Review Date: January 13, 2008
Released by: Retrofilm
Release date: 05/01/2007
Region 2, PAL
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
It happens when any film is put on moratorium. Suddenly, interest peaks, and what was once a forgotten film becomes a must-see masterpiece. Whether this is a measure of have-not interest or a dictation of the actual quality of a film depends, certainly, on the film itself, but there is a variety of examples. The Burning
for instance, a more or less middling slasher with a demo reel raft sequence, slowly in it’s unavailability on disc became this heralded slasher masterpiece. The only other “unreleased” film that really enjoys a better unseen reputation is Dario Argento’s lost horror film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet
. The final film in his famed animal trilogy, it’s been held up in a rights dispute between Argento and Paramount, and if Argento’s words are any indication, it will never be officially released. That hasn’t stopped Retrofilm though, from coming out and making an “unofficial” release. So I have here in my hands, finally, a DVD of Argento’s most obscure giallo, widescreen, anamorphic and ready for review. How’s the transfer…and more importantly, does the film deserve the hype?
Remember in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
where the male protagonist thought he saw a murder? Well, in Four Flies on Grey Velvet
, the protagonist instead thinks he committed a murder. While walking home from a band rehearsal, Roberto (Michael Brandon) notices a suspicious man walking into a theater. He follows, and before he can even ask him what’s up, the man pulls a knife. Roberto fights him, and in a single instant the man seems impaled and falls off the stage to his death. Roberto can’t really make out what happened, but a mysterious photographer in the rafters can, as the masked cameraman had the lens fixated on Roberto the entire time. Roberto runs home, but continuously finds himself stalked by this masked photographer, with pictures, notes and other pieces of evidence incriminating him for the crime. But did he actually do it?
He takes on the services of a gay private investigator to help him solve the case, and confirm his sanity. There’s talk of a former mental patient, newly escaped, who might be at the heart of this deed. Apparently the patient’s been having some masculinity issues, dictated most by repetitive audible flashbacks of a father saying “I wanted a son, not a weakling like you!” Roberto’s also having his own flashbacks, with a recurring image of a Saudi Arabian beheading continually invading his dreams. Why is it happening? This is a giallo – you’ll only know why in the last two minutes.
As the body count starts to rise, one of the autopsy surgeons mentions a progressive possibility for pinning the killer. Apparently the retina retains the last image it registers in the brain for a few hours following death. This is Argento, so you’re damned straight that a camera will be involved in rescuing the images from a corpse’s severed eye. When the image is finally developed, it is of four flies in succession. What does it actually mean? Well, again, it’s a giallo – you’ll only know why in the last two minutes.
You’ll want to stick around for the last couple minutes though, because Four Flies’ climax is one of Argento’s most lyrically beautiful, a sort of vehicular, gynophobic appropriation of Zabriskie Point
’s explosive, stop motion précis. It’s natural for Argento to draw from Antonioni, given Plumage
’s debts to Blow-up
(and a blow-up, of sorts, even finishes this film, as well), but Argento’s pillaging of Zabriskie Point
is more political than simple homage. It’s indicative of Argento’s stylistic departure from the rigid lines of his previous two gialli, and more an unkempt introduction to Argento’s free-form visual menagerie he’d formally introduce with the more polished Deep Red
. Politically, it’s like Zabriskie Point
, all about change, a sort of rebellion of youth aesthetics against the old standard of editing and composition. There’s jump cuts abound, and while this would normally be blamed upon the scratchy source material, it’s likely the unsynchronized sound effects, the following of one static master shot with an amazingly visceral tracking shot, and laps in visual logic were all part of Argento’s grand visual reinvention. If horror ever needed a Breathless
to free it from the rigidity of formalism, Four Flies on Grey Velvet
The film is slapdash for sure, but Argento goes to great lengths to make sure even the most rudimentary of moments, like the delivery of a letter, takes on a most amazing voyeuristic sense of framing. The camera no doubt incriminates the audience, and you get the sense that when the investigator’s take a photo of a woman’s disemboweled retina, that Argento is doing the same to us, showing us the horror we crave on the screen. The jump cuts serve only as momentary reminders that no matter how satiating the voyeuristic male gaze can be, ultimately it’s still only a movie. A construction of clips, much like the pictures that are often taken by his villains. To confuse life and art, like in Tenebre
or Columbine, is to miss Argento’s point completely.
Argento’s experiments with visuals are novel, and his clash of sound between Morricone’s beautiful formalism and the mod rock of his protagonist’s band energetically experimental, but it’s his perceptive script that really sets Four Flies
into the upper echelon of Argento films. Precious few moments are wasted on the protocol of the case, with Argento instead using every scenario as another opportunity to offer his ruminations on life. We get quandaries on religion in the form of a Waiting For Godot
-like search for Roberto’s friend Godfrey, comparisons between wartime slaughter and the movies (something that would easily predict our Iraq-fueled infatuation with torture cinema by thirty years) and several observations about vision and man’s satiating search for answers. Even if only for a few moments, there’s usually always some provocation in the dialogue that addresses weightier themes.
What makes the script, like many of Argento’s others, still progressive to this day, is the way he addresses sexuality. This one actively features homosexual men in positive, and even dominant, roles, and at the same time even addresses the audience’s potential disbelief at such a notion. When we first meet the gay P.I., he’s dressed in an apron, painting his walls. Roberto can’t believe him to be a man, let alone a tough-as-nails detective. Yet he certainly is, and proves his worth in the film by helping unearth the identity of the killer. There’s always gender preconceptions at play throughout the film, complete with a sexually confused murder in a dual-gender bathroom that would make even High Tension
weak at the knees. At its heart, it’s a film about sexuality, and if you don’t accept yourself, or others, as they are, then you’ll likely lose your head. It’s a commendable film, and a definite turning point in Argento’s career. Four Flies
is definitely worthy of its buzz.
Since this movie hasn’t been available anywhere for years upon years, basically the only way to watch it before was through old VHS dupes a friend of a friend of a serial killer had hidden in their collection. There’s been a number of different versions – some widescreen with the left-most side overly cropped, other with the right-most side cropped and still others with hardcoded Greek subtitles. Finally though, this release is the real deal, with a nice anamorphic 2.35:1 print. The biggest improvement with this transfer is that cropping issues no longer surface, with the entirety of the frame finally visible throughout. The subtitles are no longer burned in either, making this no doubt the clearest the film has ever looked. Still, it definitely hasn’t been polished, with scratches and blemishes abound, moments of misframing, inconsistent skin tones, and some edge fading. Believe it or not though, that’s still a huge improvement.
The film even culls from a lesser source for some extra establishing scenes that have been excluded from most other bootlegs out there. So it may not be beautiful, and it may be somewhat of a patchwork, but still, it’s the best this film has gotten. As you can see from the screenshot above, this new release runs circles in sharpness, detail and frame area than those previous bootlegs out there. Unless it gets properly released, this will likely be the best version available, so count your blessings.
Like the video, there are plenty of audible jump cuts and sounds effects out of sync, but the film is still more than presentable. The dialogue is clear and for the most part consistent, although there is still some hiss and clips throughout. There are English, Dutch and Italian mono options available, as well as Dutch subtitles. Since the actors are visibly speaking (or trying to, anyway) English, that’s probably the track to go with, especially since there are no English subtitles.
No featurettes or commentaries, but again, this isn’t an “official” release, so what do you expect here? Still though, Retrofilm has included alternate credits for the start and the end (culled from those previously mentioned bootleg tapes), as well as the teaser and trailers in multiple language variants. The English versions are actually quite good, with some footage not found in the actual release of a doll face (predicting, no doubt, Deep Red
) pummeled by an axe. For a release of this kind, it’s amazing there’s anything here, so what’s included is a nice surprise. Also of note is the packaging, which is in a huge clamshell case along the lines of old Disney VHS. It doesn’t necessarily fit in the collection, but it sure looks cool.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet
is a film more than worthy of its out-of-print notoriety. One of Argento’s finest and most experimental films, its as visually packed with progressive panache as it is story-wise with its crazy addressing of sexuality and repression. This bootleg looks and sounds like one, but it’s still a huge improvement over those old VHS dubs, and in beautiful anamorphic, you can’t really complain. There’s a few tiny extras out there for version completests, too, so if you care at all about the works of Dario Argento, then you best be heading to Xploited Cinema
to snap this release up before its canned or out of stock for good.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - B-
Sound - C
Supplements - C
- Running time - 1 hour 37 minutes
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- German mono
- Italian mono
- German subtitles
- Alternate end credits
- Alternate opening credits
- Teaser trailer
- Theatrical trailer