There was a time when giallo was the height of fashion. In the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Italian thrillers were the very model of genre chic, bringing a splash of style, panache and colour to the Hitchcockian whodunnit, and showing the aesthetic angle – the ‘good side’ – of sadism and murder. Then, as two of its best known practitioners, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, passed on, and two more, Dario Argento and Sergio Martino, passed their peak, giallo too went out of vogue – although in horror, nothing ever truly dies. Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano’s Crystal Eyes (Mirada de cristal) represents just the latest in an emerging corpus of so-called neo-gialli – mimetic attempts not so much to breathe new life into the form as to use its cadaver as a self-consciously ossified mode of expression. The appeal of these exercises in flogging a dead (clothes) horse may be rarefied, but for the right kind of audience, savvy and nostalgic, these films offer, in addition to their more innate modalities of detection and suspense, the extra thrill of retro recognition.
Crystal Eyes is keen to remind us it is dressing itself in the cinematic clothes of the past. Like Bava’s mega-influential ur-giallo Blood And Black Lace, it is set in the world of haute couture, opening with a fashion show that presents all the smoke-blown, high-haired excesses of the mid Eighties. We are in Buenos Aires, and supermodel Alexis Carpenter (Camila Pizzo) – her surname an allusion to John Carpenter, whose Halloween was inspired by giallo and in turn helped spawn the Eighties slasher – is the cover girl for Atilla Magazine. She is also a drug addict and an egotist, capable of vicious cruelty to others. In the middle of her latest catwalk performance, she dies in a fire – mourned by few if any. One year later, as a new show is being organised, someone dressed as a showroom dummy is killing everyone associated with Alexis, one after the other.
As fashionistas run and die, pursued by a living mannequin, one can discern, sewn into the very fabric of this story, elements from David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and even the ‘Blink’ episode of television’s Doctor Who. Mostly, though, this is an embroidered pastiche of giallo motifs, from the colour-coded lighting to the masked killer. It is a mirror world, rebuilt from the scattered fragments of giallo – indeed, in one sequence, twins sisters (Agustino and Victoria Del Rosal) are murdered in symmetrical sequences, the first in front of a mirror and with an actual mirror sheard, the second by being drowned in a bath (in another mirroring of Blood And Black Lace). The baroque home of Atilla’s ruthless editor Lucio L’uccello (Silvia Montanari) includes an office that is directly modelled on the bedroom of Helena Markos in Argento’s Suspiria, right down to the statuette of a bird with crystal plumage.
Crystal Eyes is not trying to bring giallo back into fashion so much as to stare from the shadows at what once was once modish and now is not. As such, even though it never quite resorts to the full-blown parody of giallo seen in Astron-6’s The Editor, it risks turning giallo into kitsch, even camp. Yet its killer, though at first seemingly rooted and immutable in a statuesque form, turns out to be mobile, fluid and Protean. Here we see giallo‘s two faces, one stuck in the past and fixated upon slavish imitation, the other hybrid and changeable and even capable of moving from its native Italy to far-flung Argentina without ever losing its essential identity. Shortly before burning to death, Alexis rudely accuses makeup artist Barbara (Valeria Giorcelli) of plying her trade on corpses – but even the deadest of things, or of genres, can be made to look alive once more with judiciously applied cosmetics. Crystal Eyes lacks the transcendent hyperstylisations of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s neo-gialli Amer and The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears – but it does almost feel like a real old-school giallo, beaten and battered, but somehow still surviving to put the mask back on and kill again.