It’s a tricky thing, to name a film after a genre. Especially if it seems like you’ll be perennially associated by the genre anyway. A handful of lucky punks may have called their short “Film Noir”, but no feature film seems daft enough to go with that title. (We’re not sure if we want to include Masahiro Kabayashi here, whose Koroshi allegedly means “film noir” in Japanese – as the international title became Killing.)
Enter Dario Argento, whose career boomed in the 70s with films like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Suspiria and whose recent career has been so successful we’re still referring to the films he made in 1970 and 1977. One of the thrillers Argento made at the start of his career was recently released on DVD – finally, we’d like to add – and this Four Flies on Grey Velvet got a lot more buzz than Argento’s two recent films: Mother of Tears and Giallo. There, I’ve said it: the latest Argento film is called Giallo. Can you smell the problem already?
“Giallo”, you see, isn’t only the Italian word for “yellow”, but it’s also the movie genre that Argento got his fame from. Allegedly, his Bird with the Crystal Plumage was supposed to be the real start of the genre – even if there had been some giallos (or gialli) in the 60s and Mario Bava should probably get the credit for Blood and Black Lace in 1964. Anyway, even now there probably won’t be a giallo retrospective at a film festival without including at least a film by Argento or Bava. And whereas Argento’s current status may be overrated, there’s no denying the man’s gialli (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Profondo Rosso) were good movies. It’s Argento’s later work that a lot of fans have problems with: despite the odd movie that was got a more welcome reception, pretty much all of the man’s films from the 90s and 00s was met with less than lukewarm reviews.
But lately it seems Argento seems to have found a new hobby and it’s called: spitting your fans in their faces. Twenty-seven years after Suspiria and Inferno, he completed his Three Mothers trilogy with Mother of Tears, probably the worst film Argento ever made. The general consensus was not only: “Did we have to wait a quarter of a century for this?”, but also the status of the two earlier films seemed suddenly smeared. By comparison, the Star Wars prequels seemed like cinema gold. But Argento wasn’t happy just by killing off half of his legacy… no, the other half (his gialli) had to go down the drain too.
Gialli were in essence film noir movies but with more nudity and gore. Outrageous at the time, a lot of them can now only be served as an appetizer before watching a torture porn film like Saw or Hostel. And that wouldn’t be a terribly wrong way to describe Giallo: Argento does torture porn. In this film, you see, there’s a mad killer on the loose who kidnaps and tortures beautiful young women. The mad kiler goes by the name Yellow or Giallo, not because of he wants to pay homage to the genre but because a disease has made his skin go yellow. As far as motives can be stupid, this one can be par with that Japanese flick where a man tortures and kills people because his body odour has made him unpopular with the ladies.
To be fair, Argento shouldn’t be the only one to take the blame: the script was penned by Jim Agnew and Sean Keller especially for the Italian director. Keller was responsible for a couple of “original Sci-Fi channel movies”, to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here. But that neither Argento nor the other two writers came to the conclusion that giving a thriller such a title could only be considered as hybris, is beyond me.
Mainly because it ensures the film can only disappoint. In all fairness, Giallo isn’t a horrible film but you only notice this if your expectations have been crushed upfront. I couldn’t say Adrian Brody astounded me in the film and his role was quite silly indeed: because Avolfi (Brody) investigates vicious murders, his desk is in the deep dark cellar. A bit like Fox Mulder in The X-Files then, with the exception that Spooky Mulder was ridiculed by the FBI and Brody’s character genuinely investigates gruesome murders. Just imagine the man has a lead: it’ll take him ten minutes just to leave the precinct. Luckily the pizza delivery service still knows where he is. Which is how Emmanuelle Seigner‘s character Linda (whose sister was kidnapped by a man in a taxi) manages to track him down. At first, Avolfi doesn’t take her serious, but then he believes her and suddenly he has no problems talking about the gruesome murders to a civilian. As one does over a yummy slice of pizza.
Meanwhile Yellow tortures Linda’s sister by forcing her to watch how another victim is tortured to death. The torture scenes aren’t there to show how twisted the character is, it rather looks as if Argento is trying to show us he can still direct gory scenes. But Terror at the Opera this isn’t (remember those pins?) and it actually looks as if Argento is still trying to show how cool he can still be, anno 2009. In all fairness, I was able to find the screenplay of the film and Argento has genuinely improved parts of the film, including some of the torture scenes.
All in all, Giallo is a lot better than Mother of Tears (then again, so would be a testcard, so I’m not sure whether that’s saying anything) and I’m pretty sure I’d like the film better a second time round. Sadly I’m also certain I don’t want to see it again. Blame it on the hybris, kids!