A psychopath prowls the streets of Turin in a taxi cab abducting, disfiguring and murdering beautiful young women. His latest captive is Celine (Elsa Pataki) a fashion model whose sister Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) overhears her screams via a cell phone. Convinced Celine is still alive, Linda approaches the police and encounters Inspector Enzo Avolfy (Adrien Brody), a tortured soul since witnessing the murder of his mother as a young boy. These psychological scars spur Enzo towards catching this prolific serial killer who taunts him by leaving victims corpses around the city and bears the enigmatic nickname “Giallo.” Enzo and Linda find themselves in a race against time to uncover Giallo’s secret and save Celine’s life.
Strangely enough, this is not the first giallo to be called Giallo since there are two efforts from 1969 and 1971 that bear the same title. But let’s face it, what you really want to know is whether the latest Dario Argento thriller marks a long overdue return to form? Argento fans have had it pretty rough over the last ten years. Since his comeback with Sleepless (2001), the once unassailable horror maestro has stumbled from one ham-fisted, misconceived disaster to another reaching a point where - brace yourselves - a growing number of young genre fans are even reassessing classics like Suspiria (1977) and Deep Red (1975) as “overrated.” Giallo marks Argento’s first Hollywood co-production since Trauma (1993) and boasts one of his starriest casts, including Oscar-winner Adrien Brody whose commitment is underlined by him serving as one of the film’s producers. However, in spite of Brody’s presence Giallo went somewhat under the radar across America and the UK, while Argento himself has since disowned the film which was re-cut against his wishes.
In what has fast become typical, the film was poorly received by the Argento faithful, with some going so far as to decry this as a failed attempt at an out-and-out genre spoof. Yet this could have more to do with the sad fact that Argento’s flamboyant style, his idiosyncratic plotting and oddball characters seem comical when removed from that familiar Seventies to early Eighties universe and placed in a 21st century context. It has become increasingly difficult to mount a stylised yet heartfelt horror movie in a world saturated with identikit torture porn, yet Giallo does come across as sincere and not humorous, at least not intentionally so. The biggest problem lies with the titular killer who brings back bad memories of the duck quacking maniac from Lucio Fulci’s idiotic The New York Ripper (1982). Looking like the bastard lovechild of Rondo Hatton and a Russian rock star gone to seed, the villain’s croaky voice and Rambo bandana inspire derision from the offset. Argento edges further into parody with scenes where Giallo sucks on a pacifier whilst reading Japanese porn manga and masturbating over desktop photos of his latest victims. All of which leaves this the first Dario Argento movie to prove more interesting when the killer is off-screen.
The script by first-time writers Jim Agnew and Sean Keller drops a few clichés about maverick cops and serial killers being two sides of the same coin, but stays true to Argento’s reoccurring themes: the monster’s need to disfigure beauty to counter his self-loathing, the erotic allure of the morbid, the childhood trauma that resurfaces as adult obsession. The Italian setting brings out the best in Argento, whose pacing is restrained and methodical without needing to stage a graphic slaughter every fifteen minutes. Aside from a nasty skull-bashing and finger lopping, for the most part his camera glides away from the violence, which may annoy the gorehounds but after the comical excesses of Mother of Tears (2007) feels like a wise move. Which is not to imply Giallo is less flamboyant or suspenseful. Argento’s woozy camerawork brings a languid, nightmarish quality to Enzo’s flashbacks to his mother’s senseless death and he stages a handful of well-timed shocks and gripping chase scenes.
Performance wise the film remains a mixed bag. With his quirky delivery and haunted demeanour, Adrien Brody proves Argento’s strongest lead in years. Terse yet witty with a back-story that has a powerful payoff underlining Enzo’s paternal relationship with his superior, Inspector Mori (Roberto Miano). Elsewhere, as someone who has defended Emmanuel Seigner from her detractors in the past, it pains me to admit her performance is woefully tepid. By contrast, even though the lovely Elsa Pataki spends most of her screen-time screaming on the killer’s floor she exhibits more spirit than the usual glamorous victim. She winningly taunts Giallo from the torture table and contributes to making Celine’s stumbling, panicky escape attempt an emotionally draining experience. The third act takes a surprising turn that Argento could have milked for more suspense but the muted, almost non-ending feels misjudged. Not vintage Argento then but still his most coherent, compelling movie in quite some time.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.