To the uninitiated, the name Mario Bava or the word Giallo might not strike the right chord. So, I’ll start with a little explanation. First, Mario Bava. He is known among the horror movie fans as The Italian Godfather of Horror, because it was his movies that started a long and glorious era of Italian horror production, lasting from 1960 to 1994 in what is the longest lasting run of any phenomenon in any movie genre. Having his directorial debut in the age of 46, after working most of his life as a cinematographer, Bava rocked his home country with Black Sunday (1960), a beautifully shot black & white gothic horror tale about a vengeful witch which became a massive critical and financial success in Italy. It was thanks to this many other directors stepped in to the genre and the Italian Horror Golden Age started.
But Bava’s legacy didn’t stop there, because he did more. Four years after his directorial debut, Bava made another influential horror film, Fashion House of Death (1964), which created a new horror sub-genre, Giallo (Italian horror/thriller). The term giallo derives from a series of crime-mystery pulp novels entitled Il Giallo Mondadori, first published by the Mondadori publishing house, starting from 1929, and taking its name from the trademark yellow cover background. The series almost exclusively consisted of Italian translations of mystery novels by British and American writers, such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ed McBain, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, etc. Over time, the term Giallo is used to refer a very specific type of Italian-produced horror/thriller. The film subgenre that emerged from these novels in the 1960s began as literal adaptations of the books, but soon began taking advantage of modern cinematic techniques to create a unique genre which veered into horror and psychological thrillers. The giallo film genre proved to be a major influence on the slasher film sub-genre.
Fashion House of Death (1964) also introduced many characteristics of the Giallo movies, such as:
- Theme of sexuality or repressed sexuality & betrayal
- Brutal and gory murder scenes, usually with beautiful women as victims
- Twist in the end, usually revealing the identity of the killer(s)
- Elaborate set pieces and camerawork, usually putting the audience as voyeur watching someone else’s movement
- Stunning cinematography with delicate use of colors
- Non-linear narration, requiring the audience to interpret the storyline for themselves
- Expressive use of music
- Relying heavily on the use of sound and sight to build tension, as opposed to CGI or quick cut Hollywood movies depend on these days
- The killer(s) usually wears dark fedora hat, black raincoat, and black leather gloves complete with sharp objects as weapons (e.g: knife, axe, and scissor)
But not only that, as a movie, Fashion House of Death (1964) is very worth watching and paying attention to.
As the title suggests, the plot involves a series of murder befalling young and beautiful fashion models in a certain house of fashion in Rome owned by the recently widowed Countess Christina. Drug abuse, adultery and blackmail are daily routines for the beautiful models working there. But now, the line of small felonies is permanently crossed with the bloody murder of one of the house's top models, Isabella. When she is murdered by a masked killer in the park near Christina's atelier, terror begins to spread between the other models, and dark secrets begin to come to the surface as her bright red diary is found. Several others undergo the same merciless treatment, killed by a raving psychopath dressed much like the Invisible Man in gruesome ways, like pitting their face against a boiling cauldron or smashing their head against a tree trunk, all for the sake of keeping the scandalous diary’s content secret. What dirty facts lie beyond all the glamour and eroticism the fashion house possesses?
Enhanced with the use of red, green, blue, and black colors, the movie wields a very gorgeous cinematography to watch. It’s as if we’re looking at something otherworldly, that is taken deep inside our nightmare but is put in the real world. The music, very 1960’s, may feel out of date to some but surely works in the film’s favor. Its camerawork is lush with its murder scenes excellent. Every one of them is filmed with loving care and sadistic relish. Of particular note is the murder in the antique shop – a girl in ripped clothing is pursued through a maze of furnishings and mirrors by the killer, all the while bathed in primary colors – it's a standout scene, one that only Bava could have filmed. But there are a number of similarly impressive moments in Blood and Black Lace (like the boiling cauldron I mentioned in the above). This movie reeks elegance now matter how you see it.
And Bava sure didn’t think much of his characters, considering the set pieces & expositions make them more like tools for the murderer to use. Bava works so hard to decorate the aura of women with all the curtains, statues, dresses, mannequins (somehow commenting on the proceedings) and engaging close-ups. He created an aura of intimacy by capturing the fear in their face as he off them.
When we look deeper into it, the fashion house and the murder of models serve as symbols in the movie, symbols of selfishness, pride, and vanity. I’d even go so far this movie is a social commentary of bourgeois elites running rampant even today. The owner, designers, and pretty models live everyday without a care of how the rest of the world turns. They think nothing of others but themselves, mainly because they have everything easy, either because of their looks or their money. They enjoy wealth, good clothing, and spoils behind or in front of each other’s backs. But when a vicious terror strikes them down one by one, we begin to see the downfall of the so called nobles. How they are quick to cover for themselves while sacrificing what others might need, not knowing the threat won’t stop just because of it. But, that lack of understanding of the rest of the world proved to be their demise as one by one they meet slow and painful death in the hands of the murderer. I feel like it’s another symbolism how, no matter how lush their lives are, in the end, they’re just small parts of this world as a whole. They can be taken out anytime, but nothing would change. The sun will still rise, the moon will still shine, life still goes.
All in all, this movie serves as a great artistic merit, be it to see the dark side of a fashion house, introducing yourself to the rich culture of Italian horror, or simply wanting to watch a cool horror movie. Enjoy!
Omar Rasya Joenoes