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FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET
Blu-ray / DVD . Shameless Screen Entertainment.

Four Flies on Grey VelvetFor decades, this film was caught up in an awful rights mess, meaning that there were never any legitimate English language VHS or DVD versions available, fans instead having to make do with Italian or German language bootlegs that were frequently unwatchable, or English language prints that made those versions look like HD in comparison. A DVD did emerge in the US a few years ago, but if you couldn’t get hold of that, this new, superior edition from Shameless is most welcome – a long overdue chance to properly assess the missing link in Dario Argento’s classic filmography, from way back when he was still capable of making good movies. With years of truly awful films in his back catalogue, it’s sometimes easy to forget that for just over a decade, Argento was one of the finest filmmakers in the world. And while Four Flies is not the best of his work from this period, it’s not the worst either, and still stands head and shoulders above most of the giallo imitators of the time.

The story follows Roberto (Michael Brandon), the drummer in the sort of band who would probably have scored Argento’s later films if Goblin hadn’t existed, who becomes involved in a murder mystery after confronting a man who he thinks is following him. After an unconvincing struggle, the man is killed with his own knife, and the whole incident is photographed by a masked figure, who then starts sending Roberto photos and other incriminating evidence – not as blackmail, it seems, but simply to taunt him. As the threats start to escalate into the murder of people around him, Roberto tries to find out who is behind the crimes, while wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) tries to convince him to drop it and move away. In typical Argento (and indeed, giallo) style, the investigation leads to assorted red herrings, dead ends and visual flourishes – alongside some clumsy attempts at psychological insight, something Argento has a bad habit of doing – before the murderer’s identity is finally revealed.

This final twist might not be much of a surprise to anyone who’s seen Argento’s other giallos, which have long since prepared the viewer for such a surprise – and I doubt if many people will fail to guess the identity of the murderer long before the film ends.
Interestingly, while Four Flies is the final part of Argento’s Animals trilogy of films (after The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’Nine Tails), it also feels like a dry run for many of the ideas that would eventually evolve into his giallo masterpiece Deep Red. The musician caught up in a deepening mystery would be returned to in that film, and many of the consciously stylish visual flourishes on display here would be refined in that film, albeit in gorier style. Even the mask worn by the killer is reminiscent of the clockwork dummy in Deep Red, and both films feature a dramatic finale involving a road accident.

Four Flies on Grey VelvetFour Flies isn’t quite up to the standard of Deep Red, it must be said – some ham-fisted humour is out of place, eccentric characters seem more irritating than entertaining (admittedly, both faults in Deep Red too, especially in the longer Italian version), and there’s pretty bad dubbing in the default English language version – though both versions have a rather hysterical climax that comes close to sliding into camp, as the killer’s rather unconvincing motives are revealed. As is often the case in Argento’s giallo films, the plot makes no sense at all – you could drive a bus through the holes - but tries to sweep you along with its own internal logic.

But having said that, there is much here to admire – audacious moments of imagery that are painfully self-conscious but nevertheless impressive, especially for the time; Ennio Morricone’s score that flits between the light and fluffy scores that would later become favourites of the easy listening revival and proto-prog workouts that hint at the Goblin score to come in Deep Red; and some scenes of genuine tension. Michael Brandon might be a rather dull, one-dimensional hero, but on that score he’s no different than most of Argento’s male leads, who were rarely more than mannequins on which to hang the story.

Four Flies on Grey VelvetThis new edition contains 40 seconds of ‘missing’ footage that apparently has been the stuff of legend amongst Argento fans, though as far as I recall, it’s the first I’ve heard of it – a missing few seconds from a film you couldn’t see would seem neither here nor there back in the day. But these moments were missing from the US DVD, having been lost due to reel change damage apparently. It makes sense, as they are too brief to have been cut for timing reasons, all dialogue (so not censorship victims) and sometimes end virtually mid-word. These are taken from a source that is definitely not remastered, and so are easy to spot. None of them add anything at all to the film (the Blu-ray offers the option of watching the film with or without these inserts; DVD viewers don't have a choice). More significant are the snippets during the climax when the soundtrack switches to Italian with English subtitles – a little jarring perhaps, but the information here does have some importance and you have to wonder why it was edited out of the English language print to begin with.

This new edition also has the finale digitally repaired to remove a black line caused by issues with a high-speed camera – a considerable improvement on a flaw that damaged a visually impressive moment. You can still see where it was if you’re the sort of pedant to look hard enough, but this alone arguably makes this the best version of the film ever seen - including the original theatrical release. And it sounds better too, thanks to resynched audio from the original magnetic soundtrack.

For extra content, you get a 40-minute interview with co-writer Luigi Cozzi that is actually quite informative and interesting and alternative English language titles.

All in all, this is a hugely impressive revival of a film that has been treated terribly over the years. You owe it to yourself to own a copy.

DAVID FLINT

BUY IT NOW (UK) BLU-RAYDVD

BUY IT NOW (USA)

 

 

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