Giallo and the US Slasher
Last week we released the 2nd part of our Halloween special, looking at the Halloween franchise, and this week we thought we would post an some horror academia from our producer and contributor Nick looking at US slashers and the Italian giallo films...
Examine the relationship between the Italian giallo and the US slasher film
The relationship between the Italian giallo and the North American slasher film is one of the most complex in horror. Superficially, it should be a simple task to discuss their relationship. There are clear similarities between the genres, none more so than their shared focus on the visceral trauma that a knife can inflict on a victim. In part, this is because the slasher emerged from a reaction to Halloween (1978) with North American filmmakers attempting to emulate its style and its impact, and maybe most importantly as its director John Carpenter suggests, its monetary success. And Halloween, was by all accounts deeply and fundamentally inspired by the giallo genre and in particular the work of Dario Argento. It should be therefore an undemanding task unpacking the nature of the relationship between the two genres; as clearly the giallo inspired the development of the slasher. And yet this is not the case, in part because these genres are so interlinked that attempting to demarcate their differences can become a difficult task.
There is not an abundance of film criticism looking at the relationship between the two genres, with most analysis going only so far as to detail that the giallo had a profound influence on the slasher. And yet, there is an almost unspoken acceptance within the criticism of these two genres that these styles of filmmaking are distinct. Some might suggest that this is because the giallo is not truly a genre of filmmaking as we consider genres in Anglo-American film studies. It is rather a ‘filone,’ part of a tradition of ever-changing cycle of “currents and trends.” A site that can be characterised by flexibility and change; which is of course exactly what genre studies in Anglo-American film criticism have spent decades pointing to the genre being, a state that “change[s] over time.” In simpler terms, the differences that distinguish these genres is not found in the abstractions of theoretical linguistics. They are in the formal conventions that demarcate clearly why the two genres are distinct from one another, and why we should not consider the giallo to be the Italian slasher or vice versa the slasher as the American giallo.
Therefore, it is the aim of this essay to determine the exact relationship between the giallo and the slasher. In doing so, this essay will look closely at the influence Argento’s Deep Red/Profundo Rosso (1975) exerted on Carpenter’s Halloween. These two films, both classics in their respective genres will form the foundation to this study and will provide a comparative discussion structured around looking first at the influence of the giallo on the slasher, before addressing how formal differences have emerged between the genres.
Deep Red had a significant impact on the formal development of the slasher film, as Rachel Bowles writes, it was the film that “strongly” influenced “American slasher flicks, most notably John Carpenter’s Halloween.” This can be understood from the relationship between the opening scenes of Halloween and Deep Red. The opening to Halloween functions both as an homage to Deep Red but also as a statement of difference. The introductory scene to Halloween mirrors structures, themes, and the mise-en-scène to the opening to Deep Red representing clearly the influence the giallo film had on the slasher. However, more importantly the opening scene in Halloween also establishes key points of difference that when looked at closer can help us understand not only the similarities between these two genres but distinguishable and unique approaches to similar subjects. This is an argument that can be better understood by looking closer at both opening scenes through close textual analysis.
One is immediately struck by the similarities in the opening scenes to these two films as structurally speaking both opening scenes depict memories or representations of the past through a focus on childhood experience. Each opening scene portrays a child (Michael Myers in Halloween; and as we later find out in the narrative of Deep Red, Carlo) experience a traumatic event.
In Deep Red, the camera is in a static position at ground-height and is filming a domestic scene that has been interrupted by a violent altercation depicted solely through silhouettes inflected onto domestic sights: a dinner table set out, and a Christmas tree with presents underneath. These images are chosen to signal to the audience a sense of the domestic and the familial, the concept of Christmas providing the notion of a family coming together, which is compounded by the non-diegetic of a childlike doggerel. The silhouettes are immersed in a silent struggle, one of the shadows holds out a long kitchen knife and can be seen lifting it up and thrusting it repeatedly into the chest of the other figure. The victim’s silhouette crumples out of sight. The knife drops in-front of the camera, covered in blood, the sound of it hitting the floor is the one diegetic sound in this sequence. A child (Carlo) in black shoes and white socks approaches the knife and the sequence fades to black.
The scene manages to capture the feeling of childhood trauma that Carlo experiences through the mise-en-scène. The camera’s refusal to look directly at the violent interaction and the sound of the non-diegetic doggerel creates the sense of trauma as “unrepresentable and unspeakable.” There is a “representational void,” as the violence takes on an almost fantastical element being played out as shadows across the familial scene, until this denial cannot be sustained, the knife drops to the floor shattering the non-diegetic escapism and then Carlo approaches the knife. The sequence perfectly emulates a feeling of childhood trauma, an attempt to escape the “unrepresentable and unspeakable” and the inevitability of being unable to. This is a representation of childhood trauma that is mirrored in Halloween through Michael’s murder of his sister.
Halloween’s opening scene begins in a similar manner to Deep Red, set in the childhood past of Michael Myers. The camera is in Michael’s POV as he approaches his suburban home. He watches unseen from the window as his teenage sister Judith flirts with her boyfriend in the family living room. The couple go up to her room and Michael enters the house through the kitchen. He opens a drawer and grabs a long kitchen knife. Michael quietly moves across the house and watches as the boyfriend leaves, and then approaches his sister’s room. Michael grabs his clown mask from the floor and puts it on. The POV becomes limited to just two narrow eye slots. He watches his sister, half-naked. She notices him and he begins attacking her, stabbing blindly at her until she is lying dead. Michael backs away from the body and runs outside the house where his parents pull up in their car. His father approaches him and grabs the mask off Michael’s face. The camera switches position and cuts to a shot of Michael’s face as he looks blankly wearing a distant and shocked expression. The camera begins to dolly upwards as we watch Michael and his parents try to come to term with what he has done.
Like Deep Red, the opening scene to Halloween is structured around the memory of childhood trauma. Michael in the last shot of the sequence is portrayed as someone frozen in place, the world moves around him but he is stuck in this same emotional position as represented by the camera moving away from him; as the character Dr Loomis explains later in the film “Michael’s body has attained maturity, his mind remains frozen in infantile fury.” The opening sequence to Halloween functions to evoke in the audience the sense of trauma, the inability to move past an event, and as the narrative suggests the continual need to re-enact and re-engage with what he both committed and witnessed; “a traditional traumatic cycle in which an individual or a collective obsessively relives an event until its meaning can be determined.”
Therefore, one can begin to clearly see that there are significant links between the opening of Deep Red and Halloween. Michael and Carlo share a childhood experience that is defined by trauma. Michael who “is so enraged at his sister (evidently for her sexual relations with her boyfriend) that he stabs her to death,” which appears to mirror Carlo’s own experience watching as his parents struggle, and his father is eventually stabbed, the knife falling in-front of his feet. Childhood trauma informs the opening sequence, whether it is a (over-)reaction to seeing his sister engage in sexual relations or a reaction to his parent’s murder, childhood experience as trauma is foregrounded within the structures of the opening scene through a relationship to murder. This is an idea that can be further explored by looking at how both sequences’ depiction of the childhood trauma is situated within the domestic household.
Each representation of childhood trauma in the opening scenes is codified in their respective scenes as being in a familial location that is then inverted from its usual feelings of safety and home through violence. This can be seen from the location of both scenes; in Halloween the suburban American household becomes Michael’s stalking-ground as he watches and tracks his sister and her boyfriend both inside and out of the house. The feeling of safety that the home is meant to signify becomes sinister, a location of voyeurism and extreme violence. This is exactly the same as in Deep Red, although located to one shot, a family location codified with imagery that connotes a sense of the family coming together (the family meal and the Christmas decorations) becomes the site of a violent altercation which is explicitly inflected onto these familial-props. Furthermore, this idea of the family home becoming something sinister and traumatic is compounded by the weapon chosen in both films. Halloween and Deep Red use a kitchen knife to further connote the sense of the familial transitioning into a traumatic place, the familiar and the safe being inverted. It is notable that both films focus on this domestic item as being the means through which trauma is acted out. In doing so, imagery and themes of the family home are associated in both films as being linked to, and the site of, traumatic childhood memory.
Clearly, as one can see there are more than a few passing similarities between the openings of Deep Red and Halloween. What one can further begin to comprehend is that the giallo evidently had a role in influencing the structure and aesthetic considerations of Carpenter’s slasher masterpiece. The images of childhood trauma, the site of the family home, and the expression of violence and repression through the kitchen knife all mark the stylistic and thematic interests that link these two similar genres together. However, what is particularly interesting to consider about these opening scenes is not just their similarities, of which there are plenty, but the distinct differences in approaches that demarcate just how unique these genres can be in expressing and exploring similar themes.
In Halloween, the use and representation of childhood trauma and its link to memory deeply associates the film with Deep Red. And yet, there are distinct differences in how they approach and use this traumatic event. Stylistically, the representations of trauma are starkly contrasted. In Deep Red, there is a sense of the surreal or fantastical to the depiction of violence: its use of diegetic music and shadows all work to create a feeling of the unreal, in an attempt to depict the feeling of distance that Carlo is attempting to gain from what he is seeing. Whereas in Halloween the use of POV (a general stylistic similarity to the giallo genre) is deployed in order to emphasise and underscore the sense of reality to this experience. There is no escaping the trauma in Halloween, the cinematography unlike in Deep Red wants you to witness and be a part of what is about to happen. In part, this is because this representation suggests a wider difference in how the genres approach their killers.
How trauma is represented in these two opening scenes indicates the primary motivation of how the film wants its audience to engage with the narrative. Michael is established as the killer in Halloween, there is no mystery to who he is. However, in Deep Red, the film only reveals its killer’s identity in the final act. It refuses to show the viewer who the child is in the opening scene because it wants the audience to keep engaging with the mystery at the core of the film. This is because the two different genres are focused on entirely different feelings and motivations; survival and exploration.
Typically, the slasher is not concerned with the mystery of who its killer is, with a classic slasher like Black Christmas (1974) going so far as to not even reveal to the audience at the end of the film the identity of its killer. The slasher is more interested in the feeling of survival, it is the relationship between the killer and the protagonist, the game of ‘cat and mouse’ that the two play as the hero attempts to survive. The giallo, is however, a mystery film. The mysteries might, like in Blood and Black Lace (1964), be second to the spectacle of murder, but it is nevertheless the primary narrative structure that a giallo film engages with. It is, in other words, the feeling of discovery that motivates Deep Red, finding out who this child is, finding out who the killer truly is. These two representations of childhood trauma despite being similar are approached with contrasting motivations. In Deep Red it is to hook the audience into the mystery that underpins the film, whilst in Halloween it represents an explanation, a means for the audience to understand who Michael is, and to realise the danger he represents. This is a structural difference in the genres that also finds form in how both of these films approach the Holidays.
Both opening scenes are set around Holidays (Christmas and Halloween) but their approaches to how this is represented are juxtaposed. In Deep Red, the Christmas decorations in the opening scene function solely as signifiers to the familial, operating purely to suggest a sense of feeling to the audience. They are, in other words, not central to the narrative, like the representation of the holidays is to Halloween. Whereas there is little visual representation of it being Halloween night, the event becomes a central component to the narrative. Halloween night becomes linked within Michael’s childhood trauma, a necessary part to how he can keep re-enacting and re-engaging with his experience. This is a representation in the opening scene that suggests a wider difference that demarcates the giallo and the slasher narrative.
The slasher has become associated with the notion of an event-film, it is a genre that is generally set around a notable date. This has an effect of the narrative structure of the film, as story events are compressed within one-night, or across a few nights. This compact narrative is suited to creating a story based around survival, as it provides the conditions for the characters to be confronted with the opportunity to survive until daybreak. For instance, in Halloween, Laurie Strode has to attempt to survive Halloween night. Conversely, in the giallo, it is not about an event, the narrative instead takes place over days, weeks, and even months as the mystery surrounding the killer and their reasoning is slowly unravelled. This has a further effect that differentiates the two genres as these contrasting narratives create conditions for difference protagonists.
The two contrasting narrative experiences creates different protagonists within the giallo and the slasher. The slasher, associated with survival and the feeling of helplessness against the killer, is frequently represented by a protagonist who is predominantly a teenage girl. And through their narrative-experience on surviving the traumatic events of the night become what was termed by the feminist theoretical critic Carol Clover as the “final girl.” As Carol states:
The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or the Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again.
This protagonist is not found in the giallo which focuses less on the experience of terror inflicted onto a ‘final girl.’ The protagonist in the giallo can be any gender, and they are generally not a teenager. They are professionals, detectives, journalists, and in Deep Red a pianist. The protagonist is not defined by their survival, our final image is not of them traumatised by their actions. They are instead defined by their attempt to discover the truth. Their survival is often incidental to their one true motivation; discovery.
What one can begin to see from this analysis of the opening sequences to Halloween and Deep Red, two masterpieces in their genres, is the complicated relationship that defined the giallo and the slasher. There are similarities in style, form, and narrative and yet the way they diverge creates such interesting and nuanced approaches to horror. The influence the giallo had on the slasher is immense, but it is not all-defining, how the slasher has come to demarcate itself has created a dimension to their relationship that has an endless array of intriguing areas of study. This essay can only represent a beginning in a study that attempts to interrogate deeper into a relationship between two of the bloodiest and most intriguing genres in horror.
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Inferno, Dario Argento, Produzioni Intersound, Italy, 1980
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 A notable exception is the exceptional work of Mikel J. Koven in La Dolce Morte.
 Gary Needham, ‘Playing with Genre: An Introduction to the Italian Giallo’, Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film, 2 (11) 2002 available at: https://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php [accessed 15/05/19
 Wendy Bishop and David Starkey, Keywords in Creative Writing, (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006), p. 98.
 Julia B. Köhne, Michael Elm, and Kobi Kabalek, ‘Introduction’ in Julia B. Köhne, Michael Elm, and Kobi Kabalek, eds, The Horrors of Trauma in Cinema: Violence, Void, Visualization, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars publishing, 2014) pp. 1-31 (p. 4).
 Köhne, Elm, and Kabalek, p. 4.
 Köhne, Elm, and Kabalek, p. 4.
 Carol J. Clover, ‘Her Body Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film’, Representations, 20 (1987), 187-228 (195)
 Dania Hückman, ‘Horror, History, and the Third Reich: Locating Traumatic Pasts in Hollywood Horrors’, in Julia B. Köhne, Michael Elm, and Kobi Kabalek, eds, The Horrors of Trauma in Cinema: Violence, Void, Visualization, (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars publishing, 2014) pp. 90-107 (p. 85).
 Clover, 195.
 Mikel J. Koven, ‘From Giallo to Slasher’, in Mikel J. Koven, eds, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Films, (Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2006), pp. 159-172 (p. 162).
 Koven, p. 162.
 Tres Dean, ‘Giallo 101: Exploring the Genre that Shaped Suspiria Director Dario Argento’, Syfy Online, (2018) https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/giallo-101-the-horror-genre-that-made-suspiria-director-dario-argento [accessed 15/05/19]
 Koven, p. 162.
 James Giles, ‘The Bloody Roots of the Slasher Film’, Medium Online, (2018) https://medium.com/framerated/the-bloody-roots-of-the-slasher-film-271840876f64 [accessed 15/05/19]
 Koven, p. 162.
 Koven, p. 162.
 Clover, 201.
 Clover, 201.