KNIFE + HEART Part 1: What makes a giallo?

Ahead of this week’s special preview screening of KNIFE + HEART by Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest x MUBI at Rio Cinema (04 JUL 2019), we take a queer look at the origins of the giallo sub-genre & our own fandom.

Fringe! Film Fest: KNIFE + HEART at Rio Cinema (04 JUL).
What makes a giallo?: KNIFE + HEART at Rio Cinema (04 JUL).


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Our friends at Fringe! are enjoying a busy Pride month with a series of QUEER SQUEE double bills (part of the same national Film Feels campaign that drives Deptford Cinema’s OBSESSIONS) and a clutch of standalone screenings. One of the events we’re looking forward to most is not an official celebration of queer fandom but definitely taps into one of ours.

In a collab with streaming gurus MUBI, Fringe! is screening Yann Gonzalez’s 2018 film KNIFE + HEART complete with an appearance by actor Nicolas Maury and an afterparty at Rio Cinema (04 JUL 20:00). Fringe! has the words “Vanessa Paradis stars in this neon-soaked vintage slasher pastiche, set in Paris in 1979 and soundtracked by a thrumming original retro-electro score by M83. Shot entirely on 35mm and 16mm, it’s dirty, provocative and a whole lot of fun.” It is also gaining reputation as a modern queer giallo.

Which raises good question about what a giallo is and how the sub-genre speaks to queer audiences? Like all good questions, it’s harder than it probably should be to pin down. Tackling the what first, we love this description from Jordan Crucchiola at Vulture: “giallo cinema is a strain of film that’s historically been hard to describe. Like pornography, you just sort of know it when you see it.” And like pornography, it’s not without extreme controversy as the history of giallo cinema is littered with the highly fetishised screen deaths of (mostly) women being graphically murdered by (mostly) men.

The phrase “giallo cinema” therefore specifically relates to a strand of Italian thriller slash horror film that spawned in the early 1960s. As critic Anne Bilson puts it in her handy “how to spot a giallo” screen guide, “giallo” – actually Italian for “yellow” – is a name “derived from a series of crime and mystery paperbacks published in Italy with yellow covers. Italians use the term to describe any old mystery yarn, but anglophone film buffs apply it to a specific type of lurid Italian psychothriller which had its heyday in the 1970s” (Daily Telegraph).

What makes a giallo? THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE at Genesis Cinema (04 JUL).
What makes a giallo? THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE screens at Genesis Cinema (04 JUL).

Films like Dario Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and Lucio Fulci’s A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN are renowned for their extravagant, almost baroque scenes of murder and mayhem. There’s no definitive list of ingredients for the sub-genre as a whole, but imagine an unruly whodunnit where the identity of the killer will confound your expectations, characters behave with seeming indifference to their imminent deaths, authority figures – be they cops, politicians or priests – are nearly always incompetent, and the mystery solving is left to an amateur sleuth to find his or her way through the bloodshed.

However, it’s the potent combination of labyrinthine plotting and extravagant death scenes with kaleidoscopic visuals and gorgeous synth soundtracks that really tips giallo cinema into the realms of lurid excess for which it has became famous. That and, as you’ve already seen, some of the most pregnantly poetic film titles in history: FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (d. Mario Bava, 1970), KILL THE FATTED CALF & ROAST IT (d. Salvatore Semperi, 1970), SEVEN DEATHS IN A CAT’S EYE (d. Antonio Margheriti, 1973), and, YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (d. Sergio Martino, 1972).

You might be wondering… why are we drawn to such attractions? This one is always a conundrum as how should we approach films that bathe in reactionary politics and appear to fetishise ultra violence against women? How do we deal with the legacy of filmmakers like Dario Argento who once said of the female victims in his films: “If they have a good face or figure I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man”? It comes as no surprise that many rail against such reactionary bullshit. We do.

What makes a giallo? FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (d. Dario Argento, 1971).
What makes a giallo? FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (d. Dario Argento, 1971).

Looking to root ourselves for a moment, there are many excellent theories expanding ideas of gender and horror, including Carol J. Clover’s compelling Final Girl analysis – where all audience members, regardless of gender identities, eventually come to align with the surviving female character – as well as Rhona J. Berenstein’s corrective research into the historic importance of women in classic horror audiences (challenging the notion that horror is primarily made by men for men). But of course that doesn’t stop such films being occasionally very difficult to watch. Indeed, gialli are intended to throw you around and continue to do so the further we travel from their warped patriarchies.

Our view is that appreciating deeply problematic films can be compatible with a strident sense of how filmmaking should continue to evolve. As fans of what can best be described as exploitation cinema, we have long felt this contradiction and considered its causes. To abuse a common metaphor about the experience of watching horror, is it ever ok to enjoy the rollercoaster and be concerned about the human and environmental cost of the tourism industry that built it? Shouldn’t we just dismantle the ride? And that of course is what modern-day giallo like KINFE + HEART are doing, taking the stirring aesthetics yet rewiring the shoddy body politics. But that doesn’t resolve our relationship with the controversial back catalogue.

In terms of our fandom, Blossom Lefcourt seems to have captured it well when writing in The Films Of Doris Wishman about the exploitation auteur behind so-called “nudie-cuties” like NUDE ON THE MOON, big-busted action-adventure romps like DEADLY WEAPONS and blood-soaked slasher A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER. Lefcourt explains her contradictory feelings when watching such inexcusable films as an act of personal “rebellion” against normative mindsets of all hues. It doesn’t excuse the misogyny paraded by such films, but we’re damned if we’re going to be told what we should watch and worse, what we should like. More potently, gialli continue to shake the system and remind us that rebellion is always required.

What makes a giallo? A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (d. Lucio Fulci, 1971).
What makes a giallo? A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (d. Lucio Fulci, 1971).

It’s that rebellious streak which brings us to ask, how well do queers fair in giallo cinema? As you’ve probably guessed, it’s a mixed bag… As Michael Mackenzie puts it in his excellent thesis Gender, Genre and Sociocultural Change in the Giallo: 1970-1975, gialli are “far more upfront in their depiction of queer characters” than many genre films of the same period. Indeed, there are queer characters present in many gialli even though they rarely take the centre stage. These characters are portrayed as “either implicitly dangerous and part of a broader spectrum of aberrant behaviour, or absurd and deserving of ridicule.” Whilst this sounds hideously familiar, Mackenzie counters potential claims that these portrayals represent either an early “enlightened attitude to these minorities or a regressive exercise in queer-bashing” with the argument that “these films are too ideologically ambivalent to facilitate such reductive interpretations”.

It’s this profound ambivalence – an overwhelming moral strangeness – that really opens up readings of giallo cinema for queer audiences. Of course, if you read “queer” as a now safe, historically sensitive portmanteau for all LGBT+ identities, you’ll probably be getting your Vito Russos in a twist watching THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (d. Luciano Ercoli, 1970). If, however, you embrace a more wide reaching view, one that is prepared to at least examine all contra-heterosexual screen aesthetics if not condone them, giallo cinema opens up a disruptive, challenging and extensive filmography. Dripping in deviance and draped in an outrageous hallucinatory aesthetic, classic giallo cinema stages highly choreographed thrills where issues of gender and sexual orientation are routinely blurred and violently deconstructed (often at the blade of a knife).

What makes a giallo? KNIFE + HEART at Rio Cinema (04 JUL)
What makes a giallo? KNIFE + HEART at Rio Cinema (04 JUL).


  • Book for modern day giallo KNIFE + HEART d. Yann Gonzalez, 2018 + Q&A with actor Nicolas Maury + Afterparty at Rio Cinema (04 JUL 20:00).
  • If you’ve already seen it – or simply don’t fancy it – then Nick Walker will be inviting you to discuss classic Italian giallo THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (d. Dario Argento, 1970) at Genesis Cinema on the same evening (04 JUL 18:30).
  • You can explore the arterial spurt of giallo cinema’s influence in our featured attraction of the month, FLAME IN THE NIGHT at ICA (JUL), “a season of three feature films and a programme of shorts celebrating new transgressive French cinema.”
  • Finally, home video labels like Arrow Video, Shameless Screen Entertainment and 88 Films serve up classic giallo titles from the Italian back catalogue. If streaming is more your bag, your unlikely friend is Amazon Prime Video, which comes choked-full of colourful corpses.


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