Though he worked across a number of genres, be it fantasy with Hercules in the Haunted World, science fiction with Planet of the Vampires or the crime thriller with Rabid Dogs, the great Mario Bava will forever be most closely associated with horror. His work in the genre is both groundbreaking and legendary, its influence felt across a wide swath of filmmakers and films. Traces of his gothic horror movies can be seen as recently as 2015’s Crimson Peak, while his 1971 effort A Bay of Blood inspired countless slashers, none more than Friday the 13th. It is his 1963 thriller Evil Eye, however, that would help create a genre both known and beloved by fans of Italian horror: the giallo film.
The “giallo,” as it is commonly known, refers to a style of paperback mysteries sold in Italy beginning in the late 1920s; the title “giallo” refers to the yellow covers adorning these cheap, often disposable books. These were lurid tales—what is now often called pulp—involving murder and sex and all the things that make books worth reading. The term would later be used to describe a sub-genre of Italian cinema with roots in the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell’s classic Peeping Tom. It’s a genre that would give rise to some of the best of Italian horror, with some of the country’s greatest genre filmmakers—from Dario Argento to Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino to Umberto Lenzi—putting their own stamp on the giallo and creating all-time classics.
Mario Bava, the godfather of Italian horror, is often credited with codifying the tropes of the giallo in his 1964 film Blood and Black Lace, what with its vibrant colors, masked killer, leather gloves, and fashion model victims. And it’s true that Blood and Black Lace is the template from which most of the gialli that followed would be working, but Bava had already more or less brought the tenets of the giallo to the screen one year prior with Evil Eye, aka The Girl Who Knew Too Much, his final black and white production and a movie that helped lay the groundwork for the next 20 years of gialli coming out of Italy.
Often acknowledged as the very first giallo, Evil Eye stars Leticia Roman as Nora, an American on holiday in Italy. An avid reader of mystery novels, Nora is drawn into a mystery of her own when she is the sole witness to a murder where the body vanishes, rendering it impossible for Nora to make anyone believe what she saw. The killing reveals itself to be tied to a series of alphabet-based murders committed ten years prior, and now the killer is threatening to make Nora the next victim. Her only help comes in the form of Marcello Basi (John Saxon), the doctor who had been treating her deceased aunt and one of the only people who believes her.
A fizzy cross-pollination of the Hitchcockian romantic thriller (the original Italian title even acknowledges this debt) and what would eventually become the giallo, Evil Eye originates a number of elements that would later become staples: the main character, Nora, is an amateur sleuth with a love of mysteries who gets drawn into a detective story of her own. The police/authorities are ineffectual and unreliable. Red herrings abound, most notably in a scene between Nora and Marcello on the beach; it’s an effective, if short-lived, misdirect.
Bava, a former cinematographer turned director, also works to create a visual language later adopted by a number of gialli. His black and white photography in Evil Eye is an evolution of shadowy film noir (and, by extension, German Expressionism), but with a romanticism unlike other mystery thrillers of its ilk. Giallo movies tend to be more visual than traditional plot-driven mysteries, so when Bava allows long sections of Evil Eye to play out with little to no dialogue, he’s not only creating a more involving, sometimes more abstract film, but also shaping what gialli would be for the next two decades.
Much of the success of Evil Eye rests on the shoulders of star Leticia Roman, who makes us like her as early as the opening scene, in which we meet her reading a mystery novel on an airplane as she excitedly arrives in Rome. Finding Nora to be a lover of a good mystery creates immediate audience identification, as we, too, settle in for what promises to be a fun little mystery in its own right. Just like Barbara Steele, the star of Black Sunday, Bava’s first credited movie as director, Roman has enormous, expressive eyes that Bava’s camera loves to capture. Unlike Steele, whose eyes were used to intimidate and hypnotize, Roman’s eyes are constantly searching, gathering information, determining who can be trusted. There is a vulnerability to her eyes that adds to the overall tension of the film, leaving Nora forever in danger.
If Evil Eye feels a little bouncier and quirkier than most of Bava’s other films, it’s probably because American International Pictures got their hands on it prior to the US release and changed things around, adding an upbeat score and some more comedy to the proceedings. Some of those lighter touches are pure Bava, though, who flexes comedy muscles hardly seen in any of his horror efforts. Some of the comedy comes at the expense of the inept police force, later to become a staple of the giallo, while other comedic moments arise as part of the adorable romance between Roman and Saxon, rarely more handsome or charming than he is here.
The mix of genres—there’s even a bit of the supernatural creeping in, yet another precedent for a number of giallo movies—can make Evil Eye difficult to decode on a first viewing. How concerned should we be about these murders or about Nora’s safety when some of the movie is so goofy? When viewed through the lens of Bava riffing on Hitchcock, though, it makes total sense. That the film helps create the template for the giallo is just an added bonus.
Evil Eye is screening as part of the 21-film Mario Bava series taking place at New York City’s Quad Cinema July 14th–25th.