Four Flies on Grey Velvet Review – Dario Argento

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

Michael Brandon (Roberto Tobias), Mimsy Farmer (Nina Tobias), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Giani Arrosio) and Bud Spencer (Godfrey ‘God’)

Screenplay by Dario Argento

Directed by Dario Argento

This is my third entry in my short blogging series – ‘My Early Mornings with Dario Argento’. I didn’t intend to review the early work of Dario Argento, I just kind of stumbled into this project thanks to the fact that I don’t have access to many new films in my temporary home, located in Nice, France, and I was battling some serious jet-lag when I arrived, which caused me to wake up in the middle of the night. At first it was enraging to be on this schedule, but then I found that nothing goes better with early morning delirium than Argento’s dreamlike films. The combination is really quite satisfying, but now that the jet-lag has subsided I need to wait until I am lucky enough to wake up in the early morning naturally. Sorry Mr. Argento, but I’m not about to set an alarm clock for 4am. So far I have reviewed Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (which I enjoyed but greatly prefer the novel it was based on ‘The Screaming Mimi’ by Fredric Brown), and The Cat o’ Nine Tails (in which Argento shows off his very real story telling skills). Next up on the docket is his third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

The film tells the story about a young, musically talented, and attractive drummer named Roberto. One night after band practice Roberto finds himself caught in a blackmailing trap set by a strange masked perpetrator. Roberto is made to unwittingly commit a crime, which is simultaneously photographed by the masked villain. Roberto is subsequently blackmailed by the same character. It is left to Roberto to either catch his blackmailer or give in. But is it only blackmail that the masked villain has in mind? Could it be something more sinister?

After the visual delights of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and the attention to plot in The Cat o’ Nine Tails, I was sure that Argento would hit it out of the park with his third film. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. While I remember reading somewhere that Argento’s first three features were theatrical successes, I think there is a huge difference in quality between the first two, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The main character is annoying, as are a rag-tag cast of ‘private eyes’ that assist him later in the story. The dialogue has that inanity that I sometimes associate with Argento films, whether it is a translation issue, writing issue, or both is unknown to me. Some scenes in the film are unintentionally hilarious, while others that are supposed to be humourous left me scratching my head: see the reoccurring scenes with an odd-looking mailman. Finally, the elaborate and creative kill scenes that viewers have come to expect from Argento are completely absent.

If, like me, you are interested in watching Argento’s early works in their entireity then you are unfortunately required to watch this piece of garbage (normally I’m not so harsh, but this one made me really mad). If on the other hand you are looking for something that is actually scary or mysterious then for the love of god steer clear from this one. I want those two hours of my life back.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails Review – Dario Argento

The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

Writer and director – Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, and others

Cast – James Franciscus, Karl Malden, and Catherine Spaak

It appears that my foray into the world of Dario Argento has turned from a brief visit into something of a habit. I respect the work of Argento, particularly Supiria, Inferno, Phenomena, and what he has done for horror cinema, but I’m not necessarily what you could call a ‘fan’. His films often remind me of bad dreams, or true nightmares, which is a complement, but at the same time they are often devoid of a coherent plot or character actions, which I’m a bit of a stickler for. That said, in the past two weeks I have developed a weird sort of bond with his work: getting used to living in Nice, France and battling jet-lag, it has become a bizarre ritual for me to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and watch some early Argento on my lap-top while my girlfriend continues to sleep. My odd European life feels akin to the emotions stirred up by the Maestro of Italian horror cinema, Dario Argento. Last time I brought you a review of his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. This time I’ll talk about his second film, which came out a year later in 1971, The Cat O’ Nine Tails.

The film is true to Argento’s reoccurring plot in many regards: a killer is stalking victims for some unknown reason, razors and switchblades are weapons of choice, and the killer speaks in a menacing whisper. However, this is where the similarities stop and Cat O’ Nine Tails becomes something refreshingly different from typical Argento Fare. The central characters are an unlikely group of heros: a young journalist, an old blind man, and his 10-year old child (granddaughter?). The killings surround a supposed theft at a secretive genetic research lab which contains many documents which could be incredibly valuable in the right hands. Finally, while razors and knives do make their necessary appearances, the killer’s weapon of choice is a thin whip used for strangulation, like I said, not typical Argento.

The above differences aside, Cat O’ Nine Tails relies less on the typical visual flare of Argento, in fact I may not have guessed that Argento made this film if I didn’t know so beforehand. In fact, plot and a building a sense of mystery are the focal points. While it would have been great to have my cake and eat it too (the visual flair of Argento combined with a competent story), it was hugely surprising and very rewarding to see Argento competently handle a mystery plot, maybe not like a master, but certainly not like an amateur. It should also be mentioned that I watched the film in Italian with subtitles, so this combination in itself probably made the film more tolerable, rather than the horrendous English dubbing that is present in most of his early films.

Give The Cat O’ Nine Tails a chance, if only to see Argento do something slightly different. I don’t know if I will be able to keep this up for Argento’s entire filmography, but I have every intention of making it to Deep Red (1975), which many consider one of his best films and the greatest Giallo film of all time, although I’m not sure if I agree with them.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Review

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Writer and director – Dario Argento

Cast – Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, and Enrico Maria

I’ve been in Nice, France for the last two weeks, and in addition to a bad cold and a potentially broken foot, I have been battling the lack of new cinematic releases around the city. Before I travelled here,  I checked out a website that listed a number of English language cinemas around the city, and things looked promising, but lately it just seems like the cinemas are full of what the end of 2011 had to offer. Films like Drive, Take Shelter, The Help, and The Descendants fill up the ‘Now Playing’ listings. So it looks like I may not be able to review new movies like I had expected. Luckily, I anticipated running into some difficulties and converted many of my DVDs into AVI files, which I will start digging into and reviewing as the months pass by. As many readers will know, my main interest lies in the realm of horror, and it’s for this reason that I kick-off my old school review section with Dario Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Most cinephiles will be familiar with the work of Dario Argento, also referred to as the ‘Maestro of Italian horror’. He’s been responsible for a number of now classic horror films, such as Suspiria, Deep Red, and Inferno. If you’re like me then you probably have a great deal of respect for the Maestro, but at the same time can’t help but feel a little disappointed with his work over the last ten to fifteen years (see the awful trailer for his upcoming Dracula film, this is not a joke). Argento seems to have an innate ability to wow audiences visually with striking red blood, obscure camera angles, and creative pans between bedroom windows on a stormy night. There is no doubt that the man has a cinematic eye. However, his films are often burdened with inane character behaviour and dialogue, while his cookie-cutter plot which sees a killer stalk women has been used over and over again without apology. It’s hard not to be torn when it comes to Argento as the issues discussed above are some of the best and worst aspects of horror films in general. I’ve come to the opinion that watching an Argento film is akin to looking at a piece of abstract art: if you like what you see, then stay a while, try to dissect it, if you don’t like what you see, then move on quickly, because things are only going to get worse with any sort of logical analysis.

This was the first time I had ever seen The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and I was really looking forward to it. Would it feel like an Argento film? Would it feel amateurish, indicating that the Maestro needed time to grow? Oddly enough it felt like a typical Argento film, almost disappointingly so. Let me try to explain.

The film follows an American who attempts to come to the aid of a woman when she is attacked by a knife wielding man in black. As a result our hero becomes ensnared in a police investigation, his passport temporarily withheld from him as the police coax him into helping them catch a serial killer who they believe is the knife wielding man in black. The mystery slowly unravels while the man in black claims victim after victim. Sounds like typical Argento, right? In fact, it is Argento to a tee: the killer wears black gloves, first person camera angles are used during the attacks, the killer speaks in a menacing whisper, men are killed quickly while women are emotionally tortured before being killed, and the characters and dialogue are often incredibly stupid. In one instance an antique store owner utters ‘…some say she liked other girls, but don’t get me wrong, I’m no racist’ *face palm*. Therefore, it’s disappointing for me to see that Argento was in prime form on his very first film, potentially indicting that he has failed to grow as a story teller throughout his career and may have been getting by on pure visual talent alone. Argento has been using this black gloved, first person, knife or razor wielding villain for decades with success, but when he departs from this his films are somewhat forgettable.

Finally, I was shocked to discover as I watched the film that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is heavily based on an excellent novel by Fredric Brown, called the Screaming Mimi (see my blog post about Brown). Maybe it was due to the times, but Brown and his novel are completely uncredited, which is an absolute travesty considering how heavily his novel was drawn on. Brown was a master story teller that could wrap a reader around his pinkie finger without them even knowing it. Plot however is not Argento’s forte, and as a result the delicately balanced narrative found in The Screaming Mimi is ill understood by Argento, or simply tossed aside in favour of more kills. In the end, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is worth a watch for Argento fans, but if you’re new to his work, you would be much better suited checking out Suspiria, Inferno, or Phenomena.

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