Book review: So Deadly, So Perverse - 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films, Volume 1

Wednesday, 13 May, 2015

Book review: So Deadly, So Perverse - 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films, Volume 1

The first of two tomes charting the giallo film from its inception to the present day, Volume 1 of Troy Howarth's SO DEADLY, SO PERVERSE: 50 YEARS OF ITALIAN GIALLO FILMS is the sort of book fans of the giallo have been crying out for. Its spiritual predecessor is arguably Adrian Luther Smith's excellent (if now surpassed) BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and indeed structurally it owes a clear debt to that earlier book, but Howarth goes considerably further and into far more detail than that pioneering work.

Covering the first 20 years of the giallo film's lifespan, 1963 to 1973, Volume 1 begins with the expected introductions (provided by veteran giallo screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi) and attempts to define that most ambiguous of genres, before launching into an examination of early prototypical gialli, films with giallo elements but which don't quite make the grade as "true" gialli, and the literary gialli from which the filmic movement derives its name but to which it bears only a passing resemblance. This latter chapter, written by film historian Roberto Curti, is particularly insightful and breaks genuinely new ground. It provides the book with a unique selling point, charting an aspect of the giallo's development that hasn't been adequately explored elsewhere, since English-speaking authors lack the context necessary to unpick it.

The "meat and potatoes" of the book, however, is the 190 pages' worth of film reviews, cataloguing and appraising every known giallo to have been produced between 1963 and 1973. This section is truly exhaustive, digging up a number of titles I'd personally never even heard of, and even one or two that are now believed to be lost to the ages. For each review, the structure is the same: Howarth provides the main cast and crew credits, a brief (spoiler-free) synopsis and a more detailed review, concluding with a discussion of the careers of some of the more significant players on both sides of the camera. The reviews are insightful, in-depth and well-observed. Howarth isn't afraid to make it clear when a particular film isn't up to scratch (and says one or two scathing things about some of the, shall we say, less outstanding actors and directors associated with the movement), but he's also fair, pointing out the individual moments of pleasure that can be found in even the schlockiest and most ineptly made of giallo (and, let's be honest, there are quite a few which fit that category). The films of "big beasts" like Argento, Fulci, Bava and Martino understandably get the lion's share of the praise, but little-known gems also get their moment in the spotlight, including the likes of Fernando Di Leo's NAKED VIOLENCE and Damiano Damiani's A RATHER COMPLICATED GIRL.

It's worth pointing out that Howarth omits certain titles that some readers might expect to be included since he doesn't consider them to be part of the movement. This is unavoidable, since "giallo" is a vague term and much disagreement exists as to its precise parameters. Personally, I would have included Aldo Lado's SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS (omitted here) and left out the likes of the western/giallo hybrid RINGO, IT'S MASSACRE TIME, but such is the beauty of a movement that, like film noir, is easier to recognise than to define (the "I know it when I see it" principle).

Any flaws are minor and don't impact substantially on the overwhelmingly positive qualities of the book; however, I feel that they should be acknowledged for completeness' sake. These are largely structural, stemming from the decision to separate the films by year of release and order them alphabetically within each year. This results in some slightly odd moments in that individual reviews often "refer forward" to another film that was actually released before the one currently being discussed -- for instance, we read about Sergio Martino's second giallo, THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL, before his first, THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (both 1971), which is slightly confusing given the extent to which the latter set the template for Martino's subsequent gialli. That's perhaps the downside of attempting to read a reference tome like this from cover to cover. However, the lack of any page references in the index of titles at the end, and the fact that production dates aren't provided in the reviews themselves (the year is listed only once, at the start of each "section"), makes it difficult to dip in and out.

But these are minor organisational quibbles. In his foreword, Howarth acknowledges that he didn't set out to write the be-all-and-end-all book about the giallo, and while it doesn't replace the likes of Mikel Koven's excellent LA DOLCE MORTE (which addresses a different audience and serves a different purpose), SO DEADLY, SO PERVERSE feels entirely at home among such lofty company. Experienced giallo aficionados and those new to the genre alike will want to pick this up without delay, and get their pre-orders in for Volume 2, which promises to explore the rather more sporadic output of the last 40 years.

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