I was asked by a reader, a few weeks ago, about a post on the European tradition of crime movies and “Giallo”, and the connections thereof with pulp stories and later slasher films.
Great topic – but I’m not the right man for the job.
The right man is, actually, a woman – my friend Lucia Patrizi, that blogs the movie blog Il Giorno degli Zombi, and is currently writing a book about the evolution of horror movies. I asked her for a guest post, and she was so kind she donated the chapter about Kriminalromance and Giallo from her forthcoming essay.
The text – quickly translated by yours truly (and any mistake is solely my responsibility) – will be published as a series of posts.
Here goes the first.
It’s 1959, and in the offices of Danish/German film production company Rialto Film, producer Preben Philipsen acquires the rights to Edgar Wallace‘s 1925 The Fellowship of the Frog. The movie Der Frosch mit der Maske, written expressly for the German market turns out to be a box-office runaway success, and marks the beginning of the golden age of the Kriminalfilm, or Kriminalromance, a series of adaptations of works from Wallace, with so many common elements that they form an officially recognized genre.
The success of Der Frosch mit der Maske leads Rialto Films to acquire the rights to most of Wallace books, and start producing movies using the same directors, the same cast of regulars, the same locations and even the same musicians to score the films. The factory-style recalls the similar structure of Hammer in Britain, but in the case of Rialto this focuses on a single type of movie.
Often in these movies little was left, of Wallace’s work, but the title. All were built around the same structure, granted to captivate the audience: the plot would follow the activities of a masked killer, and the attempts on the part of the investigators (either Scotland Yard or PIs) of finding out the killer’s identity. The mechanics were classic whodunnit, keeping the killer’s true identity hidden to the last minutes of the film. Indispensable the female lead, menaced by the killer (and often the object of the killer’s sexual desires), and that the male lead(s) were supposed to protect. Often the leading lady and the investigator would become sentimentally attached by the end of the movie. Actors would portray similar characters in different films: Klaus Kinski, for instance, would always play the bad guy.
Between 1961 and 1972, Rialto produced 32 “Krimi” movies. Of these, five were directed by Herald Reinl, and fourteen by Alfred Vohrer. The presence of “regular” directors at the helm gave the Krimi a distinctive feel. Vohrer, most of all, had his trademarks in the insistent use of the zoom, and for his very fast (for the time’s standards, at least) montage.
The movies were set in London and in the surrounding countryside (but were all shot in Germany) and took place in rich mansions or old castles. The characters were usually grown ups and well-to-do, and the crime itself was not so prominent as the investigation that would inevitably lead to the apprehension of the killer and the happy ending.
The Krimi movies were exported internationally. Some of the later Krimi, when the genre had been bled dry, were joint Italian-German productions.
No one should be shocked when we say that the celebrated Italian genre cinema was strongly imitative. The first horror movie shot in Italy, I Vampiri, by Riccardo Freda (with a little help from Mario Bava), was an attempt at following the Hammer lead – and on Hammer’s influence on world cinema we should write a big, fat essay.
And yet, Italian genre cinema is nonetheless a case apart. Because of the very low credit given to fantasy in any form, caused in turn by the strong realistic and author-centered biases of our cinema, even at its most popular, Italy lacks its own tradition of macabre and Gothic fiction compared to, say, the British.
There exists – and it is almost useless to point it out here – a highly developed Italian literary tradition of the fantastic, with deep cultural roots in the folklore of our country. And yet none of this ever succeeded in leaving the pages and reach the big screen in a form that would not be attacked by the critics.
The fantasy genre took on therefore a highly commercial tone, in the less noble meaning of the concept: producers wanted to cash in a lot while shelling out as little as possible, often in the hopes of selling the movies abroad.
In the early 1960, two “genres” were all the rage all over Europe: British Gothic made in Hammer, and the German Kriminalfilm.
Which leads us straight to Mario Bava, the man that invented, in order, Italian horror, Italian Giallo, and the template for slasher movies. Plus a little bit of science fiction too.
[We’ll learn more about Mario Bava and his influence on genre movies in the next installment of this series]