Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Director Must Direct Again! An exclusive interview with science-fiction, horror, and fantasy maestro, Luigi Cozzi.

In 2004, The American Cinematheque held a rare screening of STARCRASH (aka FEMALE SPACE INVADERS), Luigi Cozzi's legendary tip of the hat to STAR WARS, during its annual Fantasy, Horror, and Sci-Fi Festival. At the end of the introduction for the movie, the Cinematheque's Programming Director exclaimed, "Luigi Cozzi is a god!!" to which the crowd let out a roar of thunderous applause and cheer.

He was right. Luigi Cozzi is a cinematic god, much like the gods that populate his fantasy/sci-fi hybrids: over-the-top and spectacular beyond belief.
Responsible for spearheading Italian science-fiction, fantasy, and horror in Italy during the late '70s and early '80s, Cozzi turned out such wonderfully imaginative, Harryhausen-inspired movies like the above-mentioned 1978 masterpiece of sci-fi mayhem, which boasts a cast that includes David Hasselhoff, Bond-girl Caroline Munro (as the sexy "Stella Starr"), Christopher Plummer, Marjoe Gortner, and the late, great Joe Spinell (!!) as what else? The Darth Vader-like villain, Count Zarth Arn.

In 1980, Cozzi re-appropriated the Dracula lineage and influence used by Ridley Scott in ALIEN (the Italians aren't the only ones who "borrow" other people's ideas) and brought it down to earth (literally and figuratively) in the contagiously entertaining space pod invaders flick, CONTAMINATION:

In 1983, Cozzi would introduce to the world a new HERCULES that proved such a success that a sequel, THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES, naturally followed two years later. Both starred the only obvious successor to the Hercules mantle, the incredible Lou Ferrigno, who made a much more impressive, charismatic, and fitting half-god than Schwarzenegger's dead-on-arrival attempt 13 years earlier.

Responsible for some of the giallo genre's more formidable, critically acclaimed, and inventive entries during the '70s, Luigi Cozzi talks to Giallo is the Color of Death from his home in Rome about, what else? Giallo, of course, and his experience with it.
Giallo is the Color of Death: Can you describe what it was like to make giallos in Italy in the '70s? What was the general attitude when it came to movies that were not Bertolucci or Fellini or Antonioni?

Luigi Cozzi: Giallo movies have always been very badly considered by the critics here in Italy, even today. Till a few years ago, all of Dario Argento's movies had been considered crap by the same critics, who called him a schlock imitator of Hitchcock, or worse. But, take into consideration that Hitchcock also has always been very badly judged by our critics, so. . . . Simply, our movie critics are stupid and dumb.

GCD: Do you recall if there was a certain point of epiphany during that period of the '60s and '70s where you and your colleagues thought, "Oh, we're creating a new genre!" or did you feel like the giallo film genre was simply a continuation of the books and mystery/thriller stories of Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie,, that were popular in Italy at the time and on which the giallo film genre is based?

LC: When I was working with Dario early in the Seventies we were trying to create a new genre, to create an Italian way to the giallo style. Our inspirations were the American giallo (mystery) novels by writers like Cornell Woolrich, Fredric Brown, Raymond Chandler: we wanted to create something similar to their wonderful books here in the Italian movie world.

GCD: As an American, one of the things that interests me about the giallo is the way they influence the Canadian and American "slasher flicks" of the eighties, movies that were essential viewing if you wanted to know what everybody else was talking about in the schoolyard at that time. Of course, in the eighties, as a boy, I barely even knew about Italy, much less the giallo. But the reason why I now love to watch and write about the giallo much more than its pedestrian American cousin is because of the amount of style used to tell what is essentially a murder mystery. To me, the '60s and '70s giallo period is similar to the golden age of American film noir, where directors were using the camera, the set design, the wardrobe, etc., to both complete their vision and create a world that was visually unique. Where did the giallo's stylish aesthetic come from? Was it simply Mario Bava using his imagination and others following him, or was it something greater, maybe influenced by everything else that was happening in Italian Cinema with Fellini, et. al.?

LC: Our giallo aestethic came partly from Raymond Chandler and, most of all, from writer Cornell Woolrich: he was the greatest of all mystery writers, he had already done wonderfully what we were trying to do again. Only, he had done it in the printed page, and now we wanted to recreate the same effect and the same noir atmosphere on the silver screen. In trying to do so, we came to create a new style: the giallo style, which we invented, also partly taking it from Sergio Leone (you know, Dario had just worked with him, so was very fresh in his Leone inspiration. . .).

GCD: What do you think of the giallo genre now, especially the neo-giallos of the late '80s and '90s? How would you compare them to the giallos of the '60s and '70s?

LC: Giallos of the '60s, giallos of the '70s, giallos of the '80s...well, they're obviously different because there's evolution during the years. Evolution in the society, evolution in the morality, evolution in the cinema, evolution in the audience. . . so everything changes and, hopefully, improves (but not always). The Italian giallos of the first half of the '60s (mostly Bava) are born out of the American giallos noir movies, while in the final part of the '60s Dario Argento turns into a movie the book The Screaming Mimi, by Fredric Brown using a style which updates THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945), by Robert Siodmak. . . and in doing so, Dario creates a new way of making giallo and it's a real leap forward. . . a major leap forward into terror.

Incidentally, this is the real story of how this all began:

Bernardo Bertolucci (THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972)) worked with Dario Argento on writing Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), which, please note: has an archetypal giallo plot: the hero (Charles Bronson) keeps wondering till the end why the farm in the desert is so important and why everybody is fighting and killing trying to take possession of it? We also wonder all through the movie who are the two characters in the flash back. . . who is the killer and who is the victim? (Another typical giallo twist).

Anyway, Dario and Bertolucci became friends and, after the writing for Leone was finished, Bertolucci proposed to Dario to write together another movie, a real giallo movie that Bertolucci wanted to try to direct personally. Dario said yes and so Bertolucci brought him the Italian giallo book edition of Fredric Brown's novel, The Screaming Mimi, saying that he wanted to use that book, uncredited, as a basis for his new giallo movie. So Dario read the book, loved it and decided that he too wanted to try to become a director adapting it for the screen. So he did not say anything to Bertolucci but wrote all by himself a brand new, "original" script using, uncredited, the Brown book as a basis and then started offering his brand new script to many producers in town. When Bertolucci heard this, the big fight between him and Dario started, lasting even today, because Bertolucci felt cheated. But in the meanwhile, Dario had found help from his father, a small independent producer, and together had succeeded in finding a distributor to finance them, Titanus. So THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) was made and a new cinematic giallo age was born, because Dario was excellent as a director and made a wonderful and very scary movie. . .

This is how the giallo revolution of the late Sixties started. Then giallo movies kept evolving, that's natural. Dario himself evolved all through the '70s, the '80s, and the '90s. . . while his giallo style became an international mark.

GCD: Can you talk about how the same actors seem to pop up throughout the giallo genre. How were they chosen?

LC: The actors from the giallos were mostly from stage or from Italian Spaghetti Westerns. Think of George Hilton. I used him in my THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN (1975). He was very famous as a Western Clint Eastwood-like hero. It cost a lot to hire him for a western movie. But outside of western movies, he was very cheap because he was famous only with a beard, a cowboy hat, and a gun. In modern clothes he was considered less than nothing at the box office. So I got him very cheap for my KILLER--I think he got less than 10,000 for just three working days--while if you wanted him for a western you had to pay him at least 100,000 dollars.

Sergio Martino used George Hilton in giallos a lot, too, also because George had married his sister or his cousin, I don't remember well, so they were somehow related.

Also, other giallos actors were mostly people from Spaghetti Westerns trying to find a new audience, considering that the westerns were dying at the box office while the giallos were exploding.

GCD: The dubbing of all those films I think is great, not just with how they match the lips, but also by being truthful to the story. By that I mean that what the characters are saying and talking about completely agrees with the story's narrative. The dialogue that is being dubbed isn't just done carelessly, so the story can quickly move to the "juicy" parts making the movie more marketable in America and other countries. Rather, there's a lot of thought put into the translation. By comparison, think of the Kung Fu films of the '70s, where the audience knows that some of the ridiculous things that come out of the characters' mouths in English are not the same things they're saying in Mandarin. I know I'm comparing apples to oranges, but the giallo could have easily fallen into that trap, especially if distributors/producers were just eager to make a quick buck. How were the scripts translated and who translated them from the original Italian to English? Or were most written in English? If so, how did Mario Bava and any other director who didn't speak English work with such scripts?

LC: All giallos scripts were written in Italian, then they were translated by a Roman translator and afterwards the movies were shot in English, all actors saying their lines in English. Very bad English, I say, because the actors didn't speak that language but just repeated the sound of their lines without understanding the words. But it didn't matter, because afterward all these movies were dubbed by others in a more correct English. Most movies were dubbed in Rome by American and English people living here, while a few movies (the most expensive and important ones) were dubbed in New York City by Americans.

As a matter of fact, at that time almost no one knew English here in Italy. I remember that when we shot FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), Dario Argento himself didn't know English and so I had to act as a translator for him when he needed to talk to leading American actor Michael Brandon.

GCD: I saw FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET again recently with a husband and wife friends of mine who hadn't been properly introduced to the genre, much less to any one specific movie. I thought it was a great choice for a first-time audience since all the basic elements of the genre are there, without it being too graphically overboard, where it could easily be dismissed as, "oh, a horror movie" or "a slasher," or something very reductive like that. It also is just one of the best examples of the genre, and a fantastic movie in general. Of course, the whole scientific idea about images being recorded in the eye's retina is pretty fantastic, in the best sense of the word: it completely fits with this almost cartoonish universe created by the movie and the genre itself. I know Argento had already begun using science to explain the killings (the XXY chromosome theory in CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971)). Scientific and psychological explanations recur in giallos in general, usually either explaining the killer's actions or helping the authorities find the killer, which makes me think of all the CSI shows that are currently playing on our TV sets in the U.S. Those are mini-giallos, if you ask me. Why do you think such scientific/psychological explanations/theories played such an important part in the genre?
LC: The eye idea in FOUR FLIES dates back to a Jules Verne novel I read long time ago. It was an idea brought by me to Dario and he loved it. In the Verne novel, they could see the face of the killer in the eye of the dead victim. But Dario wanted something less easy, so we thought up four crosses seen in the eye, because the killer had at her neck a cross jewel and when moving, it became four. At this point I suggested: "We have the title of the movie, which is four flies and which doesn't mean anything...why don't we have four flies in the eye, with the killer having at her neck a fly jewel?" Dario loved this's there in the movie.

At that time, Dario was trying to put into his giallo movies the most up-to-date scientific discoveries, in order to give the giallo movies a new look. The eye idea was suggested also by an article I read in a newspaper, telling that in Germany the police was experimenting to see if they could see the killer's face in the eye of his dead victim. I cut that news from the paper and brought it to Dario's attention. He loved the clipping and so accepted as almost real the old Jules Verne idea.

GCD: How much of the story for FOUR FLIES came from you?

LC: There's a lot of me in the story of FOUR FLIES. I contributed much to that movie. Dario had the main idea and I added most of the plot twists and situations, getting them from books that Dario loved and urged me to use. For instance, the character of GOD(frey), played by Bud Spencer, and his dialogues do come straight out of the book The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown, the same book that Dario had previously used as a basis for his BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Arrosio, the private eye and his dialogues come from the science fiction book Mindswap by Robert Sheckley. The beginning with the fly is the beginning with the fly from Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister novel. . . . The killing of the maid in the closed garden is the equal to the killing of the young girl closed inside the cemetery in the novel Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich. . . and on.

GCD: Like one of your alien pods in CONTAMINATION, my mind is about to explode just trying to imagine two creative minds like you and Argento talking about giallo ideas! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall! Can you describe what it's like sitting with Argento and talking to him about a story or idea?

LC: I loved working with Dario on FOUR FLIES. We were young and very ambitious, and he was trying to do his best movie ever. There was a lot of enthusiasm. We were trying to do things never done before...

GCD: What did you learn from Argento in terms of making a great giallo?

LC: Dario is my master when it comes to the giallo. All I know about screenwriting and movie making I've learned it from him. He was a friend but also the best of all teachers.

GCD: Did you get to interact with Mimsy Farmer during the filming of FOUR FLIES? If so, what was it like working with her?

LC: On 4 FLIES, Dario and Mimsy Farmer didn't get along too well: she had married an important highbrow Italian writer and so considered bad the very movie she was making with us, considering it just a commercial movie, kind of "B" stuff. She said she only liked cultural and art movies, not giallo. Dario resented this and so they started not talking too much to each other. So, I often acted as a kind of "ambassador" from Dario to Mimsy telling her what Dario wanted and telling Dario what Mimsy answered me. Crazy thing.

GCD: In the '90s, you worked with Argento again as second unit director for the George Romero collaboration, TWO EVIL EYES (1990), and THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (1996). How was that experience compared to working with him in the '70s?

LC: Movie-making in the Seventies was very different from movie-making in the end of the Eighties, mid Nineties. In the Seventies, we were young and wanted to conquer the world. From the the late Eighties on, Dario just wanted to defend what he already had and would have liked to have shot more psychological and dramatic movies than just giallos, but distributors didn't let him do them. They just wanted only giallos from Dario.

Also, there had been high hopes for TWO EVIL EYES, but it turned out to be a box office disaster. TRAUMA also didn't do too well in the theaters and this all worried Dario, making it long and difficult to find proper financing for STENDHAL, which initially was intended to be shot in the U.S. with an American actress (Bridget Fonda). In any case, the great enthusiasm of the Seventies had gone. And that too made the difference, I think.

GCD: In PHENOMENA (1985), you are credited for its "Special Optical Effects." Did you work on all its special effects, or were there some in particular that you helped out on?

LC: I worked a lot on PHENOMENA/CREEPERS. I did some second unit shooting with some minor actors plus most of its visual effects & live insects scenes. I did all the macrophotography with the real flies and worms, I did all the shots with the flies attacking the college, I did the optical tricks of the giant fly swarm and also did the cartoon animation of the fly (Jennifer following the fly to the country house where the killer lived) and the firefly too (Jennifer finding the glove thanks to the firefly). I also did the ending with the swarm crossing the moon and the million flies attacking the gnome killer. Lot of stuff I did on this movie.

GCD: Was there any interaction with Donald Pleasance and/or Jennifer Connelly? If so, what were they like, especially Jennifer since she was such a young actress then.

LC: I knew Donald Pleasance but never crossed his path on PHENOMENA. Jennifer, I directed her on the firefly scene (because there was no firefly on the set, the insect was optically added later, so I had to tell her what to do and how to react). I also crossed paths with Jennifer while shooting the videoclip for the main song theme. She was a joy to work with, fantastic girl.

GCD: Despite the fact that in the eighties you would make movies that were family oriented (I'm remembering sitting in a neighborhood theatre as a young boy of 12/13, with mouth open and the pop-corn missing its mark as I watched your HERCULES double-feature and thinking, "These are the most incredible movies I have ever seen." I still think they're pretty amazing, by the way!). Despite those kid-friendly movies, you are responsible for what I think is one of the giallo genre's most realistically ruthless entries, THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN (THE DARK IS DEATH'S FRIEND). Of course, it has a plot that brings to mind Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), but where there's a certain "civilized" formality that the characters of that movie observe, the men in KILLER have none of those "graces," but rather, are uncharismatic characters, especially the intense Antoine Saint-John, who plays the titular killer. The movie is very well regarded, especially for its masterful storytelling, helped along by the strong editing and narrative. It's also one of the few giallos where the identity of the killer is not the mystery. What was your intention with this giallo, since it feels very different from most any other giallo? It was released in 1975, so where you, at that point, interested in showing a different side of the giallo? Can you talk about why and how you got involved in the making of the movie.

LC: My intention with the KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN, which was made in 1973, was to try a different way of making giallo, with the killer immediately known to the audience. Of course it was also a tribute to Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954). I got involved with this movie while I was in Milano writing with Dario his new movie, THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN (1973). A Milan producer approached Dario while we were there and offered him to make a new giallo there. Dario refused but said that I, his assistant and co-writer, could make it, so he introduced me to these producers, said that I was their man, and they were convinced and hired me. Thus THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN was born, thanks to Dario.

GCD: What was it like directing and working with giallo regular and Italian film favorite George Hilton on THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN?

LC: George Hilton did not consider much of my KILLER movie because he worked on it just for three days, if I recall correctly, so for him it was close to nothing. Actually I had written his role calculating that it could be shot just in 3 days in order to get a known (and expensive) actor, but writing it in the way that his scenes were scattered all through the whole movie: beginning, middle section, end. As a matter of fact, if you used Hilton for a week or two, he did cost a lot, but when only for three days he was just a kind of special guest star and didn't cost very much. Do you get my point? So I did succeed in getting Hilton at a very cheap price. . . and he didn't really like movies where he was being paid so cheap. . . 'though he accepted them.

GCD: Can you go into detail about the attempt to collaborate with frequent giallo soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone?

LC: I had him under contract for my later STARCRASH and HERCULES but couldn't find an agreement with him about how these soundtracks had to be, so he left and I hired other musicians who were willing to follow my input. Morricone wanted to work with no input from me, he wanted to create music all by his own, while I had very precise ideas about how the music in my STARCRASH and HERCULES had to be.

GCD: I've read that science-fiction and fantasy had always been your passion. Your earliest childhood attempts at movies illustrate that. Did you see an opportunity to use what you loved from science-fiction and fantasy and incorporate it into the giallo genre? If so, what elements did you incorporate and how did you incorporate them?

LC: With FOUR FLIES, as a writer, I incorporated into the giallo genre sci-fi favorites of mine like Robert Sheckley and Jules Verne. Plus the eye ray machinery I invented. Plus the final slow motion car crash at the end of the movie. The car crash was an idea of mine: a ballet of death with crystals all over. It's the logical of the science fiction film. . . daring and experimental.
GCD: When you moved away from the giallo genre in the late '70s and early '80s to concentrate on fantasy and science fiction films like the HERCULES movies, CONTAMINATION, and of course, STARCRASH, did you think you were done with giallo or was it ever your thought to come back to it?

LC: I always just wanted to do sci-fi and fantasy. I liked giallo, weird, noir, and horror, sure, but my true passions are sci-fi and fantasy. That's what I just wanted to do.

GCD: I think American movie thrillers of the late '80s and early '90s also owe a great debt to the giallo as well. BASIC INSTINCT comes to mind. Do you see the influence of the giallo when watching an American box-office hit like BASIC INSTINCT?
LC: Basic Instinct I like: and I agree with you, it's kinda of big Italian giallo movie made with a lot of Hollywood bucks and with international stars. . .

GCD: Are you working on anything now? Is there anything in the horizon for you, whether sci-fi, fantasy, giallo, whatever? I know Argento will be releasing his new giallo, GIALLO. Did you have any part in that?

Dario is releasing his GIALLO movie early next month. His next project is a remake of one of his famous masterpieces IN 3-D.

Since 2001 I've just been working here at the Museum and at the shop, plus writing and taking care of the Profondo Rosso books. That's it.

2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Please make me aware of any such use. . .
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

What's in a Giallo Name? Everything. . .


A word that can best describes the giallo genre in general is excess. Excessive plot. Excessive gore. Excessive violence. Excessive fashion. Excessive style. Excessive lunacy. Excessive gratuity. Excessive excessiveness. Like a Caligulan orgy, the giallo has very little sense of what is humanly bearable when it comes to sensory overload. So, it should be of little surprise that when it comes to titles, few genres can beat the opulence of a giallo title. In fact, the giallo title is to Italian Cinema what B-Movie film posters of the '50s were to American Cinema: promises of phenomenon that extended beyond mere mortal experience. The titles, just like most of those American film posters, are not lying. They're mostly metaphorical, of course, but they're also expressing ideas meant for a much more imaginative execution in a viewer's mind than the inevitable reality of budget restraints or, well, reality. I would have loved to have been a kid in the '60s and '70s and seen a marquee with one of the below titles on it, oblivious to the genre and not knowing anything about the specific movie. My mind would have been all over it.

So, without further ado, here is a top 36 (yeah, I know, 36, so what?) list of some of my favorite Italian and Spanish giallo titles, with number 1 being my favorite title (not movie, title). Titles, which, yes, like most giallo titles, have a love affair with insects, blades, the number seven, animals, asininity, and, of course, death.

Perhaps it's fitting to begin with a title that with one absurd, made up, pseudo-scientific-sounding word encapsulates the genre's constant attempt at forcing psycho-analysis, eroticism, and, in this case, the occult into its plot. A.k.a.s for this one include the Mexican title, Mas alla del Exorcismo (trans: Beyond Exorcism) and its American title, Evil Eye.

35. In the Folds of the Flesh
Get your dirty mind outta the gutter, you filthy perv! The title is referring to the folds of the brain. . . It does feature Freudian psychology and Nazi flashbacks, however. Oh, my. . .

34. Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye
This title has everything: the number seven, death, and an animal. Oh, and an organ to boot!

33. All the Colors of the Dark
Think this one should be higher up, huh? It is an iconic title, I grant you, even going as far as being the name of a now famous Mario Bava biography/filmography despite the fact that it's not a Bava film. I do like the title, but I like so many others better.

32. The Red Queen Kills Seven Times

31. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

30. Blazing Magnums
If ever there was a title that kicked ass, it is this one. Die Hard has nothing on the title of this giallo. Oh, but not a giallo, you say? Well, its giallo roots are betrayed by its other title, Shadows in an Empty Room (territory unknown).

29. Seven Notes in Black, a.k.a Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes
Either of those titles is much cooler than its pedestrian American title, The Psychic. "The Psychic"?? Really? Is that the best we can come up with?

28. Death Smiled on Murder, a.k.a. Death Smiled on a Murderer, a.k.a. Asylum Erotica

27. The House with Laughing Windows

26. Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll

25. A Dragonfly for Each Corpse

24. Dance Steps on a Razor's Edge (roughly translated from its Spanish title, Pasos de danza sobre el filo de una navaja), but best known with the equally as creative (if stupefying) title, Death Carries a Cane. Ooh, I'm shaking. . .

23. Kill the Poker Player
The legend goes that Francois Truffaut was so moved, so taken by this Spaghetti-Western giallo that he not only lifted its narrative for his own movie, but also mimicked its title by calling his film Shoot the Piano Player. . .
. . .Nah, just messing with you. This movie was made years after Piano Player. Its Spanish a.k.a., however, is La muerte llega arrastrĂ¡ndose, trans: Death Comes Dragging Itself, which, again, how is this scary?

22. Spasmo!
WTF does this mean and why is the movie named this?! I own this movie and have no idea. Brilliant.

21. Death on a Four Poster
Again, WTF? And if this title weren't dopey enough, the better known alternate title is Sexy Party. But the much cooler Italian a.k.a., Crime in the Mirror, saves it. Those Italians are so cool!

20. Next!
The name says it all with this one! Ok, in all fairness, this giallo is better known as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, which gets points just for being very specific. But I like the certainty of the shorter title.

19. Murder Rock, a.k.a. Slashdance, a.k.a. Dancing Death, a.k.a. Giallo-a-Disco, a.k.a. Staying Alive (okay, I'm kidding about that last a.k.a! But only the last one. . .).

18. Love and Death at the Edge of a Razor
Not to be confused with its ants-in-the-pants brethren, number 24 above.

17. The Killer is on the Phone
You'd think they'd hang up, right?

16. The Killer with a Thousand Eyes

15. Gently Before She Dies
"Gently" what before she dies? On the other hand, its better-known American title, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, gets points for being a paragraph instead of a title, and like number 20's a.k.a., for giving us too much information.

14. Hot Lips of the Killer
Not to be confused with "Hot Lips" of M.A.S.H fame. . .

13. Death Walks in High Heels
I don't know about you, but when death comes knocking at my door, I want it to be wearing high heels. . .

12. The Washing Machine
Yup, exactly what you think. . .

11. Iguana with the Tongue on Fire

10. Vice Wears Black Hoses
Very stylish, death. For further proof, see also number 13 above. . .

9. Perfume of a Lady in Black

8. Four Flies on Grey Velvet
This one is literal. . .

7. Death Laid an Egg
A few ways you can read this title. I think I'll go into them when I review it. But for now, I prefer the literal interpretation. Just try to visualize it. . .

6. Five Dolls for an August Moon
Just a classy title. You know, as far as gialli are concerned. . .

5. Twitch of the Death Nerve
Every giallo should be given this title. The whole genre in a nutshell. . .

4. Trumpets of the Apocalypse

3. Eyes Behind the Stars
No celestial stars in this one, but you like that Cancer Man from the X-Files, do you? Not an original idea. Nope. Here first. . .

2. Footprints on the Moon
The moon does make an appearance in this one (as well do astronauts). And you can see footprints on it. . .

1. Murder in a Blue World (UK title), a.k.a. Una Gota de Sangre Para Morir Amando (which roughly translates into A Drop of Blood to Die Loving). Best known in the U.S as Clockwork Terror (obvious nod to Kubrick & Burgess both in title and plot), this title also boasts the best a.k.a.s in general, which also includes To Love, Perhaps to Die (territory unknown).

Special mention: Death Whistles the Blues
Ok, ok, so this title isn't technically a giallo or even a Spanish giallo, for that matter, despite the fact that it's directed by cracked Spaniard Jess Franco (there goes that name again!). But you have to admit, it's a cool giallo-esque title.

Agree or disagree with my selection? Feel I left any one title out? Let me know now since it might just end up on the final list in the book. . .

2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Please make me aware of any such use. . .

Curious to see what else I'm writing about? Visit:

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Giallo That Did So Much. . .


Much has been written regarding the influence that Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) has on the giallo's narrative structure. Indeed, it is credited as being the first movie to typify the giallo genre. In his treatise, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film (2006), Mikel J. Koven generalizes the movie's influential narrative structure, thereby summarizing the plot of the murder mystery giallo in general:

"An innocent person, often a tourist, witnesses a brutal murder that appears to be the work of a serial killer. He or she takes on the role of amateur detective in order to hunt down this killer, and often succeeds where the police fail." (2006: 3-4).

THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is to the giallo what DR. NO is to the James Bond franchise. It establishes the basic structure of the genre, a structure that is generic yet refreshing in the sense that a pre-existing template is being used while being reinvented and filtered by a strong vision. It wouldn't be until the following year that the genre's idiosyncratic style and imagery would emerge--from Bava again--with BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), in which all the elements come together to create a familiar paradigm. The GOLDFINGER of the giallo genre, if you will.

The titular girl of Bava's movie happens to be both a tourist and an American woman, setting into place a very important and common characteristic that will surface in subsequent gialli throughout the next four decades: In a lot of the gialli, the protagonist is typically a very independent and professional woman. She's not a student, not the male hero's girlfriend or wife. And unlike the heroines of the North American slasher genre, virginity isn't a requirement to make it to the very end of the thriller either. Unlike Nora Davis in GIRL, a typical giallo heroine is not necessarily identified as being American, despite the fact that most gialli were dubbed in English to attract a wider audience. . . .

2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Enter the American: John Saxon Talks Bava, Argento, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night

John Saxon's career in Hollywood dates back to 1954, when he appeared in the George Cukor double feature A STAR IS BORN and IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU. From those uncredited performances Saxon would go on to spend the next five decades in front of the camera, starring alongside such Hollywood heavyweights as Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn (THE UNFORGIVEN), Marlon Brando (THE APPALOOSA), and most memorably, alongside Bruce Lee as the wily gambler Roper in ENTER THE DRAGON. In 1963, Saxon would be among the first to inject an American presence into Italian Cinema by appearing in Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Besides GIRL, Saxon would occasionally return to the giallo in such classics as Dario Argento's TENEBRE (1982), Sergio Martino's THE SCORPION WITH TWO TAILS (1982), and the mind-bending giallo/poliziotteschi hybrid, BLAZING MAGNUMS (1976), directed by Alberto De Martino. Giallo is the Color of Death recently had the pleasure to briefly meet with the legendary Hollywood actor, who was generous enough to take some time out of a schedule with no signs of slowing down and talk to us about making movies in postwar Italy, inventing a genre with Bava and Dario Argento, and how that genre compares to the North American slasher flicks he starred in during the '70s and '80s.

Giallo is the Color of Death: What was it like being an American making films in Italy in the early '60s?
John Saxon: For an American actor to go there work, back in 1962, it seemed like a picnic. If any one day the director finished at 3pm, everyone went home. I'd been working for the [Hollywood] studio system and if at three they finished, they would have another set ready for you to work until six or 6:30, or whatever it was. Working in Italy was kind of playful and very interesting because it was the development of what they called "La Dolce Vita." People were enjoying themselves, it was after the war, things were going well. The movie business in Italy at that time was making more movies than the United States. In the U.S., there was a crisis of production because television had come in and taken over.

GCD: What was it like working with Mario Bava on THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH?
JS: Well, he didn't speak any English and his son's [Italian Director Lamberto Bava] was slightly better, so we didn't get to talk too much on the set. But there was a scene, in particular, where they had placed a mat, and as I walked over it, I accidentally slipped and fell, and I remember [Mario] saying, "Oh, he has to come over here and show off!" (Laughter).

GCD: Did you know you were making a giallo? Was the term being used at the time?

[Spoiler ahead!!]

JS: No, as far as the production was concerned, we were making a lighthearted, playful "detective story," one that was interesting because it's a story within a story since it's all happening in the girl's head.

GCD: How did you end up working on the film?

JS: The lead actress [Leticia Roman] called me from Italy and said, "John, do you want to make an 'art film' in Italy?!" And of course, that was exactly what I wanted to make! So, I jumped on a plane, landed in Italy, read the script, and realized it wasn't that at all!

GCD: It wasn't Fellini. (Laughter)

JS: No, it wasn't Fellini! (Laughter). But I didn't know anything about Bava until many years later, and then I found out what an important director he was.

GCD: What was it like working with Argento two decades later in TENEBRE?

JS: And I just worked with him again recently on "Pelts" [Masters of Horror episode]. Working with Argento is great. He likes actors very much. I remember him being an intense guy on the set of TENEBRE. He would come over and say something like, "You know, you were great!" and then he'd leave you alone and go to a corner by himself and think intensely.
GCD: Speaking of recent work, a few years back, you filmed an episode of CSI directed by Quentin Tarantino. These series hold their viewers' attention due largely in part by the fact that the viewer, along with the characters, is trying to solve a case or figure out the identity of the killer, much like in a giallo. To me, there's a whole other level to these shows that resembles the giallo: the medical/scientific way in which the mystery is solved. It is not uncommon for a giallo to have a "cutting-edge," convoluted, far-fetched medical or scientific explanation for the killings, or to use such nonsense to solve the crime and figure out the killer's identity. I recall, in particular, Argento's early gialli. What was it like working with Tarantino, a professed admirer of the gialli, and did it feel at all like working on a one of those Italian murder mysteries?

JS: Working with Tarantino was great. He's obviously a very knowledgeable person. He knew more about the stuff I have done than I do. We talked a little bit about those giallos [sic], and it did feel like we were making something very similar with that CSI episode.

GCD: In 1974, you starred in what many consider one of the first North American modern slashers, BLACK CHRISTMAS. Did you see any similarites between it and the giallo?

JS: BLACK CHRISTMAS was a great movie and a great script that did remind me a lot of those early giallos [sic]. The problem was that the studio didn't like the title. They said, "People are going to think that it's about black people celebrating Christmas--it's not gonna sell!"

It's true!
GCD: I know, that's why I'm laughing. . .

How would you compare a later horror classic like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which you also starred in, to the giallo?

JS: I liked the script for NIGHTMARE a lot, and I said to the director, whom I'd never met before, "You know, what I really like is the fact that this takes place in a dream world!" I think in the end, they became too enamored with the whole special effects aspect of the movie (what with the tongue coming out of the phone and all), and its suspense thriller essence was lost.
2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Please make me aware of any such use. . .
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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I Am Curious (Giallo): Everything You Always Wanted to Know About "Sex 'n' Slash" But Were Afraid to Ask. . .


Of all the colors of the dark, yellow is the most degenerate. Degenerate in the purest sense of the word: to be or grow worse than one's kind, or than one was originally; hence, to be inferior; to grow poorer, meaner, or more vicious; to decline in good qualities (Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996, by way of Such is the unfortunate lot given to that most piss-colored, maligned, and misunderstood of all Italian subgenres, the giallo. Yes, it can be ridiculous and over the top, as excessive as a Caligulan orgy on crack, particularly in its fetishistic portrayal of fake blood, guts, and gore. But to this writer and lover of all things giallo, rarely is it ever dull or poorly executed. To quote the oft-quoted Greek filmmaker and French film critic, Adonis Kyrou, "I urge you: learn to look at 'bad' films, they are so often sublime." Let's take look at this "bad,"--no, "terrible"--subgenre.

Giallo (rhymes with hallow, plural gialli) is, if you haven't already guessed, simply Italian for the word yellow. "Yellow" was the term of endearment given to these films in the '60s and '70s since they were mostly influenced by paperback novels of the same nickname. These whodunits published in Italy with yellow covers and printed in the trademark yellowish pulp paper were penned by such popular English writers as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The giallo is not a proper film subgenre per se, but rather, falls within the categories of suspense thriller, murder mystery, and that most ostensible of '80s horror film subgenres, the slasher flick. The slasher would not exist at all if it weren't for the giallo's general template: an unknown (usually "sex") maniac going around creatively, if not necessarily constructively, slashing and hacking his or (gasp!) her victims. But that is where the similarities end. Throw in the fact that most gialli occur in the "adult world," i.e., a more "realistic" reality in which it is adults who are the ones involved with the more nefarious aspects of life and not college co-eds who are in real life typically, well, going to college. Add a Miss Marple-type of amateur sleuth or a Hercule Poirot-type of police inspector trying to get to the bottom of the killer's identity, subtract a bunch of idiots sitting around like, well, sitting ducks, waiting to get picked off one by one, and you have the essential ingredients of this Italian subgenre.

Most giallo academics (and by "most," I mean the two or three out there) tend to credit Mario Bava's homage to Hitchcock, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TO MUCH (1963), as the first giallo. In his giallo textbook, La Dolce Morte, Mikel J. Koven suggests that the first giallo is really Visconti's neorealist classic, OSSESSIONE (1943), starring DEEP RED's Clara Calamai--a suggestion that would have made my Italian cinema professor cough up his cannoli. OSSESSIONE is based on James M. Cain's crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, making for a compelling suggestion since the giallo borrows heavily from the visual aesthetics and themes of the film noir, e.g., Dutch angles, stark light/dark contrasts, moral ambiguity, sexual motivation, etc. In his Bava textbook, The Haunted World of Mario Bava, Troy Howarth, however, suggests the Hawksian CORTOCIRCUITO (1943) as the giallo forerunner. This suggestion isn't too off the mark either, since CORTOCIRCUITO's "life imitates art" plot pops up in later gialli such as Argento's TENEBRE (1982) and Bruno Mattei's EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1994), not to be mistaken as a remake of Franju's masterpiece of the same name, incidentally. You can blame Jess Franco for such a remake. . . .
2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

About The Book. . .

Thank you for visiting the making of the book, "Giallo is the Color of Death."

If you have found your way here because you're passionate about cinema and not by accident as you googled for, oh, let's say, Italian-made yellow granite tiles, then I can safely assume you've at least heard of the Italian '60s/'70s slasher-cum-murder mystery film subgenre known as the giallo. If you have landed here accidentally, however, and can't even pronounce the word "giallo," much less wrap your head around the above description, well, then, stick around and learn something new, especially if you like movies. What. . .you don't like movies? Learn about one of the most exciting, obscure, psychedelic, pop-art, horrific, brilliant, sublime, outrageous, entertaining, bizarre, insane, and influential film subgenres ever put on celluloid.
As time permits, I will post a new entry that will be an excerpt of from the upcoming book.
If you're curious and want to read some more of my writing, please check out my column as the LA Alternative Film Examiner at and see who else I've been interviewing and what movies I've been writing about! ;)


--M. Miranda
2009. All works published by Marvin Miranda are under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Please make me aware of any such use. . .

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