“An elegance approaching the supernatural”

Why horror?

It’s a question that anyone who produces – or even consumes – horror in preference to most other forms will run into sooner or later, and probably frequently. Even once you’ve ensconced yourself among others who share your predilections, you’ll find yourself defending the type of horror that is your preferred poison. Why monsters over more psychological fare? Why slashers instead of more grown-up stuff? Whatever your tastes, someone will want to know why.

Sometimes, that someone will be you.

For years, I assumed that I wouldn’t like giallo films. On paper, they seem like the diametric opposite of what I’m normally after when I come to horror. Infamous for their brutal kills and gratuitous nudity, they make a point of victimizing women and have established problems with misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, often relying on pseudo-psychological explanations that are simply insulting to anyone with actual mental illness, if taken at face value.

Those are all things I Do Not Like, and they are all emphatically true of many gialli. And yet … and yet … and yet … I kind of love them. Not all of them, of course. Who loves all of any subgenre? But a large subset – indeed, most of the ones I’ve seen, especially those by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, recognized masters of the form.

So, if I don’t love so many of the things that giallo are famous for, what is it I love about them? Well, I do love one thing they’re famous for – their scores, which are almost unerringly great, and often used to phenomenal effect. And those scores help to contribute to the larger thing that makes me love them – a sense of weird menace that pervades every frame of the genre’s best installments.

While watching Sergio Martino’s Torso – a movie it seems like I shouldn’t like, if ever there was one – I came across a seemingly throwaway line near the beginning of the film that has burned in my mind ever since. “Everything is bathed in an elegance approaching the supernatural.” The speaker is describing artwork, but he could just as easily be summing up what I love about giallo.

Sure, some of my favorite gialli are ones that are also overtly supernatural, the kind that purists would insist “don’t really count.” Pictures like Suspiria, for instance. But even in a film like Blood and Black Lace, Evil Eye, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, or Opera, that “elegance approaching the supernatural” is there, making the films feel supernatural, even if their ultimate explanations are more prosaic.

It’s this aspect that I think led Ross Lockhart to combine the giallo with another uniquely European tradition in Giallo Fantastique, and it’s what I think the best of the stories in that volume capture. It’s certainly what I was going for in my own contribution, “The Red Church.” And it’s what I’ve striven toward every other time I’ve dipped my toes into the giallo waters, most recently in “Chanson D’Amour,” my “timeloop giallo” that’s coming in a future issue of Nightmare Magazine.

Really, though, it’s what I’m after when I come to most any kind of horror. Maybe not always elegance, but always a sense of atmosphere that makes even the mundane feel touched by the numinous.

If there is just one reason “why horror,” it’s probably that.

3 comments
  1. Thanks for this. Amazon Prime has a doc on Giallo I’ve been meaning to watch, and now I will. Could you tell me what the name of the movie with David Hennings is?

    • That’s from DEEP RED (1975), one of my all-time favorites.

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