Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ITALIAN HORROR WEEK GOES TO GERMANY - From Giallo to Krimi and Back Again

When people think of subgenres within the horror/thriller method of filmmaking, you see a treasure trove waiting to be experienced. Something as prolific as the slasher genre itself has taken bits and pieces from others that came before it. We see films like Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as proto-slashers, films that were the basis for a person killing people who they deemed as being sinful in their eyes and usually done in some elaborate way. When John Carpenter came along and unleashed Halloween to the world, people were astonished as to how a film like that could come along and be such a game changer. And no, I'm not forgetting the earlier Bob Clark slasher film Black Christmas either.

But if you would to ask Carpenter and many other film makers working in the slasher genre, especially during the boom of the early 1980's, they would first go toward the giallo genre. With film makers such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Segio Martino (amongst many other fine examples), they pushed the envelope as far (and sometimes farther) than films they inspired years later. Starting in 1963 with Bava's  La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much), which is in turn a play on Hitchcock's very own The Man Who Knew Too Much. Giallo itself is the term Italians used for thrillers overall, even before the film movement came about, in reference to films such as Psycho. Giallo meaning 'yellow', based upon the series of pulp novels in Italy called Il Giallo Mondadori, published by Mondadori publishing house and featured such writers as Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Ed McBain and Edgar Wallace.

Which leads us into the central theme for this article. In Germany, roughly around the silent era of filmmaking there, producers figured out that Wallace's stories were easily adaptable and there was slight boom up until 1934, with films such as Der große Unbekannte (The Unknown), Der Zinker (The Squeaker), Der rote Kreis (The Crimson Circle) and many others. But with the change of politics going on in Germany as well as the impending World War II, there were no longer any German produced films based on Edgar Wallace's stories. It wasn't until the mid 1950's that there was interest again but sadly no German production house would touch the Wallace stories because of fear of losing too much money.

It wasn't until 1959, when Danish production company Rialto Film and its producer Preben Phillipsen made Der Frosch mit der Maske (Face of the Frog), which was based on Wallace's book Fellowship of the Frog. They produced it for the German film market and surprisingly it went over very well, becoming a hit film and started the 'Krimi' film genre. Krimi comes from the German term "Kriminalfilm", and was a trend of stylish crime thrillers, usually with the 'whodunit' means of storytelling. With a film like Face of the Frog, we had a master criminal character who wears a mask with bulging eyes and violently gets his way. As a template for the krimi genre, it's got the raciness parts all in line, with seduction, betrayal and elaborate killing methods being the threads that keep the genre together.

Up until 1966, all krimis were made in black and white, which doesn't deter from the genre at all. Some might not think black and white blood and sex are good enough for the masses, but Hitchcock showed what a little bit could do in Psycho, so these are no exception. Rialto got exclusive rights to the majority of Wallace's stories and prodcued 32 films in total. All were artistically supervised by Horst Wendlandt and the majority of which were directed by either Alfred Vohrer or Harald Reinl. These are the cream of the crop when someone wants to check out a krimi film for the first time. There were many imitators, some good films within those imitations as well, but there's something about the pureness of the official films that make them much more sought after viewing.

But going back to the films within the genre, what makes the krimi films a subgenre of the crime thriller are the tying themes that keep them together. We tend to have an investigator trying to get to the bottom of a case; we have a flamboyant and/or nefarious villain, who is usually mentioned in the title of the film itself (such as Face of the Frog, The Squeaker or The Warlock) or tend to throw in the German words for mystery (Rätsel) or secret (Geheimnis). As I said earlier, most were directed by either Reinl or Vohrer and they primarily take place in London or in that general area, with fantastic settings such as a castle or a mansion (even though they tended to be filmed in Germany). We also get seedy night clubs, Scotland Yard, girl's colleges, asylums and many more places that giallo and slashers would bring their victims, the killer, the inspector and the heroine who must be protected at all costs throughout the film.\

Also mentioned earlier, the 'whodunit' is an important storytelling device within these films, which the giallo later borrowed as well, where the investigator is always one death behind the body count ensuing throughout the film. Even when the films were in black and white, you would have these really amazing color title sequences, and you'd also have someone saying they were Edgar Wallace himself, introducing the film itself.  It's an interesting choice to make for these films, one that I find very quaint, even though some of the stuff you're about to see is pretty horrific for the time period they were made in.

Some films that are highlights of this genre are Vohrer's own Das indische Tuch (The Indian Scarf) from 1963, a black and white gem that stars krimi regular Klaus Kinski. It's much more easy to follow than some other krimi films, taking place in a mansion, almost having a House on Haunted Hill feel, where a wealthy man who has just died puts a provision in his will that all the people in there must stay together for a week before they're allowed to inherit anything. Of course, one by one, they get picked off, all strangled with an indian scarf. It's a claustrophobic tale, one that deserves a new audience. Another fine example of a krimi is again directed by Vohrer, Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (The College Girl Murders) from 1967. In full color, this is a film that I watched on a horrible print many years ago via those dollar DVDs you see at stores and decide, "Why not?" Even with the poor transfer, the film was a memorable one so I had to search high and low for a better print to see it in its unbridled colorful glory. A hooded killer, who looks like a grand wizard from the Ku Klux Klan (and is a return killer to boot), is killing people with both poison gas, acid, booby trapped bibles and a simple breaking of the neck as well. It stars krimi regular Joachim Fuchsberger as his usual inspector character.

Vohrer tends to be my go to director for krimi films, even when I don't realize he's the director and start picking out his specifically due to the overacting and sense of fun he was having, with some great zooming shots and editing style. Considering he directed 14 of them, he's the guy to beat and I would consider the Bava/Argento of the krimi genre. Tying the krimi and giallo together, by the end of the krimi run, they started to do co-productions with an Italian film company and amazingly enough, three of those films were scored by none other than Ennio Morricone. One of those films in particular is a favorite of mine, be it in the krimi or giallo genre, which is What Have You Done to Solange in 1972. Directed by Massimo Dallamano, with cinematography by Joe D'Amato as well and starring krimi star Joachim Fuchsberger as an inspector yet again. It's the meeting point, in my opinion, of the two genres and further solidifies the binds the two of them share together.

As a reminder though, the krimi aren't as over the top as the giallo or as gore filled as the slasher film. But this doesn't take away the krimi from being an intriguing genre, which sadly fizzled out around 1972 due to the public not caring anymore. It sounds very familiar of any subgenre out there, but once in awhile we get a resurgence or a film that is an homage/ love letter to those genres of yesteryear. Will we ever get a new krimi film, so to speak? Not too sure about that one, but one wishes they would release them on DVD or Blu-ray, with scholars giving commentaries to these films, showing the history of these films in their rightful place. I believe the only place you can see these films in any way is through Sinister Cinema, but I know it’s streaming rentals only, which will hopefully change soon. Without these films, who knows where horror would be today, because when I watch a good slasher film, I see elements of the giallo and the krimi. And I think that's how the krimi will forever be remembered.

JAMES MCCORMICK "As a lover of film of all kinds, I've decided the best way to get that out there is by writing about it and also speaking about it on multiple podcast, such as CriterionCast, cineAWESOME! and my newest one with my better half, The Hopeful Romantics. CriterionCast we cover the Criterion Collection and everything else that relates to it. cineAWESOME! we do double features that are relevant (we hope) and discuss more genre films in general. The Hopeful Romantics we cover romantic comedies from a couple's point of view, and try to find the best (and sometimes worst) in that specific genre".

Make sure to stop by CriterionCast's FaceBook page and follow them HERE and cineAWESOME HERE. A hearty thanks to James for this educational read.

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