“I’ve run through it over and over again. I can’t get it out of my head, but I can’t manage to pin it down either.”
I love horror because it casts a wide net. I think it would be a mistake to put such narrow labels on what terrifies people, and thus my definition of horror is fairly inclusive, and I see it as a wide umbrella. Giallo, the Italian thriller-horror films of the 20th century, fits snugly into this umbrella, and I was anxious to indulge on some of it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was my first giallo film, a fitting choice given that it was one of the first great films of its kind, paving the way for a number of imitators.
Giallo is a blend of slasher exploitation, detective mystery, and psychological thriller. Argento hits all three of these checkmarks in perfect symmetry with the film. It follows American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) on vacation in Rome when he spots a bloody attempted murder through the glass windows of a museum. Dalmas becomes obsessed with the crime, prolonging his stay in Rome as he helps police track down the killer through his own investigative work. Tensions escalate as the body count rises, and the cries of one rare bird may be the key to solving the case.
Like Argento’s more popular Suspiria, the film oozes of bold color choices. Nearly every shot in the movie contains the color red, often in small but calculated subtleties. The colors pop off the screen like nothing you’ve seen in a movie from 1970, a testament to Argento’s command of mise-en-scène. The film boasts a motif of art and horrifying beauty through its characters and scenarios, and every frame complements this theme. Argento constructs a chilling world of gorgeous women, taunting us as to what secrets they hold and which will be the next to bleed.
The movie is also a thriller, and for that, Argento owes a great deal to Hitchcock. Several shots from Vertigo are staged nearly identically in this movie. The iconic dangling and falling from the rooftop and the spiral staircase are both present in the film, although Argento puts a clever twist on the shape of the staircase, which isn’t square as in Vertigo but rather arrow-shaped.
There’s a buffet of influences that stitch together the movie. It works so well that the film ended up becoming a major influence itself. Giallo is an engaging connection between bloody exploitation and a more calculated detective thriller, and this movie is a wonderful proof of concept. I look forward to engaging with more Argento and more giallo very soon.
Films Left to Watch: 822