A threadbare future


© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc


I can’t imagine what has prompted me to repost in April 2022 this entry about Threads, the BBC’s terrifying 1984 drama about a nuclear strike on Britain, which I’d originally put on this blog four years ago to coincide with a remastered version of it being released on Blu-ray.  I mean, it’s not as if anything is happening in the world at the moment to kindle fears of a holocaustic nuclear war breaking out.  Is there?


It’s said that everyone remembered where they were and what they were doing on November 22nd, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.  Likewise, I remember where I was and what I was doing on the evening of September 23rd, 1984, when BBC2 broadcast the apocalyptic drama Threads.


I was staying in the youth hostel in Aberdeen, with my second year as an undergraduate at Aberdeen University due to begin in a fortnight’s time.  Having worked abroad for the summer, I was now back in the city trying desperately to arrange accommodation for myself for the year ahead.  I’d spent the past few days trudging around flat-hunting without any luck and, to make matters worse, I’d just been informed that I wouldn’t be eligible for a student grant for the next year either.  So I was feeling pretty low about my residential and financial situation that evening when I wandered into the youth hostel’s lounge and sat down among a crowd of hostellers who were about to watch something on television called Threads, a much-anticipated documentary-drama showing what would happen if a nuclear conflict broke out between America and the Soviet Union and the UK was struck by 210 megatons of nuclear weaponry.


It’s fair to say that by the time Threads ended 112 minutes later, my mood had not improved any.  Mind you, nobody else in the lounge looked like they were bursting with joie de vivre.  Bill Dick, the hostel’s usually easy-going and affable head-warden who’d been in the audience, couldn’t have looked more down in the dumps if he’d been buried to his neck in garbage.  (I got to know Bill four years later when I spent a summer working at the hostel as a warden and had him as my boss.)


A while ago, something compelled me to view Threads again. Here are my thoughts on it from a 21st century perspective. I should warn you that the remainder of this blog-entry will contain spoilers, though you’ve probably gathered already that in Threads absolutely nothing good happens.


Directed by Mick Jackson and written by the late Barry Hines, author of the 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave that a year later established Ken Loach as a cinematic force when he filmed it as Kes, Threads consists of three sections.  There’s an initial 45 minutes showing life during the build-up to the cataclysmic nuclear strike.  Then there’s another 45 minutes showing the strike and its immediate aftermath.  And lastly there’s a 25-minute epilogue chronicling Britain a year, a decade, ultimately 13 years into the future when, with its natural environment, economy and social infrastructure pulverised, the country reverts to the Middle Ages.  That’s the Middle Ages minus the chivalry, balladry and pageantry, but with plenty of fallout, nuclear winters, depleted ozone, ultraviolent radiation, cataracts, skin cancer and genetic damage.


The gruelling central section imprinted itself on my 19-year-old memory.  I’ve carried its images around in my head ever since: milk bottles melting on doorsteps in the heat of a nuclear detonation, a charred cyclist (still on his bike) lodged amid the branches of a burning tree, cats igniting, dolls melting, a crazed woman squatting amid the rubble cradling her baby’s burnt corpse, a traffic warden with a bandage-swathed face holding off a starving mob with a rifle, doctors in an overrun hospital sawing away a leg while the un-anaesthetised patient screams through a gag, and several dozen other things involving flames, rubble, cadavers, rats, blood, wounds, excrement, vomit and general mayhem and horror.  In particular, I’ve never forgotten the moment when a mushroom cloud rises terrifyingly above the skyline, causing one poor woman to wet herself in the middle of a street – something that led to the actress Anne Sellors having the briefest and most poignant entry ever on IMDb.


© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc


But having seen Threads again, I now appreciate the queasy effectiveness of the opening section too.  Here, Hines and Jackson establish the focus of their story, two families in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield.  These are the working-class Kemps and the middle-class Becketts.  The Kemps’ eldest boy Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) has been courting the Becketts’ daughter Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Ruth has just realised she’s pregnant.  Jimmy and Ruth resolve to get married and start renovating a flat to live in while their families uneasily make each other’s acquaintance.  Interestingly, this reflects the uneasy working relationship between Hines and Jackson themselves.  According to ThreadsWikipedia entry, the working-class Hines saw Jackson as something of a middle-class prat.


Meanwhile, ominously, news reports chatter in the background about escalating superpower tensions in the Middle East.  The characters are initially oblivious to what’s brewing.  Early on, we see Jimmy fiddling with his radio, wanting to get away from some boring news bulletin about the crisis and find the latest football results.  Apathy gradually changes to shoulder-shrugging helplessness, something summed up by Jimmy’s workmate Bob (Ashley Barker).  In the pub, he declares that they might as well enjoy themselves now because there’s bugger-all else they can do.  Plus, if things do kick off, he hopes he’ll be ‘pissed out of his mind and straight underneath it.’  Ironically, Bob survives after nearly everyone else has perished and we last see him tucking into the raw and probably irradiated flesh of a dead sheep.


By the time the characters try to respond to what’s coming, it’s too late.  The bomb goes off while the hapless Kemps are still assembling a fallout shelter comprised of a couple of doors propped against a living-room wall.  The Becketts, being posher, have a cellar to retreat into.  Not that they fare any better in the long run.


For me, it’s this opening section that brings home what Threads is about.  A preliminary narration talks about the economic threads necessary for a society to function: “…everything connects.  Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others.  Our lives are woven together in a fabric.  But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”  However, my impression is that the truly important threads – which are obliterated once the missiles hit their targets – are the ones between people, of feeling and compassion, which have been refined by centuries of civilisation and, today, are the essence of what it means to be human.


Thus, we see Jimmy (whom we know has been cheating on Ruth and is a bit of a tosser) standing in the aviary in his family’s back garden, doting over the birds kept there.  We see Mr and Mrs Beckett (Henry Moxon and June Broughton) trying to look after an ailing relative discharged from hospital after the NHS is ordered to clear its wards in anticipation of a flood of war casualties.  We see Clive Sutton (Harry Beety), the local government official put in charge of an emergency team that will run things from a bunker underneath Sheffield City Council, attempting to reassure his nervous wife.  But empathy for our fellow creatures rapidly disappears as, in the war’s aftermath, humanity degenerates into a shell-shocked, zombie-like rabble fixated only on its own, scrabbling-in-the-dirt survival.


This is made explicit in Threads’ final stages when, years later, we’re introduced to Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), the daughter of Ruth and Jimmy.  When Ruth dies, sick, exhausted, blinded by cataracts and looking decades older than her true age, an impassive Jane reacts by stealing a few items from her mother’s corpse and then clearing off.  The few kids born post-holocaust are a scary bunch, by the way.  Their language is limited to phrases like “Gizzit!” and “C’mon!” and they generally act like feral mini-Neanderthals.


Threads came in the wake of the bleak 1983 American TV movie The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, which depicted the effects of a nuclear strike on Kansas City and caused a considerable stir on both sides of the Atlantic.  But while I like The Day After, I think the altogether more graphic and relentless Threads beats it to a bloody pulp.  For one thing, Meyer’s film is disadvantaged by its cast of familiar actors like Jason Robards and John Lithgow, which means you can’t ever forget you’re watching a dramatic fabrication.  In Threads, the cast is comprised of unknown performers, which adds to its harrowing sense of authenticity.


That said, saddoes like myself might recognise David Brierley, who plays Ruth’s father, as the voice of K9 in the 1979-80 series of Doctor Who; and a couple of voices heard from the early blizzard of news reports are familiar, like Lesley Judd from the BBC’s famous kids’ magazine programme Blue Peter, and Ed Bishop, star of the Gerry Anderson sci-fi show UFO (1970).  I’m glad Jackson decided not to go with his original casting idea, which was to use actors from the venerable north-of-England TV soap opera Coronation Street – disturbing though the sight of Jack and Vera Duckworth puking their guts up in a makeshift fallout shelter would have been.


Threads also contains the sonorous tones of the great voiceover actor Patrick Allen, whom the UK government had hired to narrate its Protect and Survive public information films that would be broadcast if nuclear war looked imminent.  By 1984, the media had got hold of these films and discussed them at length and they’d been derided for their epic uselessness if Armageddon really happened.  (At one point in Threads we hear Allen crisply and matter-of-factly advising the public on how to deal with corpses: “…move the body to another room in the house.  Label the body with name and address and cover it as tightly as possible in polythene, paper, sheets or blankets.”)  Earlier in 1984, Allen’s Protect and Survive voice-work had been sampled in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s hit single Two Tribes – for which he sportingly added the lines: “Mine is the last voice you will ever hear.  Do not be alarmed.”


The futility of Protect and Survive and officialdom’s attempts to deal with the holocaust generally are embodied in Threads by Sutton and his team, who utterly fail to provide leadership and control once the bombs have gone off.  Trapped in their bunker under the rubble of the flattened council building, with insufficient training, malfunctioning equipment and limited supplies of food, water and air, they succumb to bickering, despondency, hysteria and – finally – asphyxiation.  Predictably, when order is re-established in Sheffield, it’s pretty brutal in nature.


© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc


Brutal too is the narrative as it moves forward in time, with Telex-type captions flashing up on the screen giving statistics about fallout levels, the nuclear winter, the ozone layer, epidemics and an ever-rising death-toll.  Things climax with the now-teenaged Jane giving birth after she’s been raped by another of the feral kids.  The baby is stillborn and deformed, and Threads’ last image is a freeze-frame of Jane’s face as she recoils in horror from it.  Early on, Jimmy’s kid brother Michael (Nicholas Lane) had embarrassed his parents by asking, “What’s an abortion?”  Threads ends with the implication that humanity has unwittingly aborted itself.


It isn’t perfect.   Thanks to budgetary restrictions, there’s a reliance on stock footage and stills from previous wars and conflicts, which don’t necessarily look like they’re occurring in Sheffield in 1984.   And despite valiant efforts by the make-up department, the actors playing the long-term survivors are a bit too plump and healthy-looking – by then they should have resembled death-camp inmates.  Additionally, the fact that Threads takes place in a pre-Internet, pre-social media world gives it a quaint distance now.  Imagine the reaction if the equivalent events happened today.  While the first warheads exploded over Britain, Twitter would be babbling with idiots blaming everything on immigrants or Muslims or woke-ism or the Covid-19 vaccine.  But, as a traumatic account of what might engulf us if our political leaders are possessed by a moment of trigger-happy madness, it’s still unbeatable.


And, in April 2022, with Vladimir Putin making threatening noises about nuclear retaliation against NATO for helping to thwart his military campaign in Ukraine, Threads seems no less relevant than it did 38 years ago.  That’s a sentence I take no pleasure in writing.


© BBC / Nine Network / Western-World Television Inc

Yellow cinema (Part 2)


© Rizzoli Film / Seda Spettacoli / Cineriz


Continuing my list of favourite giallo movies – a giallo being an Italian “horror-thriller hybrid”, mostly made in the 1970s, “wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (identity revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most glamorous, stylish, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.”


All the Colours of the Dark (1972)

Like the stereotypical London bus, you spend all day waiting for a London-set giallo and then two arrive at once.  Hot on the heels of Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) came All the Colours of the Dark, directed by Sergio Martino who, though not as acclaimed as Fulci, Mario Bava or Dario Argento, is to my mind the fourth master of the genre.


Colours features several performers who were regulars in Martino’s movies, including George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov and the droopy-eyed, lushly-haired and slightly feline-featured Algerian-Maltese-Sicilian actress Edwige Fenech, considered by many to be the Queen of Gialli.  Its story is about a woman (Fenech) who, traumatised after a miscarriage, becomes involved with a London-based and apparently murderous Satanic sect.  Thus, it veers towards supernatural territory.  It finally transpires, however, that the killings in the film are part of a non-supernatural conspiracy to relieve her of a family inheritance.  As with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Colours is too long and ultimately loses momentum, but Martino orchestrates some impressive scenes along the way.  Surprisingly for a genre fond of beautifying its characters and settings, a Satanic orgy that Fenech finds herself participating in at one point is determinedly unglamorous.  In fact, the gormless-looking, frankly pug-ugly Satanists around her seem to have wandered in from the set of a leery 1970s British sitcom like ITV’s On the Buses (1969-73).


© Lea Film / National Cinematografica / C.C. Astro / Interfilm


The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is a cheap and cheerful retread of Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964), with another series of murders taking place in a fashion house.  This time, though, the setting is Bavaria, not Rome.  While the plot references the legend of an evil Red Queen who’s said to come back from the dead every 100 years to commit seven murders, the real killer proves to be a human one.  What particularly endears this film to me is the histrionic cackle, supposedly emanating from the Red Queen herself, that we hear on the soundtrack following each murder.  Playing the film’s heroine is German actress Barbara Bouchet, who that same year would appear in the next film on this list.


© Phoenix Cinematografica / Cineriz / Cannon Films


Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Don’t Torture a Duckling is Lucio Fulci’s other great giallo movie.  Indeed, it’s one of the best things he ever did. It has none of the excess and goofiness of his later horror films and it benefits from its distinctly un-giallo-like setting.  For a change, it doesn’t take place in an affluent urban world inhabited by high-fliers. Duckling is set instead in a rural and backward south Italian village, its separation from modernity symbolised by the nearby highway where traffic rumbles past oblivious to its existence. While Fulci uses the setting to take pot-shots at the institutions of conservative, traditional, Catholic Italy, his cameras make the most of the sumptuous local countryside.


That said, 21st-century viewers will be bothered by some early scenes, seemingly played for laughs, which show Bouchet teasing the village’s young boys by brazenly exposing herself to them.  I doubt if Fulci would have entertained the idea of having hero Tomas Milian expose himself to the village’s young girls, but surely Bouchet’s behaviour is just as bad.  It’s a clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s themes, which are the threat an immoral world poses to childhood innocence, and a serial killer’s determination to preserve the innocence of the children around him by any means necessary.


© Medusa Distribuzione


Torso (1973)

Sergio Martino made several gialli in the early 1970s, but I think All the Colours of the Dark and Torso are his strongest.  Torso is certainly his most troubling.  Even culture-warring, anti-feminist, male-chauvinistic reactionaries will find its plot, wherein a succession of nubile young ladies are ogled by various, creepy men before being murdered by a masked killer, pretty distasteful.


Nonetheless, I admire Torso for its audacious shifts in plot and mood.  It begins in traditional giallo fashion with a serial killer stalking the picturesque, historical city of Perugia.  However, when a group of female students decide to avoid becoming the killer’s next victims by leaving Perugia, travelling into some remote countryside and holing up in a mountaintop villa, and the killer, predictably, follows them and lurks stalkily in the undergrowth and darkness outside the villa, it becomes a prototype for the American slasher / body-count horror movies of the 1980s, epitomised by Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  And the final 20 minutes see an abrupt change of tone again.  The film’s ‘final girl’ – Suzy Kendall from Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – wakes up after a long sleep in a bedroom, her leg disabled by an injury and her senses dulled by anaesthetic, and realises she’s sharing the villa with the killer… who isn’t aware of her presence there… yet.  It makes for a splendidly Hitchcockian finale.


© Compagnia CInematografica Champion / Interfilm


Deep Red (1975)

And now for my favourite giallo ever, Dario Argento’s Deep Red.  This has David Hemmings as a musician who witnesses a murder.  The victim is a psychic who recently claimed to have picked up murderous thoughts from a mysterious somebody in her vicinity – and that somebody evidently decided to silence her before she acquired any clues to his or her identity.  As with the hero of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Hemmings is troubled by the notion that he saw something at the crime scene that is a clue to the culprit’s identity, but can’t figure out exactly what.  And while Hemmings struggles with this, the murders continue and the killer starts to home in on him…


Deep Red contains some of the best set-pieces in the history of giallo cinema and some hardly-vital-for-the-plot but disturbingly barmy details, such as a cackling clockwork doll that totters into view just before the killer strikes.  There’s also a baroque, pulsating score by the German prog-rock band Goblin that, in my opinion, just manages to pip the work of Ennio Morricone to earn the title of Greatest Giallo Music Ever.


© Rizzoli Film / Seda Spettacoli / Cineriz


And Deep Red boasts a wonderful performance by Daria Nicolodi as kooky journalist Gianna Brezzi. For me, Brezzi is up there alongside Jean-Pierre Marielle’s Arrosio in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) as one of the most memorable characters featured in a giallo.  Nicolodi – who, alas, passed away in 2020 – was married to Argento while he enjoyed his filmmaking heyday during the second half of the 1970s and she made a big contribution to the scripts of his supernatural classics Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980).  I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that Argento’s movies rapidly went downhill in quality after the mid-1980s, which was when their marriage ended.


I love Deep Red, then, but…  It’s evidently not to everyone’s tastes. When I showed it to my partner last year, she professed to finding it ‘dull’ and dismissed Goblin’s soundtrack as being ‘like something from a 1970s disco.’  So that was me told.


The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Like Don’t Torture a Duckling, this film benefits from being set far away from the usual giallo environment of lavish lifestyles, expensive apartments and cosmopolitan cities. Unlike Duckling, it’s set not in the rural south of Italy but in its rural north, in the damp, squelchy lagoon area of Valli di Comacchio in the province of Ferrara.  Pupi Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows has a restorer (Lino Capolicchio) arriving in a village to work on a crumbling fresco in a church and learning that the artist responsible for the work was a madman who got inspiration for his images of martyred saints from torturing and killing people.  When a new wave of murders sweeps the village, it seems that someone is carrying on with the artist’s gruesome traditions. The gloomy, marshy setting helps the film’s atmosphere immeasurably, and its ending is as pessimistic and disturbing as that of Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) five years earlier.


© A.M.A. Film / Euro International Films


Honourable mentions?  Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), the middle entry in Dario Argento’s ‘animal’ trilogy, doesn’t have the gusto of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, the films that bookend it, but it’s still worth catching up with. Meanwhile, Argento’s 1980s gialli Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987) have their moments but aren’t as involving as his 1970s work – due, I suspect, to their lack of engaging characters.


Also of interest are Sergio Martino’s other two gialli, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971) with Martino regulars Edwige Fenech, George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov, and the fabulously titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) with Fenech and Rassimov, plus Luigi Pistilli from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971) and Anita Strindberg from Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s SkinYour Vice is memorable for having some of the ghastliest characters to ever appear in a giallo, and for its plot basically being an outrageous reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story The Black Cat.  But it’s spoiled by Martino’s inexplicable insertion of a dirt-motorbike race that seems to go on forever.


Elsewhere, Fenech and Hilton turn up in the decent, meat-and-two-veg giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), directed by Giuliano Carnimeo. I have a soft spot too for Umberto Lenzi’s agreeably shonky Spasmo, with music by Ennio Morricone and a cast that includes Suzy Kendall, Ivan Rassimov and Robert Hoffman, star of the fondly remembered French-German children’s series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1964).  And I can’t possibly finish a piece about giallo movies without mentioning Giulio Questi’s mad 1968 epic Death Laid an Egg, which boldly places its beautiful giallo characters in the glamorous, stylish world of… intensive poultry farming.

Yellow cinema (Part 1)


© International Apollo Films / Les Films Corona / Atlantida Films


Not so long ago, I caught up with Edgar Wright’s 2021 movie Last Night in Soho.  I generally liked it, though I thought its first half was more successful than its second.  During the first half the film is very much a fantasy, with a lonely young woman (Thomasin McKenzie), who’s fixated on 1960s British fashion and culture, arriving in unglamorous, modern-day London and falling victim to weird, time-travelling regressions.  These send her back six decades and put her soul in the body of an early-1960s starlet (Angela Joy-Taylor) who’s trying to make her name in Soho, the London district that embodied the era’s combination of carefree glamour and shady decadence.  Halfway through, however, the movie shifts gears.  The 1960s scenes become sourer and darker and the fantasy gives way to horror.  This transition didn’t quite work for me and I ended up feeling the movie was neither fish nor fowl.


One thing I thought was cool about Last Night in Soho’s second, macabre half, however, was how Wright invests it with the aesthetics of Italian giallo cinema.  There’s bright, lurid lighting and colours, and swirling camerawork, and lots of splashy, slashy blood and grue.  Wright has obviously studied the works of old giallo maestros like Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento.  And it’s giallo movies that I’d like to spend this entry talking about.


What is, or was – because, informed by a certain time, place and set of attitudes, the genre is surely obsolete in 21st century cinema – a giallo movie?


Previously on this blog, while I was paying tribute to the late Ennio Morricone, whose music embellished the soundtrack of many a giallo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I described it as a “staple of traditional Italian cinema” that was a “horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (identity revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most glamorous, stylish, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.”  Incidentally, the word giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’ and, according to Wikipedia, the cinematic term “derives from a series of cheap paperback mystery and crime thrillers with yellow covers that were popular in Italy.”


There follows a list of my favourite gialli.  I should point out that I’m a purist about what constitutes and doesn’t constitute a giallo.  In my mind, the ’killer’ element is important.  It’s got to be a human doing the killing, not a monster or supernatural agency.  So, though I’ve seen other people’s lists of gialli include films like Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and Lisa and the Devil (1974), Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), I’m steering clear of them because their plots contain ghosts, witches, devils and other supernatural elements.  I’m also avoiding Francisco Barilli’s Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), which isn’t so much supernatural as Kafkaesque-ly strange.  For me, a proper giallo doesn’t contain the impossible.  Just, usually, the highly improbable.


Anyway, there’s only one movie to start with…


© Emmeni Cinematografica / Les Productions Georges de Beaurgard


Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Director Mario Bava was to Italian horror cinema what John Ford was to westerns or Alfred Hitchcock was to suspense movies.  The form would have been utterly different without him.  His splendid 1960s trilogy Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1964) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) indelibly shaped Italy’s tradition of gothic horror shockers.  Black Sabbath and Kill, Baby, Kill were also shot in colour and showcased Bava’s eye for baroque lighting, gorgeous colour palettes and elaborate set design, which proved the frights didn’t have to come at you from a monochrome world of darkness and shadows.  They could come at you from a brightly and lushly phantasmagorical world too.


Meanwhile, Blood and Black Lace is an early landmark in giallo films.  Its tale of a series of murders in a Rome fashion house – invariably of young, beautiful models, which meant gialli were open to the charge of misogyny from the very start – created the template for the form.  Moreover, thanks to Bava’s inimitable visual style, it’s a stunning film to watch.  For my money, it’s up there with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) as one of those movies that’s simply a feast for the eyes.


© Seda Spettacoli / Titanus / Constantin


The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Blood and Black Lace made the giallo mould, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage directed by then-new kid on the block Dario Argento – this was his directorial debut – showed that this type of movie could win both popular success and critical acclaim.  It also inspired a glut of gialli in Italy during the early 1970s.  The story begins with a young American (Tony Musante) witnessing a near-deadly attack on a woman in a Rome art gallery – he gets trapped between two glass doors and is unable to run to her aid.  While more violence occurs, seemingly as a result of the attack, he agonises over what he thought he saw.  He can’t put his finger on it, but there was something not quite right about it…  This ‘missing-piece-of-the-jigsaw’ trope became a common one in giallo films.  Providing Bird’s music is the peerless Ennio Morricone, while in the role of Musante’s girlfriend is English actress Suzy Kendall, who would notch up more giallo credits.  She even appeared as ‘special guest screamer’ in 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s ‘sort of’ tribute to 1970s Italian horror movies.


© Nuova Linea Cinematografica


A Bay of Blood (1971)

A Bay of Blood feels like Mario Bava’s grumpy riposte to Argento, who the previous year had made giallo films almost respectable with The Bird with the Crystal PlumageA Bay of Blood is the polar opposite, a nasty, mean-spirited and ultra-violent effort, surely the most violent thing in Bava’s CV.  It’s about a community of conniving scumbags who murder one another in their desperation to secure an inheritance, which is the expensive property around the titular bay.  Even at the film’s end, when only the last two, husband-and-wife scumbags (Luigi Pistilli and Claudia Auger) remain alive, Bava hits upon a novel way of killing them off too.  What makes A Bay of Blood fascinating is an extended section that’s barely connected with the rest of the film.  Here, a quartet of teenagers break into the mansion at the centre of the murders and are themselves, gratuitously and bloodily, murdered.  This part is less like a giallo and more like a prototype showreel for the ‘slasher’ movies, such as the Friday the 13th ones, that dominated American horror cinema in the 1980s.


© Doria G. Film / Dunhill Cinematografica / Jadran Film


Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

An atypical giallo, Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls benefits from its Prague setting and a plot that features a murderous conspiracy rather than another contrived-killer-on-the-loose scenario.  Downbeat endings aren’t unusual in gialli, but the grim fate that befalls the journalist hero (French actor Jean Sorel) is genuinely affecting and disturbing.  Also in the movie is Ringo Starr’s future missus Barbara Bach, who that same year would appear in a second giallo, Paolo Cavara’s The Black Belly of the TarantulaShort Night boasts music from Ennio Morricone too.  As does…


Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

The final instalment in what would become known as Dario Argento’s ‘animal’ trilogy, which began with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and continued with Cat O’ Nine Tails (made earlier in 1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet is about a Rome-based rock drummer and his wife, played by Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer, another Anglophone actress who became something of a giallo star.  They get involved in a series of murders after the drummer seemingly, unwittingly kills a man who’s been stalking him.


© Seda Spettacoli / Universal Productions France


One of Four Flies’ pleasures is the wonderful performance by French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle as Gianni Arrioso, a camp, incompetent and tragic private investigator hired by Brandon to figure out what’s going on.  When the inevitable happens and Arrioso gets bumped off by the killer too, the dying PI consoles himself with the thought that at least, for once, he guessed the culprit’s identity correctly: “I was right,” he sighs, “I did it this time.”  In another supporting role, as one of Brandon’s mates, is the great Bud Spencer, taking a break from the spaghetti westerns and comedies he was making at the time with his acting partner Terence Hill.


A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Much loved by horror-movie buffs for his schlocky, gory, no-rational-thought-required opuses like Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), director Lucio Fulci was, once, a maker of surprisingly stylish gialliA Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is also that fascinating beast, a giallo set in London, meaning that life in early 1970s Britain – hardly the most glamorous time or place – is depicted intriguingly, if improbably, through a more fashion-conscious, Mediterranean lens.  Joining the London scenery here is the impeccable, no-nonsense Welsh actor Stanley Baker, playing a police detective investigating the killings that invariably happen.  Meanwhile, there’s more Morricone goodness on the soundtrack.


Alas, Lizard suffers from being half-an-hour too long and runs out of steam towards its end.  Nothing in it quite compares with its opening sequences, in which the repressed wife (Florinda Bolkan) of a high-flying lawyer (Jean Sorel again) dreams about fleeing through a packed train, whose passengers then morph into enthusiastic participants in a gigantic hippy orgy being held in the house of her real-life neighbour (Anita Strindberg, another giallo regular).  The saucy dreams climax – ouch! – with a murder, and when a real murder is committed in the real house, we’re left wondering what’s actually dream and reality in Bolkan’s head.


Though the film slackens in its later stages, Fulci still manages some memorable moments, such as a set-piece chase through Alexandra Palace in north London, where Bolkan ends up in the building’s roof-space and is swarmed by a disturbed colony of bats; or an unhinged scene set in a high-security sanitorium where she blunders into a laboratory-room full of partly-dissected dogs.  The dogs in the lab scene weren’t real, but the special effects, courtesy of effects-man Carlo Rambaldi (who would later create ET), seemed so realistic by the standards of the time that Fulci got threatened with a prison sentence for animal cruelty.


© International Apollo Films / Les Films Corona / Atlantida Films


More of my favourite gialli will appear in a future blog-entry!