Giallo to Grindhouse: Our Fascination With Violence
Since the beginning of their time, humans seem to find enjoyment in inflicting pain. We've tried to justify it through moral reasons, as was the case in the once common practice of public executions, but this enjoyment often has had no rational explanation. Shouldn’t we, again as a collective, want to protect one another? Why should such large swaths of the population find so much fun in seeing someone else in pain? These are not easily answered questions but the force that begs them is easily demonstrated. There’s no lack of entertainment where death, destruction, and gore are staples, and this certainly isn’t a brand new trend, despite what the pearl-clutchers of the world might think. While we may not have all the answers as to why humans like things that are graphic and violent, we do have a history of us showing up time and again no matter how horrible.
To keep the topic in the realm of staged entertainment, and not delving into matters like watching people being tossed to lions, we can start with the Parisian theater La Grande Guignol and its tradition of brutality. Founded in 1894, this theater was known for shows that were “naturalistic," which for some reason meant insanely explicit and gory. These weren’t sparsely attended midnight shows either; during the theater’s peak between World Wars (high five, humanity), celebrities and members of royalty would attend Grand Guignol performances. It even continued to stay open through both wars, though attendance was said to have waned during those times. Can’t imagine why.
What is funny about this grisly theater surviving two wars only to be shut down in 1962, is that within the same decade filmmakers would start diving head first into gore and making some of the most graphic movies anyone had ever seen. The final director of La Grande Guignol, Charles Nonon, was quoted as saying the following in explanation as to why the theater was closing: “Before the war, everyone felt that what was happening onstage was impossible. Now we know that these things, and worse, are possible in reality.” He was correct, but by the turbulent late sixties the need for brutal entertainment had returned. Enter the Giallos.
Giallo was a style of filmmaking from Italy that paired violent stories, typically stalker and serial killer mysteries, with superb art direction. The Girl Who Knew Too Much directed by the amazing Mario Bava was released in 1963, just one year after the Grande Guignol Theater closed, but it is on the mild side when it comes to the direction giallo movies would later take. As the genre progressed, the simple stories gave way to more elaborate plots, sets, and deaths that would become the trademark of Italian horror for the next decade.
Bava followed The Girl Who Knew Too Much with the famous Blood and Black Lace (1965), the movie that truly marked the arrival of this new style of filmmaking. The film contains the common giallo trope of having a white-masked killer murdering people with a thin knife, known as a stiletto. But the point of the movie isn’t the plot, it’s the look. Blood and Black Lace follows a fashion house filled with runway models in Italian sixties high-fashion that is sometimes so over the top that it’s distracting, no matter what the many gay men I have shown it to say. It’s obvious to even the most casual viewer that every detail, every color, every inch of what we’re seeing has been laboured over, so while we’re watching horrific murders and gruesome discoveries of mutilated bodies, we’re also stunned by how beautiful everything looks.
Part of what made the Italian gore movies so distinctive was the wild colors of three-strip Technicolor, mimicked on the later movies to get the same effect. Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci became known for making beautiful movies that would absolutely disgust you. The uncomplicated plots of giallo films like Blood and Black Lace, Torso (1973), and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), were joined by the absolutely bonkers guts and gristle of supernatural pictures like Suspiria (1977), City of The Living Dead (1980), and Zombie (1979). The scope of these movies expanded – some even had famous American actors, especially Argento whose films would feature young American women on the cusp of celebrity, such as Jennifer Connelly in Phenomena (1985). Like the grotesque Parisian theater, these were not underground works that nobody was going to see. These were funded and distributed movies made by successful people, and they definitely made money.
Soon after, and perhaps inspired by the Italian gore explosion, American filmmakers introduced the hard-stomached viewing audience to grindhouse flicks. What differentiated grindhouse from its Italian counterparts was that grindhouse films were usually cheaply made, and often times described as ugly. No matter how ridiculous any of the Italian gore movies got, they were always visually interesting. What was important in grindhouse was that it was gory, full stop.
That’s not to say that all grindhouse movies are ugly, but the prerogative of their creators was to capitalize on what people had come to see: sex and death mixed with blood and guts. Who are they to deny the audience what they want? The seventies and the early eighties gave us repulsive movies like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and fatalistically violent movies like Rolling Thunder (1977). Outside of the truly exploitative grindhouse genre, American movies of the seventies took a turn towards the morbid anyway as a post-Vietnam, post-American-dream world became a reality. Movies like Taxi Driver (1973) and Last House on the Left (1972) had all the effects and cruelty people had come to expect from the cheaply made flicks, but with levels of subtext and commentary, something the Italian gore movies never pretended to have.
Recently, a subgenre known as torture porn has emerged and continues to do very well. Sadly, many of these movies, especially the American ones, lack style and they tend to share the same drab color palette. Visually, they’re boring unless all you want to do is pay attention to people in pain. They tend to be merely a vehicle for gore, unlike the new French extremist movies that are incredibly violent and disturbing but unique and well-crafted like Trouble Every Day (2001), Frontiers (2007) and the polarizing Martyrs (2008). There’s also a return to the theatrical, almost cartoonish quality of horror and violence promised by La Grande Guingol theater with the movie revival of Sweeney Todd (2007), the disappointing anthology movie The Theater Bizarre (2011), and the newly released The Limehouse Golem (2017).
Without offering any answers to my rhetorical questions, as I have none, it is a funny thing to see what humans will subject themselves to and what they will watch other people be subjected to. The medium may change, the style may change but the core remains the same since the opening of a ghoulish little theater to the franchising of Saw. What is it that interests humans in seeing others killed, maimed, or tortured? Is it a way to sublimate our own fear or maybe a safe way to face it? Personally, I have no answers for these questions so I’d say it’s best to just find a disgusting movie with style out the wazoo and settle in for what always promises to be an interesting ride.