Monday, February 27, 2012

Blu-ray Review: FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971)


Label: Shameless Screen Entertainment
Region Code: Region FREE
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 99 minutes
Audio: English and Italian 2.1 DTS HD, Dolby 2.0
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (2.35:1) 1080p
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Francine Racette

Synopsis: Dario Argento's "lost masterpiece" FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET concerns rock musician Robert Tobias (Michael Brandon, LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS) whom one night confronts a man who's been following him for several days. Catching up to the voyeur in an abandoned theatre the man pulls a switchblade and in the ensuing struggle Robert accidentally stabs the man in the abdomen, he falls from the stage into the orchestra pit, dead. In a bizarre turn someone in the upper wings of the theatre wearing an unnerving mask shines a spotlight on the altercation and snaps several incriminating photographs of the tragic event. Robert flees the scene and tries to put the events behind him but in the following days he is overcome with paranoia and fear when the dead man's ID shows up in the mail, pictures of the crime appear and the voyeur enters his home taunting him, but to what end and why?

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971) is considered the last entry in what is known as Dario Argento's Animal Trilogy following the brilliant debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) and CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971). The trio of films feature music scores from the master of film music Ennio Morricone and feature protagonists drawn into a murder mystery. BIRD featured an American writer, CAT a blind puzzle maker and FLIES features a rock drummer, all familiar character types to Argento enthusiasts. Dario would again bring an American writer to Rome with TENEBRE and a musician who witnesses a brutal death with the masterful DEEP RED, with FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET the twist is that our protagonist is the defacto killer.

The film starts off with a sweetly edited title sequence set to the tune of a tasty 70's rock freak-out (by Morricone) as Robert (a drummer) and the band jam on a psychedelic art-rock tune. There's a nifty scenario played out as we see flashbacks to the sun glassed stranger tailing Robert and a mosquito Hell bent on distracting him from keeping the beat during the band rehearsal culminating in a sweet hi-hat execution eliminating the pest. It's after the band's rehearsal that Robert sees the man who's been following him, at his rope's end he gives chase to the man who leads him into an abandoned theatre and the altercation ends with the strangers unfortunate death and documentation by the masked voyeur.

Soon the ID and photos arrive at his home but no blackmail demands are made, Robert's at a loss for what the voyeur's motivations could possibly be. Why has the crime not been reported to the authorities? Later the voyeur escalates matters when he enters Robert's home only to assault and taunt him pushing him to his nerves ends. His wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer, BLACK CAT) tries to comfort him when he confides the murder and ensuing taunting but he's inconsolable. He enlists the help of an odd duo of vagrants whom live in a shack by the city's river, a man known as "God" (Bud Spencer, MY NAME IS TRINITY)) and "The Professor" (Oreste Lionello, THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS). He also enlists the aide of an odd homosexual detective named Gianni Arrosio (Jen-Pierre Marielle, MICMACS).

The incident continues to haunt Robert nightly, his fear manifesting itself as creepy images of a beheading which take seed after hearing of a beheading incident from a friend whom describes how a stiletto knife is stabbed into the victim's neck to turn their body rigid and to upturn their head just as the swordsman's blade lobs it off. It's a nightmarish and vivid image and it's an effective fortuitous image that's seen several times throughout the film. Something also thrust upon us are flashbacks to what one would assume is the killer's troubled and abusive relationship with a father figure giving scarce clues to the motives behind the homicidal frenzy.

The night that Robert confesses the murder to Nina the admission is overheard by their maid whom hatches an ill-conceived scheme to blackmail the musician which leads to a well structured and pulse-pounding pursuit through a park at night as she attempts to evade the killer whom apparently doesn't want anyone intervening in their grand scheme of revenge. It's a wonderful scene even though I felt a bit cheated when the murder happens off screen, we hear only her death cries, our tormenting voyeur now a killer. Fear not though, there's a few key death scenes that while not quite gory are definitely brutal. When the voyeur sees fit to off an accomplices that's outlived their usefulness there's a particularly sweet repeated bashing of their skull sending the victim to the ground where a thick gauge wire is wrapped around his neck and slowly turned until death, just a really effective scene.

It's  after this that we're introduced to Nina's cousin Dalia (Francine Racette, AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS), a real European nymphish beauty. We also meet the wonderfully gay detective Gianni Arrosio. I have an affection for Argento's colorful secondary gay characters whom populate many of his films, some of whom surely have been imbued with a bit too much flamboyance and not much substance or purpose but nonetheless were colorful additions to the films. Jean-Pierre Marielle as the oddball detective is one of my favorites, I really felt his death and enjoyed his tragically triumphant parting words.

Meanwhile Robert and Dalia have kindled a impromptu romance under the nose of Nina after some fun splashing around in the bathroom. Who bathes their cousin's husband, really? It's a fun and flirty trist that ends with both naked in the tub, Racette is a sight to behold, a real beauty but even her unnaturual impish looks cannot save her from the voyeur turned killer as she is stalked through Robert's home in a tense scene resulting in a PYSCHO-esque tumble down the stairs followed by a knife plunge into her soft, supple flesh. In perhaps a sweet sci-fi ode to HORROR EXPRESS a laser is used to read the last image imprinted upon her retina in death, what they discover is the titular series of four flies.

With the bodycount steadily rising and Robert's fear and paranoia at a fever pitch he resorts to awaiting and confronting the murderer in his home, it's a nice shocker ending and the culprit is truly bug nuts insane, a wonderfully over-the-top villain with a unique set of motivations stemming from a scarred childhood and an insatiable need for revenge. The finale is marked by two wonderfully stylish slow-motion shots involving a gunshot and a beautifully staged car-crash slash decapitation, it's a thing of beauty.

Blu-ray: Shameless Screen Entertainment's 40th Anniversary Edition of Argento's FOUR FLIES IN GREY VELVET presents the film in a sweet region-FREE Blu-ray. It was only just three years ago that Mya Communications released the film on DVD for the first time and that release was a revelation when compared to the fuzzy VHS copies floating around at the time. Shamless's Blu-ray is an improvement over the Mya DVD and is clearely the best the film has ever looked. It has been fully remastered in HD from the original film negative with improvement in fine detail and black levels which are deeper and less murkey. We're given the option of viewing the legendary "missing forty seconds" of inserts either through seamlessly branching or viewing them separately from the film. The standard definition footage is less than stellar but is presented in the correct aspect ratio at least.

Audio options include both English and Italian 2.1 DTS HD and Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles for both the Italian language track and English SDH. The original English audio has been remastered exclusively for this release from the original magnetic soundtrack and while audio is not the most dynamic it is clear with few distortions, Morricone's score sounds great and the English soundtrack easily bests the Italian option.

Special features aren't in excess but enjoyable nonetheless. There are US and Italian theatrical trailers, the latter of which is a delightfully trippy and savage trailer, the UK trailers for Argento's films are usually far superior to the Englsih versions in my estimation. We also get a a poster and stills gallery, a short introduction from writer and assistant director Luigi Cozzi who also offers up a nearly 42 minute exclusive interview about the film and his involvement beginning with his introduction to Argento as a journalist following the release of The Bird with The Crystal Plumage leading to Dario asking him to collaborate on Four Flies with Grey Velvet, crafting the story around the elaborate death set-pieces and the many influences on the film from Sergio Leone to pulp writers like Cornell Woolrich (BLACK ALIBI) and Raymond Chandler (THE LITTLE SISTER). There's also a brief segment wherein Luigi Cozzi talks about the similiarties in Argento's film to his own earlier film THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH which Cozzi vehemently rebukes as mere coincidence based on a similiar Woolrich literary influence, then denouncing Martino as an Argento immitator, fun stuff. For fans of Cozzi, Argento or Giallo this is a must-see, essential viewing that covers many facets of the film from casting, shooting, the effcets and even UK rockers DEEP PURPLE originally scoring the film. An interview with Dario Argento or a commentary would from Argento experts Kim Newman and Alan Jones would have been a nice addition to the extras but the Luigi Cozzi interview is pure gold.

Special Features:
- Reversible Artwork
- Introduction to the film by Luigi Cozzi.
- New, exclusive and extensive recent interview on the making of Four Flies On Grey Velvet with writer and assistant director Luigi Cozzi.(41:23) 16:9
- Original English audio remastered in HD exclusively for this Shameless release from the original magnetic soundtrack and available for the first time since the film’s original theatrical opening in the 1970s.
- Shameless re-build edit of the complete version of the film including four inserts of previously missing footage known amongst Argento fans as the legendary “missing forty seconds” (the inserts are in Standard-Definition quality). The Blu-ray will allow for seamless branching of the four inserts giving viewers two versions of the film: one all HD without the re-inserted scenes and one longer version including the inserts.
- Restoration of all individual damaged frames, most notably with respect to the removal of the black diagonal frame line (caused by the film jumping the high speed camera gate) in the final car crash sequence.
- Optional Italian audio version in HD with English subtitles.
- Italian Trailer (2:35) 16:9
- English Trailer (0:55) 16:9
- Alternate English opening and closing credits (5:00) 16:9
- Shameless Trailer Park (Blu-ray only) (11:26) 16:9
- Photo Gallery (5:43)

Verdict: Shameless Screen Entertainment's 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray easily demands an upgrade from Mya's previous DVD edition with a wonderful presentation and a sweet slew of bonus content that should make any Argento enthusiast pleased as punch. This wonderful edition receives high marks from me, a must-have and an underseen Argento classic. Now that Four Flies on Grey Velvet is no longer the rarity it once was I would very much like to see his maligned comedy THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN (1973) find it's way to DVD/Blu-ray if only to say that I've finally seen it. 4 outta 5