Foreign Objects: ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ (Italy)

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I’ve spoken before about the highs of Dario Argento’s early career and how it sits in direct contrast to the abysmally depressing filmmaker he’s become in the last two decades. But his filmography doesn’t have a timeline clearly separating the good from the bad. His best work remains the five features he made from 1975 to 1985 with everything before and after that period being a major mixed bag.

And that includes 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

A rock drummer finds himself stalked by a masked killer out to frame him and make his life miserable, but who’s doing it and why? And more importantly, how will it affect the sales of his upcoming album?

“I’ve made a decision. Sticking it out here is better than going to prison.”

Roberto (Michael Brandon) is a professional drummer with a budding music career and a lovely wife named Nina (Mimsy Farmer) waiting for him at home every night. He also appears to have a stalker. One night he turns the table on the man who’s been following him and traces him to an abandoned theater. He confronts the stranger, a knife is pulled, and the nameless fan falls dead.

Suddenly a flash bulb goes off, and Roberto looks up to the balconies to see a masked witness documenting the crime in pictures.

The next day he finds copies of the pictures around his house and that night is attacked in his home by the same psycho paparazzi who warns him that his life is only going to get worse. Which it does as people around him began dying. Soon Roberto is letting the understandable stress get to him in the form of a short temper, nightmares and maybe an inclination towards infidelity with Nina’s incredibly attractive and willing cousin Maria (Laura Troschel). He takes the advice of a beach bum named God and hires a private detective to help find some answers before it’s too late.

There are elements here that work extremely well including the camera work and overall atmosphere that Argento would use to far greater effect just a few years later in Deep Red. Tracking shots move in and out of danger, knife strikes are mimicked with the camera’s eye and shadows are taken full advantage of in an effort to increase terror and suspense. The cinematography on display in the abandoned theater early on as well as a maze chase at night is slick and notably stylish.

The narrative itself is weighed down with some odd choices, but that should come as no surprise in an Argento film either. Roberto’s nightmares about a beheading in the Middle East are nonsensical, and dialogue flashbacks to a disappointed father are placed in such a way as to make it impossible to tell who’s actually “hearing” them. Are they Roberto’s memories or someone else’s? And the “recent scientific discovery” that the last thing a person sees is captured on their retina for several hours? Yeah. That’s here too.

But while a weak story is expected in an Argento film his protagonists (and the actors who portray them) are usually charismatic and/or interesting enough to engage viewers in their fate. Think David Hemmings in Deep Red, Jessica Harper in Suspiria or Jennifer Connolly in Phenomena. Brandon does a fine enough job here, but neither he nor his character ever really give viewers a compelling reason to watch.

The new Blu-ray from Shameless Screen Entertainment in the UK comes in a bright yellow case that will have no problem standing out on your Blu-ray shelf. This is the first HD transfer of Argento’s film (if I’m not mistaken), and the image looks quite good. The colors are vibrant, the definition is sharp, and the picture looks very clean. There are a couple times where the quality drops noticeably, but those are the added scenes that Shameless has integrated back into the film. The special features include:

  • Introduction & Exclusive interview with Writer & Assistant Director Luigi Cozzi
  • Restored film rebuilt with prior missing footage
  • New English audio remastered from original vault materials
  • Optional Italian audio + English subtitles
  • Trailers & Photo gallery

Four Flies on Grey Velvet bears several of the Argento calling cards fans have come to know and love, but they’re all somewhat muted compared to his later, more famous films. The set-pieces are far less elaborate, and the murders are far less graphic. It’s still a showcase for the director’s energetic and creative camera work though, and of course, it wouldn’t be Argento if the plot wasn’t more than a little convoluted. Fans of the director should definitely give it a watch, but it wouldn’t be the first of his films I’d recommend to newcomers. Or even the fifth.

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week looking for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent!

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