11 Trashy, Violent Giallo Films to Stream If You Need a Break From Ghosts and Ghouls

11 Trashy, Violent Giallo Films to Stream If You Need a Break From Ghosts and Ghouls
Graphic: Elena Scotti,Photo: Wikimedia Commons,Photo: Shutterstock

“Foreign” cinema has a reputation for being more erudite than mainstream American film — after all, watching a film with subtitles means you’re reading while you’re watching a movie, and reading is the smartest thing someone can do.

Giallo films subvert that expectation. There is rarely a need for subtitles in gialli — dubbing is an art form in Italy, and it’s incredibly common for Italian films to be dubbed in Italian, even if they were filmed in Italian. This pro-dubbing culture means a large amount of giallo flicks can be streamed dubbed in English, which makes them a little easier to consume if you prefer to watch your horror with a side of weed or booze. (Interesting fact: Dubbing originally came into fashion in the 1930s when the fascist Mussolini attempted to “unite a country divided by dialects” by having all films dubbed in “standardised Italian.”)

Giallo movies are also a little trashy, and I mean that as a compliment. (I love sleaze.) “Giallo” means “yellow,” and the name is a nod to the cheap yellow-covered paperback thrillers the genre is so heavily influenced by. Gialli are not quite horror. They’re low on ghosts and ghouls and heavy with tits, paranoia, and knives, with nearly all of the terror — both physical and psychological — being inflicted upon women by men. If you like camp, slashers, murder mysteries, and beautiful women, you will like gialli. (Don’t get too attached to the beautiful women though, most of them are brutally murdered.)

The following is a list of 11 gialli I have enjoyed, in no particular order. I cannot promise your favourite will be on there — even the buffest of film buffs can have a hard time agreeing on what giallo is, and I am no film buff. I am, however, a very enthusiastic viewer of these beautiful, campy, paranoid movies, and I recommend watching them this spooky season, especially if you need a break from the ghosts and ghouls. Violence against women is far more horrific than the supernatural, if you ask me (a known woman).

Tenebrae (1982)

I know I said I was going to list these in “no particular order,” but here I am, starting with my favourite. Tenebrae kicks arse. Hailed as Dario Argento’s “return to giallo,” this meta-arse movie is a murder mystery about murder mysteries, their fandom, and how women are treated in such tales.

The film stars Anthony Franciosa as American murder mystery writer Peter Neal, who is in Rome to promote his latest novel, when he receives a fan letter claiming his books have inspired a gruesome killing spree.

Beyond the psychosexual themes and copious amounts of blood, one of the most interesting things about Tenebrae is the scenery. The film was shot on location in Rome, yet it looks nothing like Rome. The architecture is brutal, the streets mostly empty, and the whole city feels slightly futuristic, or at least ahistorical. Argento said in an interview with Cinefantastique that “Tenebrae occurs in a world inhabited by fewer people with the result that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded. Something has happened to make it that way but no one remembers, or wants to remember.” Argento expert Thomas Rostock seems to support this explanation, and has said the film “gives a glimpse of a future Rome that never was, showing the city how it might have looked had fascism not fallen.”

Oh, and the soundtrack — composed and performed by the synth-heavy, prog rock band Goblin — fucking rules.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder

Stage Fright (1987)

There is something deeply goofy about this movie. (I think it is the giant owl.) The plot is straightforward, and there’s almost no mystery, but it’s fun and it has style.

The film follows a troupe of actors and a demanding director who lock themselves in a theatre so they can get some real rehearsing done, unaware they’ve locked themselves in with a serial killer. The play they are rehearsing is a musical about a fictitious serial killer called the “Night Owl,” which offers fantastic opportunities for many stunning visuals (a person in a giant owl costume dancing around, pretending to kill people, and actually killing people).

The opening scene alone makes it worth the price of admission, which is probably very low, depending on what streaming services you have. A Marylin Monroe lookalike wails on a sax, that giant owl dances around, and many people wear many wigs — all within the first five minutes.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder, Apple TV

Torso (1973)

Sergio Martino’s Torso is not subtle. It’s graphic in every sense, and American critics hated her for it.

The film centres around a group of college girls who travel to a wealthy classmate’s countryside villa in an attempt to avoid being murdered by a masked serial killer with a penchant for strangling and dismembering co-eds. Fleeing the city is not enough to keep them safe, which is a good thing for the audience but a bad thing for the co-eds.

The psychosexual themes are obvious and maybe even a little tired by today’s standards, but it’s fun to watch. Torso is full of beautiful women doing sexy things and being murdered for doing sexy things, punctuated by truly tense, terrifying moments.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder, Apple TV, YouTube, Tubi

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

I could not find a version of this movie that was dubbed in English, but my eyes were glued to the screen anyway, so reading subtitles was not at all challenging. The film was directed by Sergio Martino and stars Anita Strindberg, Luigi Pistilli, and giallo queen Edwige Fenech — who was married to Martino at the time — and borrows heavily from Poe’s “The Black Cat,” which I have not read. (The film does give a homicidal black cat a ton of screen time, so I do not have a hard time believing Poe was an influence.)

This film follows a drunk, abusive, racist, washed-up writer, Oliviero (Pistilli), his tortured wife, Irena (Strindberg), and his bisexual, foxy niece, Floriana (Fenech), all living together in a crumbling mansion, where every night is mind game night. You get the idea that things have never been peaceful at this particular mansion, but it all goes sideways once Oliverio’s mistress turns up dead. If you’re used to seeing Fenech as a tormented, final girl-type character, watching her as the cool, calculating, sexually uninhibited Floriana will be a treat, as will the gay scenes.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder, Apple TV

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)

The trailer you see just above this sentence is an incredibly poor representation of both the content and general vibe of What Have You Done to Solange?, a disturbing film that was released as The Rah Rah Girls to an unsuspecting U.S. audience.

This movie is not a light-hearted co-ed sex comedy, as the trailer would have you believe. It’s a heavy-hearted (and heavy-handed) co-ed sex tragedy. All the usual tragic tropes are there: Horny professors driven into the arms of their horny students by their frigid wives, horrible sexy secrets, and lots of young women getting slashed up. I don’t want to give too much away: But something bad does indeed happen to Solange.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder, YouTube, Google Play

Deep Red (1975)

Argento nerds love to talk about his “use of colour,” and Deep Red gives them more than enough to discuss. It’s a beautiful film, with lots of red (blood), and is perhaps one of the best examples of what a giallo film “is.” There’s a small supernatural element by way of psychic medium, but it is ultimately a murder mystery chockfull of paranoia.

Released during the heyday of the genre, Deep Red follows a serious jazz musician who tries to untangle a complex web of slashings, children’s drawings, creepy nursery rhyme songs, and black gloves — a classic giallo trope! — after witnessing the murder of the psychic medium.

This movie has a lot of plot, a lot of detail, and a lot of blood, but more sympathy for the victims than what you see in most gialli, especially when compared to those directed by Fulci (we’ll get to that guy in a moment). Film critic Kim Newman wrote in the Monthly Film Bulletin that “what sets Argento apart from imitators like Lucio Fulci is his combination of genuine pain (the murders are as nasty as one could wish, but the camera flinches where Fulci’s would linger),” though the affect is subtle and the women are still quite dead.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play

The New York Ripper (1982)

Lucio Fulci, my guy, you did not have to go so hard. It’s wild to me that this movie and Deep Red are in the same genre, yet they are both undeniably gialli. The New York Ripper is gleefully graphic to the point of absurdity, with a Donald Duck impersonator for a killer. Many people have said this film has no artistic merit, but no one has ever called it boring.

The New York Ripper is (appropriately) set in New York, and stars British actor Jack Hedley as a tired, grumpy Lieutenant Fred Williams, who investigates the murder of a local model (after her hand is found decomposing). One murder turns into two, and Williams begins to receive taunting phone calls from a man who sounds “just like a duck.”

The ending is not satisfying in any way but The New York Ripper — which has never been released fully uncensored — is all about the aggressively horny, violent, absurd journey. Fulci has said this film is a tribute to Hitchcock, which is pretty bold, though I guess both relished sadistic depictions of tortured women.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

Like Tenebrae, this film was shot in Rome. Unlike Tenebrae, you can tell. It’s a beautiful movie — from scenery to wardrobe — and considered by many to be the first giallo film. It certainly checks all the boxes: There’s murder, sexy shots of a beautiful young woman, and lots of paranoid suspense, though some may argue it’s a little too cutesy to be considered proper giallo.

Directed by the “Master of Italian horror,” Mario Bava, The Girl Who Knew Too Much follows Nora, a young American woman who flies to Rome to care for her ill, elderly aunt (who dies almost immediately). Nora’s bad fortune continues when she is mugged and knocked unconscious on her way to the hospital, only to awake to see a knife being pulled out of a dead woman’s back.

When she tries to tell the police (and anyone else that will listen) about the murder she witnessed, they dismiss her account as a hysterical episode brought on by reading too many whodunits. But Nora cannot let things lie, and continues to search for the murderer, with the help of a handsome Italian dottore. (Replace “murder mystery novels” with “murder podcasts,” and the plot feels positively modern.)

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971)

This, to me, is the height of giallo perfection. The movie was directed by Sergio Martino, and stars Edwige Fenech as Julie, a beautiful diplomat’s wife with a real creep of an ex. The plot seems pretty standard at first: Women surrounding the most beautiful woman start dying, and the most beautiful woman starts to worry that she is next, and doesn’t know who to trust (she also fucks a bit).

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh is packed with suspicion, guilt, and paranoia, with all three intertwining to keep you fully engaged and just confused enough. This movie is satisfying, and it’s impossible for me to explain why without spoilers, so I won’t. I’ll just tell you to watch it for Edwige Fenech, who is enough of a reason all on her own.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

I sometimes get The Case of the Bloody Iris confused with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, mostly because they have the same cast. Edwige Fenech stars as a model named Jennifer, and handsome George Hilton co-stars as Andrea, the architect of the building Jennifer lives in.

Similar to her character in Vice, Fenech’s Jennifer is struggling with a sexually abusive past but, unlike in Vice, Hilton’s Andrea shares in Jennifer’s paranoia, and is just as invested in finding the killer. (Would he be that interested if he wasn’t a suspect? Probably not, but I think it’s nice that Edwige isn’t as isolated in this movie.)

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Shudder

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

I actually have not seen this particular Bava joint, which is weird when you consider the on-the-nose title. (Blood and black garments are two very prominent giallo tropes, so you know what you’re getting into.)

I’m mostly suggesting this film because I’ve heard good things about it, but also because I don’t want to get yelled at by pedantic film bros for not including it. (Though I will probably get yelled at for not including Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, so whatever!) It, like most gialli, is about beautiful, naughty women getting murdered for being beautiful and naughty — two things women are hated and loved for simultaneously. It’s also very colourful. I will probably watch it this weekend.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime, Apple TV

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