The finale provides an unforgettable revelation and one of the most bizarre extended sequences of any Giallo film. High Heels is the only film from Ercoli to make my list, but I do want to give a special mention to Midnight and Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.
16: Seven Deaths In the Cat’s Eye | 1972
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye (La morte negli occhi del gatto) seems like a case of the filmmakers going out of their way to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other Giallo films released, with a very strong supernatural underpinning to the proceedings (including repeated mention of vampires) and a specific focus on would-be animal murderers (including several cats and a gorilla). But where Seven Deaths truly sets itself apart from other Giallos is in its extremely gothic tone. The MacGrieff castle is appropriately ancient, and it’s stone hallways have statues of gargoyles and secret passageways. The movie is best described as what a Giallo film would look and feel like if it was made by Hammer Studios. In fact, the film is based on a novel by Peter Bryan, who once supplied the scripts for such Hammer productions as The Hound of Baskervilles and The Plague of the Zombies. French cult actress/singer Jane Birkin stars, and the film is shot in glorious widescreen, with every inch of the frame filled with incredible art direction and set design. The castle location turns out to be a brilliant choice as it becomes a character within the picture. Seven Deaths is punctuated by some finely crafted suspense, dark family secrets, an excellent cast – and did I mention a gorilla?
15: StageFright: Aquarius | 1987
Michele Soavi’s time spent assisting Dario Argento with Tenebre, Phenomena and Opera clearly prepared him to direct a feature of his own and with StageFright, Soavi proved himself as adept a director as any of his peers. StageFright is famous for two main reasons: donning an owl mask, the maniacal killer sets about his massacre via an assortment of weapons including an axe, chainsaw, and drill. Secondly, the theatrical setting is used extremely well— the killer frequently uses props and costume found nearby and blasts ominous orchestral music from the speakers to increase the panic. Meanwhile, the set provides a number of rooms, corridors, and secret passageways to run through which only heightens the suspense. Equal parts thriller, comedy, and splatter flick, StageFright starts strong and keeps up the pace, ending with a bravura sequence front and center on the stage.
14: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin | 1971
After the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the Italian film industry set out to produce a slate of thrillers with animal-related titles. One of the first was Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Una lucertola con la pelle di donna). Despite its Giallo status, Fulci’s film is a distinct entity apart from those made by his peers, quickly earning a reputation as one of Fulci’s finest works. As a convoluted thriller, Lizard works extremely well, though its climax falls somewhat short. The highlight of the film is an 11-minute chase sequence through the catacombs of a church, featuring a nerve-wracking scene involving killer bats and ends in a bloody rooftop encounter. The strength of the movie (as with most Giallos) lies in the visuals. Fulci’s innovative camera work helps reinforce the sense of illusion throughout, and Ennio Morricone’s score complements the picture’s strange mood perfectly. At times it’s a bit slow, but Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a unique and wild experience. Keep an eye out for the obvious ripoff/homage of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
13: Tenebrae / Unsane | 1982
Generally considered Dario Argento’s last good film before a steep decline, Tenebrae was a return, after experiments with supernatural horror (Suspiria, Phenomena), to the classic Giallo formula: homicidal maniacs, black leather gloves, the killer’s point of view, convoluted plot twists, pulse-pounding music, and so on. Said to be Argento’s most personal film, Tenebrae was reportedly inspired after Argento was stalked by a fan – but more importantly, Tenebrae is his most self-reflexive work. Argento identifies more closely with the killer in this film than any other. The murderer acts as an artist, snapping photographs of his own crime scenes, and kills someone after shoplifting a book (Argento’s way of addressing pirating and bootlegging) – not to mention the murder of a lesbian film critic accusing a man of misogyny, much like Clint Eastwood killing off a Pauline Kael-like character in The Dead Pool. This specific set piece features an incredible long crane shot which reportedly took three days to film, a scene the U.S. distributors wanted to be removed although it is the film’s highest technical accomplishment. Of all Argento’s films, Tenebrae might just be his most shocking and overtly sexual film. Expectedly, Tenebrae is filled with Argento’s customarily over-the-top, artistically motifs, and was shot by Luciano Tovoli, who was also the director of photography on Suspiria.
12: The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh | 1971
Director Sergio Martino (also known as Italy’s Roger Corman) proves once again why he does Giallo better than most. Starring Giallo queen Edwige Fenech (Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and many more) and George Hilton (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail), The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is a carefully fashioned and engrossing thriller with impressive Italian locations, beautiful authentic interiors, awe-inspiring cinematography (by Emilio Foriscot and Floriano Trenker) and excellent sound design. (Note the use of a heartbeat effect during a tense life-or-death scene.) A number of elements have been lifted in later films: for starters, you may recognize Nora Orlandi’s wailing theme music recycled in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. A murder in a public park provides the blueprint for a similar scene in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and a pair of shoes poking out from behind a curtain, was also seen in The Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (the same year) and later duplicated in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. That said, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh also takes a page from classic films itself, including The Wages of Fear and Diabolique. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is a slow burn, but it is every bit as memorable and thrilling than Argento’s best work with double-cross tactics and red herrings all present, as well as a twist-upon-twist ending that’s entirely unpredictable mostly by virtue of not making much sense. The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh also features one slick scene showing us a particularly clever way to use ice cubes.
11: The House with Laughing Windows
The House with Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridon) opens and ends as a deathly serious meditation on suffering and art. This sense of dread begins with a series of highly disturbing images that play out in sepia tones, juxtaposed with the opening title cards – a man is chained, tortured and repeatedly stabbed by two hooded figures. Tormented cries of pain give forth amidst the blurry imagery, and a grating voiceover speaks: “colours, my colours, they run from my veins, colours, sweet colours.” Although this film doesn’t conform to some conventions of the genre, it does feed into a familiar meta-narrative: a mystery killer abounds, a homicidal maniac stalking in the night, and a half dozen or so suspects at large. Director Pupi Avati reveals a small town full of secrets and superstition and much like H.G. Lewis’s Bloodfeast or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, The House with Laughing Windows explores a dichotomy between art and death. The artist at hand, Legnani, is obsessed with capturing on canvas the reactions of people at the precise moment of their death. The film is deliberately paced but suffers from a middle section rooted too deeply in an unconvincing love interest— but it’s the bookends that make this picture great. While the intricate plot will keep you guessing until the very end, it is the shocking conclusion (and I do mean shocking), that will burn in your memory for a very, very, long time.