We're back again with the third chapter in our ongoing feature on vintage Italian cinema thrillers, and since we've previously covered titles from Lucio Fulci (Don't Torture a Duckling) and Mario Bava (A Bay of Blood), it's time we examined a film from the final member of the genre's “Big Three,” Dario Argento. While Argento's most beloved work is unquestionably the stunning 1977 horror classic Suspiria, which was set in a dreamlike supernatural world, he was previously most famous for his pioneering approach to the giallo genre, beginning with the stylish The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – the huge success of which earned him the nickname “The Italian Hitchcock,” a handle he didn't particularly care for at the time. After that film, audiences craved more thrillers with Dario's eccentric touch, leading to what is loosely described as his “Animal Trilogy,” in that all of the titles include the name of an animal or insect (a gimmick which other studios rushed to capitalize on for their own projects), and while they generally did well with audiences, not all of them were critical successes.
One of those giallos which I feel was unfairly snubbed for many years is 1972's Four Flies on Grey Velvet, a surreal and creepy little film that hints strongly at the more surreal style that Argento would give full reign in Deep Red four years later. Flies stars American actor Michael Brandon (who recently appeared in Captain America) as Roberto, a drummer in a rock band who is pursued by a stranger whom he accidentally stabs in a scuffle. Even more mysteriously, the stabbing was witnessed – and photographed – by a man wearing an extremely creepy mask. The plot thickens as Roberto is now targeted by this new nemesis, whose malicious obsession is unexplained... until the bloody pieces begin falling into place. As with most giallos, not everything is as it originally seems.
The central “hook” of this film is the idea that the last image seen by a dying person is imprinted on their retinas – which is total bullshit, but makes for a creepy plot device – and the concept of human vision and its limitations or self-induced illusions is the recurring theme. Argento worked with cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo to capture extreme slow-motion effects using experimental ultra-high-speed cameras, which are used to particularly awesome effect in a climactic car crash scene.
More significant, however, is the way this film marked the beginning of Argento's long love affair with non-traditional film scoring. With the main character being a rock musician (rumor has it that one of the Beatles was approached to be in the cast), Argento originally wanted a hard rock score – something very rare to the giallo genre at the time. He initially approached the band Deep Purple for the job, but that didn't pan out, so he reunited with the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose score for The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was a huge success, but Argento's ideas for the music conflicted with Morricone's style, and they had a long falling-out as a result.
Dario's fondness for using hard rock and heavy metal in his films would continue, however; his long collaboration with Goblin would begin in 1975 with Deep Red, and he's also tapped Keith Emerson (of Emerson Lake & Palmer), former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and Cradle of Filth frontman Dani Filth to provide music for his films, as well as licensing tracks from Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Brian Eno, Billy Idol, Dead Can Dance, Love and Rockets, Accept, Motley Crüe, The Smiths, The Cult, Peter Murphy, Gene Loves Jezebel and more for films he's produced, written and/or directed.
If you've missed this one, now's the chance to check it out on video: after languishing in limbo for decades, Four Flies on Grey Velvet got a decent uncut DVD release (remastered from the original negative) from MYA/Ryko in the US, and the UK's Shameless Entertainment turned out a 40th anniversary edition Blu-ray last year that's definitely worth tracking down for serious giallo fans.