FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1972)
Dir. Dario Argento, 103 mins.
If The Cat O’ Nine Tails saw Argento slide comfortably into more mainstream territory, then Four Flies on Grey Velvet finds him suddenly breaking free of the shackles of conventional storytelling. An outrageous tour-de-force of psychedelic music, wild camerawork, orgiastic violence, and amusing comedy, Four Flies reveals Argento’s growing frustration with the limitations of the thriller genre. In a case of go-big-or-go-home, he throws everything at the film, almost as if it was his last hurrah. Indeed, the film was conceived as Argento’s final thriller, but things did not go quite as planned.
From the first frame, it’s clear we’re in different territory. The film opens with Roberto, our hero — I say hero, but we’ll get back to that — jamming on the drums with his psych-rock band. There’s slow motion, crazed editing, wacky POV shots (one from inside a strummed guitar!), while Morricone is allowed to really cut loose with an improvised-sounding, Hammond organ-heavy rock track. Every so often, the soundtrack drops out and the film cuts away to a shot of a beating heart, letting the audience know that all is not well. In fact, with this film, Argento leans more heavily into full-blown horror than his first two films, starting with the scene that follows the opening credits.
Roberto leaves the band practice and sees a man following him. He gives chase through the sinister and nearly abandoned streets of nighttime Rome, arriving at a deserted concert hall. There, he accidentally kills the man, while a creepy puppet-faced person in the stalls takes photos. It’s nightmarish stuff in concept and execution, though sadly that’s the last we see of the puppet mask. From hereon in, Roberto is harassed by the unknown photographer. It seems to be blackmail, but there are no demands. The plot, inevitably, thickens, and sure enough, the killings begin in earnest, leading to perhaps the most extraordinary resolation in Argento’s filmography.
For many years, Four Flies on Grey Velvet was unavailable on home video. The first time I saw it was on a blurry bootleg VHS sometime in the early 00s. It’s not generally spoken of as highly as films like Bird With the Crystal Plumage or Deep Red, and yet it holds its own with both. Perhaps the burden of expectation weighed too heavily on Four Flies, the status of ‘lost film’ hyping the film to a level it couldn’t possibly live up to? Or perhaps it’s because the leads are so damn unsympathetic? I mean seriously…I get that the film is about a lack of communication, but did both Roberto (played by Argento lookalike Michael Brandon) and his wife Nina (played by Italian cinema’s favourite neurotic, Mimsy Farmer) have to be so utterly cold? Roberto is stoic to the point of lifelessness. Oftentimes he just stands there like a statue, and if someone else in the frame wasn’t moving you’d think your Blu-ray had frozen. He struggles to show emotion, apart from when his wife leaves the house for a while and he sleeps with her cousin! Nina, meanwhile, is almost as bad. Whining and helpless, she abandons Roberto halfway through the film to fend for himself. There’s more silence in the scenes between the couple than there are in the rest of Argento’s filmography.
Luckily, the supporting characters are more enjoyable, and fulfil their role of supplying comic relief, which Argento is getting better at incorporating into his films, and will come to full fruition — sort of — in his next film. Italian comic Bud Spencer is a hoot as God, and even gets his own ‘Hallelujah’ musical sting from Morricone, but it’s French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle as Gianni Arrosio who fares best. Another of Argento’s LGBTQ characters, Arrosio is a detective who initially inspires distrust in Roberto due to his sexuality, but who goes on to prove himself. His character is very funny, freely admitting to never having solved a single case, but the humour is never at the expense of him being gay, and he even gets a (sort-of) feel-good ending. Honestly, if you’ve sat through enough gialli, you’ll understand how unusual this is.
Aside from the successful comedic scenes though, Four Flies revels in darkness and horror. The ghastly foreshadowing execution dreams, the bizarre flashbacks to childhood trauma, the stalking of a woman through a park after hours…it all adds up to a far more horrific film than the two that preceded it. The highlight is probably a sequence where a young woman is menaced at home, which plays out with no music, heightening the realism (and that’s not something you can say about many Argento films), which a grand guignol denouement of her screaming face reflected in the plunging blade of a knife.
It’s one of many moments where Argento revels in the artifice of cinema. A simple phone call turns into an elaborate tracking shot following the conversation through the phone lines. Another call is seen via split-screen. Day turns to night by abrupt cuts showing park visitors suddenly disappearing. And the climax, shot in ultra slow motion while Morricone’s beautiful piece Like a Madrigal plays. Argento appears to be leaving conventional cinema behind, and enjoying the full possibilities of the mis-en-scene.
Of course, for some people — boring people, I like to call them — it’s a step too far. And the central idea of the film, that you can fire a lazer at a disembodied eyeball to view the last thing the deceased saw, will almost certainly be where these people will check out completely. But it just kinda…works. Argento has created his own bizarre reality, where dreams come true, and eyeballs have four flies imprinted in them, and everyone seems to be throwing confetti at each other, and I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug.
Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018. This was followed by Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle, in May 2019.
2020 will be Sodergren’s biggest year yet, with two new horror novels being published. Dead Girl Blues is a slasher-noir mystery, and it will be followed by a return to full-blown supernatural horror before the end of the year.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
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The small Scottish town of Auchenmullan is dead, and has been for years. It sits in the shadow of a mountain, forgotten and atrophying in the perpetual gloom.
Forty-seven residents are all that remain.
There’s nothing to do there, nothing to see, except for a solitary grave near the top of the mountain.
MAGGIE WALL BURIED HERE AS A WITCH reads the faded inscription.
But sometimes the dead don’t stay buried. Especially when they have unfinished business.
A relentless folk-horror nightmare from the author of The Forgotten Island, Maggie’s Grave will disturb and shock in equal measure.
Dead Girl Blues
When a young woman dies in Willow Zulawski’s arms, it sets in motion a chain of events that will push her to the brink of madness.
A mysterious video is the only clue, but as Willow digs deeper into the murky world of snuff movies, those closest to her start turning up dead. Someone out there will stop at nothing to silence her.
After all, when killing is business, what’s one more dead body?
Part noir mystery, part violent slasher, Dead Girl Blues is the latest twisted shocker from David Sodergren, author of The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot.
The Forgotten Island
When Ana Logan agrees to go on holiday to Thailand with her estranged sister Rachel, she hopes it will be a way for them to reconnect after years of drifting apart.
But now, stranded on a seemingly deserted island paradise with no radio and no food, reconciliation becomes a desperate fight for survival.
For when night falls on The Forgotten Island, the dark secrets of the jungle reveal themselves.
Something is watching them from the trees.
Combining the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft with the grimy sensibilities of the Video Nasties, The Forgotten Island is an outrageous old-school horror novel packed with mayhem and violence.