“Four Flies on Grey Velvet”
Looking back at Dario Argento’s ‘Lost Film’
By David Paul Hellings
For decades, the only place most film fans could find a copy of “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” was at film fairs in the shape of a barely watchable bootleg VHS copy. It simply wasn’t worth it, instead there was a feeling that is was better to wait until a decent copy in the form that Argento intended to come about. Many felt the same way and so, without any type of widespread release, (Paramount had owned the US rights and had chosen never to release it, for reasons known only to them). “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” became a ‘lost film’, adding a sense of myth to the director’s third giallo outing after his breakthrough debut “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage” and second outing, “The Cat o’ Nine Tails”. It would not be until 2009 that a legitimate version of ‘Four Flies’ would be available by MYA Entertainment for general viewing, albeit it with up to 40 seconds of damaged footage missing.
As with “A Clockwork Orange” (withdrawn at Kubrick’s request by Warner Bros in the UK due to anonymous threats being made against the Kubrick family and only re-released following his death), “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” gained a cult following in its absence. From 1992 to 2009, the film was considered lost. In 2012, a fully uncut version, with the missing footage repaired and added (as Standard Definition inserts), was finally released by Shameless Screen Entertainment. But, after so long, would the film live up to the hype?
Where criticism has been received, it has largely been at the performance of lead actor Michael Brandon (as rock drummer Roberto Tobias, framed for a murder he didn’t commit and pursued by a psychopathic killer), accused of being monotonous in his role. One wonders how much he was responsible or whether it was down to Argento, who seems to have had no time throughout his career in offering directing advice beyond: “The camera is here. You move here”. Argento has always been more interested in style over performance, probably and famously caused by the problems he claimed to have encountered during production of “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage”. Argento had struggled to deal with lead actor, American Tony Musante, claiming that the actor was too full of his own sense of self- importance, making him difficult to deal with. It’s possible. But, it’s also probable that the inexperienced director with a poor grasp of English found it more difficult to work with an American actor from a school of training that the Italian knew little or nothing about, coupled with the fact that his prime concern was the look and feel of the film, rather than the performance. Argento only cast Suzy Kendall as the love interest in ‘Bird’ when financiers suggested she was a popular sales option. Argento has also famously been slow to ever credit anybody except himself, be it actors, cinematographers, or script collaboration (most famously angering ex wife and occasional female lead Daria Nicoladi over the origin of the story to “Suspiria”, a situation that Nicoladi discusses with anger and bitterness to this day, claiming that the story is based on her own family experiences. It’s Nicoladi’s version of events that seems to hold more credibility. Argento even criticized James Franciscus’ performance in “The Cat ‘o Nine Tails”, only being positive about the fact that Franciscus did his own stunts. Argento has always seen himself as the auteur, not a collaborator. In “Four Flies on Grey Velvet”, Michael Brandon does what the director asks of him, for better or for worse. Overall, the performance is more than adequate. Roberto is a protagonist that we struggle to sympathise with, creating an interesting perspective for the audience.
The concept of the piece (that the killer can be seen in the retina of the victim – the “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” of the title) was initially rejected by Argento, who considered it too far fetched. He only agreed when Special FX expert Carlo Rambaldi showed him how the effect would appear in the film. It’s questionable science, but so it was in “The Cat o’ Nine Tails”. It’s no more far-fetched than the school full of witches in “Suspiria” or the ability to control insects in “Phenomena”. The flashbacks of a Saudi beheading may have some Freudian aspect, but they never quite deliver the same way as the “Blow Up” style memory recollections of the “Bird With The Crystal Plumage” or the reveal of “Profondo Rosso” (Argento’s most complete work), but they’re not without merit, adding to a world of the abstract that aided Argento’s early work so well.
And then there’s Ennio Morricone’s score. Il Maestro’s music worked so well in “The Bird With The Crystal Plumage”, but here it seems out of place, ill judged and rushed, rarely adding to the mood or enhancing the atmosphere. After Argento’s failure with “Le cinque giornate”, it is telling that on his return to giallo, his decision to use the music of Goblin resulted in his greatest successes: “Profondo Rosso”, “Suspiria” and “Tenebre”. Goblin’s music would lift Argento’s films to a new level, even if the director would again take all of the credit for their work.
It would be incorrect to label “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” as a minor giallo. Although the deaths were invented first and then had the story created around them by Argento, it’s a film that largely works. From the opening sequence in which Roberto, drumming at a band rehearsal, becomes increasingly irritated by a mosquito, cut with a beating heart, and some mysterious goings on as a strange man watches and follows Roberto, right through to the “Zabriskie Point” like finale in the which the killer gets their just desserts, “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” proved worth the wait. Yes, the protagonist is often unsympathetic, but he’s a better fellow than the psychopathic killer. Roberto’s sense of guilt does catch up with him. There is an uneasy sense of trying to inject humour at times (as there was in “Profondo Rosso”) – the comedy postman is embarrassing, the kind of character that was possibly popular on Italian television at the time; and the flashbacks do seem at times to be for the sake of it, Argento trying to repeat his methods of ‘Bird’ and something he’d achieve with more success in ‘Rosso’). The use of a gay private investigator and his representation still raises questions (as does Argento’s use of gay and lesbian characters in his other work). Is he being groundbreaking by including LGBT characters at a time in which Italian cinema (and others) were either not showing them or showing them only negatively? Or is Argento merely reinforcing stereotypes? He claims the former. It’s not always clear, gay males being shown as predatory and effeminate. I’ll give him the benefit of a lot of doubt. The pacing of the film is also erratic, most definitely because the script story was put together to fit around the pre conceived death sequences, rather than the story being created first. Plot logic and solid screenplays have always seemed to be a burden in Argento’s thinking.
“Four Flies on Grey Velvet” may not be as strong as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” but it’s better than “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” and forms a perfect end to Argento’s ‘animal trilogy’. It still ranks behind “Profondo Rosso”, “Suspiria”, and “Tenebre”, but it’s almost as good as “Phenomena” and “Opera” (a film which, to Argento’s more objective fans, ends his period of greatness as a filmmaker). To see him descend into self parody with his last film, the truly awful “Dracula 3D” is sad to see, a filmmaker who should have moved into being simply a producer a long time ago (“The Cult” and “The Sect” still being highly entertaining). Like a boxer that doesn’t know when to hang up his gloves, he now resorts to having crowdfunded “The Sandman” starring Iggy Pop. The omens are not good. At least the back catalogue is still there for fans to watch and what moments there were.
After so long being ‘lost’, “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” was found. Despite its flaws, there are moments of brilliance. Its discovery adds another film to a period in which Argento was rightly known as a master of horror.
“Four Flies on Grey Velvet” is available on Blu ray through Shameless Screen Entertainment.
This review originally appeared on SFFWorld: