One of my most shameful confessions as a devoted horror fan is that I haven’t seen nearly as much Dario Argento as I really should have. In truth, I’ve actually just limited myself to his “Three Mothers Trilogy” (Suspiria, Inferno, The Mother of Tears), unless you count the stuff he’s produced (Demons, Demons 2), which I don’t. I’ve embarked on a number of journeys over the years to widen my horror horizons. I recently got off a Hammer Odds and Ends kick and feel all the more seasoned because of it, so I suppose the next destination I should set my sights on is Dario Argento Land.
To start my trip, I snagged a little gem off the shelves at Best Buy, of all places (whose horror selection tends not to extend past the Syfy Channel Original Movie market). Four Flies on Grey Velvet had as artsy a name as I’ve ever heard, but the premise sounded right up my alley and, hey, I’ve spent $14 bucks on worse flicks (f--k you, Future-Kill).
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
Roberto (Michael Brandon) is the hip young drummer in an up-and-coming Italian rock band. He’s got a beautiful wife (Mimsy Farmer), a sweet pad, a legion of friends… things couldn’t be better. That is until he notices a strange man in black stalking him. He confronts the stalker at an old theater, only to seemingly kill him by accident. Things just get worse for Roberto from there, as he now finds himself being stalked by an even more frightening stranger: a creep in a little boy mask. The stalker knows what Roberto did and uses that knowledge to make Roberto’s life a living Hell. Roberto attempts to ascertain the identity of his tormentor, but all those who near the truth end up murdered.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is apparently the third installment in Argento’s “Animal Trilogy”, following The Bird with Crystal Plumage and The Cat ‘o Nine Tails. Luckily, so far as “trilogies” go, these flicks are united only be theme and not by story, so you can enjoy Four Flies on Grey Velvet all on its lonesome.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is one of Argento’s earliest flicks, but unlike the early entries of a lot of filmmakers, doesn’t appear to be any less “Argento”, if you know what I mean. His crazy use of first person perspective, inanimate object perspective and creepy-as-all-Hell tension building are ever-present. As an entry in Italian cinema’s “giallo” genre (what we recognize as crime dramas or suspense thrillers), it’s far more subdued than most of his later supernaturally charged efforts. But despite an approach to realism, Argento works his eerie magic to make it as creepy and horrific as possible.
The film is essentially a mystery flick, with the identity of the stalker being the crux of the plot. Several red herrings are laid out, clues are sprinkled around and the big reveal at the end is actually a pretty clever twist. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it managed to catch me off-guard. If you’re expecting to see a guy in a creepy little boy mask running around hacking people up, then I regret to inform you that this isn’t really that kind of movie. The little boy mask is used sparingly at the beginning for some creepy atmospheric effects and then dropped before the midpoint. The meaning of the mask actually ties in with the big reveal at the end (as well as the seemingly random title of the film), so it’s far from some throw-away novelty to elicit a cheap scare.
If there’s one thing about Four Flies on Grey Velvet that didn’t seem to gel with the Argento I’m most acquainted with, it would have to be the sheer volume of comedy relief characters, some of which feel really unnecessary. No single light-hearted character absorbs too much screen time, but when you add them all together their presence can be a tad overbearing. Off the top of my head, there’s a flaming homosexual private investigator, a goofy abused mailman, a pair of silly tramps named Godfrey and the Professor, and a wacky buddy who writes stories about Dr. Frankenstein being sodomized. Not all the “comedy relief” characters are worthless; far from it. The private investigator and the two tramps actually figure pretty prominently into the plot. It’s that damn mailman and, to a lesser extent, the silly writer friend that bugged me. So far as humor goes, Four Flies on Grey Velvet could’ve gotten by with the necessary characters who actually added something to the story and been just fine.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is apparently considered to be Argento’s “lost” film. A bit disingenuous a claim, as it wasn’t “lost” as in “no one could find a print of the damn thing”, it was “lost” as in “the people who owned the rights to it didn’t care enough to release it on home video for thirty-eight years”. A shame that its availability was lacking for such a long time (though I’m sure bootlegs were abundant), as this really is one of the better horror-themed suspense thrillers I’ve had the pleasure of watching. I don’t suppose I could rank it at the top of the heap with flicks like The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, but I’d still say it’s an excellent film in most regards and certainly one worth picking up now that it’s widely available on a fully uncut and remastered DVD.