Italians would use the term “giallo” to describe any mystery or thriller story, particularly those tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie, whose novels were originally published in the yellow-backed format that gave the genre its name. In fact, it’s only amongst us film fans that “giallo” has come to refer exclusively to the particular brand of violent, titillating shocker of which Tonino Valerii’s My Dear Killer (1972) is often cited as an example. But My Dear Killer also falls firmly into the first camp, being driven by a traditional whodunit narrative that some might say outweighs the lurid thrills. So which is it? A gruesome giallo or a more conventional mystery?
Show me an over-the-top, style-heavy thriller full of gruesome murders – like Tenebrae or Dressed to Kill – and I’m a very happy slasher-fan, although I’m just as likely to be found pondering over the more reserved convolutions of a drawing-room puzzler like The Honey Pot or Sleuth. Thankfully, movies like My Dear Killer prove that you can have it both ways: while carefully and densely plotted, it’s also one of the more fast-and-furious gialli I’ve seen – one that whistles briskly through its dark twists and turns like an underground train hurtling down a tunnel, before bursting out into the light with a clever and satisfying resolution.
George Hilton plays Inspector Peretti, called out to a flooded quarry to examine the decapitated body of an insurance investigator, but soon drawn into an older case involving the kidnapping of a little girl called Stefania, whose body was found nearby. Convinced the two cases are related, he visits the family of the dead child, only to initiate a further string of increasingly nasty murders. As Peretti probes further, the killer proves always to be one step ahead.
I’ve seen Hilton in several other gialli – and, having made around ten, he probably qualifies as the male equivalent of Edwige Fenech – but this is the first time he’s struck me as an irremovable part of the film. Definitely not just a serviceably bland leading man, he seems fully in charge of this investigation, revealing and explaining each new clue for the audience in such a logical way that you can’t help but be drawn in. In a romantic subplot that for once doesn’t feel extraneous, we also see the effects his workaholic nature have on his relationship, culminating in a confrontation with his girlfriend that indirectly breaks the case.
Though more concerned with plot than many a giallo, My Dear Killer also has the requisite visual touches: the quarry location returned to again and again is always bleached in eerily harsh sunlight; the camera whirls around the apartment of a victim in an extended POV scene, before closing in on a blood-spraying murder using a circular saw. There’s even a little homage to Orson Welles’ celebrated hall of mirrors scene from The Lady from Shanghai, as Peretti encounters the killer in a darkened room full of smashed glass. Like all the best gialli, the most important clue involves looking at a picture in a new way – in this case, a child’s drawings (an element that also effectively incorporates another of the genre’s obsessions, childhood trauma).
Fittingly for a film that juggles whodunit and slasher elements so well, we arrive at a double-climax: the first is a gruelling stalking sequence with an unlikely (and likeable) final girl; the second a traditional unmasking, with all the suspects gathered in one room in the manner of an Hercule Poirot mystery, and Peretti beginning by announcing, “The story of Stefania is also the story of your insanity, my dear, sick killer!”
Whilst not quite on the level of some of the classic gialli, which transcend the genre to become horror/mystery masterpieces, My Dear Killer is a more-than-solid outing and one that’s a good introduction for anyone interested in getting into the genre as a whole. Just bear in mind that things can get much more crazy and colourful than this.
Review originally published on Retro Slashers, 11 August 2011