Dario Argento is a bit of an odd one for me. He’s one of the names that I always rattle off whenever somebody asks me who my favorite directors are. But really when I think about it it’s only a small fraction of his films that I actually love, all of which were made in the first ten years of his career. The 80’s weren’t too bad for him, Inferno being by far my favorite. Tenebrae was an interesting yet cold exercise in style, Phenomena one of his worst films period and Opera being an incredibly mixed experience. The less said about most of the films made after that the better. But during the 70s Argento was quite possibly the most interesting guy working in the genre. So why am I waffling on about all of this? Well it just goes to show just how big a deal this release is for me and I’m sure many others.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the last in what has been called the Animal Trilogy, the first being Argento’s excellent debut picture Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the second the often misunderstood Cat O Nine Tails. The film is very similar to those two in that it is a straight up giallo film and not so much a horror movie, really it’s much more of a thriller. I often wonder had Argento not gone on to make Suspiria would so many people call his first three films horror? The basic synopsis is the same as pretty much every other giallo film, a killer is on the loose and the protagonist has to find out who it is. The difference here being that our hero Roberto believes that he has killed a man himself, and the real killer taunts him with photos of the murder, not as blackmail, but in an attempt to drive him insane.
Like a number of Argento films Four Flies on Grey Velvet peaks during the first twenty minutes. That’s not to bash the film, as very often these spectacular openings manage to engage the viewer in what could otherwise be considered an absurd plot. Drawing upon his work on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West for the first three or so minutes we watch Roberto attempting to catch a fly that keeps sticking to his face during a band practice. However the fly does have a purpose. Throughout the scene shots occasionally appear where the fly is not present. And over time we begin to realize that we are observing two separate band practices intercut; the key detail being thatin both Roberto is being watched by a strange man outside of the window. The scene also intercuts footage of Roberto on his way to band practice as he notices the strange man in the car behind him. The three minute scene is jam packed full of style but through the style Argento has created a feeling of paranoia and set up the plot of the film in an incredibly short amount of time.
The opening credits are brilliantly executed and flag up everything that is missing in Argento’s later work. In this film Argento is in such command of the camera that almost every superfluous move has a motivation that helps the narrative along and creates mood. Whereas later on in his career it appears Dario moves the camera because he’s expected to, forgetting why he utilized all this style in the first place.
The performances are especially good for an Argento movie. Michael Brandon has been accused of being rather dull in the film, but to me his performance fits the character perfectly, he displays a sense of arrogance and selfishness yet still manages to make his character somewhat likeable. The highlight performance for me would be Bud Spencer as God (short for Godfrey) in a role that should feel out of place in the giallo world yet here fits perfectly. Like Cat O Nine Tails before it the film is full of quirky characters, from the paranoid postman, the homosexual private detective to God and his oddball sidekick. It’s really a shame Argento stopped writing entertaining characters like these after this film as they really help to make the film interesting and stop it from feeling so distancing. The set pieces in the movie aren’t up to the usual standard of Argento’s films of the period, and the murder scenes are weak to say the least (aside from one that borrows excellently from Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man) but the characters manage to put the film over and make it worthwhile, not to mention the superb Morricone score.
So does the film live up to my expectations? Though it’s not a bad thing I’d have to say that it’s my least favorite out of the animal trilogy (bearing in mind I’m one of the few that likes Cat almost as much as Bird). The film starts off with such style and power and just doesn’t manage to keep up the pace. The end is especially underwhelming and came so quickly that I didn’t even realize the movie had finished. There was no build up to it, it just sort of arrived and then the film ended. As said before most of the murder scenes are especially disappointing and it’s very hard to imagine that this was supposed to be Dario’s farewell to the giallo film (luckily it wasn’t and he hit back with Deep Red). However having said that it’s definitely worth your time and the film is a revelation for all of those that haven’t had the opportunity to see the film before and reminds me personally why I consider him one of my favorite directors, despite the flaws.
The replacement No Shame, MYA have released the film and already the disc is creating controversy. Of course we are all glad to finally have the film in our hands and the print is beautiful, but there is a big problem with the audio and a problem that is frankly unforgivable. When PAL is converted to NTSC the picture is slowed down from 25p to 24p which causes the audio to play back at a lower pitch than usual. This happens all the time and usually the people working on the disc just pitch the audio back up a few semitones to its original pitch. Well here lies the problem. MYA either forgot to pitch the film’s audio back up or just did not know how to. What does this mean for you? Well Mimsy sounds like a man, Brandon sounds like Vincent Price and Morricone’s music is horribly out of tune. This isn’t a simple matter of print damage but a massive oversight. I can accept imperfections in audio but what isn’t acceptable is broken audio that could, and absolutely should have been noticed by MYA before the discs were sent out to stores. There’s also 40 seconds of missing footage (supposedly from the death scenes) due to print damage, despite the fact the cover boasts that the film is completely uncut. Overall the disc is a big disappointment, but if you’re desperate to see the film this is the only way to see it until someone else gives it a shot.