All of the cool kids in genre cinema right now love giallo. Film festival programmes in recent years have been littered with homages to this particular brand of European horror, with Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio one of the most notable examples. The latest filmmaker to pay homage to the work of Dario Argento and Mario Bava is Nicolas Pesce, who broke out a couple of years ago with the chilling monochrome nightmare The Eyes of My Mother.
Piercing opens with a statement of homage, via some opening titles complete with video flicker and a title sequence of cartoonish cityscapes seemingly ripped directly from the lurid world of giallo. Around this time, we meet Reed (Christopher Abbott), standing over his infant child with an ice pick – a recurring weapon that nods to Paul Verhoeven’s own giallo-inspired thriller Basic Instinct. Soon, he has channelled that rage into a plot to murder a prostitute in a hotel room. When Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) turns up, though, everything takes a turn for the seriously bizarre.
To say more would be to spoil the myriad surprises that Pesce’s film has up its macabre sleeve. The nods to giallo come thick and fast, from a pointed shot of one character removing black gloves to the soundtrack that serves as a compilation of genre hits, including the Goblin theme from Argento’s Profondo Rosso. This is certainly a film with considerable style and flair, from the stark primary colours of Reed’s hotel room to the knowing use of split-screen as the characters prepare to meet for the first time.
Pesce’s movie is as playful as it is terrifying, helped by Wasikowska’s enigmatic performance – a devilishly charming smile concealing her motivations and indeed how much she knows about what’s actually happening. It’s her who serves as the movie’s impish heart, undercutting the horror with subtle touches of silliness. At times, it feels as if Wasikowska’s character from Stoker has been given a comedy makeover.
Abbott, meanwhile, is equally terrific as a man entirely unprepared for a situation to spiral out of his control. An early scene shows Reed act out his plans for the murder with a dispassionate face, miming every stab and slash to the sounds, initially, of disarmingly banal elevator muzak, but then the imagined sound effects of saw on bone and squelching flesh. He is visibly scared by Wasikowska’s forthright discussions of sexuality and this knocks him far enough off course that his plans are thrown out of the window.
After its stylish and concise first half, Piercing becomes an even stranger and more freewheeling outing as it moves towards a slightly disappointing and abrupt conclusion. Pesce’s desire to subvert the expectations of his audience is very welcome, as are the ambiguous and darkly comic performances, and the moments of lurid gore are executed to grotesque perfection – watch out for the contents of a kitchen drawer. He just fails to land that final killer punch to find the sense in all of this madness.
Dir: Nicolas Pesce
Scr: Nicolas Pesce
Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
Prd: Antonio Campos, Josh Mond, Jacob Wasserman, Schuyler Weiss
DOP: Zack Galler
Run time: 81 mins
Piercing is in UK cinemas now.