Editor-in-chief for SF State’s Golden Gate Xpress. LA native, SF transplant. Journalism and German majors, polisci minor. Interested in national politics,...
Gator Talk: Season 2, Episode 5: The Benevolent Case for ‘Malignant’
October 1, 2021
Chiva Pod is off this week but will be back for the last week of Hispanic Heritage Month. So welcome to Gator Talk, a collaborative CalState podcast that brings city and statewide perspectives to SF State news.
To kick off October — aka “Halloween month” — co-host Chris Ramirez explores the origins and characteristics of the Italian horror subgenre, the giallo. He talks to various cinema experts about what makes a giallo, audience and critic responses to the genre, and why it’s largely defined by glorified violence toward women.
Check out the story here at Gator Talk.
Chris: Boo! Happy October! This is Chris Ramirez, editor-in-chief and your co-host for Gator Talk, a Golden Gate Xpress podcast that brings news to SF State students, and the podcast where the only thing scarier than Halloween tricks may just be Sebastian’s GPA. He’s going to kill me for that one …
For more information/coverage, check out goldengatexpress.org OR @GGXnews on all social media platforms.
Preview of the show
Chris: Here’s a run-down of today’s episode.
I’m going to give you all a quick news brief with things that happened this week that we think matters most to SF State students, staff and faculty.
This main story is for the Cinephiles — I’m going to break down the Italian film genre that inspired James Wan’s newest film, “Malignant,” and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned. So buckle up, because this episode is all me.
Here’s the brief.
All in-person classes and activity were suspended by SF State President Lynn Mahoney on Tuesday, out of caution for a shooting threat on campus. The threat was made on social media the night before, and UPD detained a suspect on the same afternoon. Xpress broke this news, so check it out on the site.
Also on Tuesday, Chancellor Castro met with members of the campus community to discuss issues important to them. Some of the questions people asked him centered around salary increases for CSU presidents, salaries of faculty, and addressing the needs of students and faculty of color. I covered it for Xpress, so make sure to check that out after the episode.
On Thursday, the California Faculty Association, the union representing CSU faculty, had its contracts expire. The CSU and CFA were in negotiations, but no deal was met. Faculty part of the CFA are now contractless. More coverage coming from Xpress soon.
Chris: Malignant is James Wan’s newest horror film, which came out last month. Wan has previously worked on films such as “Saw,” “The Conjuring 2” and “Aquaman.” Malignant stars Annabelle Wallis as our female protagonist, who is haunted by visions of murders that happen in real-time.
The poster for the film looked straight out of the ’80s, and the trailer showed these really trippy sequences and this shadowy villain with a cool looking dagger and a leather glove.
And I really enjoyed the movie after seeing it in theaters — although, not in the way it may have been intended.
I left the theater crying from laughter. Oops.
I went online to see what the reviews were, and they were pretty mixed. IMDB gave it a 6.3/10; Metacritic a 51%; Rotten Tomatoes a 71%; and the New York Times headline said there was, “Womb for Improvement.” Ouch.
I stumbled across an interview Wan did with Bloody Disgusting, this horror entertainment website, and he told them that Malignant is “[his] version of Giallo.”
But what exactly is the Giallo? All I knew was that it was the Italian word for “yellow.” So I reached out to Benji Carver. He’s a program coordinator for Another Hole in the Head, the longest running genre film festival in the city. It’s held annually and screens science fiction, fantasy, and horror films at New People Cinema in Japantown.
Benji: That genre in itself is sort of Italy’s answer to the pulp novel. [It] pretty much started in the 1800s and moved on into like, pretty much crime and all that. It was into that, but also it changed a huge dynamic in the Italian film community, but also the world. And also, it is very psychosexual and very, very weird, it gets into a lot of places. It’s all about Freudian concepts and young concepts, and stuff like that. So, it’s probably one of the most psychologically rooted films, you can really kind of cut together.
[interview audio ends]
Chris: The novels really became popular in the ’30s and ’40 because Mussolini actually banned detection fictions from being imported from the U.S. — he thought Americans glamorized crime. And how did the Italians respond?
Well, it prompted Italian writers to write their own versions under pseudonyms.
[[main theme from “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”]]
Most people attribute the first actual giallo film to be Mario Bava’s 1963 film, “La ragazza che sapeva troppo,” or, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much.” And since then, the genre has really grown into its own.
I use the word “genre” a little cautiously because it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint exactly what a giallo is. I spoke with Aaron Kerner, the director of cinema at SF State, and he referenced “All the Colors of the Dark,” a book by University of Melbourne cinema professor Alexia Kannas.
Kerner: Instead of genre, she uses another Italian term — if I recall correctly, it’s something like Filoni. It’s more like a trend or tradition or something like that, as opposed to a genre, which is more of a specific type. Genre actually comes from the French for “gender,” so like, you know, boy and girl, very clear types.
[interview audio ends]
Chris: However, there are still some pretty discernible symbols and tropes used throughout gialli. Typically, it’s this male protagonist, oftentimes a detective, trying to find a killer and protect the main woman lead.
[[sound effect of knife]]
The killer commits these really graphic and bloody murders, and is mostly seen as this shadowy figure with a leather glove who has a blade or a dagger instead of a pistol, and we the audience never really get to know who it is until the very end.
[[sound effect of church]]
And being unique to Italy, there’s strong Catholic influences as well — be it the Holy Trinity, the matronly figure, the saint and in more recent gialli, supernatural elements and the devil.
Dream and psychedelic-esque sequences are also used a lot, and they can be really trippy, like in Malignant, when Annabelle Wallis’ character sees the killer, Gabriel, attack his victims.
Kerner also said that visuals and sound are prioritized over the script with gialli. These films tend to have over-the-top scores to them — early gialli had these grand orchestral scores, and in the ’70s and ’80s they were largely these blaring synths and metal soundtracks. He particularly mentioned Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2009 film, “Amer.”
Kerner: The coherence of the narrative is maybe even second or third, you know, that’s not why you go to see a giallo movie. I encourage you to look up “Amer” on Wikipedia. It’s super interesting, because in the section for plot, it’s empty.
Kerner: It’s empty because it’s inconsequential. Amir is like this lavish visual thrill ride. Amir is much more like a song. We don’t ask pop music to necessarily make sense. We want a catchy tune, and, you know, the lyrics or whatever, you know, might actually mean fucking nothing.
Kerner: When you get on a roller coaster, you don’t ask, ‘What’s the roller coaster story?’ You don’t ask, ‘What is the narrative of this roller coaster?’ You’re on it for the thrill of the ride. And that’s what giallo often offers — the thrill of the ride or the thrill of the experience.
[interview audio ends]
Chris: Art is also a big inspiration for the giallo, particularly in those dream sequences too.
Benji: I think they love Hitchcock. Hitchcock is a very much rooted thing. But also, they were big into surrealism, Brunel and Dali, and stuff like that. So a lot of that comes into play again, with Yeung and with Freud. So it’s this really mixture of kind of that stuff, but it’s putting that as a visual, and not so much putting it as a text. That’s actually a critique a lot of people have with giallo, is, ‘Oh, the acting is bad,’ or, ‘Oh, the dialogue is horrible,’ but it’s actually not about those things. It, to me, is about performance. But it’s also about really putting a visual to a lot of things that we kind of more, before that, put us texts, kind of more in that standard.
[interview audio ends]
Chris: And so, bringing it back to that New York Times review, I was a bit confused — didn’t film critics know that this was the point of the giallo? And Director Kerner actually said he thinks that because the giallo isn’t centered around the plot, that it’s exactly why critics don’t appreciate the giallo.
Kerner: Oftentimes, film criticism is actually genre policing. In many cases, if a critic doesn’t like something, it’s because it doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit into some sort of category. This is certainly one of the things that emerged with torture porn, the cycle of films in the wake of 9/11, you know, that those films were different from what had been very popular beforehand with the slasher genre, which had very kind of well-worn genre traditions, or tropes. And so when torture porn emerged, people were like, ‘This doesn’t fit.’ ‘This doesn’t fit’ was effectively in a way to suggest like, ‘Oh, wait, the, the genres, it doesn’t fit the genre, it doesn’t fit a category properly.’
[interview audio ends]
Chris: I thought it was funny that Kerner referenced the slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s, because they were actually inspired by the gialli themselves. And in recent years, we’ve seen this reemergence of slasher films through adaptations, be it “Candy Man” or “Invisible Man” or “Child’s Play.” So I wondered, would the giallo ever have its time in the mainstream?
Benji: I feel like at the end of the day, like there’s elements of it. I mean, in Candyman, at times, there’s influence that’s there. I mean, the famous window killing that’s in the new Candyman, definitely from the giallo era, or Hitchcock.
[interview audio ends]
- Chris: We’re gonna take a quick break –
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- break ends –
Cont. Main Story
Chris: I wanted to set aside some time to talk about one of the bigger recurring things in the giallo — the glorified violence and suffering of women. We see it a little bit in Malignant, with Annabelle Wallis’ character living out these psychologically distressing experiences and being a vessel for the film’s antagonist, but the damsel in distress trope is played out a lot more in earlier gialli.
So, why are we fixated on violence and horror? Benji and Director Kerner had something to say about this.
Benji: I grew up with that question my whole life, and I found an answer one day when I was actually in an office in San Francisco State, talking to one of my advisors, and “Night of the Living Dead” was playing, and they’re like, ‘Why do you love horror movies so much?’ It’s like, I don’t know, it’s just some sort of comfort food, but I could never really quite define it. But, you know why? It gives you a conclusion to something — it gives you something that wraps it up, and I think that’s in the giallo people love. It’s a mystery, usually. It’s the famous black glove killer. We don’t know who it is until the very end, and it’s usually something that gets very weird, depending on who made the film.
Kerner: Well, I mean, in a kind of simple and crass way, people love sex and violence. I mean, we can say that we don’t. It works in terms of attracting an audience. To be frank, our culture is misogynistic and patriarchal, and it gets reflected in our media.
[interview audio ends]
Chris: But I wanted to look more into it, so I did some homework.
There’s a story that was published in The Guardian back in 2017 by Zoe Williams, who asked a similar question: why is sexualized violence so prevalent in the mainstream? Specifically, rape scenes. And it came down to two big reasons for her:
- Rape is often glamorized and prettified, typically from the perspective of a man. She argued that not only does this minimize the damage done to victims, but it flat-out erases the opportunity for victim perspectives in TV and film.
- It’s become normalized through social media. Social media, while it’s created spaces to talk about “untalked about truths” that the mainstream media often ignores, it often sees these conversations watered down or misinterpreted once mainstream media picks up on it. And with online trolling, we often see it being abused — take people saying, “You should be raped.”
Gialli aren’t necessarily responsible for this, and the article isn’t extensive by any means, but it does give us some insight as to why this is something that has been passed down in various mediums, like literature to film.
Benji actually gave me some insight into some of this too that I thought was interesting. He said …
Benji: When you’re talking about classic giallo, a lot of the women that die in horrific deaths are also the partners of the directors themselves. So, [Dario Argento’s partner] — I don’t know if they were officially married, they had a few children together — but she always, in his movie, she dies the worst deaths. And then their daughter they had, Asia, she doesn’t ever die but she goes through the worst things and then she survives at the end. So there’s this interesting kind of, again, young Freudian kind of psychosexual thing going on in these, especially the classical giallo films.
In giallo, everyone’s up for fair game and death, but yes, women sometimes get the more extravagant, operatic death scene — but then it’s also, you gotta kind of do the sort background, like, ‘Wait, was that the girlfriend of that director at the time, or a former lover?’ There’s a lot of that going on behind the scenes. And so it’s a lot of their emotionally-driven fantasies, these sort of like, ‘I’m gonna put on the page because I’m not going to do this in real life, or put it on the screen’ kind of thing.
[interview audio ends]
Chris: And this is in Malignant, but only a little bit. It deals with Annabelle Wallis’ character living in an abusing relationship and having a miscarriage, but these elements are only lightly touched upon.
Malignant is technically labeled as a neo-giallo too, these 21st century gialli that, instead of putting men at the center of the story, rely on the woman character’s perspective. We also see this in “Last Night in Soho,” starring Anya Taylor Joy.
James Wan’s next horror films are “The Nun 2” and “The Crooked Man,” and he’s been known for these elements of giallo. As trailers start to come out for these films, keep an eye out for women protagonists, keeping the giallo in mind. Director Kerner said that just because the protagonist is a woman, that doesn’t mean all of the glamorized violence is resolved. He said that women protagonists, while granted more agency, may still be subject to some of these tropes.
And that was the episode.
This is Chris Ramirez, editor-in-chief and your co-host for Gator Talk.
New episodes will premiere Friday mornings, so stay tuned.
And with that, I’m out.