Hey, everybody! I’ve got good news and bad news! The good news is that Four Flies on Grey Velvet, one of Dario Argento’s early giallos, is finally on DVD. The bad news is that the movie isn’t very interesting.
Drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon, looking like he escaped from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Love Beach album cover) is having a bad day. Not only does his band suck, but he’s being stalked by a weird guy in sunglasses. Roberto confronts the man at an abandoned theater, the guy pulls a knife, and in the feeble struggle that ensues Roberto accidentally stabs the man, who then falls into the theater’s orchestra pit. Ooops, clumsy! Worse still, somebody wearing a creepy doll mask is in the balcony, taking pictures of the whole thing. Well, I suppose that sort of thing could happen to anyone.
Roberto tries to forget the whole thing ever happened, but soon the doll-masked person is sending Roberto taunting letters, slipping photographs of the killing into his record collection, and sneaking around Roberto’s house in the dead of night. Roberto’s wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) wants to go to the police but Roberto opts instead to hire a swishy private investigator to look into matters. Meanwhile, Roberto’s maid has figured out something’s amiss and decides to take up blackmail. And the body count goes up.
This all makes Four Flies on Grey Velvet sound much more interesting than it really is. Sadly, the film is done in by a sluggish pace, a dearth of action/suspense scenes, and a plot that’s slapdash even by Argento’s standards. Things pick up a bit in the film’s last quarter when we get a fascinating if ludicrous forensic technique to try to identify a murderer, a lengthy “why I did it” monologue by the killer, and the world’s ugliest necklace as a plot point.
But it’s hard work getting to that point. The Argento films I’ve seen have been made or broken by the strength of the protagonists. In his better efforts, such as Deep Red and Suspiria, the protagonists are interesting, savvy people who do more than just react to what happens around them (it helps that those films starred David Hemmings and Jessica Harper, respectively - actors able to engage audience sympathy). But Argento’s weaker films (such as Opera and Inferno) have all been marred by dull, unsympathetic protagonists, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet is no exception. Roberto has no personality and Brandon’s sleepwalk of a performance does the character no favors. Worse, Roberto and Nina’s relationship, despite being central to the story, is vaguely defined and the actors have so little chemistry they come off as glorified housemates. (Roberto’s willingness to jump in the sack with Nina’s cousin the moment Nina’s out the door doesn’t gain him any sympathy from the audience either.)
There are a few tense moments and effective images, but overall it’s for Argento completists only.
The DVD presents an Italian-language track with no English subtitles, forcing non-Italian speakers to use the dubbed version. Reportedly taken from a European source, the English dub is slightly slow-sounding, but it’s nothing I would have noticed if I hadn’t read about it elsewhere. Other extras are some nicely lurid trailers and advertising materials, all of which make the movie look much more fascinating than it is.