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The Second Coming of Giallo

At this year’s Venice Film Festival, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, there to promote his divisive new film A Bigger Splash, was announced as the director of David Gordon Green’s long-gestating passion project- a remake of Dario Argento’s giallo masterwork Suspiria. Naturally, this is news that has overshadowed that of the film he was there to promote. All that has been revealed about this project is that it will keep the “artful” vision Gordon Green had planned for it (Guadagnino has commented that the original is “almost childish”), that it will be set in 1977 Berlin and be about the “uncompromising force of motherhood”. With reports suggesting that the majority of his Bigger Splash cast, including Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts, will be returning for a second outing with the director, there should be little cause for concern. In fact, his current film is a remake of the 1969 French-Italian drama Swimming Pool, with its cautiously optimistic praise from several critics being enough justification to give him the rights to direct a more well-known, not to mention beloved, classic of European cinema.

But in the age of horror remakes, why is a remake of a cult giallo classic necessary? When it was first announced in 2011, the festival hit Amer was finally released in the US, albeit direct-to-DVD. The French-Belgian film, the debut feature from directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, had taken international festivals by storm in the two subsequent years since it premiered, going so far to be nominated for 2010’s Magritte Award for Best Film – the highest accolade at the Belgian equivalent to the Oscars. The reason this is an impressive achievement is because Amer is unambiguously a tribute to the giallo genre, which is impressive due to its attention to detail; everything from the underlying synth score, to the portrayal of shocking violence (even the promotional material) was of a piece with the giallo films of the ’70s. This isn’t the sort of film that acquired critical acclaim back in its heyday, but with the genre at this point being dormant (only former master Dario Argento was still releasing giallo films, to little fanfare), the acclaim of Amer was surely enough to spark a minor giallo resurgence and justify a $20 million remake of a film with scant cult appeal.

(Amer: 2009)

Amer (2009)

The reason that Amer managed to breathe new life into the giallo genre was because it treated the subject matter not as exploitation, but as something that could be appreciated by the arthouses as much as it could the midnight movie crowd. In both Amer and their unsuccessful follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, Cattet and Forzani increasingly make their narratives as unintelligible as possible, to the extent that they could easily be read as dissertations on the very act of storytelling itself. Stripping away all the tangible elements and leaving nothing but the signature giallo elements, the violence and the score, leaving the audience to piece together the narrative via their own understanding of the cliches inherent in the genre.

By embracing the cliches and dissolving the narrative to the extent the films play out like a lucid nightmare, Cattet and Forzani managed to breathe new life into a genre close to three decades after its last creative success. With this film drawing critical acclaim, other filmmakers in the arthouse looked to the genre and its cliches for inspiration. If nothing else, this minor giallo resurgence is a rare example of a dormant genre being revitalized by accepting solely the platitudes that come with it.

Although it could be argued that the setting is incidental and that there is a stronger influence from Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio for instance was still more successful than Amer in conveying giallo and exploitation movie cliches to an arthouse crowd. Even more impressively, it manages this by keeping anything recognizable off-screen, communicating only via sound effects. The premise of the film is simple; an uptight British sound designer (played by Toby Jones) is hired to work on an Italian exploitation movie, the fantastically named The Equestrian Vortex. Over the process of working on the movie and not being able to communicate due to the language barrier, he slowly starts to lose the grip on reality, with the film increasingly regressing into a dream-like state where everything exists only as a genre hallmark; English voices are very noticeably dubbed into Italian, for example.

(The Editor: 2014)

Like Amer, the film exists less as a bona-fide entry into the genre so much as a treatise on filmmaking; the initial focus is on the techniques used to record the sound for the movies, which gives the audience a deeper understanding as to how to piece the narrative together when it becomes non-linear in the third act. By using recognizable genre elements, these resurgent giallo films are actually helping more horror-inclined audiences appreciate the loose structures favored by the arthouse, while helping make arthouse audiences more appreciative of joyous cinematic trash.

Taking this awareness of cliches to their most ludicrous extremes, 2014 Midnight Madness entry The Editor takes the new-found cine-literate knowledge of giallo among independent filmmakers and uses it as a backdrop for a genre parody. As with blaxploitation and Black Dynamite, no awareness of the genre is needed to understand what specifically is being parodied, although the more knowledge you possess, the more dense with in-jokes it becomes. Although with no likelihood of crossing over to mainstream acceptance, it represents the point where giallo in-jokes fall back in favor with the horror movie crowd instead of just the movie nerds in the arthouse. Just a cursory glance at the cast, including Udo Kier and Laurence R. Harvey (star of the two Human Centipede sequels) is a clear indication that giallo has now gone full circle and that by embracing parody as opposed to analyzing cliches, the genre is now back to its exploitation roots and will begin receding from any form of critical acclaim it has started to accumulate.

Only a successful and “arty” film in the genre’s style from an acclaimed filmmaker can turn the tide, but when its a remake of the most beloved giallo film, surely it is a signifier that originality and creativity is dormant in the genre once again.


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