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An innovative maestro of suspense and horror, Italian director Dario Argento greatly popularized the giallo craze of the 1970s with THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS. The last consecutive film in this so-called "Animal Trilogy" was FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (4 mosche di velluto grigio), which would notoriously become the rarest of Argento’s major directorial efforts, in least in terms of being able to view it in a legit or acceptable copy. In the States, Paramount released the film theatrically in 1972, and it languished in the vaults for years afterwards, never getting a home video release. With the advent of DVD, it became one of their most requested library titles, but thus, nothing came from these public outcries. Now, Mya Communication delivers one of the most sought after genre films from one of the most celebrated Euro cult directors of all time.
In Italy, young rock drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) finds himself constantly stalked by a strange man garbed in black and wearing dark sunglasses. One night, Roberto decides to follow the man, confronting him in an empty theater and accidentally stabbing him to death. At the same time In the theater balcony, another unknown stalker in a bizarre puppet-like mask snaps photos of said murder, and Roberto’s life becomes a living hell from then on. The masked and whispering stalker torments Roberto by sending him photos of the murder, mailing him the dead man’s passport and even sneaking into his home in the middle of night, nearly strangling him to death. Roberto is able to confide in his wife Mina (Mimsy Farmer) as the killings of various acquaintances ensue, but who is this mysterious blackmailer, why does Roberto keep having recurring nightmares about an execution and did he really end a man’s life that night in the theater?
With a story concocted by the director along with Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET is often cited as the weakest of Argento’s “Animal Trilogy”, but that’s certainly up for debate and is more or less a matter of opinion. From the beginning, we witness a camera shot from within a strumming guitar, Roberto strategically killing a irritating fly caught between his drum cymbals and a pulsating heart on the black-background opening credits – so we know we’re in for something out of the ordinary, and Argento delivers. All these initial episodes are intercut with shots of Roberto’s stalker on his trail, with the confrontation following shortly thereafter, captivatingly setting up a satisfying thriller – the set-up being a lead character who can’t go to the police in fear of his accidental crime being discovered, and an unscrupulous blackmailer who is after his life.
For many fans, FOUR FLIES never reaches the shock heights of subsequent Argento masterpieces like DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA, but it seems as though he’s having a good time building up the suspense through unconventionality and imaginative killings, all while tossing in a number of oddball characters which give the film a satirical lining. Highlighting this humorous aspect are characters whose purpose are to assist Roberto: Comedic Spaghetti Western star Bud Spencer as the fish swallowing Godfrey (“God” for short), his Bible quoting homeless sidekick the “Professor” (Oreste Lionello) and a gay private investigator (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who Roberto hires despite the fact that he never solved a case.
But the humor (which also includes a bumbling postman who is mistaken for a stalker by the suspicious Roberto, and a woman who is constantly receiving someone else’s Swedish porn in the mail) is just a portion of the whole, and the whole is a rewarding one. Argento’s third giallo remains a highly stylized picture, with a number of visual elements that remain in the psyche long after viewing. All of the murders are distinct and carefully implemented on screen, and even though they are restrained in terms of graphic violence (the film got away with a PG rating in the U.S.), t there are still several cringe-causing moments about. There’s a daunting sequence when a woman hides from the murderer in a dark cupboard, leering through the door crack in pure dread, and having the camera follow two individuals’ phone conversation through the cable lines, as well as a slow-motion bullet effect, absolutely showcases classic Argento.
Like Argento’s previous two giallos, the lead characters are played by American (or English) actors, in this case Brooklyn-born Michael Brandon and Chicago-born Mimsy Farmer. Brandon (in a part that was reportedly offered to singer James Taylor!) has often been accused of being bland and wooden in the role, but he actually does an adequate job of keeping the character believable and down to earth while surrounded by eccentrics. Mimsy Farmer appears to be underused throughout, but she really gets to let go during the climax (Farmer became a sort of fixture in Italian cinema and was the heroine of several more giallos). In case you’re wondering, the film’s title spawns from a somewhat supernatural angle where a murder victim’s removed eyeball is shot with a laser beam to record the last image caught on the retina before death. The legendary Ennio Morricone composes an exceptional, eclectic score which experiments with different styles of music, with rock and jazz naturally representing Roberto’s jamming.
Mya Communication’s official Region 1 release of FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET is sure to satisfy all who were waiting so long for Paramount to come through. With a transfer taken from the original Italian negative elements, the DVD looks quite flawless. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the colors are as bright and vivid as early 1970s cinematic colors should be, and detail is excellent, even if the film was photographed with several dark, shadowy sequences. The materials used for the transfer are in pristine shape, so nary a blemish is detectable. Both English (the language most of the actors appear to be speaking) and Italian tracks are included in the original mono, both post-synched affairs. The preferable English track (at least to this writer) has some minor background hiss and scratches, but dialog is always clear. If you watch the film in English, make sure to put on your English subtitle option, as text will pop up to translate two stretches of dialog during the final “reveal” which were only shown in the Italian version. The Italian track does not have a full English subtitle option.
Extras include the original Italian trailer which has no dialog or narration, but offers some great, whacked out imagery, including phony eyeballs being carved from their sockets and the film’s familar puppet mask being smashed to bits. The original Paramount trailer is in rough shape, but we’re glad it’s been included, and what's marked as a “U.S. Teaser Trailer” is actually a cool 60-second TV spot. The original U.S. opening and end titles (which basically differ in that they offer the credits in English) are apparently taken from a 16mm print, albeit a Scope one, and although it looks way inferior to the DVD transfer, I’m sure there are a lot of film collectors who would love to own it! A generous still and poster gallery round out the supplements.
Even if you don’t perceive FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET as Dario Argento’s lost masterpiece, the film is a must-have for any serious classic horror collector, and especially Euro cult completists, and Mya Communication has thankfully given us a biggie which we can now scratch off our want lists! (George R. Reis)
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