[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, creepy kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]
One of my favorite professors in college would start and end every class session with the same sage words of wisdom, “You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” This quote, resonating loudly in the absence of video stores, in the disposal of physical media by major retailers, with the undeniable influence of social media on creative output and in the shadow of a global pandemic, paints an entirely new perspective on the future of film and the paths that will be taken based on the past already paved.
The narrative theme we will describe as “looking back” is not a new concept for storytelling. Whether searching history for stories about famous figures, critical moments, or rare circumstances, returning to the past is grounds for interesting stories.
Looking back at the footprints set by genre film; from Méliès to Wiene, from Murnau to Browning, from Hitchcock to Castle, from Romero to Argento, from Craven to Carpenter, and all those left between the lines, genre horror films have influenced one another in different forms and fashions from the beginning to the present day. Méliès’ The Haunted Castle influences Murnau’s The Haunted Castle, Hitchcock’s styling for the American thriller influences Argento’s design for the Italian thriller, and Craven’s nightmares or Carpenter’s shape would influence the world of horror today. It’s all connected.
The Italian thriller, otherwise beautifully known as the giallo, displays a genre influenced by the past and influential to the future of cinema in form, structure, and storytelling. It’s an amazing experience diving headlong into these entrancing films, seeing the artistry, creativity, and boldness of filmmakers like Argento, Bava, Fulci, Lenzi, and Martino.
Spanning from the late 60s to the late 70s, the gialli were thriving with tales of black-gloved killers, gruesome murder set pieces, and complicated whodunit scenarios. Still, even after the shining decade of influence, gialli would not go away. And, moving into the early 80s, filmmakers were still mining the Italian genre in hopes of recreating, better yet remodeling, the giallo movement into something that could penetrate the horror chaos of the 1980s.
That’s where we land, in 1981, with Riccardo Freda’s bizarre thriller Murder Obsession. While a strange giallo undertaking, it’s an interesting film when looking back at the path of the Italian thriller and how cinema still today takes the past and reinterprets it for new creations.
Murder Obsession begins as any great giallo film would, with a beautiful woman being stalked by an obsessed killer; the intoxicating beauty in this film being played by the iconic, stunning Laura Gemser of Emmanuelle fame. Just as the film sets to plunge its first knife into a defenseless victim, the camera pulls away to reveal a film set and a movie being produced. The star of the film is Michael, played by Stefano Patrizi, who is a stressed and somewhat unhinged actor who goes too far during a scene and chokes his co-star to the point of unconsciousness.
This outburst of violence motivates Michael to take a break and go on a trip with his girlfriend Deborah, played by Silvia Dionisio, to his childhood home, a place that holds dark memories for him. Why dark memories? Because Michael apparently killed his father when he was a kid, leaving his poor mother Glenda, played by Anita Strindberg, left alone and a complete mess for many years.
Despite some jealous outbursts towards Deborah and a few strange longing stares between the mother and son, Glenda seems happy to have her little boy back home. But soon enough everything turns suspicious when the film crew working with Michael shows up unexpectedly. One by one the film crew begins to disappear and one of the female actresses starts to have nightmares of cults, bats, and giant spiders. Are these dreams real or imagined? Is Michael losing grasp of his capacities on reality? What exactly happened at this home so long ago?
Murder Obsession, depending on how you view it, is either one big mess or one charming homage towards the progress of giallo filmmaking and how it influenced the latter-day stylings of the Italian thriller. There is much to distinguish and dissect from the past for this film, as the influences and inspiration from gialli can be found throughout the roller coaster of narrative designs that are pieced together throughout Freda’s film. Influences from gialli like The Case of the Bloody Iris and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, along with non-giallo films like Suspiria and Burial Ground all make their way into Murder Obsession.
These motivations start from the very beginning, with the recreation of a familiar component involving the stalking killer and the naked beauty; this design is so purposefully composed that when the film reveals itself to be a ruse, you can’t help but see the difference in style being portrayed and almost sense that the authenticity of the scene isn’t as genuine as it should be. Once the film transitions away from the film set, the giallo components almost disappear. Gone are the striking color features made so recognizable by Dario Argento, gone are the close-up and zooming photography found so lovingly crafted in films by Mario Bava, and gone are the bright and bloody viscera painted so eloquently by Lucio Fulci.
Once the film shifts to a slowly moving thriller, one that takes bonkers turns and incoherent narrative twists while slowly morphing from a film recreating a faux giallo and into one that is trying to stand on its own two feet, the film begins to pull inspiration from gothic horror tales akin to the Hammer Film Productions. With its castle-like home filled with candles, doorways leading to dark dungeons, and hints of unorthodox religion being summoned somewhere in the maze of hallways, Murder Obsession begins to pull new ideas from the past into its giallo composition. Leading to a finale that is filled to the brim with inspirations from numerous genre categories.
There is much to discern from Murder Obsession in regards to the past it’s influenced by and the future that it’s grasping for a connection with. While at times the film feels overstuffed with an abundance of tonal shifts and narrative twists taken from numerous genre vessels, underneath the confusion is still a film that displays the understanding and passion for the Italian thriller. And even as we continue to move into a film future shaped and molded by a past so varied and diverse, so ever-changing and malleable for the future, it’s a beautiful thing for genre fans to have giallo films to revisit for the pure joy of seeing how horror history was influenced and is still inspired, by the designs of this unique, artistic, horrific genre.
Keep an eye on our online hub throughout October for more of our Gialloween retrospectives!