Perhaps the reports of the death of the giallo have been greatly exaggerated.
If EYES OF CRYSTAL is anything to go by, there may be life in the old genre yet. Impervious to the kickstarts that the slasher subgenre has enjoyed since its heyday in the early 80s, the giallo – apart from a few notable (and a greater number of not so notable) exceptions – has failed to spring back to life. This is surprising for a number of reasons: firstly, who’d ever thought that sex and death would go out of fashion in Italy? Secondly, I would have thought – given that Italy’s copycat horror cinema has given us some of the genre’s finest moments (see Fulci’s gleeful Romero rip with ZOMBIE FLESHEATERS (1979)) that any number of films (from FATAL ATTRACTION to BASIC INSTINCT to SE7EN to SCREAM) would have reawakened the latin slasher craze. It seemed that only Dario Argento was intent on keeping the home fires burning, although arguably with ever diminishing returns.
This is why EYES OF CRYSTAL is so welcome. Seemingly out of nowhere, once again the giallo is burning bright – not that you’d actually know it was a giallo, given that the film makers never refer to it as such (even preferring to name check DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN) ahead of Bava and Argento. Perhaps the ‘g’-word is still considered box office poison in Roma! However, at least for a fleeting moment in 2004, the Italian screen was alive with black-gloved assassins – so, let’s cherish that whilst we can.
The central character in EYES OF CRYSTAL is a young but dysfunctional and weatherworn cop, Amaldi (Luigi Lo Cascio). Lamenting a love lost through violence, he seems intent on taking revenge on criminals, either working within the law or not (in an early scene he shoots a rapist in the kneecap instead of merely taking him into custody). Along with his even more weatherworn partner, he is called to the scene of a triple homicide, where two young lovers and a peeping tom have been gunned down by an unseen killer. One detail is especially curious to Amaldi, the killer seemingly attempted to crudely reconstruct the breast of the murdered girl that had been blown away by gunfire.
Around the same time, a young woman, Lucia (Desislava Tenekedjieva), attending the local university, reports to Amaldi that she is being stalked by an unseen assailant. As if they haven’t got enough on their plate, Amaldi and his partner are also visiting a dying cop in hospital Agent Ajaccio (Simón Andreu) (a veteran of lots of classic gialli, including DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT (1972) and DEATH CARRIES A CANE (1973)), who is suffering from uncontrollable hallucinations and flashbacks to a terrible fire at the orphanage where he was brought up, where several children and nuns burnt to death in front of his eyes. At the same hospital, surgical amputation instruments are reported stolen. Subsequently, an antique owner who is trying to sell a life-size antique doll to an unknown buyer is knifed to death at her shop, her arms amputated and removed by the killer who replaces them with the arms of the mannequin she was trying to sell.
Further murders and amputations follow, leading Amaldi to suspect that the killer is building a lifesize doll from body parts of the victims. However, will he be able to bring all the disparate threads of the mystery together before this ghoulish work is done?
EYES OF CRYSTAL is blessed with a decent script and a high enough budget to successfully mix violence and the baroque in a way that’s unmistakably giallo’esque. That other blight – variable acting – is mercifully nowhere to be seen (partly because of strong performances by all of the principal players and, because the version out on DVD in the UK is in Italian with English subs, it doesn’t suffer from that other blight – Eurotrash dubbing!). Many of the previous obsessions (both thematic and visual) of the giallo are present and correct: a black-gloved killer; damsels in distress (and undress); dolls; eyeballs; flashbacks and visceral violence. Having the killer be a taxidermist (something set up in the film’s opening shots) gives the opportunity for some striking visuals – stuffed animals are always creepy (as are stuffed humans). Director, Puglielli, also scores with some impressively dreamlike imagery – the sight of a nun whirling, her habit alight as flames creep ever higher, is an image not easily shaken off (but perhaps that’s the lapsed Catholic in me!). Plus, a gloriously daft denouement – the killer’s motive makes little sense, but then again it’s almost charming that it doesn’t.
It would be wrong, however, to see EYES OF CRYSTAL as only a retread of past glories – it is that, but also more. Despite what I said about Italian cinema curiously not borrowing from the American thriller, EYES OF CRYSTAL is almost as influenced by gritty American serial killer pics, such as David Fincher’s amazingly influential SE7EN (1995), as it is by home grown offerings. This is a mixed blessing – the sapphire tinged darkness of many scenes adds a pleasing noir edge, but some of the more frenetic camerawork (think NYPD BLUE with the shakes) becomes a little grating after a while. It’s also worth remembering that whilst giallo from the heyday of the early 70s may look very dated – even quaint – by today’s standards, they were often cutting-edge in the day. If someone were looking to update the genre completely, it might be tempting to imagine that you would need to fill it with whatever today’s trendy scene, fashions and music would be (just like Argento attempted to do with the rave scenes in NON HO SONO (2004)). Whether that would work is anyone’s guess. Puglielli certainly doesn’t try to do that here. May be someone else will try.
EYES OF CRYSTAL did the impossible – resurrecting a seemingly moribund genre with probably the finest example of the giallo since Argento last hit his stride with OPERA (1987) – almost twenty years ago. Whether this rude, but welcome, reawakening is just a once off or a new dawn remains to be seen.
female:3 / male:4
1) Male shot to death
2) Female shot in breast
3) Male shot in back
4) Female gutted with knife
5) Female has legs cut off with a knife
6) Male strangled
7) Male decapitated