SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dario Argento's GIALLO (2009) - 'And it was all Yellow'/ LONDON FRIGHTFEST SCREENING - 2009


*This review contains spoilers disguised as a chap who looks like Rambo - watch before reading*

Well, I was pretty excited about this movie. Being a devoted follower of horror director Dario Argento - the clear master of the darkest, most stylish cinematic horror offerings of the last forty years, how could I not be?

Last year, meeting Argento himself at the premier of Mother of Tears was a night to remember; the film itself was a raunchy, apocalyptic riot - loud, quirky, stylish, random, violent, erotic and dreamlike. Argento himself a perfect host and on fine form.

Giallo was just as confrontational and brilliant! Just as devil-may-care funny, frightening, two fingers in the air fabulous as Mother of Tears. But the film has upset many hardcore fans with it's gaudily surreal, absurdist edge.

I count myself as something of an obsessive over Argento's earlier work, especially Suspiria (of course), or Sleepless, Phenomena and The Stendhal Syndrome (possibly my favourite of all). I also loved Agento's earlier political comedy La Cinque Giornate and contributions to the Masters of Horror TV series.

But as much as I worship films such as Suspiria, I don't think Argento should be trying to mimic such past glories in a modern era. Suspiria for instance, is very much born of a psychedelically fabulous, but now outdated, 70s-style excess; it couldn't easily be remade today, at least not in the same way. I hope the proposed remake doesn't try either but is more along the vibe of Mother of Tears or Giallo - updated for new fans with as much wild imagination and bloody-mindedness. Because horror, essentially, is the punk rock of the film world; if it doesn't annoy or cause offence; if it doesn't do the exact opposite of what's expected of it quite often; then it may as well not be horror at all.

The fact is, like the films of cult film extremist Jess Franco, you either see Argento's recent work as progress and experimentation; as a continuing journey, with new places to explore and that he doesn't really 'need' us to like (surely the truest mark of an auteur) or the work a director who has lost his way.

Some blame recent supposed mistakes on lack of creative control or script failures but Argento has braved many similar niggling hurdles throughout his career; killing underwhelming dialogue by painting overwhelmingly vivid pictures across the page; telling the story through a restless lens instead of relying on script alone.

To 'expect' another Deep Red or Suspiria though is to deny the auteur his creative freedom. I don't want a retread or a rehash. To do that would kill the man and his movies. The fact that he is reinventing the genre and having fun (and yes - very probably at the expense of his many fans, like myself) is a fabulous kick in the teeth to convention and the predictability of some other horror films, especially those by once great directors trying to recapture their past glories by cloning their finest hours and a half).

GIALLO comes with a fabulous opening sequence set to a heart-juddering and stirring soundtrack as we watch a woman catching a taxi and encountering a killer. It's probably one of the best opening sequences in Argento's career. Later, another woman - Celine, an American model, gets abducted on her way to meet her sister Linda, who contacts the police. It's up to F.B.I agent Inspector Enzo Avolfi to solve the disappearance.

The Inspector is already on the trail of a serial killer; one that has issues with 'beauty'. Taking a look at the killer he is going after, soon to be named as Yellow, you can understand why he gets the name he is tagged with. This hulking, yellow-tinged mass of a man, tortures and terrorises pretty girls who he collects, like mocking trophies, in his dank hideaway.

Enzo (played by an increasingly haunted Adrien Brody, his face at times contorted as if in anguish) teams up with Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner, in a role that leaves little to do except look concerned but her well-realised frustration is of the kind that stays with you; the kind that puts the character on a permanent downer) to go on the hunt for Yellow who may, it's soon considered by Enzo, be suffering from jaundice, after a victim talks about the terrible yellow skin - but what Enzo and Linda actually find, or even discover about themselves, may not be quite what they (or we) expected.

There are some rather nifty setpieces throughout from Argento: a flashback that's both beautiful and traumatic with a drunken camera weaving dreamily around the actors, followed by trademark grisly payoff. Echoes of Suspiria come into play through a sudden change in the soundtrack during the flashback sequence - those familiar fearsome nursery rhyming chimes providing a direct link to Argento's past, similar to the past Enzo is remembering. Deliberate - I think so!

Another flashback presents a seriously sinister spanner in the works as to who is the killer and who is the hero - an idea that perhaps could have been taken further. It's a seriously weird decision in casting for the role of Yellow.

The film ends with a neatly surreal, garish and vertigo-inducing finale, that hurts to watch as blade slices through skin taking the idea of sweaty palms to another - ironic, perhaps - level. While Argento doesn't skip away from horror elements in Giallo, the film could perhaps work best as a pastiche of classic Italian 'giallos' of old (those thrillers based on pulp novels with yellow - 'giallo' - binding where the killer slices and dices while nearly always wearing black gloves and stalking victims under cover of dark) or as a dreamlike thriller of Alice in Wonderland-ish grotesqueness.

Personally I like to see the film more as a journey - for Argento, Enzo and the audience. A trip into the balancing nature of good and evil, both past and present - and as a meditation of sorts on how mistakes (or successes) of the past can permanently blight the present.


Giallo made me jump - at least twice. It made me cringe a few times. It made the two French girls (with rucksacks on the floor between them) sitting near to me get up and walk out when the lip-cutting scene came in (a masterstroke - so gruesome, yet you don't see a thing; another kick in the teeth from Argento).

I thought the make-up of our friend Yellow, was over the top, but I also think, it was deliberately so. Argento isn't stupid - he knows the kind of look he wants. For me, with Yellow, it's a nightmarish, trashy, unreal look. In the same way the entire movie (and Mother of Tears before it) has an unreal feel, as if inner demons in the mind of the director have become visual, have risen up past restrictions to a new kind of creative freedom; the next step in a career. The man himself clearly sticking that one finger up high in the air as a perfect "fuck you" to the critics and fans that doubt him.

If more evidence is needed of Argento's playfulness here; then consider that this a movie that references the genre - the giallo - that always puts the killer to the fore as slick; neat and precise as the blade he carries. To relegate the villain to a level of quite perfect ridiculousness; to de-stylise - is a wonderful and confrontational step to take. The man in black; 'Yellow's opening line of "'Ello...?" - spoken in a weird hybrid drawl of some kind, as he skulks round the corner in shadow like Nosferatu with a knife and a tool kit, instead of fangs, is shocking and bizarre. Some audience members laughed. You can, maybe, understand why. But some time after watching the film, the voice remains in the head, as does that first word. Even Nosferatu in the classic 1932 movie as played by Max Shreck looked bloody odd. If the film hadn't been silent, he'd have sounded bloody odd too.

For Argento to mix up scenes of extreme brutality with a villain who comes across as quite grossly and ludicrously weird (even for a psychopath in an Argento movie) and without doubt a very odd caricature of something unfathomable, is both fun and frightening at the same time. Also very unsettling, like all the best kind of horror is. Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper (1982) is now seen as a classic of its kind, despite the serial killer having the vocal inflections of Donald Duck and Hannibal Lector's "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti", followed by an epileptic fit of a snigger, is clearly ridiculous, but also clearly iconic an image and unforgettably disturbing.

Enough with the black leather-clad, knife wielding maniacs in the shadows from Argento's past (as much as I love 'em . .) the villain this time around is no less believable than the likes of other modern-day movie maniacs, such as Saw's Jigsaw, but exists at the same level - a random villain, a caricature, a nightmarish man made blood-red cartoon; a dreamlike protagonist.

The biggest shock of all though is that the killer doesn't matter - the killer is just a nightmarish, sick-minded visualisation of unreal identity and of real, bloody fear from Inspector Enzo's past. Yellow could be anyone. Anyone to Enzo. Anyone to Argento. There's a hint of film referencing in this movie, from great American cinema; in both Yellow and Enzo (laconic police detective with issues at work surviving on fast food and coffee alone); it's like a psychopath's twisted vision of American cinema - and yes, the killer does have a look of a fat and bloated Rocky Balboa about him, but once you get over the shock, then the sinister, unrealistic shade of the film seems to perfectly suit the bad make-up job and the potential reasons for the man playing the role beneath it being there, despite it being a little harder to defend to those not prepared to delve deeper into Argento's reasoning here.

All this self-referencing and wider-referencing, to giallo movies, American thrillers, cinematic heroes and villains alike, is mixed up in one big bloody pulp of absurdness. Argento may well be scorning the expected - those sleek big-name thrillers that Hollywood churns out or even the Italian giallos of old, by totally deconstructing the genre and history of both.

The fact Inspector Enzo talks, acts and doesn't take the world so seriously; in fact, acts like the world has nothing left to shock or surprise him, to me sums up the thoughts of a man traumatised by his past, seeing even killers as some kind of bizarre childlike nightmare, that he is trying to suppress - with humour, with sometimes unbelievable comments: "I explained - he understood" seemingly being Enzo's take on bloody punishment, but in context; the perfect response. This nightmare takes place far more in the mind that it does in real-life.

'Yellow' the killer, is potentially a link to Enzo's past and becomes his nightmares made real; but not in the reality you might expect; it's a kind of horrible visceral vision, bloodily childlike, like flashbacks later reveal his life to have been.

This casts some doubt on Yellow's own reality, separate to Enzo's. Because the Inspector is a man who doesn't want to live in convention but does want to stick two fingers up to the world; wants to skulk in the basement shadows - not in the bright lights upstairs like others, like his colleagues, or like Yellow even. He is a captured beast with beauty never too close, as he fears what the killer welcomes - that beauty, should it fly too near, will certainly get her wings burnt. The beast that is Yellow can do that beyond the law; stop beauty dead, to save his own tortured soul - and it's a kind of freedom, because Yellow, although hidden, is not so hidden away as Enzo.

Most surprising of all is that Enzo isn't so far removed from Argento himself. Or as Argento may like us to view him. It's that stubbornness, off-handedness, even meanness, that makes Dario Argento such a masterful director - and such a master of horror.

And what a fabulous horror movie Giallo is - if you give it the chance. Thank you FrightFest for sending some of us home with a big, fat (and slightly too yellow to be considered safe) glow on our faces. And to the two girls who walked out in disgust at one if the scenes of unsettling horror on display - I think you may just about have made my night. But you really should have stayed to the end. It really wasn't nearly as horrible a movie experience as you may have thought you were going to get. Argento, as ever, was just playing with you. He's really bloody good at that.

words: mark gordon palmer

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