Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

I never even heard of this film until recently. It was apparently released in the US for the first time in 2009, and only sporadically elsewhere in what might have been bootleg versions. It's Argento's third film and is sometimes referenced as the final part of his 'Animal Trilogy' - along with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o' Nine Tails. (There's really no connection other than the titles, so FFoGV can be safely watched without having seen the other films.)

I went into this knowing nothing about it, except that it was an Argento film I hadn't seen. (There are a few, actually, but this was the only one I that was completely new to me.) My enjoyment of the film may be outsized compared to the actual quality (and the quality of later films, like Deep Red or Suspiria), but that's probably a result of watching it so soon after Fulci's A Cat in the Brain. The difference in level of quality and skill was pretty striking.

The Medium
I watched Four Flies on Grey Velvet via streaming. The quality was decent, though not HD. It had the '40 missing seconds' added, but in Italian and without subtitles. If the movie is ever released on Blu-ray in the US, I'll probably pick it up.

The Movie
Roberto is a drummer in a rock band. (All the music is provided by Enio Morricone and there's prog-rock, jazz and some electronic sounding stuff.)  There's a mysterious figure following him around after rehearsals and even during the day. One night he finally confronts the stalker, having followed them to an abandoned theater. The stalker pulls a knife, they struggle and in the melee Roberto stabs the stalker. This is bad enough, but there's also someone else in the theater. Someone wearing a creepy puppet mask takes pictures of Robert standing over the body, holding the bloody knife. Roberto runs, but is soon contacted by the person who took the pictures. They're not going to the police, no - they want to torment Robert, before killing him.

"This was not at all how I saw my day going."

Man this is a stylish film. I know that's like Argento's thing, but there's some really awesome cinematography and framing in this film.  Right off the bat we've got shots from the inside of a guitar, slow spins to reveal people standing outside of windows, and a shot of a fly between two cymbals with the drummer out of focus behind it. It's just so visually interesting compared to Fulci's straightforward compositions. 

Also, that puppet mask? That is damn creepy. I kind of wish it had kept appearing throughout the film, but it's not that sort of giallo.


I'm not sure what to make of Roberto. He seems a likeable enough guy, but he's also willing to cover up his involvement in a man's death. He appears to be somewhat distant and isolated, even from his beautiful wife and his band mates. Maybe that's just the stress he's under, but it ended up having the effect of leaving me feeling distanced from him as well.

"I just feel flat and uninspired, you know?"
"Something feels flat and uninspired."

There's a shot that appears to be a cemetery. Headstones in a white glare, over-exposed. Then the contrast starts to drop, the glare fades... and it's a public square on a middle-eastern country. What we thought were tombstones are actually the curved entrances into the surrounding building. There's a public execution going on and we watch the executioner begin his work. This is a recurring dream that Roberto has and is one of the few potentially supernatural touches in the film - if we take it as a premonition. Though it's just as likely that it's a representation of Roberto's increasing fear and paranoia, mixed with a story told at a party.

The blackmailer invades Roberto's house, leaving pictures of the killing. They even enter at night and almost kill Roberto with a garrote before telling him that they want him to suffer first. At this point I'd be going to the police, murder rap or no, but instead Robert seeks out the advice of God.

Not the God you were expecting, I'm sure.

I don't generally expect a Dario Argento film to be funny. So when Roberto goes to talk to his friend Godfrey and calls out 'hey God!' and there's a burst of music and a chorus singing 'hallelujah!' I almost snorted my drink. There's a substantial amount of humor in the film - between a bumbling mailman, God and the Professor (two homeless gentlemen), and a gay detective. Whether it works for anyone else or not, I actually enjoyed the humor. It's a little jarring, but the scenes - particularly with God and the Professor talking to Roberto at a Funeral Arts convention - are just hilarious to me. (One of the people at the convention tries lying in a coffin only to complain that it's a little too tight. The response of the vendor - "None of our customers have ever come back with a complaint...")

Roberto spends a lot of the film in this exact pose.

The gay detective is way too over the top, but the actor is so good in the role that I can almost forgive the cartoony nature of the presentation. I found myself wishing the entire movie was about this guy on his quest to finally solve a case. He's only around for a short time, though, and he's sorely missed after an unfortunate meeting with the killer. I was pretty impressed that there was a positively portrayed gay character in a giallo in 1971, even if he's almost a caricature.

Roberto, second guessing the 'and expenses' part of the deal with Detective Arrosio.

There are a number of plot twists and turns of course. This is, after all, an Argento film. Murders are highly stylized affairs with inventive and almost beautiful imagery. A maid out to blackmail the blackmailer is in a park full of people during the day - and then she's suddenly alone at night, locked in with the blackmailer (who quickly becomes a killer). A cousin of Roberto's wife is a suspect - until she too is murdered in spectacular style.

And then - oh dear. The 'last image can be recovered from the victim's eyes' crap. This is why I quit watching Fringe the first time it aired.  It's still dumb... but it does look kinda cool, with eyeballs, lasers, glass globes, and a blurry image projected on a circular screen.

Very dumb, but very cool.

The end comes quickly after the reveal of the murderer - there's some crappy pop psychology, slow motion bullet time (decades before The Matrix - though it's pretty limited), slow motion car crash decapitations and more prog-rock soundtrack music than you can shake a stick at. Does it all make sense? Probably not - though it felt more coherent than some of Argento's films.

The acting is fairly decent, if broad, and I was pleasantly surprised by the dubbing. Mimsy Farmer as Roberto's wife Nina is a standout, as is Jean-Pierre Marielle as the detective Arrosio. The final confrontation was marred by the inclusion of several seconds that had been excluded from previous versions of the film. These are mostly part of a sequence in which the killer explains their actions and are all in Italian with no subtitles. So I was left with the impression that the killer had gone crazy because sometimes they just randomly speak in Italian.

"See you in your nightmares!"

The Bottom Line
This is a really enjoyable giallo with all that entails - including elaborate killings, stylish people and settings, and some convoluted plot twists. It may not represent Argento at the height of his powers, but it's still a pretty entertaining film.

No comments:

Post a Comment