Homage is a tricky business. Lean too hard on an influence without moving into outright mimicry (i.e. Ti West’s The House of the Devil), and a filmmaker risks being labeled derivative. Stray too far from that influence, and the audience might not recognize what is being paid homage in the first place. This is especially difficult for low-budget independent films, and the more intangible the signifiers of the genre or style up for tribute, the tougher it is to replicate the look and feel. The Italian giallo film is a popular style for filmmakers to reference these days, thanks to a resurgence in popularity due to such deft homages as Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s Amer and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Many independent filmmakers have been adding their voice to the conversation, with varying degrees of success. One such film is Chicago-based writer/director David A. Holcombe’s debut feature Yellow.
Arianna (Margaret Grace) is a young woman living in the big city, working as a hair stylist. One night she decides to call up a phone sex chat line and strikes up an unusual rapport with Jackie (Jill Oliver). Her friend Renee (Kyle Greer) tries to get her to be more social and defends her against everyone else working at the salon where they both work, but other than Jackie and Renee, Arianna’s life is lonely and frightening. She spends most of her time holed up in her apartment, plagued by nightmares and the target of occasional harassment from her apartment building’s conspicuously European handyman. Around the time her boss Lyla (Shelley Nixon) fires Arianna for stealing from the salon, bodies start to pile up. Is Arianna hiding a murderous secret? Or is someone else killing the people causing her grief?
Yellow purports to be a “modern giallo horror film,” but it has more in common with the type of female-centric 1970s psychological “horror” films that descended from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, like George Romero’s Season of the Witch. Arianna is in nearly every shot of the film, and the dark, cramped interiors give the film a powerfully claustrophobic atmosphere which, again, is reminiscent of Repulsion. There are a few scenes drenched in colored lights that hint at the filmmaker’s main influence, although the lurid red lights recall Argento’s Suspiria (whose status as a giallo or horror film is arguable) more than any straight-up giallo films. Unsurprisingly, however, Yellow‘s look is its biggest strength, shot on sharp digital video with interesting compositions and colors. There’s almost always something interesting to look at during the entirety of the film’s brief running time.
That said, Yellow does suffer from some typical problems of independent horror films, including some iffy blood and makeup effects and an inconsistent score that becomes grating near the end of the film. Margaret Grace is a solid lead actress, but the other performances are all over the place. Part of the problem with the cast may be the film’s uncertain tone, however– the other people working at Arianna’s hair salon range from sympathetic to cartoonishly villainous, and it’s difficult for the audience to tell how they are supposed to feel about these characters before they start getting bumped off by the (appropriately black-gloved) killer. The dialogue is probably where Yellow falters most glaringly; another draft or two of the script may have helped iron out some of the more awkward phrasings the characters use. As an attempt to update the giallo formula, Yellow is not really successful. However, as a psychological horror film, it is not without its merits, and hopefully its strong points indicate better things to come from Holcombe and his collaborators.
For more information about Yellow, visit the Soft Cage Films web site: http://www.softcagefilms.com