“Every day, cruel and apparently inexplicable things happen…”
Arrow’s Giallo Essentials collection – which currently numbers two volumes (and counting?); one red, one yellow – is a repackaging of several gialli they had previously released in standalone editions. What you get in the boxes is identical to what you got if you purchased the previous editions, down to the packaging of the individual films, though these don’t come with Arrow’s signature booklets.
Instead, they’re packed three-to-a-box into attractive new slipcases which feature a clever design where a sleeve drops over the top of the slipcase, hiding the contents and allowing for a cutaway view of the art beneath. I bring up this box because, again, it’s the only substantial difference between the Giallo Essentials sets and the previous releases of these six films.
As for the films themselves, two of them are ones that I had previously reviewed in their former releases, while most of the others were new to me. The red box contains The Possessed (1965), The Fifth Chord (1971), and The Pyjama Girl Case (1977) while the second, yellow box adds Torso (1973), What Have They Done to Your Daughters (1974), and Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975).
“Don’t kid yourself. We’re all hunchbacks of one sort or another.” – The Possessed (1965)
It’s easy to see who is the “possessed” of the title in this chilly, melancholic, lonesome proto-giallo from just two years after Bava essentially invented the genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The only film in either set that’s shot in black-and-white, The Possessed owes as much, stylistically, to Hitchcock’s Psycho and to the krimi movies that were the giallo’s forebears as it does to Bava’s seminal work.
Beautifully shot and glacially paced but wrapped around the usual psychosexual weirdness that would come to define the giallo’s plot, The Possessed doesn’t always much resemble the films that would come after it, but it has plenty going for it as a meditative noir.
American actor Peter Baldwin plays a visiting writer (who, in proper movie form, never does any writing) who becomes obsessed with the death of a maid at the hotel where he’s staying – a maid that he, himself, fell for when he visited the year before. Naturally, there’s something fishy about her apparent suicide, and he quickly becomes embroiled in a mystery filled with chilly lake towns, unreliable memories, voyeuristic impulses, and internecine struggles.
“Perhaps the deed itself will be an anti-climax, but I think not.” – The Fifth Chord (1971)
It should probably be unsurprising that The Possessed looks amazing, given that one-half of its credited directing duo is Luigi Bazzoni, who also helmed 1971’s The Fifth Chord. One of only three movies in these two sets that I had ever seen before, The Fifth Chord is actually one that I tracked down at the beginning of 2021, because I had heard that it was absolutely gorgeous.
And it is. The film itself may be pedestrian, but the picture looks incredible, thanks in no small part to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who was also behind the camera for a wide array of better-known flicks, including Apocalypse Now, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Last Emperor, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, and plenty of others.
Honestly, my notes from watching The Fifth Chord back in January of 2021 match my experience of rewatching it just a little less than a year later – little enough to write home about except how good it looks, but it looks so good that it’s plenty.
“All you ever wanted was laughter and love.” – The Pyjama Girl Case (1977)
It’s weird to see a “Giallo Essentials” box finish off with a flick that is barely anything most of us would recognize as a giallo. While certain (especially stylistic) elements are there, it’s absent almost all of the form’s signatures. Most notably, there are no stalk and slay sequences at all. Indeed, there’s really only a single murder to speak of, and it the one that starts the eponymous investigation.
What we get instead is something that’s probably more accurately a poliziottesco, another Italian subgenre adjacent to the giallo. Whatever it is, it is depressing as fuck. As the film’s two, seemingly-unrelated narrative strands gradually unspool, it quickly becomes obvious how the two are ultimately going to tie together, but that doesn’t make watching it get there any less grim.
While the going is often tough, there are some moments of great power and even occasionally beauty contained in the flick. And hey, if you always wanted to see a very old Ray Milland make jerking off motions, your ship has come in!
“I’ve never met a respectable citizen…” – What Have They Done to Your Daughters? (1974)
I’ve never seen What Have You Done To Solange?, the flick that Massimo Dallamano made just two years before this and to which this has been called a semi-sequel, but I guess now I have to, because this was great. Like several of the movies in the red box, What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is barely a giallo, though it does, at least, have a mostly-faceless killer running around some of the time.
Instead, this is another mashup of giallo and poliziottesco that’s more interested in its main plot, which concerns a ring of schoolgirls being forced, coerced, or trapped into underage prostitution. That’s pretty heavy stuff, and What Have They Done to Your Daughters is sordid enough to never shy away from any of it. We see nudity from ostensibly underage girls, the film opens with the corpse of a 14-year-old who was not merely sexually exploited but pregnant. It’s rough stuff, even if the film is always detached enough to never be quite as depressing as The Pyjama Girl Case.
Thematically, this is one of those gialli that shows the genre’s ties to the American noir with its focus on corruption and its “forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” ending. It also doesn’t hurt that the score by Stelvio Cipriani is one of the best in a subgenre known, as much as anything, for its incredible scores.
“Everything is bathed in an elegance approaching the supernatural.” – Torso (1973) & Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)
The other two films in the yellow box Giallo Essentials set are actually ones I had already reviewed – from Arrow, no less – at various times in the past. In fact, Torso was one of the first movies I ever reviewed at Unwinnable, while Strip Nude for Your Killer followed not long after, right here at Signal Horizon. Both films hold up, and I stand by what I said about both of them back then.
So, the question becomes: Are these collections really “essential?” And the answer will likely depend on what you mean by that term. These are definitely not, for the most part, the films that you would see in a “Giallo 101” course, if there were such a thing. There’s no Bava here, no Argento, not even a Fulci. And, aside from Torso, most of these are not really considered classics of the form. In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to claim that only about half of them even qualify for the appellation.
What they are, instead, is an admirable collection of some (occasionally offbeat) entries into the genre. If you’re only going to pick up one volume, I recommend the yellow box. All three of the films contained in it are, frankly, bangers, and two of them (Strip Nude and Torso) are more of what you might expect from the word “giallo” than most of the others in either set.
The red box, on the other hand, is more a collection of oddities than anything that could really be considered “essential” viewing, though The Possessed is probably worth the price of admission on its own, and The Fifth Chord remains one of the most gorgeous films in a subgenre known for its aesthetics as much as anything.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.