Note: We were only supplied with digital versions of the films in the Giallo Essentials set, without any of the extra features.
After spaghetti westerns the Giallo is probably the most famous Italian cinematic export: a genre beloved the world over thanks to its focus on tight mystery stories, twisting and intriguing tales, and violence and gore that are sometimes so over the top that it borders on horrific. Thanks to the extensive catalogue of well liked Giallo movies on offer, Arrow Video are able to bring a lot of these films to new audiences with updated Blu-ray releases, starting with the first in a new series of box sets, Giallo Essentials: Red Edition.
The first of the three films offered in this set is The Possessed (1965), a black and white mystery story from writers/directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini. The story follows Bernard (Peter Baldwin), a successful writer who travels to a small lakeside town in the north of Italy for his winter holiday. The last time he’d visited, Bernard had become involved with a local girl named Tilde (Virna Lisi), who worked as a maid at the hotel he stayed at. Upon arriving at the hotel he begins to search for Tilde, but soon discovers that she died by suicide months before. However, when he learns that some in town believe that Tilde was actually murdered, Bernard starts to look into events.
The Possessed is the one film in this set that feels the least like the Giallo films I am used to. It being from the mid 1960s is probably a big part of this. The film is shot in black and white, the story is quite slow and there aren’t really any big action scenes, and thanks to parts of the story where Bernard gets sick and starts to hallucinate you’re not always sure if what you’re seeing is real, a memory, or completely fabricated. Despite all that the film is very engaging, and you soon begin to become as interested in Tilde’s fate as Bernard. Thanks to the setting of a winter in northern Italy the film has a look and feel to it that makes it stand out from the other movies in this set, and it’s a good introduction to Giallo for first time viewers.
The second movie on offer here is The Fifth Cord (1971), also directed by Luigi Bazzoni. Unlike Bazzoni’s previous work on The Possessed, The Fifth Cord is much more of what I’ve come to expect from Giallo films. It’s bright, colourful, filled with vicious kills, and a plot so twisting and complex that it’s easy to get lost in. The story begins with a New Years Eve party that ends in tragedy when a member of a group of friends is attacked on his way home.
The next morning one of the group, Andrea (Franco Nero), learns of the attack from his bosses at the newspaper. Deciding to investigate the incident, Andrea begins to question witnesses to try and find out who hospitalised his friend. When another member of the group is attacked and killed in her home Andrea begins to think that the two cases are linked, and that something more is going on than first believed. As the bodies begin to mount Andrea has to race against time to find the killer.
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The story for The Fifth Cord isn’t the easiest to follow, and there are a lot of red herrings and intentionally confusing clues given across the course of the film. Obviously it’s being done in an attempt to keep the viewer from being able to guess the killer’s identity too easily, but there are times where I was struggling to keep up with the large cast of characters and everything that was happening. The film’s climax, however, is pretty well done, and features a rather alarming scene with a child being put in danger before a daring last minute rescue that culminates in a long chase scene and a fight high up in a construction site.
The final film in this first set is The Pyjama Girl Case (1977), written and directed by Flavio Mogherini, that draws inspiration from the real life mystery surrounding the murder of Linda Agostini in Australia in the 1930s. This fictionalised version of the story finds a young woman’s body being found on a Sydney beach, her face ruined beyond recognition, with only a set a silken pyjamas and a cloth sack with a few grains of rice as the only clues.
Whilst the more modern and forward thinking members of the police force try to figure out the woman’s identity, a retired police inspector volunteers to help on the case. This begins one of the central clashes of the movie as the old rubs up against the new. The retired inspector dislikes the modern way of doing things, and the men investigating the case dislike the inspector acting on hunches and making leaps of deduction.
This film also feels a little different from other Giallo movies I’ve seen. Other Giallo films almost revel in moments of violence and spend time lingering on images of sex and female nudity; and whilst this film does these things too, it also does something when it comes times to trying to identify the victim. As with what happened in the real case, the police put the body on public display to try and get people to come forward. The naked, embalmed body of the brutally murdered woman is put on full display in a shopping centre, where the public are allowed to come and stare at her, ogling her naked form and her ruined face from every angle. It’s a pretty grim scene, and one that pushes the absurdity and horrificness of this idea, almost challenging the audience about their enjoyment of the murder and nudity on offer in the film.
The Pyjama Girl Case at times feels like it’s trying to make some kind of point, that the scene in the shopping centre, the conflict between the old and new policing, and a brutal and off-putting sex scene towards the climax of the film (no pun intended), seem to be challenging the normal tropes of the genre. Unfortunately, it never really feels like it’s decided on what point it’s trying to make, and as such the film just comes off as very unsettling.
Alongside the films, this new set comes with a host of special features, including full length commentaries on each movie by critics and film historians, and interviews with cast and crew from the films. These are the kinds of extras that I enjoy, and often give a lot more insight into the films and how they fit into the history and culture of Giallo and cinema. However, as I was only supplied with digital versions of the film I can’t speak to how in-depth or informative these extras are.
Giallo Essentials: Red Edition is an interesting set with three films that all feel very different from each other, giving the viewer insight into how broad and different Giallo can be. With so many other films in the genre on offer I’m certainly interested in seeing how the rest of this series will continue, and what other films we’ll be treated to.
Giallo Essentials (Red Edition) is out on Blu-ray on 8th November from Arrow Video.