When we typically classify a giallo film it traditionally comes with a few standard trademarks. First, and perhaps most notably, is the usage of first person perspective for our killer, always clad in gloves, usually black leather. Speaking of the killer, the weapon of choice is almost always some kind of blade. It could be a knife, a razor, or an ax but rest assured that when the killer is done there will be blood red everywhere. Most of all though there is almost always an undercurrent of sexuality, both repressed and overt, that clashes directly with the narratives violence. Which is why Yann Gonzalez’ newest film is so perfectly titled, because in essence every giallo film is about Knife + Heart.
Knife + Heart follows Anne (Vanessa Paradis), a gay porn producer in early 1980’s Italy. While shooting her newest film, “Anal Fury”, some of her actors begin showing up dead, murdered by a figure clad in a black mask (that feels like the 21st century version of the mask from Sergio Martino’s Torso) with a weapon that…well, you’re guaranteed to have never seen on film before. As more and more in their community die, Anne takes it onto herself to get to the bottom of who is killing all of these men before she becomes the next victim.
Ultimately this film is about how hate breeds more hate. The black gloved killer isn’t murdering out of some kind of self loathing, a thematic quality of 80s film that tried to wrestle with LGTBQ stories (like Dressed To Kill). Rather he is killing out of rage for what was done to him, furious that he can’t have the life he almost had. The killer targets Anne because one of her past films feels eerily reminiscent of the killers tragic history. While we never know if Anne intentionally did this, a hole left in our narrative, we do know that she takes no qualms in mining from reality, like when Anne shifts the narrative of her newest film, “Homocidal”, to be inspired by the current murders and her own interactions with the police. Perhaps seeing the happier ending of Anne’s porno allowed the rage in our killer to snap and click into his own bubbling over psychosis.
Possibly the most explicit metaphor is the killers weapon: a large black dildo knife. You read that right. The knife, and the rubber phallus, are stand ins for more overt metaphors, but also the killers lost innocence. The film flips the aggressive masculine, constantly leading from the hip, by putting the sexual danger solely on Anne, an alcoholic in love with Lois (Kate Moran), her editor. Anne is the only one who is morally ambiguous about her exploitation of sexuality. In a moment of weakness, Lois and Anne reconnect and kiss. Afterwards reeling from the embrace, she begs for Lois back, pressing her up against a wall and sexually assaulting her. It’s a charged moment, mainly because we rarely see this type of assault on screen and we have to remind ourselves that what happened was assault. It’s rightfully one of the most frightening moments in the film. In a time when truths are not listened to from victims, it’s a reminder of the spectrum of what assault is. Hell, even our murderer understands consent.
While this film may not be for your a-typical horror fan rooting for blood and boobs, the film is masked in a blood red glow but the gaze isn’t stereotypically male. The bodies in this film aren’t on display for us to gawk at, but rather it feels like a display of pure comfort. The filmmakers on Anne’s team are content in their lives, with their close friends, and this is where their passions have led them. Along with Cam it may be one of the strongest sex-positive horror films to ever come out. The men aren’t being murdered because they are deviants, but rather they get to live their lives freely while our killer must hide behind a leather mask.
Knife + Heart is what would have happened if John Waters made a poliziotteschi with Lucio Fulci. Both directors share an affinity for kink, while also relishing in shocking acts of violence in the name of social commentary, with frequent biting satire. They also made absolutely entertaining films, something they share with Knife + Heart. It’s not bleak or too heady, and the levity comes in Anne’s films. While we never see sex (but we see a lot of simulated fellatio), the “straight” scenes are exceptionally campy and gained a lot of laughs from the crowd I saw it with. And it’s intentional laughs, rather than laughing at the absurdity of late 70s pornography.
I hope horror films like Knife + Heart are a sign of things to come in our beloved genre because representation matters, especially when those who have been underrepresented now get to be so much more than victims.