Dario Argento has often been referred to as the ‘Italian Hitchcock’. The filmmaker even made a latter day film based around the renowned British auteur. But with outlandishly stylized efforts like Suspiria and Inferno to his name, as well as cruel and callous crime thrillers (known as “giallos” in his native Rome), it was often hard to actually see the connection. Argento is so much more than Sir Alfred’s rightful heir, the differences between the two being easily identifiable. One used overt style to sell his standard mainstream thrillers. With a few stumbles along the way, Argento has remained one of international fright films’ most consistently inventive and unusual maestros.
Still, for many in his fanbase, there has been a missing motion picture perspective, a single film that has been squirreled away by a studio that thought it was getting visceral terror and, instead, got baffling, beautiful terror art. Paramount has sat on Four Flies on Grey Velvet for almost 40 years, never allowing it a legitimate home video release. Now, Mya Communication has rescued the title from the vaults, and it’s time for macabre mavens everywhere to rejoice. What we have here is not just a horror Holy Grail. It’s not just the missing link between Dario and Hitch. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is, without question, one of the great works of post-modern dread ever.
For struggling rock star Roberto Tobias, making music is a release—and right now, he could use an escape. After being relentlessly followed by a man in dark sunglasses, he decided to confront the stalker. An accidental death and a few photographs of same later, and Roberto is being blackmailed. Yet oddly enough, the extortionist doesn’t want money. Instead, they seem content to further torture and torment him by murdering his friends and professional associates. Turning to a hippie friend named ‘God’ and his constantly drunk companion ‘The Professor’, Roberto hopes he can catch the criminal before the police get involved. When it appears that his friends’ efforts aren’t working, our hero gets a fey private detective with a rather poor track record involved. While his wife Nina worries and his arm candy Dalia tries to comfort, Roberto is convinced that someone is trying to frame him for the killings.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is indeed a forgotten Argento masterwork, a wholly visual free-for-all that ends up surpassing almost everything he had done before, or has done since. It sits right at the start of his oeuvre, the third film in his “unofficial” animal trilogy (along with Cat O’ Nine Tails and Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and the first to fully explore the various camera tricks and visual flourishes that would come to dominate his early period efforts. There are moments of pure optical madness present—a run through a series of red theater curtains, a killing that ends with a victim’s head striking each and every step down a stairwell. But there are also aspects of narrative and murder mystery subterfuge getting a post-giallo workout. Argento would define the format forever with Profundo Rosso. Four Flies actually feels like an unusual audition for some kind of half-thriller/half Gothic fairy tale hybrid.
One thing’s for sure - the original Master of Suspense would be proud. There are literally dozens of differing elements present that would tickle old Alfie’s shock sensibilities. Our hero has a recurring dream about an Iranian beheading, the blade of the executioner moving ever closer to the victim as the vision plays out. Elsewhere, there is a visit to a coffin convention, the players moving around displays showing outrageous, avant-garde, black comedy burial paraphernalia. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Argento film without some cinematic stalwarts—the conspiring supporting cast, the secret rendezvous that turns fatal, a wheezy murderers psychotic ramblings, the oddball turn that ‘solves’ the case. The novelty here is something called retinal retention. It centers on the idea that the last thing a victim sees actually registers on the back of their eyeball. Through lasers and sophisticated scientific techniques, we get the final clue to the killer’s reveal - sort of.
Of course, the mystery is never the meat inside any Argento movie meal, nor is the police procedural attempting to solve the crime. Wisely, Four Flies sidesteps the whole authority angle, giving Roberto a reason to avoid the fuzz. Instead, he offers more “unusual” ways to address authority. Made in 1971, during the last lilting remnants of the dying counterculture, our fiendish filmmaker really lets loose with the fringe characters. Of particular interest is a man named “God” (short for Godfrey) who seems to be the puppet master for all of Roberto’s self-sleuthing, and later on, a homosexual PI provides his less than competent case solving methods in full limped-wristed swish mode. Yet Argento is not playing bigot here. Instead, he is messing with gender types, taking on both the macho and the mincing as a means of countering the eventual ‘reality’ of the killer.
Of course, all the proposed political context is just moviemaking smoke and mirrors. The real power is in the moving picture, and there are stunning examples of same throughout Four Flies, including an ending that is absolutely haunting in its slow motion vehicular violence. This is the filmmaker in full blown experimental mode, a man so assured of his visual acumen that he is willing to toss aside all other baser elements of cinema—story logistics, character detail, tone consistency, etc.—to achieve his ends. For some, this will be nothing more than slick self-indulgence, flash for the sake of unclear aesthetic aims. But when viewed through the prism of his growing directorial confidence, in conjunction with where he hoped his career would flourish, Four Flies becomes an outrageous omen of things to come.
Why Paramount sat on this film so long will always remain a cinematic mystery. Sure, one could argue that Argento has made more accessible films, even within Suspiria‘s fever dream dynamic and latter works’ (Opera, Stendhal Syndrome) unbridled gore. But as something indicative of who he was/is, as an example of his art at its most malleable and insane, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is without exception. It’s the kind of film you ‘expect’ when you hear about the man, his mannerisms, and his methods. It’s the giallo that redefines the genre as it cements certain filmic formalities. If you go in expecting straightforward crime solving and a wealth of clues/red herrings as to the killer’s identity, you’ll be disappointed. Argento litters his scenes with all manner of diversion, but very few lead to the final denouement. Indeed, as whodunits go, this is more of a “who cares”. But as a work of celluloid skill, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has no equal. It’s a great, great film.