Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.
“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man.”
This quote comes from Dario Argento, the filmmaker known for his ‘Giallo’ horror films. He is certainly not the only filmmaker in the thriller or horror genre to make similar pronouncements. Hitchcock has said, “I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou. He said: ‘torture the women!’. The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.” They are, of course, discussing a trope that goes back at least to Perils of Pauline and that is particularly common in the horror genre. But it is hardly surprising that, at first glance, Argento’s films seem guilty of unadorned misogyny.
However, in order to examine whether Argento crosses the line and where he forays into something more interesting, it is useful to take tropes like these at face value. The female body as the recipient of male violence is, quite simply, a horror mainstay. There have been extensive criticism and analyses of why this is, and how this cliché should be viewed. At first glance, it would appear that, as in this case, the gaze of the camera is in line with the viewpoint of the perpetrator of the violence. It is a first-person perspective, which allegedly draws the viewer into the point of view of the killer. It is, therefore, tempting to think we are meant to identify or even empathise with the killer, rather than with the victim.
Any horror movie aficionado will intuit that this is not what is happening, though. On the contrary, we often empathise almost exclusively with the victims. The killer is the monster, whether (s)he is alien, supernatural, or Michael Myers. In Halloween (1978), we don’t cheer Myers, we cheer Laurie for fighting him off. I have covered the ‘Final Girl’ before, the character through whose agency evil is dispatched and whose viewpoint is central to the film: we will not meet her here, although I would encourage readers to look for her in the films discussed below.
As this piece is to be a simple treatment of two films in the Giallo genre, I will not venture into the more academic discussions about the background of these tropes. Suffice to say that they exist, and to have a look at how they are used. As in all films, in any genre, where violence is explicitly sexualised and directed towards the female form, there is a very real risk to get stuck on the trope itself and overlook the film’s merits, or its underlying flaws. For all intents and purposes, these are slasher movies, which adhere to the rigours of the genre. The conventions are binary almost by definition. The male and female roles are clearly delineated and, as they are the subject Argento seems most interested in, rarely deviated from. So although these films may not be particularly gory by modern standards, Argento is obviously having a ton of fun exploring the conventions of the slasher film, its limitations and its possibilities. And it’s a ton of fun for us as an audience to watch his contortions.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is essentially Argento’s debut. It concerns an American writer in Rome, an outsider, currently in the throes of writer’s block. He witnesses a crime and becomes involved in solving the mystery of a serial killer, who targets young women. In one of its most striking scenes he watches an anonymous villain, dressed all in black, wield a knife at a woman all in white in an art gallery. He runs towards the scene to help, only to get stuck in an empty area between two glass doors, as he watches her helplessly, crawling on the floor towards him. Our hero is reduced to impotently awaiting the arrival of the police. Initially he is, understandably, upset and wants to be left out of it. But something about the crime does not let him go and he decides to investigate. As he gropes his way further and further into the depths of the case, he becomes convinced the key is in his own memory. Something he cannot quite put his finger on: something he saw that night at the gallery…
It would be such a pity to spoil this excellent little shocker for my readers, that I will not go into the plot twists any further. This example alone illustrates quite nicely that though the killer, through whose viewpoint we see much of the film, targets pretty women: the films itself is about traditional male-ness and its limitations. It is obvious that this hero resembles Odysseus trapped in his cave, rather more than a bold and fearless Sir Galahad galloping in to save the damsel, or even Perseus besting the Gorgon. In this, the film subverts concepts of power and masculinity, as the best horror films often do. The question of whether we identify with killer or victim, whose perspective we inhabit as viewers, is also woven into the plot itself. Themes of memory and trauma, and how we build the narrative of ourselves is featured heavily, circling back quite neatly from the perspectives of the individual characters, to the perspective of the audience.
Argento would use these themes throughout his entire filmography. Playing with them or subverting them. For comparison I will use Bird’s companion piece: Tenebrae. Again, an American writer (a successful one this time) goes to Rome and becomes involved in a murder case. A serial killer seems to use the plot of his books as blueprints for murder. The victims are, again, maimed and killed and are, again, beautiful women. The anonymous villain is inevitably portrayed in a black costume with black gloves, the director’s trademark. Memory and trauma feature heavily, as does insanity. And it is the audience’s own perception, which is the subject of the film’s many twists and turns. Tenebrae, though, is more heavily self-referential. Argento has his stand-in field questions from a female reporter about why he inevitably chooses female victims to kill in creative and horrifying ways, and he faces the inevitable accusations of sexism. He explains: but watch the film closely, and draw your own conclusions. There is a cackling little demon behind even this most po-faced and self-referential bit of exposition.
If both these plots sound rather like a particularly lurid episode of Murder She Wrote, the term giallo derives from cheap yellow-backed crime novels, popular in Italy. The cinematic genre is giallo all’Italiana, distinctly gruesome murder mysteries in which the protagonist is most often an outsider rather than the police. They excel at technical cinematography and extremely stylish visuals, even as they arguably sometimes cross the line into exploitation.
There is a lot to admire here. But there is also criticism that becomes more obvious once the prima facie label of misogyny is removed. The way these films handle same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ characters is deeply problematic. Even within the confines of the very binary world of male violence versus female victimhood, it is hard to see what these subplots are meant to signify. They are either played out for laughs, or a sign of deviance within this world: an addition which is not so easily attributed to mere convention. While it is true that the mixing of male and female aspects or (latent) same-sex attraction does feature heavily in the genre, in D’Argento’s world, characters coded as such serve merely as a threat to a traditional view of the male self. And this is a contrivance which not only seems superfluous, but probably even more insidious than the creative maiming of pretty young women.
Overall, though, these are clever films. Argento is an intelligent filmmaker playing with our expectations and viewpoints. And on a tightrope this thin, it is hard to condemn so accomplished a funambulist.
And what does this have to do with Sam’s lovely piece on the criminally underrated secret stars of Hollywood? Bird with the Crystal Plumage features Suzy Kendall as Julia. Kendall was revoiced for “Fraulein Doktor” (1969) by Nikki van der Zyl.
Suggested reading: Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992).