Saturday, October 16, 2010
The Giallo corner: A tribute to Luciano Ercoli
"Giallo" films are named after a certain kind of cheesy, pulpy thriller paperback novel that was extremely popular in mid 60's Italy. These paperbacks always had a yellow (giallo) spine, making them immediately recognizable at your local supermarket or drugstore. Usually containing over the top scenarios, lurid set pieces and gory murders, the corresponding genre of film took these themes and tropes to their logical (and illogical) extremes, coupling them with astounding visuals, music and direction. The genre got its start with Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), later followed by such seminal masterpieces (to only name a few) as Argento's The Bird with The Crystal Plumage (1970) and Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper (1982).
Producer-turned-director Luciano Ercoli is not as famous as these previously mentioned masters of the genre, although judging by the two wonderful pulpy giallo thrillers I recently saw, Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, he most definitely deserves to be. Ercoli produced several famous Italian genre films in the 60's (including the poetically named Kiss, Kiss - Bang, Bang which served as the inspiration for Pauline Kael's legendary collection of film criticism, so named because she thought the title perfectly described the lure of cinema) before becoming a director himself in the 70's. The two films in question are a particularly interesting due to the fact that they share much of the same cast and crew. In Death Walks on High Heels Spanish sexpot Nieves Navarro (better known by her delicious "stage" name Susan Scott) stars as a strip-tease artist hunted by a serial-killer on the trail of priceless diamonds supposedly left with her by her diamond-thief father. In Death Walks at Midnight, Mrs. Scott turns in a much feistier performance as a fashion model who somehow witnesses a murder that took place six months previously through the use of a new experimental hallucinogenic. The bizarre and entertaining Luciano Rossi plays deformed weirdos in both (crossdressing wonderfully in Death Walks in High Heels) while Simon Andreu and Carlo Gentili respectively play gigolos and cops in both films.
The giallo genre is especially interesting for horror film aficionados due to its obvious influence on the development of both thriller and horror films in the United States. One can only begin to appreciate the oeuvre of directors such as Brian DePalma, for example, after seeing the works of these Italian masters. Fulci, Bava and Argento, et al, were obviously hugely influenced by Hitchcock and some of the classical set pieces of Hollywood thrillers but infused them with the eroticism and avant-garde sensibilities of 60's and 70's European cinema. Throw into the mix healthy influences from soap opera, theater and the French Nouvelle Vague and you get something very special indeed. The acting in most of these films tends to be superficial at best and vomit-inducing at worst and the screenplays are about as fresh as three day old armadillo road kill yet all this seems besides the point when visuals, music and direction form such a symphony of cinematic excellence that it leaves cinemaphiles literally drooling over the intricacies of how the shot is framed and the intensity of its colors (you've never seen blood spilled in a film until you've seen a giallo).
Ercoli's films are especially influenced by European soap operas and in many ways I feel that they supersede much of the more well known output from the genre due primarily to the giddy joy so apparent in everyone involved. There's a great deal less gore and splatter in Ercoli's films than in, say, an Argento or Fulci, yet the violence sometimes feels much more effective due to this very fact, aiming to thrill rather than shock. It's almost like an Argento or Bava film mixed with "Days of Our Lives" mixed with "Murder She Wrote." There is an abundance of red herrings and the killer is always notoriously difficult to guess (hint: whatever person makes the least logical sense as the killer is going to be it). I enjoyed the performances greatly in both films and there was something especially endearing in seeing the same actors play out different variations of their characters in the two films, perhaps somewhat similar to seeing a theater troupe try out different nuances. Ercoli's visuals may not be on par with Argento, for example, yet his eye for detail is absolutely wonderful and he seems to be much less pretentious than his either-great-or-spastic colleague (for Argento's great, see Suspiria; for his spastic - but still awesome - , see Inferno). Set designs, costumes and art direction are all impossibly groovy and the plots have a delightfully laid-back quality to them, though never being lazy. There is just the right bit of humor here and there to keep things relatively tongue-in-cheek and the Italian dialogue (always dubbed - Italian filmmakers never shot their films with natural sound) is a hoot to listen to, even if you don't understand a word.
These films are not, by any means, any sort of masterpiece or great cinema, but they are wonderful representations of a very influential and interesting genre that often transcended its trashy roots and touched on moments of pure art and beauty in its form, if not its content. Ercoli is definitely a filmmaker who deserves to be known outside of the realm of über geeks and I definitely recommend Death Walks in High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight as a wonderful place to start.