GIALLO CINEMA AND IT’S FOLKTALE ROOTS (Sevastakis 2016), Book Review

Giallo Cinema and Its Folktale Roots: A Critical Study of 10 Films, 1962-1987 Book Review

In ‘Giallo Cinema and Its Folktale Roots’ (affiliate link), Michael Sevastakis takes ten films from 1962 through 1987 and compares their plots with Vladimir Propp’s study of the narrative structure of folk tales. In each one, he picks ten sample plot points to illustrate the connection. Interestingly, to provide balance to the book, Sevastakis begins with a Mario Bava film and ends with one from Lamberto Bava, Mario’s son. This was no doubt intentional.

Gavin and Lamberto Bava 2009
Throwback: Gavin and Lamberto Bava, 2009

There are some odd things about the finished book. The films are all said to be easily accessible, and that may be true, but of all the gialli out there, it seems odd to include lesser-known films like “Seven Shawls of Yellow Silk”. The choice of Dario Argento’s “Opera” is also strange — the iconic image makes for a great book cover, but if one were to pick only a single film to represent Argento, it might be “Cat o’ Nine Tails” or “Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, far more pure gialli. These aren’t really negative aspects of the book, just oddities that can probably be written off as a matter of taste.

My biggest concern with the book is not about anything Sevastakis chose to include (or not include), but the narrative ideas of Vladimir Propp. Sevastakis successfully finds parallels between the films and folk tales, but with Propp offering more than 30 examples of plot points, it seems that just about any story, novel or film could find some parallels. Perhaps the giallo is more in tune with folk tales because there is a “villain” and often some sort of morality, but Propp’s generalizations make for plenty of wiggle room.

What I love about “Giallo Cinema” is how Sevastakis goes beyond his core thesis (the folk tale aspect), and also touches on other themes in the giallo film. He stresses the huge impact that Alfred Hitchcock had on the genre. “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (often considered the first giallo) obviously borrowed its name from Hitchcock, but Sevastakis shows where there are parallels with “Vertigo”, “Psycho” and others. Dario Argento said his biggest influences were the silent films of Lang and Murnau, but even he succumbs to Hitchcock in the most obvious way — his “Rear Window” homage, “Do You Like Hitchcock?”

We are also given other influences that are less obvious. Was “Girl Who Knew Too Much” inspired in part by Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey”? Does “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” have Marxist themes or draw from the art of Francis Bacon?

Sevastakis repeatedly brings up the topic of feminism. He explains how “Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh” (1970) “attacks patriarchal bourgeois values and family relations which are presented as avaricious and deceitful.” And in “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971) a character “is conscious of the ways in which she is oppressed by the patriarchy”. And “Strip Nude for Your Killer” (1975) puts the issue of back alley abortions front and center. I was not aware that Italian feminism was in its “infancy” in 1972, and even today the rights of women in Italy lag behind the rest of Europe. This really calls into question how women are treated in the giallo film, or Italian cinema as a whole. Are the films a reflection of their culture, or a revolt against it? Sevastakis claims (and I assume this is correct) that feminism reached its peak between 1974-1978, as the giallo craze was dying. Did the rise of feminism help in killing off one of the biggest genres (or subgenres) of the 1970s?

Perhaps related to the role of women, Sevastakis brings up the “trope” of the fashion industry, seen in several Italian horror films from “Blood and Black Lace” (1962) to “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times” (1972) and beyond. There is the running theme of a blind man (sometimes a blind detective), or at the very least someone who saw (or heard) something incorrectly. And, of course, there is the mysterious product placement of J&B that shows up throughout the giallo subgenre. Although these are only mentioned in passing (the focus is on folk tales, remember), any of them could be expanded to a full-length examination. There is nothing strange about having films with the fashion industry in the background (Italy is a fashion center), but how does that specifically play into the horror or mystery elements? As Sevastakis notes, the use of cameras in such films shows up in “Peeping Tom” and “Rear Window” among others, so it’s not strictly an Italian theme.

The most interesting theme, at least in my opinion, is the treatment of the Roman Catholic Church. For obvious geographic reasons, the Church is powerful and highly respected in Italy. But the giallo often turns this on its head. Perhaps most notoriously in Lucio Fulci’s “Don’t Torture a Duckling”, the Church and its priests have been portrayed horribly in such films as “Seven Orchids Stained in Red”, “Who Saw Her Die?” and “The Bloodstained Shadow”. Sevastakis even reminds us there was a subgenre called “nunsploitation”, with the best-known perhaps being “Killer Nun”. In a small way, the subgenre pops up now and then even today, with such films as Joseph Guzman’s “Nude Nuns With Big Guns” (2010).

Did this review go off course from the book’s central thesis? You bet it did. But that’s precisely what makes Michael Sevastakis’ Giallo Cinema and Its Folktale Roots (affiliate link) a strong addition to giallo literature. He not only thoroughly covers his own subject, but offers a foothold for others who may be looking for future topics to explore. A delightful and must-have value for any fan of Italian cinema.

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