Horror has many subgenres under its tent. Beginning in the 1930s, horror was populated with goth movies and monster movies. In the 70s and even more so in the 80s, the slasher craze took over. Over the past decade, supernatural and possession movies have been all the rage. It’s just America though. In the 1960s a genre in Italy began which, although not entirely mainstream, would produce cult favorites in the United States and influence countless future films. This distinction would belong to the Giallo subgenre, a type of horror film that mixed aspects of slashers with crime and mystery, and usually a ton of gore. Here are some of Giallo’s best films, the ones that stand the test of time and are must-haves today for any horror fan.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
Known as Evil eye in the United States, this black and white image has the distinction of being called Giallo’s first film. Directed by one of the greats of the subgenre, Mario Bava, this one started not just what the Giallo plots would contain, but what they would look like. Later Giallo’s films would be all in color, where they would be known to focus not just on the red of the bloodshed, but on all the surrounding colors. Bava didn’t have that option, but he makes up for it by leaning into the positives of a black-and-white film by focusing on light and shadow. The story is about a woman named Nora (Leticia Roman) who witnesses a murder committed by a killer who kills his victims in alphabetical order. The story isn’t one of the best of its kind, but from a technical standpoint, you won’t find many more beautifully haunting.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
The following year Mario Bava, the godfather of Giallo, would create another classic with this tale about a masked killer murdering models in Rome. Here we get bright colors and Bava does what he does best with his flair to paint a lively picture. He worked as a cinematographer in his early years and was his for most of his films. One of the most used tropes in Giallo has always been that the mysterious killer wears gloves, helping to further obscure his identity. It started here. The film is filled with blood, but under Bava’s watch, it feels like art rather than an attempt to be just gory. Dario Argento’His later style will be greatly influenced by it.
The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970)
Speaking of Argento, this is where he made his first appearance on the roster. If Bava was the creator of Giallo, Argento became the man who perfected it and made it so popular. This was the first truly popular Giallo starter. It has all the hallmarks of what Argento would be known for, filled with a myriad of bright colors, but it’s not the blood that makes it so memorable. Here we get a Hitchcockian tale about a man and a woman (Tony Muse and Suzy Kendall) who themselves begin to investigate a series of murders. This is what makes the film remarkable. Some of Giallo’s early films may not always have been great stories, but this is one of the greatest mystery films in film. Argento has shown that not only can he scare you, but he can also put you on the edge of your seat.
Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971)
The big three from Bava, Argento and Lucius Fulci would not be responsible for this one. Credit for this classic goes to the director Aldo side. Featuring John Sorel as an American journalist in Europe searching for his missing girlfriend, this entry doesn’t get the same attention as major directors, but it’s just as good. This film stands out for several reasons, from its haunting and dark subject matter, to the incredible score of the legendary Ennio Morriconethe man best known for having composed the unforgettable score of the The good, the bad and the ugly. He goes deeper than most, delving into politics and having a lot to say about the woes of communism. In addition to thrills and chills, a Giallo also has something to say.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)
It was Lucio Fulci’s second Giallo film, and it’s really weird. It got a lot of attention for the wrong reasons a long time ago, with effects so realistic, that scenes of animal abuse caused the crew to find themselves in court to prove that no real animals had been injured. What will also grab your attention is the amount of sexuality involved, with a plot that sees a woman (Florinda Bolkan) who begins to dream sexually of her neighbor (Anita Strindberg). Of course, the neighbor ends up dying and our heroine sees the killer in her dreams. It’s an incredibly artsy, dreamlike film with plenty of shock you don’t see coming, which was standard for the subgenre. It also veers into another part of the Giallo trope by taking a more supernatural twist.
Blood Bay (1971)
Mario Bava is back on the list with his most influential film, so influential that Friday 13 would blatantly pull off his smart kills. Halloween may be credited as the first of the popular slashers, but earlier it was this one. Here you get the over-the-top gruesome murders the masked villains of the 80s would be known for, as well as the killer’s point of view and the teenagers killed in the woods. The plot is a bit forgettable, but that’s not why you’re here. It’s the inventiveness and audacity of the kills that make it a classic. While Friday 13 would have Tom Savini as master behind his effects, Bava hired Charles Rambaldi bring death scenes to life. It’s no surprise it worked out well, as Rambaldi would later win Oscars for Extraterrestrial and HEY Although the plot is haphazard, the shocking ending is a knockout blow.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Fulci reappears with a plot a little different from most Giallos, because here it is small children who are being killed. As the city turns, it’s down to a few cops and a reporter (Tomas Milian) (there always seems to be a journalist in Giallo) to find the culprit. We watch as the townspeople crumble, blaming each other for plenty of red herrings. There is a political undertone in the way we treat women and foreigners, the exploitation of children and the sins of religion. The music is powerful, almost becoming its own character. Add the usual impressive Fulci visuals and you have a Giallo you will never forget.
What did you do to Solange? (1972)
It’s another one that’s not led by the big three, which means it unfortunately doesn’t get enough of the attention it deserves. Realized by Massimo Dallamano, it was the first of her Schoolgirls in Peril trilogy. He would die before he could make the third film, but gets credit for writing it. This Giallo will tear your heart out. Not literally, as there’s little blood to be found, but the story sticks with you. When a girl in college is murdered, a womanizing teacher (Fabio Testi) is charged with the crime. As more girls are murdered, it is revealed that they are all friends with a missing student named Solange (Camille Keton). With the killer dressed as a priest, we have another Giallo who chooses this format to talk about the sins of religion and Catholicism in particular.
Deep Red (1975)
Perhaps the most famous and best of Giallo’s films is that of Dario Argento. We get all the tropes. The killer is a mysterious figure wearing black gloves. (Argento actually portrayed the killer’s covered hands in his films.) There’s a journalist (Argento’s frequent collaborator and mother of his child, Daria Nicoldi) investigating the crime, with a sidekick (David Hemmings). There’s plenty of blood and a score from Giallo Goblin’s regulars that’s one of the best of its kind. And as usual, it’s all done with the stellar visuals that Argento is famous for. Argento didn’t create anything new with this one, but this is where he perfected it. And if that’s not enough for you, Dark red also has some of the scariest doll scenes you’ll ever see.
Rounding out the list is Dario Argento once again. There are so many of his films that could be included, but this is the only one that draws inspiration from a truly scary time in Argento’s real life. After crazed fans sent him death threats, Argento came up with the idea and wrote the screenplay for this tale about a novelist (Anthony Franciosa) who is trying to track down a killer who murders people based on his works. As Giallo’s popularity and creativity began to wane in the early 1980s, Argento retaliated with a personal film, a meta, which, though a little quirky at times in its plot, is saved by his clever kills. , its great characters, and as always, top-notch camera work and a hard-hitting score.