Bava and Argento – horror pioneers

Originally posted to the Liverpool Small Cinema website


The concept of Giallo was nothing new in Italy when Mario Bava came to the scene. The term giallo, Italian for yellow, comes from a series of pulp fiction thriller paperbacks which were launched in 1929, named and famed for their lurid yellow covers and more lurid content matter.

The popularity of these series eventually established the word as a synonym for a mystery novel. Their popularity remained for years, and some films hinted at Giallo, but it was Bava that introduced the genre as we now know it.

Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), the name was a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Man Who Knew Too Much, showed how much Italian cinema linked the mystery film to American thrillers, highlighting the early link between gialli and Anglo-American crime stories. Though shot in black and white and lacking the  vicious violence and sexuality which would define later gialli, the film has been credited with establishing the essential structure of the genre. A young American tourist in Rome witnesses a murder, finds her testimony dismissed by the authorities, and must attempt to uncover the killer’s identity herself. The film heavily nods to German thrillers too, known as Krimi.

Bava followed The Girl Who Knew Too Much the next year with the stylish and strange Blood and Black Lace. It introduced a number of elements that became closely linked to the genre. The story is of a masked stalker with a shiny weapon in his black-gloved hand who brutally murders a series of glamorous fashion models. The film was ahead of its time and wasn’t a success when released, but it did introduce tropes which define the genre, particularly that black-gloved killer, provocative sexuality, and bold use of color.

Aside from showing the majority of what makes the genre great the film also features Bava’s trademark wit and a stronger focus on dream-like narrative logic and murder set pieces over simple stuff, like story.

Bava defined Giallo, and then went on to set the template for the slasher movie with Bay of Blood – a direct influence on Friday the 13th, amongst others.  However, Dario Argento turned the genre into a cultural phenomena. His debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was greatly influenced by Blood and Black Lace but Argento decided to ramp up the stylistic violence even more. The film was a huge hit and created the boom in the genre between 1968 through 1978.

While Argento was famed for these movies he made, which include Cat Of Nine Tails and Tenebrae, he wanted to innovate further. Suspiria, released in 1977 includes the usual mystery tropes but adds even more dreamlike logic and a supernatural element. Its operatic style still echoes through the horror genre while in its pomp.  The film was a breakout success for the director in 1977 across the globe, with its story of an American ballet student who transfers to a prestigious dance academy in Germany but later realizes that the academy is a front for something far more sinister and supernatural amidst a series of murders.

His pseudo-sequel Inferno showed how VHS was not the friend of the Giallo genre. Kaleidoscopic colours and tight framing for small, square, TVs,  meant that the movie lost a lot of its impact when it made the transition to home video. With little narrative, but without the dazzling visuals (partly created by Bava), the film lost its awe.

Inferno has been considered a lost classic. Kim Newman has called it “perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980s”.

The film follows the story of a young man’s investigation into the disappearance of his sister, who had been living in a New York City apartment building that also served as a home for a powerful, centuries-old witch.

Like Blood and Black Lace it’s a trippy and dazzling film. We frequently say at Liverpool Small CInema that films are best enjoyed with a crowd on the big screen. But Giallo has come back into people’s minds due to Blu Ray and larger televisions, allowing them to marvel at the incredible innovation and staggering storytelling on display.

So sit back and let this talented innovators wash dazzling visuals over you in, what is sure to be, a spectacular night.

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