Gialli Dreams in Yellow will be a series of articles, essays and
reviews of my favorite horror sub-genre, Giallo. Giallo is the Italian word for
YELLOW but is also used to describe the whole sub-genre of horror films that
weave elements of mystery, thriller and horror all into one narrative...
sprinkle in over the top violence alongside some gratuitous nudity and you got
yourself a GIALLO! Here are my thoughts on the genre... I hope to infuse
some new opinions & views into what I consider the most diverse sub-genre
in horror movie history.
Today I am going to attempt to analyze Dario Argento's "Animal Trilogy" to see which film is the "Gialliest" of them all... (see what I did there... hehehe)
Before we start, a little context into the providence of this
article. After attending a virtual screening of Argento's "Bird with the
Crystal Plumage" hosted by the USC School of Cinematic Arts on 1/29/21 I
instantly felt the need to revisit the other two movies in Argento's so called
"Animal Trilogy", The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey
Velvet (1971). The name "Animal Trilogy" refers to the animal
elements contained in each film’s titles. I had seen all three movies MANY
times before but hearing the conversation in the Q&A session that followed
the screening (led by the Colors of the Dark podcast hosts Elric Kane and
Rebekah McKendry alongside AGFA & Arrow Video) made me want to see them
again. I wanted to contrast the other two films to the stone cold classic that
Plumage is... see if they hold up or even outperform such a great film. After
all, I have seen what seems like a billion Giallo movies (especially in this
last 2 years) so maybe I was not remembering them quite like I should. Finally,
I usually do not need much of excuse to watch an Argento film. He is my first
love in the genre, and one of my overall favorite directors. Long live the
Maestro of Horror!
|Beautiful Italian Original Posters
All that said, the thing that probably impresses me the most about
the films in the "Animal Trilogy" is the fact that they came so early
in Argento's career. He had only entered the business in 1966, and even then,
that was primarily in the role of a writer. All the sudden a few short years
later he is DIRECTING his own feature, with not one but TWO films in the can
and released within the next year! That is 3 films completed and released from
1969-1971, all from someone who had never directed anything in his life. That
is PRODUCTIVE as hell. What is even more impressive is how much of a massive
hit "Plumage" was, and in retrospect what it did for the Gialli
sub-genre over the next 10 years as the inspiration to many directors of Gialli
movies to follow. Of course, these directors wanted to replicate the BOX OFFICE
success of "Plumage" (it doubled its budget just in Italy and had a
large success globally as well), but more importantly they took notice to the
visual cues that Argento included in the film and turned them into hallmarks of
Gialli's to come. All of this from a relative novice behind the camera who
frequently has stated he had no idea "how" to truly direct a movie (let
alone 3) … sometimes it is better to be lucky than good!
For the purpose of this article, I decided to focus on the three
main components of Gialli movies and how they play out over the three movies of
the "Animal Trilogy" to determine which of the films is the best
prototypical Gialli. Although the Gialli genre can be a bit all over the
place in terms of how the films are executed, almost all of them contain
overarching aspects of three components:
1) A Mystery element that usually involves
amateur investigative work by regular people
2) A healthy dose of Eroticism/Sexuality that in
most cases is an unnecessary addition to the telling of the story
3) Violence... Extreme Violence... and then MORE
Without these three things you really do not have yourself a true
Gialli film, and these components are all on FULL DISPLAY in Argento's
"Animal Trilogy". Argento provided a roadmap on how to properly
include and execute all these elements into a Gialli film, examples that
would be jacked repeatedly over the following decades. So, let us get to it...
|The cops on the scene in Plumage
All three of these films feature intriguing mysteries at the core
of their stories. Out of the three components, this may very well be the
hardest category to determine a clear cut "best". "Crystal
Plumage" features the most grounded murder mystery, involving an out-of-town
writer who witnessed a murder on what was supposed to be his last night in
Rome. Since he may hold the key to the murder in his eyewitness memories, the
Roman police seize his passport and ask him to stay.... while he is stuck in
Roma he might as well throw on his amateur detective hat and start sleuthing,
am I right?
|Franco and Carlo, investigators supreme!
In "9 Tails" things start to get a bit more fantastical,
with retired (and BLIND) reporter Franco and his intrepid granddaughter thrust
into a world of scientific espionage and murder. I know... I cannot believe I
just typed that line either! While the overall "crime" of the film,
the break in at a Genetics Lab, seems a bit highbrow the film eventually finds
its way back to its gritty Gialli roots. Add in Karl Malden as the blind journalist
and we are in for a fun adventure along the way to identifying the
|This is the craziest mask in blackmailer history!
"Four Flies" is probably the most batshit crazy, and
that is saying a lot. Not only is the main protagonist a drummer in a Rock and
Roll band, but he is the victim of a horrendous attack in which he fights off
his would be killer. He slays his attacker, only to realize that he
is being photographed by a masked man (the mask is SOOO EXTRA ridiculous) who
captures the killing on film! Determined to uncover the masked
photographer and clear his name by proving the killing was in self-defense,
Roberto takes on the role of detective alongside a private eye he has hired to
figure the whole mess out.
|Rock n Roll baby!
All three of these films have very good mystery elements, but for
me it must be "Four Flies" due to the two-pronged nuttiness of the
plot. On one hand you have the idea of the drummer being attacked and killing
someone as self-defense... but then being filmed to look like a killer himself.
Then you have the aspect of the masked man and his ensuing blackmail. It all
leads to tons of tension, lots of double & triple crosses and a story that
starts off high concept and finishes very satisfyingly. The masked
element of the blackmailer really makes the mood creepy throughout the film. It
is such a ridiculous mask, one that would not exactly lend itself to being
conspicuous on the streets of Italy.
Verdict: "Crystal Plumage" and "9 Tails" certainly have their mystery moments, but "Four Flies" delivers the best intrigue of the bunch!
Right off the bat let me say that if you are looking for a high
concentration of Eroticism/Sexuality from Argento in these movies you will be
SEVERELY disappointed. Unlike many of the copycat films to come after, and even
future films from his own filmography (and even his films with his OWN
DAUGHTER!), the "Animal Trilogy" has minimal nudity. This would not
be the industry standard in the following decade of Gialli films... hell, it had
not been the industry standard for Mario Bava up until this point! But for this
brief period Argento had not begun inserting the standardized nudity/sex into
the narratives of his films. For better or worse, depending on your point of
view of course, we get three Gialli that are unique in this prudish
|The execution of this shot is magical
"Crystal Plumage" features no nudity, even though you
may think you remember some. There is a scene on a bed that many will say
"I'm pretty sure there was some nudity there..." but they would be
mistaken. It is implied, but not actually seen. That does not mean that it is
completely devoid of Eroticism/Sexuality. In this case it is much more
interwoven into the actions of the killer and some of the kills
themselves. In that aforementioned bed scene, we get a killer who uses a rather
large knife to cut open a nightshirt of the victim, although Argento utilizes
clever angles and cuts to not expose any of the victim’s breast. The killer also
rips the victim’s panties off her body with great force, but again not private
parts are revealed. Even the actual kill in this scene is off camera and only
implied. This makes for a sexual tension in the film, but not one that is over
important or central to the plot's overall success.
|Franco and his lovely niece
Now in "9 Tails" we get an altogether different type of
movie. This time the lead is played by an older Karl Malden, who is blind at
that and constantly accompanied by his 10-year-old niece. Not exactly the
tandem that you would expect to generate hot and heavy sexuality. Couple this
with the fact that the films plot centers around a science-based theft of
information from a genetics lab and you are not exactly on the path to typical
Gialli shenanigans. However, we do get a brief glimpse of nudity and an actual
scene depicting sexual behavior, albeit a short and uneventful one. It is
perfectly clear looking back on these movies that Argento was not as
comfortable with working this "sexual" angle into his films just yet.
But fret not... he would get VERY comfortable with the idea throughout his
|As sexy as it gets in Flies...
I thought everyone was supposed to "Give the Drummer Some"
"Four Flies" continues the sexless path Argento seems to
be very comfortable taking with these movies, and I for one am pretty bummed
out about it! In a movie that features a lead who is a drummer in a Rock and
Roll band as the main protagonist in the early 70's, I am under the impression
he is gonna be getting tons of ass. Turns out, not so much. This movie also
plays it safe, with one ridiculous bathroom scene revealing the only true
nudity in the film. Just another example of many other things
influencing the plot besides gratuitous sex... as crazy as that sounds for
|Perfect body placement and the reflection of the knife!!!
Verdict: If I had to pick one, and the
pickings are certainly slim here, I am going to have to go with
"Crystal Plumage". That is kind of hilarious considering that is the
only one of the three movies with ZERO NUDITY, but, that bed scene is the most
erotic thing in all three movies. Argento accomplishes more in that scene
showing NO nudity then many other directors due when they are not shooting a
censored scene. It is tense, it feels dirty... and it is integral to the actual
movie. This is the killer exposing his kink mid murder. That is bold stuff.
Full disclosure I have seen the movie a dozen times and I had to re-watch the
scene before writing this article just to make sure there was no nudity. That
is effectively executing suggestive filmmaking. The other two films might show
some boobs and go for the cheap nudity laden scenes, but they do not have the
same gravitas as "Crystal Plumage" and it shows. Isn't it ironic that
the movie that would inspire COUNTLESS Gialli movies to come would have zero
nudity and use Eroticism/Sexuality better? I think so...
Now we are finally at a category that is going to require a tough
choice. All three of these movies are quite brutal, and just because they may
be a bit tamer then future Gialli that does not mean Argento takes it easy by
any stretch of the imagination. He even gives himself FUTURE IDEAS of re-doing
some of the most violent scenes in these films when he had bigger
budgets/better handle on effects shots. One thing is abundantly clear here in
these three movies: Argento was BORN to make horror movies. There is no
question about that when watching the "Animal Trilogy". He is always
on brand with his over-the-top scenarios, the violence within those scenarios
and the visuals of the final execution on film. They are all there on full
display, and it is glorious.
|Helpless to assist...
"Crystal Plumage' establishes that it is not fucking around
right from the opening jump. The scene in which our protagonist Sam witnesses
an attack through the glass window of an art gallery sets the stage for one
hell of a ride. Argento may not use any nudity for cheap effect in this film,
but he does not skimp on the sheer displays of gratuitous violence throughout.
The proto-typical clack gloved trench coat sporting killer in this movie is NO
JOKE... he is as violent as could be in his attacks, even though they are not
always successful in completing the task. As a matter of fact, the idea that
the killer is fallible and does not always fulfill the execution of his
victims is even more effective. This gives you the distinct feeling that this
"killer" could be anyone. That is much more menacing than the brute
who always completes his kill. The most effective scene depicting violence is
the scene when Julia (Sam's girlfriend) is under siege in her apartment from
the killer. The killer does not get in to complete the deed... but it’s no less
nerve racking then if he had gotten in and gutted her. More is less in this
film, and Argento executes the balance magically.
Now in the past two categories "9 Tails" has fallen
short of its trilogy counterparts. But this is definitely not the case in
the violence department. This is one of the rare films where QUALITY of
the kills easily trumps the QUANTITY of the kills. In the Gialli genre, this is
very rare. There are only 5 deaths in the whole movie, and only 4 occur on
screen. The standard method of the early kills in the film are strangulation,
and they are extremely brutal. But the train accident and elevator scene are
both the kind of set pieces that Argento would become synonymous with
later in his career. This is glorious violence for the sake of just that...
because why not... let us do it and do it as violent as possible!
|Creepy eye shot...
The third film in the trilogy is always in a precarious position. The film series has two installments on the books. So, you cannot exactly deviate from the style/tone without it sticking out like a sore thumb. While the "Animal Trilogy' is not exactly a straight through line of story, it certainly has plenty of elements in common within the three films. One of the areas Argento clearly never intended to come up short in was VIOLENCE. "Four Flies' delivers on the violence, right from the opening scene. Anytime you can make the violence weird it is a certain plus, and the mask that the blackmailer wears while photographing our propogandist commuting self-defense murder is super weird to say the least! 6 kills in this movie and they all happen ON SCREEN, none of that IMPLIED bullshit from his earlier works. Argento goes for it here, and not only does he go for it he delivers it spectacularly! The final kill of the movie is almost more satisfying than all the other kills combined, and it has nothing to do with HOW the killing takes place... it is ALL execution, LITERALLY!
|Right before the villainess loses her head...
Verdict: This is going to have to go to "Four
Flies: again, for me, simply because all of the killings are executed on
screen. Because of this, the violence has more opportunities to shine...
and Argento embraces them all. I wanted to go with "9 Tails" for some
of the sheer brutality that film shows, but it all come back to that final
scene in "Four Flies". Considering when it occurs in the film and
just how brutal it is, it is hard to pick against it. There are some great
moments of violence in both films 1 and 2, but Argento got better at his set
pieces and execution as time went on. Truth is he would only get better... but
this is a definitive flash of greatness early on!
I am going to have to say that based on this ANALYSIS that I have conducted
(I also cannot believe I just typed that... lol) I am going to have to say that
Four Flies on Grey Velvet may be the best prototypical Gialli movie of the
|The title shot in the actual movie!
I will stand by my prior thoughts that Bird with the Crystal
Plumage is probably the best overall film of the bunch and that all three films
certainly have their merit... but "Four Flies" is the most
prototypical Gialli of the three. Full disclosure in this postscript: It was
always my least favorite of the three movies (I always ranked them Plumage/9
Tails/Four Flies) but now it may have crept its way up to the top spot. Maybe
not overtaking Plumage but putting it right on equal par with it.
What I am more aware of then ever is that these seminal movies
were integral steppingstones for the later works that Argento would unleash on
the world. Once he had some experience under his belt with these three films,
he was able to understand what he "could" and "couldn't" do
in the areas of Mystery/Eroticism/Violence. His BEST work in all three of those
categories would come down the pipe for him.
|His best in terms of Mystery/Eroticism/Violence
For me Tenebre (1981) would be his best "mystery" film,
Suspiria (1977) uses "eroticism/sexuality" the best and Deep Red
(1975) or Opera (1987) would be his most "violent"! But none of those
would be possible without the "Animal Trilogy" and the groundwork
those three films laid out. For that I am forever grateful.