Mellow giallo: has the horror genre lost its ability to shock?

Giallo began as the trashiest of genres. Derived from pulp Italian novels (with yellow covers, hence the name), it was distinguished by, tra l'altro, serial killers, lurid violence and copious female nudity. Half a century later, anche se, giallo has pretty much become respectable cinema. High art, anche.

You can track this journey in the bold new British horror Censor, directed by Prano Bailey-Bond. The story is set in the early 1980s, at the height of the “video nasty” panic, when horror films were banished to the vaults by Tory politicians so as to preserve the delicate moral fibre of the nation. Alongside the cannibal movies and Nazi exploitation films on the banned list were gialli such as Dario Argento’s Tenebrae and Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood. Censor itself, in which a film censor is sucked into the horror-movie industry she is fighting against, borrows heavily from the giallo playbook. Argento fans will delight in the film’s deliriously surreal climax – the vivid colour palette, stylised lighting and synth score.

Giallo in general, and Argento in particular, has been plundered by many a subsequent film-maker (looking at you, Brian De Palma), and in recent years the homages have come thick and fast. There was Peter Strickland’s terrific Berberian Sound Studio, set in the world of 1970s Italian horror itself, as well as Belgian duo Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s overt tributes (Amer, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears). Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon borrowed from Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria, while Luca Guadagnino went one step further, following up Call Me By Your Name with a wholesale remake of Suspiria, though his version lacked the operatic excess of the original.

The giallo renaissance continues apace, ever further into the mainstream. This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, Julie Ducournau’s Titane, was described as a “neo-giallo” by some critics. And Edgar Wright’s much-anticipated horror Last Night in Soho, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, is shaping up to be another hallucinogenic homage to the genre.

Giallo did have its “nasty” side. Usually made by men, it often revelled in female objectification and violence against women, although the best of the genre delved into issues of masculine weakness, often putting female characters to the fore. Recent neo-gialli such as Censor discard what is dated about the genre and keep what is great, not only the heightened aesthetics but also the focus on trauma, perception and gender – this time through a female gaze.

per fortuna, Censor also retains the pulpy schlockiness of a proper giallo, rather than seeking to elevate it to high art. Perhaps that’s what makes giallo so enduring: it is neither pure trash nor high art; it’s both.

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