Nov 6, 2013

Four Flies on Grey Velvet




Without question, if I were to name the most neglected and underrated film of Guido Giallo master Dario Argento (Suspiria, The Mother of Tears), it would unequivocally have to be his experimental and strikingly idiosyncratic giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) aka 4 mosche di velluto grigio. The third and final chapter in Argento’s ‘Animal Trilogy’ (following The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971)), Four Flies on Grey Velvet was originally conceived as the filmmaker’s swansong to the giallo genre, but that changed when his historical dramedy The Five Days (1973) aka Le cinque giornate aka The Five Days of Milan proved to be a mighty monetary failure at the box office, thus guaranteeing that Argento would be forever pigeonholed as a master of the cinematically macabre and not much else (although he cannot direct a decent horror film for the life of him nowadays). Centering around a drummer in a popular cock rock group who accidentally kills a man who has been incessantly stalking him, only to be stalked and tormented by a sadistic blackmailer in a bizarre mask who took photos of said accidental killing, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is also a singular work in Argento’s cinematic oeuvre in that it features homosexual themes, most specifically those of the pleasantly political incorrect sort, even bordering on the campy at times. Acting as a sort of celluloid prototype for William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Lamberto Bava’s late era giallo Body Puzzle (1992), Four Flies on Grey Velvet depicts the preternatural insanity that occurs when a sexually confused killer with a demented daddy complex decides to emotionally ravage and torture a rock star who hires a queenish gay private detective to help him catch his gender-challenged stalker. Apparently, originally intending to have the protagonist portrayed as a hysterical homo (instead, he is a ‘closeted killer’ who stares in the mirror far too often), the fag factor of Four Flies on Grey Velvet is largely of a subtextual manner that demonstrates that Argento probably was not up for ruining his career by directing a conspicuously gay giallo with a queer hero. Featuring high-speed camera work (at upwards of 1000 frames a second) that features a bullet moving in slow-motion (apparently, the first time ever featured in a film), a masterful and highly complementary musical score by Ennio Morricone (who thankfully replaced Deep Purple), a hypnotic ‘image caught in the retina’ gimmick, and one of the most startling ending twists and aesthetically pleasing car crash sequences in film history, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a giallo for those that find the genre far too formulaic. 




Roberto Tobias (American actor Michael Brandon) is the stuntman-like drummer of a Rome-based pseudo-psychedelic prog rock band and like many drummers, he is a rather strange and introverted fellow who does not say much. After noticing a weird, middle-aged goombah with a mustache following him around town for several days, Roberto finally loses his cool and confronts the seemingly perverted stalker in an abandoned opera theater. The man denies following Roberto and pulls out a switchblade and the two get in a scuffle, ultimately ending in the stalker’s accidental death after being stabbed and falling into an orchestra pit. For whatever reason, a person with a creepy cartoon-like little blond boy mask witnessed the murder from the balcony and has taken photographs of the tragic incident, including a photo of Roberto holding the bloody switchblade. Although Roberto manages to get out of the theater unscathed, he is in for quite the shocker when he wakes up the next day to discover that the ID of the man he killed, Carlo Marosi (Calisto Calisti), has been mailed to him and the weirdo photographer with the mask is waging a game of blackmail and psychological warfare against him. After a bit of good, old fashioned stalking, including playfully wrapping a chord around the drummer’s throat, the mysterious stalker begins to kill off people close to Roberto, the first of whom is his maid Amelia (Maria Fabbri), who by chance discovers the identity of the stalker and attempts to blackmail them, but ultimately pays with her life via a straight razor to the throat. Meanwhile, after hearing a story from one of his band members about public beheadings in Saudi Arabia, Roberto has nightmares about being beheaded himself. After telling his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) about his accidental killing of Carlo Marosi and the subsequent stalking, she agrees that they should not go to the police. Eventually, it is revealed that Carlo Marosi was never actually killed and that he was on in the conspiracy with the stalker to dupe Roberto into thinking he was a murderer. When Marosi learns of the murders, he tries to back out of the conspiracy, but the mysterious stalker opts to slaughter him instead. Meanwhile, Roberto’s wife Nina’s cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) comes to town, which rather bothers the rocker. Dalia eventually admits her undying love for Roberto and the two have sex, but their romance does not last long as the little lady is also murdered. 




 Against his better judgment, Roberto hires a flamingly gay private detective named Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who readily admits he has never solved a case, but absurdly believes the fact that he hasn't means that the odds of unmasking the stalker are in his favor. Rather surprisingly, Arrosio does indeed discover the identity of the killer after examining some of Roberto’s family photos and subsequently visiting a mental institution, but he is attacked in a public restroom and injected with a fatal blue poison, so naturally he is incapable of informing his client who has been stalking him. Arrosio ultimately discovered that the killer is a female ex-mental patient suffering from ‘homicidal mania’ who was institutionalized as a teenager for three years and whose ‘father’ attempted make her a boy as he had no desire to have another daughter. Inspired by an old wives’ tale that the retina of a corpse’s eye registers in the brain the last image a person sees before they die, the police remove the eyes of Dalia’s corpse and shoot a laser at it, thus revealing “four flies on gray velvet” she saw before she croaked, hence the title of the film. Despite his friend’s advice that he should leave Rome to save his life, Roberto decides to stay home and hides in the dark with a gun waiting for his stalker. Eventually, Roberto’s wife Nina shows up and the startled drummer almost shoots her, unwittingly failing to realize she is actually the killer. In an attempt to spare her life, Roberto tries to push Nina out the door and in the process notices she is wearing a necklace with “four flies on gray velvet.” After Roberto roughs his wife up a bit and accuses her of the killings, Nina's attitude turns gleefully sadistic and she manages to grab her boy toy’s gun, ultimately shooting him in the shoulder with it. Nina reveals to Roberto that she only married him because  he resembles her father, who was the man responsible for having her institutionalized. Apparently, Nina’s father did not want a son and turned her into a spiritual ‘drag king’ as a result and thus she developed a uniquely unhealthy anti-Electra complex of sorts in the process. Since Roberto is apparently the spitting image of her deceased father and thus reawakened her once dormant insanity (which apparently died out after her father died), she felt the need to get even with her father by proxy by torturing her husband in every crazily creative way imaginable. Nina continues to shoot her husband as it gives her a sort of wicked sadistic satisfaction that seems to have a sexual component, but eventually, the drummer’s beatnik friend Godfrey (Bud Spencer) shows up and puts a stop to the madness. After he knocks the gun out of his maniac mariticide-inclined wife's hands, Nina runs out of the house and drives away, ultimately crashing head-on into the back of a truck and, in a twist of fate, has her head decapitated in a manner similar to Roberto’s dreams, with her car exploding shortly after. 




 Featuring absurd old wives' tales depicted as fact, comic relief in the form of half-retarded mailmen and goofy gay private detectives, pop psychology in the form of tales told by rockers that they want to screw about sexually repressed monsters, prog-rock that does not suck, a ‘spiritual transvestite’ as a killer, and one of the greatest and most gruesome yet simultaneously aesthetically pleasing conclusions to a giallo flick ever made, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and labyrinthine giallo flicks ever made and thus it is naturally flawed as result, yet still remains one of the best and most inventive of its curious kind. Indeed, next to Lucio Fulci’s Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) aka Non si sevizia un paperino, Giulio Questi ‘s Death Laid an Egg (1968) aka La morte ha fatto l'uovo and Silvio Narizzano’s Bloodbath (1979) aka Las flores del vicio aka The Sky Is Falling, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is indubitably one of the most insanely idiosyncratic giallos ever made as a work that molests and deconstructs the genre and a film that has even been known to make jaded giallophiles feel a bit uneasy in its uniquely unhinged avant-garde essence. Indeed, despite its various (and sometimes glaring) flaws, the only complaint I can make about Four Flies on Grey Velvet is that director Dario Argento did not take what he accomplished with the film further with subsequent works, even if he did eventually direct Deep Red (1975) aka Profondo rosso aka The Hatchet Murders, which many regard as the director’s greatest work, as well as the greatest film of the genre. Personally, I would rather re-watch Four Flies on Grey Velvet over Deep Red any day. Not available in any format in the United States until 2009, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is surely a work that has yet to get its due and with all the tasteless celluloid garbage Argento has directed over the past two decades or so, no time is better than now for the work to be resurrected among not only giallo and horror fans, but also arthouse-inclined cinephiles as well. Predating hokey Hong Kong action flicks and The Matrix (1999) in its depiction of slow-motion bullets and doing it in a shockingly artful way, Four Flies on Grey Velvet certainly deserves to be unearthed, though it is dubious whether modern day audiences are deserving of such a film. The closest thing to an In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) of the giallo genre, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is nothing short of murderous psychopathic sexual confusion in its most keenly kaleidoscopic form.



-Ty E

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