Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cult Oddities: Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

Four Flies on Grey Velvet
is Dario Argento's "lost movie." Never really lost, just misplaced. Swallowed by legal rights and edited prints, this follow-up of sorts to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O' Nine Tails has finally been given its first DVD release. It allows us to clear away the cobwebs of old bootlegs and cast fresh eyes at one of Argento's early experimental efforts: a messy, meandering, and moody bit of Italian mystery.

A rock drummer is drawn into a dire game of cat and mouse with a masked maniac who frames him for a crime he may not have committed. All the pieces are set, and all the set-pieces are grand, in this bizarre case of shifting identities and guilt by association.

A sensible plot, nuanced dialogue... uneven to say the least. Atmosphere, mood, and stunning visuals on the other hand are here to the hilt. Quite literally in the menacing and mesmerizing execution dreams that reoccur throughout the film; a stylish non-sequitur within the story that becomes a reminder of our lead's guilt and paranoia, and an eerie ratchet of tension.

A roving camera through red curtains and telephone wires, disturbed dreams of death, animals (both alive and dead), awkward music cues -- it's all pretty typical of Argento's golden age. It's an especially notable precursor to his classic Tenebre, another uniquely progressive and stylized giallo. It's also a precursor then to his seminal Deep Red, released only four years later, in which a musician is pulled into a mystery that melds gender and childhood trauma into another kind of prog-rock puzzle.

In the world of Dario Argento playful and happy children are a bad omen, and the usual gay side characters are crude stereotypes that are still surprisingly relevant... considering the complete irrelevance of their characters. There's certainly some simplified (and pivotal) gender dissection going on here, among a wealth of other "issues," but it's all the makings for a refreshingly off-kilter world.

"Oh you heterosexuals... I don't suppose you've ever had a homosexual experience? Yes, we are men too, you know. Just a little different."

It's a progressive movie all around. Progressive in the sense that it was the first film to discover that through giant lasers and science we could actually see the very last image captured upon a dead person's retina.

What's that? You've never heard of such a feat? This film isn't set in Medieval times? It's ridiculous, absurd and mildly stupid you say? Then about as progressive as cheating on your girlfriend with her cousin.

The confining and wide-open spaces, elegant photography and oddball humor, combined with Ennio Morricone's classy musical accompaniment, make Four Flies a film that's classically Argento. It's an impressive but modest thriller of its own esteem - using the tics of the genre to flesh out a more psychological and ambiguous sort of mystery in which the actual reveal seems secondary to the terror inflicted. It's this playful, improvisational style that gives the film its jazzy free flow.

And who besides Dario Argento films horror with such glittery, cutting edge precision?

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