Four Flies on Grey Velvet – DVD Review

Having just released an international smash with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Argento must have felt the usual pressure to follow it up with something similar (an issue that his occasional stylistic mentor, Hitchcock himself, had to deal with often). His subsequent two efforts would form a so-called “animal trilogy” – films that all conformed with the basic Giallo construct, but are bound together historically only by having animal names in the titles. 1971’s Cat ‘o Nine Tails featured a larger budget and a pair of big American stars – Carl Malden and James Franciscus – but the resulting picture was distressingly ordinary, with Argento seemingly pandering to the foreign market with more standard thriller fare (a situation not helped by the heavy editing to which the film was subjected in most countries, including the US). 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a definite improvement; unencumbered by slumming American stars, the film is looser and much more entertaining than its predecessor.
Rock drummer Roberto Tobias (a very David Duchovny-looking Michael Brandon) finds himself stalked by a figure dressed entirely in black, until one night when -understandably frustrated and angry – Roberto confronts his newfound shadow in an abandoned theater. The stalker becomes indignant and pulls a knife. In the ensuing struggle, the man falls dead of a stab wound, and Roberto flees the scene. What Roberto didn’t notice was a figure in one of the theater balconies wearing a creepy mask and snapping away with a camera, and in short order Roberto begins receiving a series of very incriminating photos of himself holding the supposed murder weapon. Things take a deadlier turn when the mysterious shutterbug attacks Roberto and begins slicing a bloody path through his friends.
Although Four Flies is still a fairly conventional thriller – particularly in light of Argento’s later, edgier work – the beginnings of the visually audacious style that would come to full fruition in Deep Red, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). The director has a ball with camera placement, and even uses an early variation of the bullet-time slow motion sequence, later made famous (and ubiquitous) in the Matrix pictures. There is also a return to the more European feel of Bird with the Crystal Plumage, taking the thriller mechanics less seriously than the style in which they’re portrayed (and an appearance by Bud Spenser, a frequent co-star with Terence Hill in numerous spaghetti westerns, tells us that Argento wasn’t forgetting about the European market). Applying an overly critical eye might show a director frantically dipping into his bag of tricks to distract the viewer from an overly familiar thriller plot structure, but since more recent efforts like Phantom of the Opera and The Card Player displayed what real directorial indifference looks like, Four Flies plays like the work of a much more assured hand. There are very few serious filmmakers that can make the concept of the human retina retaining the final image seen by the victim and believably incorporate it into the plot.
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Much of Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s reputation stems from its unavailability on home video. US residents have had to live with dodgy bootlegs of questionable quality while pleas for a proper DVD release fell on deaf ears at rights-holding studio Paramount Pictures. We don’t know what strings were pulled, but Somehow Mya Communications has managed to secure domestic DVD rights, and the results are glorious – an uncut print (sourced from an Italian negative) with excellent color and detail that finally allows for a proper evaluation of the show. There are both English and Italian tracks available (both in mono), though as was the case with most of Argento’s films of the period, the vast majority of the actors (including the leads) were clearly speaking English. The package is rounded out with a collection of fascinating vintage trailers, including one without dialog or narration that is decades ahead of its time.

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