Sunday, October 25, 2009

Four Flies on Grey Velvet: Dry Run for Horror's Most Gifted Savant

The arrival of Dario Argento's 1972 giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet on domestic DVD is kind of a horror-nerd big deal. Legal loopholes had kept it away from legit US issue for a lot of years, and it's one of the few films from his ouevre that I hadn't seen.

So how is it? Bottom Line, it's nothing to write home about, but it does offer an intriguing view into the evolution of one of horror's great visual stylists.

Rock drummer Roberto (Michael Brandon) is followed for days on end by a gaunt, suspicious-looking bald man. Freaked out and ultimately fed up with the man's presence, Roberto confronts him, and in a struggle the musician accidentally kills the stranger. For some reason, a weird voyeur happens to be on hand taking pictures of Roberto having just committed the crime, and soon incriminating photos and harrassing phone calls commence. Then, people around Roberto begin dying violently.

Four Flies opens with a beautifully-shot and creatively-framed scene set against one of Rob's recording sessions. It courses with so much energy and imagination that it builds up anticipation for something amazing. Sadly, that's not quite the case.

Argento's protagonists--male or female--are often innocent or passive souls to whom myriad strange shocks and adventures happen, but the very bland Brandon takes this to the extreme. His utter absence of charisma, and his frequently impassive presence make him truly dull, even by Argento's not-exactly-character-driven film standards. And the director was still getting his sea legs at this point: While Argento's gift for masterful gruesome setpieces was already in full-flower, his pacing wasn't, here: Four Flies just sorta drags in places.

As a devoted fan of the Italian director (see here and here if you don't believe me), though, I was fascinated throughout. Four Flies really does feel like a dry run for Argento's stone-classic 1975 giallo, Deep Red: Both films share frame compositions that draw from Edward Hopper paintings,  both borrow from Hitchcock's wrong-man setups with vigor, and both are peopled with all sorts of truly strange characters. And the big reveal of the culprit may not be much of a surprise, but how Roberto accidentally discovers said perp's ID at the end shows customary imagination. It's not executed to Argento's usual furiously-paced and terrifying standards, but there are worse ways to spend ninety-odd minutes.

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