When is a Giallo a Proto-Slasher?
Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Italy’s giallo genre, so named for the yellow (giallo) coated covers that adorned the pulp novels they were based on, was born out of many of the same influences as American and other European thrillers. By this metric, all gialli are proto-slashers and, depending on the date of their release and stylistic choices, some even fit the mold of proper slasher. At the very least, the gialli that managed to make an international box office impact influenced the development of the rawer, more rules-based North American slashers. It’s easy enough to decree that any of the murder mystery thrillers made in Italy between the ‘60s and ‘80s are gialli, but this wouldn’t be strictly accurate, either in terms of locale – there are actually a number of Spanish-made giallo (amarillo?), for example – or style, for that matter, because there are a handful of Italian thrillers that don’t really fit the model of what we consider a giallo.
Given that the films best suited to this category were released well after Mario Bava’s genre-defining The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Italian: La ragazza che sapeva troppo; aka: The Evil Eye, 1963) and after Dario Argento’s genre-re-defining The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), perhaps they should be referred to as post-giallo (?). Not to be confused with a different, later category of Italian slashers disguised as giallo (a separate subject that deserves its own essay), these films match the basic requirements of a giallo, but add the early prerequisite ‘rules’ that characterized slashers. These films (just barely) predate the key North American proto-slashers, namely Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (also 1974), the latter of which was almost certainly inspired by Italian murder mysteries. So then, what are the key films in this tiny pantheon? Four big ones come to mind – Dino Tavella’s The Embalmer, Bava’s A Bay of Blood, Bava’s Baron Blood, and Sergio Martino’s Torso.
The Embalmer (Italian: Il mostro di Venezia; aka: The Monster of Venice, 1965)
The Embalmer almost falls off this list and onto a different one as a proto-gialli, but such a designation doesn’t quite work, since it was released after Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace (Italian: Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964), but it still more or less counts as a giallo-like proto-slasher for our purposes here. Tavella was working on his own wavelength, independent of the not-quite-yet-ubiquitous influence of Bava’s work. Or at least the maestro’s giallo work, because The Embalmer borrows from the same Gothic imagery and classic cinematic terror that Bava drew upon for his more straight-laced horror work. Andre De Toth House of Wax (1953) and various adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (French: Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, original published 1909-1910) in this particular case.
Tavella and co-writers A. Walter, Giovan Battista Mussetto, and Paolo Lombardo, were also drawing upon the crime novels of Edgar Wallace (though The Embalmer wasn’t a specific adaptation), who was such touchstone for the pre-giallo German craze known as the Krimi movement, to the point that some gialli falsely attributed their stories to Wallace in hopes of garnering attention in the German market. That said, if anything designates The Embalmer as a proto-slasher rather than a giallo, it is the extremely uncomplicated plot. A man donning a full frogman scuba outfit is swimming the channels of Venice, snatching up beautiful women, and taking them back to his underwater lair, where he preserves their bodies using a patented embalming formula. The police are baffled by the crimes, but a dapper, square-jawed reporter named Andrea (Luigi Martocci) is willing to risk his entire career to find the truth.
The Embalmer’s shock value is found in its ideas, rather than its actual on-screen content. The stalking sequences are too short to offer much in the way of suspense and the violence is quite tame (it is implied that the killer is either suffocating or drowning his victims). Even the embalming sequences are more ‘50s B-movie pseudoscience than we’d expect from an era where Bava’s Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio; aka: The Mask of Satan and Revenge of the Vampire, 1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) already existed. Still, the film’s preoccupation with the killer’s pathology and sexual obsessions offers a unique combination of Norman Bates-like lonesome murderers, Leatherface-like body part collectors, and aspects of the mad scientists those character replaced. The manner in which Tavella pauses to admire the city of Venice with travel log photography and elaborate descriptions of the hottest tourist traps (no joke – Andrea continuously stops his investigation to lead guided tours) is very much in keeping with Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and all the movies that attempted to ape Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (German producers reported referred to the early Argento brand as “jet set gialli”). Argento may have even borrowed a motif for Bird, in which the killer’s victim is highlighted by a still frame, though Argento literalized the idea by adding a viewfinder and camera clicking sound. Tavella’s emphasis on procedure and a newspaper reporter protagonist also match the storytelling tropes of early gialli, so I suppose proto-gialli is a fair enough designation.
A few accidentally amusing moments aside, The Embalmer is onerously dull and only particularly notable for its possible influence on more interesting movies. In addition to the pieces lifted by Argento, the plot has a lot in common with Dick Maas’ ode du giallo and slasher, Amsterdamned (1988), in which a serial killer dons a scuba outfit and swims the channels of the titular city in search of prostitutes. Besides the obvious similarities, both Tavella and Maas’ movies climax when a woman with ties to the villain accidentally discovers his lair. The killer’s modus operandi, embalming his victims, was repeated in Mino Guerrini’s Norman Bates-inspired The Third Eye (Italian: Il terzo occhio, 1966) and its more famously nasty remake, Joe D’Amato’s (real name Aristide Massaccesi) Beyond the Darkness (Italian: Buio Omega; aka: Buried Alive, 1979).
The Embalmer is in the public domain and available on budget DVD releases from Alpha Video, Diamond Video, Retromedia, and more. It is currently streaming on Midnight Pulp, Mubi, Fandor and possibly legal versions can be found on YouTube.
Bay of Blood (Italian: Ecologia del delitto, Reazione a catena, or Bahia de Sangre; aka: Carnage, Twitch of the Death Nerve, and Blood Bath, 1971)
A lot of this essay is speculation on my part, but we do have authoritative proof that the preeminent slasher franchise, Friday the 13th, borrowed concepts, locations, gore gags, and even costume pieces from Bay of Blood, making it perhaps the most critical Italian proto-slasher. Friday the 13th (1980) director and franchise guardian Sean S. Cunningham has reluctantly admitted as much (script supervisor Martin Kitrosser was more open about his admiration for Bava’s work). It’s also easy to trace the reasons why it ended up feeling so different from other Italian thrillers of the era. Essentially, Bava and story writer Dardano Sacchetti (there were a total of five credited screenwriters, including Giuseppe Zaccariello, Filippo Ottoni, and Franco Barberi, but the initial idea reportedly belonged to Bava and Sacchetti) set out to spoof gialli conventions. The plot begins with the murder of a wealthy countess, which is covered up to look like a suicide. Her unclaimed bayside property brings a veritable rogues gallery out of the woodwork, each more treacherous and murderous than the last. Meanwhile, a group of teenagers looking for a place to party break into the estate and are soon added to the bodycount.
Bay of Blood is such an obvious exercise in hyperbole that one doesn’t need to understand the minutia of giallo storytelling to get the joke. It’s sort of the giallo equivalent to Robert Moore’s Murder by Death (1976) or Jonathan Lynn’s Clue (1985), which can be enjoyed by audiences that are unaware of the conventions and clichés of drawing room mysteries. The mood is set during the opening sequence when they introduce a black-gloved killer and reveal his identity almost immediately after his first kill. Before the audience can register the shock of the mystery being ruined, the killer is himself murdered by a third party. Without knowing it, we’ve actually been primed for the bigger reveal that the killer’s identity is irrelevant and everyone, no matter how important they may seem to the plot, is going to meet a sticky end. This concept of everyone being a killer seems to have been borrowed from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (pub: 1934), though with the caveat that everyone is also a victim, right down to the wouldbe survivors, who are shot down by their own children. Having witnessed the ordeal from afar, the kids think death is a game and that their parents are awfully good at playing dead.
A giallo parody wouldn’t be complete without making fun at the genre’s increasing focus on violence. Bava upped the ante over Argento, Sergio Martino, and even future titan of Italian gore Lucio Fulci with his sheer quantity of kills and abundance of blood flow, punctuated by very slasher-esque scenes of future victims stumbling upon the bodies of mutilated victims. The violence was graphic enough to shock early ‘70s audiences and earn the film banned status in some territories, but the murder set-pieces are clearly designed to be ridiculous. Many of the deaths play as punchlines and Bava often forgoes suspense in favor of a good chuckle. But authorial intent was made to be ignored and Bay of Blood’s goofy antics were made ‘serious’ within the following couple of years, when other Italian filmmakers began working in earnest to upstage its shock quality. It’s real legacy, however, occurred almost a decade later, when, as mentioned, Friday the 13th (the first one, 1980), Friday the 13th Part 2, and all of their Bay of Blood influences became surprise hits and spawned dozens, perhaps hundreds of imitators.
Bay of Blood is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in the US and Arrow Films in the UK. Both versions include English export and original Italian versions of the film (the Italian version is upscaled from standard definition) and the same commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas. It is currently streaming on Fandor.
Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga; aka: The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood, Baron Vampire, and The Thirst of Baron Blood, 1972)
Despite my pseudo-click-baity title, Baron Blood is not a giallo, nor was it ever meant to be. It was actually a throwback for Bava, bridging the gap between his older Gothic horror movies and modern thrillers/comedies so convincingly that you’d be forgiven to assuming that it was made and released somewhere between Kill, Baby, Kill (Italian: Operazione paura, 1966), his final entirely period-set horror film, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (Italian: Le spie vengono dal semifreddo, also 1966), his first (exclusively) modern-set movie of any kind. This concept of combining the old and new may have been Bava’s answer to British-based Hammer Films’ attempts at modernizing their own period horror, though it is a clearly deliberate theme. Characters/victims clad in the era’s top fashion parade their way through a dusty, cobweb strewn castle and are captured/tortured/murdered by a skeletal monster sporting Victorian duds – a motif best illustrated by a shot of a Coca-cola machine nestled in a corner of the castle, though it extends beyond production design into the text of the film. After all, the villain’s main motivation is the restoration/preservation of his sadistic reputation and opulent castle home.
Baron Blood wasn’t the influential barn burner that Bay of Blood was, but it has some amusing parallels to another significant proto-slasher – Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Though they take place thousands of miles apart, both films begin the same way with college students investigating their extended families during summer vacations. Instead of looking into a rash of grave robberies in rural Texas, Baron Blood’s main protagonist journeys to Austria to learn about his heritage. Instead of visiting a dilapidated farmstead, he visits the former castle home of his most notorious ancestor, the titular Baron. The stories diverge when the Baron is revealed to be a supernatural, pseudo-immortal being and Bava embraces the bloody violence that Hooper so expertly concealed (had it not been released a year after Bay of Blood, Baron Blood would’ve been Bava’s goriest movie), but thematic correlations continue. For instance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often described as a movie about class warfare, which it generally is, but the cannibal rednecks and college students are as divided by antiquated and contemporary mentalities as they by economic disparities. In turn, while there is the sense of a rich vs. middle class battle going on throughout Baron Blood, the real war is between the past and the present. Funnily enough, Bava’s loyalties in this matter are never clear.
Another aspect of the film’s obsessive anachronism was its habit of ‘borrowing’ scenes and ideas from other movies. Bava was rarely above paying creative homage to other filmmakers, but Baron Blood is particularly loaded with lifts. The most substantial plot and visual elements were taken from House of Wax and at least one sequence was recycled from Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943). Not surprisingly, De Toth and Tourneur’s films are among the earliest pre-Psycho (1960) proto-slashers. Baron Blood also recycles shades of Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), though this may be a coincidence based on both films referencing House of Wax, and Roger Corman’s six film “Poe Cycle” (1960-65), along with less specific references to Universal’s classic horror movies (Bava biographer Tim Lucas also claims that Baron Blood references Arne Mattsson’s Mannequin in Red [Swedish: Mannekäng i rött, 1958], a film I have not seen).
Bay of Blood is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber in the US, Arrow Video in the UK, and Koch Media in Germany. All three versions include English export and original Italian versions of the film and the same commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas.
Torso (Italian: I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, lit: The Bodies Presented Traces of Carnal Violence, 1973)
Due either to its comparative obscurity or the fact that it matches the beats of an ‘80s slasher so precisely, Torso tends to be neglected in regards to its proto-slasher status. Moreover, Martino’s considerable contributions to giallo cinema are usually overlooked in favor of Argento’s more popular fare and the work of other talented ‘jack of all trade’ directors, who didn’t specialize in the genre, like Bava, Fulci, and Umberto Lenzi. But in terms of sheer numbers, Martino’s canon input is second only to Argento, totaling five standard-issue gialli – The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Italian: Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh; aka: Blade of the Killer and The Next Victim, 1971), The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (Italian: La Coda dello Scorpione, 1971), All the Colors of the Dark (Italian: Tutti i Colori del Duio; aka: They're Coming to Get You and Day of the Maniac, 1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Italian: Il Tuo Vizio è Una Stanza Chiusa e Solo Io ne ho la Chiave, 1972), and The Scorpion with Two Tails (Italian: Assassinio al Cimitero Etrusco; aka: Murder in the Etruscan Cemetery, 1982) – a giallo/poliziotteschi hybrid called The Suspicious Death of a Minor (Italian: Morte Sospetta di una Minorenne; aka: Too Young to Die, 1975), a late release made-for-TV throwback called Mozart is a Murderer (Italian: Mozart È un Assassino, 1999), and, right in the middle of it all, a uncommonly modern body-count movie known as Torso.
Torso’s objective/subjective qualities and its position in Martino’s filmography are debatable. It’s uneven compared to Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and lacks the hypnotizing intensity of All the Colors of the Dark. Still, what it lacks in surrealism and flash, it tends to make up for in terms of thematic, narrative, and technical focus. As such, it is among the most accessible entry points for burgeoning giallo fans that are looking to move beyond the big-name directors. This clarity of concept and general accessibility most likely contributed to its status as a proto-slasher, both in terms of the movies that inspired Martino and co-screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and in terms of the elements that other filmmakers borrowed from Torso. The first two-thirds of the film more or less match the typical giallo narrative – a killer stalks a college town, murdering women to nourish his psycho-sexual impulses and men to cover his tracks. Worried that their friend may be his next target, a group of students skip town and seek refuge in an isolated villa. There, one of the girls, Jane (played by Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s Suzy Kendall), hurts her ankle and is given a sedative to help her sleep through the pain. While she slumbers, the killer finds her friends and massacres every last one of them. The final act switches gears as Jane awakens to find herself locked inside the villa with the killer as he goes about his business, butchering the bodies, unaware that she’s watching him.
Many of Torso’s essential ingredients became stalwarts of the slasher canon, such as a murderer driven by a past trauma, his psychosis being tied to his perception of ‘sinful behavior,’ a trademarked murder weapon (a scarf, in this case), vacations to isolated locations, and even a vague outline of the Final Girl, though this sole survivor ends up getting a little help from a secondary male protagonist. One could even argue that the killer wearing a literal mask is more of a slasher standby and unusual for a giallo. Torso’s violence was brutal for its time, but Martino rarely focuses on gore, which marks a pretty big shift away from future genre clichés, especially following the likes of Bay of Blood. The slaughter that kicks off the last third of the movie takes place off-screen and between scenes, shifting emphasis to a suspenseful cat and mouse game. Here, Martino earns some comparisons to Hitchcock, because he was trying so hard to evoke Rear Window (1954), though the more apt comparisons might be Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) or Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946), where handicapped women are menaced by murderous villains in claustrophobic locations.
Martino and co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi saturate the film with an unspoken, surprisingly self-aware theme that all men – not just knife-wielding maniacs – pose a tangible danger to women. The heroines are constantly forced to endure relentless lechery, suspicious glances, and direct threats from all manner of strangers, fellow students, significant others, and paternal figures. Martino emphasizes the issue by casting so many men as red herrings that the killer’s actual identity is rendered a trivial detail. That last point may be an accidental byproduct of sloppy and/or indifferent writing, though. It also seems unlikely that the filmmakers were making a meta statement about misogyny in a gialli, especially as the more misogynistic wave poliziotteschi was cresting; rather, the gender politics were necessary to the film’s oppressive atmosphere. Still, the concept of tyrannical masculinity being the real villain of a giallo movie is an interesting one, considering Italian cinema’s history of...well, tyrannical masculinity.
Torso is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video in the US and UK, and from Blue Underground in the US. Both releases feature hybrid Italian/English versions of the film, but the Arrow disc has been remastered, includes the US English language cut, and exclusive extras, the best of which is a commentary by author/critic Kat Ellinger. It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Further reading and further viewing:
Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark by Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog, 2007)
All the Colours of Sergio Martino by Kat Ellinger (Arrow Books, 2018)
Playing with Genre: Defining the Italian Giallo, by Gary Needham; from Fear without Frontiers: Horror Across the Globe, edited by Steven Jay Schneider (FAB Press, 2003)
In Blood & Black Lace: The Definitive Guide to Italian Sex and Horror Movies by Adrian Luther-Smith (Stray Cat Publishing, 1999)
Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1957–1969 by Roberto Curti (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015)
Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre (2000) directed by Garry S. Grant & Charles Preece