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Giallo (2009)

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Dario Argento
Adrien Brody
Emmanualle Seigner
Elsa Pataky
Byron Deidra
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It's no secret around these parts that I'm an enormous Dario Argento fan.  “Inferno” is my all-time favourite film and I count “Suspiria” as being probably the most important film I've ever seen, in terms of developing my tastes in horror cinema.  I'm a guy who's been known to do the full Argentothon – that is to sit and watch all his films in chronological order, consecutively, without a break.  I've yet to meet an Argento film I didn't like – even lesser works give me great pleasure, whether it's the insane exploitation romp of “Mother of Tears”, straight-ahead thriller “The Card Player”, or sub-de Palma Hitchock-riffs of “Do You Like Hitchcock?”.  In one of my early reviews on this site, I said that I thought Argento was incapable of making a truly bad or boring film.  And it tears me up inside to report that it turns out, actually I was wrong.  “Giallo” is the weakest film Argento's ever directed, and quite possibly the worst film ever to bear his name - and I'm including producing credits such as “Demons 2” in that.

For what it's worth, the plot revolves around the deranged pattern killer Yellow (Byron Deidra) who kidnaps beautiful women and holds them captive for a couple of days whilst slowly disfiguring them before dumping the bodies.  When he kidnaps American model Celine (Pataky), her airline stewardess sister Linda (Seigner) tries to help the investigating Inspector Avolfi (Brody) to track down the mysterious killer.

Where to start with the post-mortem on “Giallo”?  Well, probably the best place is with its origins in a script by Americans Jim Agnew and Sean Keller.  Although the script was apparently re-written by Argento (and indeed the film bears the credit “written and directed by Dario Argento” - possibly the most depressing film credit I've ever seen), having read the original screenplay since watching the film, I have to report that changes from script to screen are pretty minimal.  As such, a huge chunk of the blame for the failure of the film must lie with them.  As a script, “Giallo” seems to completely misunderstand what actually makes giallos work.  The term giallo or course, refers to that particularly Italian type of lurid, pulp horror thrillers which were hugely popular in the 60's and 70's, taking their name from the similar cheap paperbacks with yellow covers.  People have argued that “Giallo” technically isn't actually a giallo, since it lacks the whodunnit element that the genre is famous for.  I don't entirely buy into that – if “Giallo” was a book, it would most assuredly be a cheap yellow-covered paperback.  However, by eliminating the whodunnit element, the script manages to miss the most engaging trait of pretty much every successful giallo.  What we're left with is a simple race against time locate the killer thriller, bizarrely owing more to “Silence of the Lambs” than any Italian horror I've yet come across.  Indeed, as Avolfi and Linda try to break down Yellow's motivation, the psychological profiling calls to mind “Lambs” and it's many imitators – but as rewritten by a 12 year old.

What this locate-the-killer approach means is that there's precious little room in the script for the kind of set-piece stalking/killing sequences for which giallo's (and those of Argento in particular) are justly famous.  Whilst the opening 10 minutes or so are actually pretty strong, with Marco Werba's driving Herrmann-influenced score propelling the film along with a real sense of momentum, once Yellow has captured Celine neither Argento nor the script seem to know what to do next.  It quickly  boils down to a clumsy clichéd police procedural, in which Brody's renegade Inspector Avolfi doesn't do any actual detective work, but merely wanders from scene to scene waiting for people to tell him stuff, and then allows Linda to do all the deduction.  And impressive deduction it is too, random 'turning over two pages at once' leaps, which Avolfi swallows as hard facts immediately.  Of course, giallo cinema is not exactly known for its logical, plausible scripts, but those illogicalities were always in service of trying to make the killers identity unpredictable, or to allow room for some surreal flourish or extended horror set-pieces.  “Giallo” has none of those things, so all we're left with is a bunch of badly-drawn characters doing things which consistently make little plausible sense, and spouting inane, clichéd dialogue.  And that's it.  It's as though the writers have picked up on all the things that Argento's detractors commonly criticise, made sure to feature all of them prominently, and then consciously removed all the things that make his work great.

There's an interesting interview with co-writer Sean Keller online, in which he says that at least part of the script (specifically the backstory of Brody's character) was written so as to be deliberately preposterous and that it was intended to be funny.  Obviously I can't say how much of that may be revisionism after the fact, but there's stuff in the script (notably that backstory) that is laughably stupid – whether that's deliberate or not is something of a moot point.  And writing a scene so implausibly stupid just to generate laughs is condescending to both the genre and the audience.  In fairness to the writers though, the scene is less ridiculous on the page than it winds up being onscreen, and the funniest lines of dialogue (“I've got you, you yellow fuck”, “I explained...he understood”, “These are good locks”) are not actually present in the script – and neither is the embarassing wanking scene.

So, the script is a lumbering mis-judged mess.  What else has gone wrong?  Well, the next big thing which leaps to mind is the casting of Byron Deidra as Yellow.  With a ridiculously bad make-up job (well, what can you do with a nose that big?), his performance is mind-bogglingly bad.  Every line delivery, every movement is pure comedy genius.  He is an utterly ridiculous killer, and any chance the film had of working disappears as soon as he arrives onscreen.  What's more, since the budget doesn't stretch to digital manipulation, he can never actually appear onscreen at the same time as Brody's Avolfi, once again severely limiting any opportunity for the generation of suspense during their confrontations.  Allegedly the actor was quite heavy-handed in using his influence as a producer (including the nixing of Argento's composer of choice Claudio Simonetti), and if we're supposed to take this film remotely seriously then as a vanity project it's a hideous, brain-melting nuclear disaster.  As Avolfi, Brody does little but stare into middle distance and chainsmoke (another touch not in the script), but that's about the level of the material. 

OK, so the Argentophile in me cannot help but trawl through the film in the hope of finding something, anything, to cling onto and praise.  But it's slim, slim pickings this time.  As noted above, the first 10 minutes or so has a real sense of momentum to them, and I quite liked some of the shots with the camera fixed to the outside of the taxi.  The first yellow-tinged flashback has some fluid rotating steadicam work reminiscent of “Opera” and “Trauma”, although it's only a for a couple of shots.  There's a nastily intense moment involving a lip and a pair of shears which is quite effective because of what it doesn't show.  And as a fan of big music in films, I actually quite liked Marco Werba's blaring score, even though it's often distractingly over-emphatic.  Having said all that, I could go through pretty much every Uwe Boll film and find isolated moments like those to cling to.  And I never thought I'd be comparing Argento to Boll.

Ultimately, and this is something which really saddens me, the only way to enjoy “Giallo” is in a so-bad-it's-good way.  I've spent the past few days since seeing it desperately trying to comprehend how Argento could have wound up making a film as mind-bogglingly inept, nonsensical and ludicrous as this. Producer interference and condescending scripting can only go so far.  The only thing my Argentophile side can cling onto is the suggestion that it's actually a spoof.  A very sly, subversive spoof which is played completely straight.  In which case, it may just be comic genius.  But ultimately whether it's a laughably bad film deliberately or accidentally doesn't change the fact that it's just plain bad.  The fact that Argento has virtually disowned it and refused to do any publicity for it speaks volumes.  Even if it is deliberate, then what we're looking at is Argento pretending to be Lamberto Bava or Bruno Mattei.  Now, aside from doing a spot of rubbernecking, why would anyone want that?

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