Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Four Flies On Grey Velvet

To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of its original release, Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet has been restored, remastered and rereleased on DVD. This release comes from the original negative and includes a semi-mythical selection of four hitherto unseen scenes. The original English audio (and Ennio Morricone soundtrack) has also been remastered for the release. But aside from the bells and whistles, just how good is the film?

Roberto Tobias is the drummer in a 1970s prog rock band. He’s cool, successful and has an attractive blonde wife, Nina. The only dark cloud on his horizon is the constant presence of a stranger clad in black.

Tired of being followed, Roberto decides to turn the tables on his stalker – pursuing him into an abandoned theatre. Here, a scuffle leads to a knife being pulled and inevitable tragedy: Roberto escapes unharmed, but the stranger is stabbed in the stomach and falls into the orchestra pit. A sudden flash blinds Roberto and when his eyes adjust, he finds himself staring at a camera-wielding figure in a childlike rubber mask. As he stares in bewilderment, numerous incriminating photographs are taken.

The next day Roberto receives the dead man’s ID card in the post and automatically assumes it’s been sent by the masked figure. Puzzled by the lack of a blackmail demand, Roberto becomes increasingly paranoid about his situation – and his state of mind becomes yet more confused when his housekeeper is found murdered in a local park. Who is the cameraman? And what do they want with Roberto?

It seems that Four Flies On Grey Velvet’s reputation has been earned largely in absentia. Having been unavailable to home audiences for twenty years, this repackaged release has not aged well. Whilst absence might have made the heart grow fonder, it certainly hasn’t made the movie any better. The visuals might be slicker than ever, but they are, at times, extremely dark and difficult to make out. The dubbing is utterly appalling – the majority of the actors seem to be mouthing English words but it’s apparent that many of the voices attributed to them are not their own. It’s an unusual way of working and an unsuccessful one – why use a multi-lingual cast and have their dialogue dubbed by English speakers regardless?

The actors are not given much to work with anyway. Characterisation is poor throughout – the cast are asked to fulfil embarrassingly shallow clichés (a gay private detective is particularly lazily written), which they do with the minimum effort. Attempts at humour are even more misguided – a ‘comic’ postman appears periodically for seemingly no good reason whatsoever.

There are, however, plenty of reasons to praise Argento’s visual and technical flair. Four Flies On Grey Velvet is crammed with arresting images, creative camera work and slick set pieces. It seems that the director provided early inspiration for The Matrix’s ‘bullet-time’ sequence with swooping, sweeping shots which feature throughout the film. Scenes of deaths and murders are inventive, too – although one stair-based disaster owes more than a debt to Alfred Hitchcock.

Where the film really falls down is in its narrative – it’s extremely slow and very predictable. A twist early on hints that things might not be quite as they seem – but they are. Guessing the identity of the supposedly mysterious cameraman is absurdly easy – and even Argento seems to be aware that he needs to do more to inject interest into proceedings.

As such, a pretty unbelievable affair and a naked bath time romp are employed to kill a few minutes of screen time before a completely ridiculous resolution to the whodunit is offered by a new medical technique which can record the last image imprinted on a murder victim’s retinas. Although the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, this development is so silly as to be jarring – it doesn’t belong here and the plot could easily be wrapped up without resorting to such a daft device.

The nature of Four Flies On Grey Velvet ensures that such matters do not linger long in the memory. The storyline is easily the most forgettable part of Argento’s creation. Instead, what remains in the memory are images and scenes which show a real horror talent at work: a beating heart, a recurring nightmare and, best of all, a car crash in extreme slow motion. It’s a stunning set-piece – mere seconds stretched out to around a minute with every crunch, pop, scratch and screeched amplified and made hyper real and even more horrific.

Four Flies On Grey Velvet shows enough of Dario Argento’s talent to be of interest, but as a stand-alone film, it’s ultimately unsatisfactory. The occasional flashes of brilliance are not enough to compensate for the movie’s many deficiencies and, as such, it’s a release which will excite nobody other than the most ardent horror fans or Argento completists.

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