There are so many things wrong with Dario Argento’s latest film that one suspects he may become utterly irrelevant if he doesn’t find something to recapture his mojo.
Giallo was billed as the director’s return to form, but it’s really a snapshot of a respected pioneer struggling to find an identity in an age where nothing really shocks. Torture porn has inured audiences to the kind of elegant mayhem Argento used to craft in big screen and big sound productions, but as his own creativity as a writer started to evaporate a while ago – witness his career nadir, Terza madre, La / Mother of Tears, The (2007) – he’s started to rely on the ideas of hacks, much in the way John Carpenter settles for rubbish ideas scribbled by fanboys with nary an original idea to challenge the director (as with his Masters of Horror episode Pro Life).
There’s a lengthy essay worth writing about horror pioneers who’ve been relegated to cheap productions that go straight to the video shelves with little fanfare (even for fans), but here the case study is Argento, and a movie no one seemed to care about because of its quality, or they recognized the horror market has no place for veterans like Carpenter, Wes Craven, or George Romero.
Giallo is a play on the Italian word for the colour yellow, which is also the genre of violent serial killer films Argento pioneered in the late sixties, as well as the nickname for yellow-spined pulp thrillers Italian critics applied to Argento’s work, notably his directorial debut, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in 1968. (The paperbacks are also important textural elements in Argento’s last decent script, Do You Like Hitchcock?)
Yellow is also the keyword a victim tells Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody) before she dies, and later becomes vital in identifying the ugly, jaundiced serial killer who stalks and disfigures beautiful women because he’s jealous of their perfect form.
That’s essentially the main plot – jealous taxi driver hunts, abducts and mutilates pretty doves – but being a giallo, there has to be a latent trauma that affects a main character.
In films such as Deep Red (1974) and Sleepless (2001), Argento has the serial killer experience a childhood trauma wherein someone dies, and the horror hardens the killer into committing cruel acts with zero remorse. Giallo’s twist places the trauma on the shoulders of its hero: Enzo, who watched his mother get stabbed by a stranger.
Years later fate brings the teen Enzo face to face with his mother’s killer, and he plots and executes a killing. Rather than go to jail or grow up into a serial killer, the passing cop (Robert Miano, terribly underused) protects him, cleans up the evidence, and redirects Enzo into the police force, where the adult ex-killer uses his own dark episode to solve Torino’s nastiest cases.
It’s an interesting twist in Argento’s standard template (as well as the genre), but Argento doesn’t know what to do with it. Enzo broods and he’s a chilly asshole who shows no empathy for Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner), the woman who eventually hangs around to help find clues that’ll rescue her sister from the killer’s carpentry tools.
Brody recognized the conflicts he could exploit as an actor – and he tries – but the dialogue, the lack of introspective scenes, nor Argento’s direction gave him any opportunities to build Enzo into a complex anti-hero. Brody often paces across rooms and hallways because there’s nothing for him to do, and Argento has no idea how to dramatize internal struggles aside from the obligatory, amber-hued flashbacks that gradually reveal Enzo’s troubled childhood.
The one scene that does work – belatedly – has Enzo walking away from Linda after the killer’s fall through a window (appropriated from Argento’s Cat ‘O Nine Tails). She berates him for misleading her, and allowing the killer to die before they could learn of the sister’s whereabouts. Argento holds the camera on Brody’s face, and covers the seething anguish and rage the actor is trying to quietly emote as he walks away from the crime scene.
Lisa is a wan attempt to riff on the awkward coupling of a man and women in a crime investigation, as was done in Deep Red and Hitchcock. Different in this incarnation is that it’s a crime that brings the unlikely pair together, but there’s never any romance. The lack of affection is natural to Enzo – he still keeps the knife he used on his mother’s killer in his desk drawer, an impractical and dangerous idea, if not stupid for a seasoned detective – but his outright hostility against Linda is unnecessary and inexplicable.
A scene where he covers his sleeping partner with a blanket is meant to show he disallows any human interaction, but it doesn’t explain why he treats her like shit when he knows the kind of sadism the killer will mete out on her sister - a pretty model snatched on the way to meet Linda.
There’s a minor correlating scene in a restaurant, but it’s purpose is to have Enzo explain his own murderous past, but its problem lies in a judgment call made by the character: Enzo’s opening line is ‘I know what it’s like to lose someone,’ which presumes the sister is now dead, and there’s nothing neither he nor Linda can do.
Linda doesn’t protest to his stance, even though it’s her sister’s continuing struggle to stay alive that keeps Linda going, if not Enzo. That’s sloppy direction, and the film is filled with them. Giallo is about a serial killer, yet Enzo describes their suspect as a “pattern killer” that sounds like a mistranslation from the script by newcomers Jim Agnew and Sean Keller, who also penned John Carpenter’s L.A. Gothic (which played to a disappointed audience at TIFF’s Midnight Madness in September of 2010.)
Argento provides a secondary flashback to cover the killer’s past, but it starts with his mother shooting drugs - something the killer couldn’t have remembered while he was in utero - and dropping the baby off at a convent in a shopping bag, which an infant Enzo couldn’t have remembered in such detail.
The killer may have a hatred for “beautiful things” but he doesn’t know what do to with them. After drugging them and dragging them back to his lair, he grabs the odd appliance and nicks, cuts and clips things, but Argento never follows through in depicting the trauma – either onscreen, or in the pictures the killer takes with an unwieldy still camera to jerk off from his laptop.
Never mind the use of a still camera (Why doesn’t he use video, since it captures the screams he clearly relishes while he has his victims?). With the exception of a hammer-to-the-head arrack, and garden clippers on a finger, most of what happens is off-screen and implied, and one suspects Argento didn’t like the Saw-like torment because it’s not native to his version of a proper giallo.
Giallo clearly invokes the tropes of torture porn, but it’s not part of Argento’s oeuvre, and he clearly finds the concept of a killer grabbing women, strapping them to a makeshift medical table and cutting them up stupid, so he circumvents the details native to that genre. (Those clichés – beautiful women in prolonged torment – are what Lamberto Bava focused on in his own ‘pattern killer’ idiocy, The Torturer, in 2005.)
A perfect example of Argento’s discomfort occurs with a Japanese bubblehead victim, whom the killer snatches in the film’s opening sequence. He grabs clippers and pulls on her lip, but Argento pulls the camera away because torture for the sake of torture has no potential for visual or musical elegance.
When she’s found by the police, instead of seeing missing lips or dental trauma, there’s merely dried blood over frayed flesh. In torture porn, even implied trauma would’ve had a correlation with a glimpse of utterly gruesome prosthetics, something Argento has indulged in before, such as the clarinet-mouth-mashing in Sleepless, and the throat cutting or boyfriend butchery in Opera. The lack of such details means the director was either lazy, or the lack of elegant carnage in the torment rendered a need to show post-traumatic details redundant.
Giallo’s victims are wholly disposable, even Linda’s sister Celine, whose annoying dialogue mostly consists of “Stop the fucking car!” “You’re ugly” and “You’re horrible!” If you’re tied to a table and you’ve watched him disfigure and kill someone, isn’t it prudent not to call your ugly tormentor ugly? Her behaviour can only be regarded as the filmmaker’s lame cinematic translation of a spirited woman willing to fight back because she still has life. No wonder the killer injects a tranquilizer into her tongue soon after.
Argento’s later efforts to impart some empathy for Celine comes off as bathos: stumbling out from the abandoned gas works where she’s been held, she pauses to look at the sun, and re-appreciate the beauty of green leaves.
That whole sequence is also lazily directed because it not only lacks visual flair – Argento makes no effort to create geometrically striking compositions using the location’s odd architecture – but he also misses the horrible irony of the heroine: she’s literally a few meters away from a busy street where she can find safety. Other scenes in an opera house or the building where the killer tumbles to his death are photographed with some style, but the lighting by Frederic Fasano (Scarlet Diva) is flat, and his attempts to create a muted colour palette yield sometimes over-lit scenes where there’s glare on surfaces (as in Enzo’s confession scene with Linda).
The killer is also a peculiar creation that’s supposed to symbolize Enzo’s twin brother, separated at birth. That’s’ not the case, but Brody playing the killer (billed under the anagram of Byron Deidra) doesn’t work because even under the mediocre mask it’s obviously Brody’s nose, eyes, and his low voice speaking broken English with a hard Italian accent.
It initially feels like a trick designed for a twist where the two rivals are revealed to share the same genetic makeup (maybe Brody was a twin birthed by the drug-head and adopted by his mother in an earlier draft?) or the physical similarities between the two rivals was a deliberate attempt to show how two traumatized boys grew up and handled their past pain very differently.
(It wouldn’t be the first time Argento’s shooting script showed undeveloped ideas from prior drafts. Third Mother is filled with concepts that were rewritten over several years, resulting in an incoherent disaster.)
It’s fairly obvious the killer is played by Brody because in the rooftop fight, we never see the killer and Enzo fighting in one shot.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Giallo is the total lack of any bravura murder sequence, particularly in the opening – almost mandatory in every Argento film. The fact the director fades out from a wide shot of the taxi after the Japanese bubblehead is incapacitated inside the foggy car is a shock.
Beyond the death of Enzo’s mother, there is no elaborate murder sequence, and it’s baffling as to why Argento chose to produce this script, even with his own editorial input.
One can argue he wanted a change from his usual formula, but the lack of any visceral or kinetic montage leaves Giallo as a slow-moving snoozer. Phenomena (1985) may be bizarre and ridiculous, but it’s hardly dull, and Giallo is incredulously boring – something the director hasn’t been since his collaboration with Luigi Cozzi on Four Flies in Grey Velvet (1971) and the 3 weak episodes in the TV quartet Door into Darkness (1973).
Marco Werba’s score also fails to create any tension, and one suspects he chose to score against the action in place of the film’s subtext; there is a sense of unwavering unease, but the largely orchestral score lacks the dynamism needed for such a dramatically flat film. Argento’s longtime composer Claudio Simonetti wrote one of his worst score for Third Mother, but he’s sorely missed in Giallo, particularly during stalking scenes where Argento uses editing, voyeurism and some visual style to keep audiences watching a perversely fascinating kill sequence.
Giallo also had a troubled history, and the repercussions also harmed its chances at a theatrical release in North America. In January of 2008, Ray Liotta was announced to play Enzo, Vincent Gallo as the killer (‘Gallo in Giallo’), and Asia Argento to play Linda. By April, Liotta was out, with Brody filling the role of Enzo. Then Gallo bowed out, as well as Asia Argento (the pair apparently had issues after their aborted wedding engagement), with Seigner now starring as Linda, and the killer left to be tackled by Brody, who probably received a big paycheck for doing double-duty as hero / sicko.
A week into production, rumours of financing issues hit, but while the film was eventually completed, there were further rumours of the film’s producers meddling with Argento’s edit, and the upper-level talent (stars + director) weren’t being paid their contractual amounts. Brody’s deal was abrogated, yet his pay-or-play agreement also gave him rights to control his likeness in the event of non-payment, hence his efforts in November of 2010 to successfully stall the film’s release on DVD in North America.
Bizarrely, Giallo was already available months prior to the U.S. release date this fall of October 19th at Blockbuster, but it’s distribution in North America is more complex, stemming back to an early 2008 report in which the Weinsteins agreed to distribute the film, since they were handling Argento’s soon-to-be completed Mother of Tears, and had nabbed the North American rights for Suspiria, which premiered in a restored 30th anniversary edition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
Perhaps in realizing the disaster that became Mother of Tears, Giallo never got its big screen release, and the film went straight to video outlets, with U.S. firm Maya Entertainment handling the U.S. DVD for a street date of Oct. 19, and Entertainment One the Canadian DVD for the post-Halloween date of Nov.2. Giallo’s DVD debut didn’t even occur in Argento’s native Italy: the film premiered in 2009 in Brazil and Poland.
(The upshot of this mess for Argento is while two of his worst films are available on home video, his best - the restored Suspiria - isn’t. The Weinsteins, in their typically cruel habit of sitting on acquired product, seem to be playing a daft waiting game as they developed a wholly unnecessary remake for a planned 2012 release.)
Also aggravating the film’s situation is the publicity campaign. The Canadian cover is ugly and is a generic stars-only cover that says nothing of the film, and the U.S. equivalent – finally available in the U.S., after Brody and the film’s co-producers settled - is a slightly more elegant variation; in neither version is Argento’s name given prominence.
Brody has an Oscar, and his contract may have given him Supreme Billing in all English campaign art, but it’s like giving Ray Milland top billing for Dial M for Murder, and burying ‘An Alfred Hitchcock Film’ somewhere in the fine print. The following French blog features a selection of international posters. At least the Japanese poster has style, and the Italian puts the director’s name where it belongs. (It’s also weird how Seigner resembles Nicolette Sheridan, but let's stay away from that.)
Aside from a flat visual style, the sound mix is shockingly bland. Every sound element has been mixed down into a balanced but unaffecting mix. With no punch in Werba’s score, Giallo ranks as one of the blandest 5.1 mixes in Argento’s canon. Perhaps Argento should’ve re-watched Suspiria to reacquaint himself with the use of sound with which he used to love to tickle his audiences in the dark.
The entire production was tailor made for the video rental market, and it begs the question: Has Argento rendered himself irrelevant, or is he the victim of increasingly habitual problems that prevent a pioneer from reasserting himself in the horror genre?
It’s really painful to watch a legend creatively desiccate. Absolutely disheartening.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan