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DVD Review: Four Flies On Grey Velvet

It took a short 38 years for Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet to reach home video in the United States.

Thirty-eight years.

For an Argento film.


When I heard that new label MYA Communications was going to release the final entry of Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” (the first and second chapters being The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and The Cat O’Nine Tails), the news was nothing short of exciting. I only saw it once, about 15 years back via a bootleg copy from a mail-order company (or, if you prefer a bad pun, a grey-market release — ta-dum!), during the height of my “Fascination With Argento” period. I didn’t think I would remember very much of the movie after all this time–but, strangely enough, I remembered quite a bit.

Like Argento’s previous gialli, the movie takes place in good ol’ Italy and has an American-born actor as the protagonist, this time in the guise of Michael Brandon, a slightly David Duchovny-meets-Steve Guttenberg-esque kind of lad who was just at the beginning of his “Hey, isn’t that that one guy from that Dempsey & Makepeace show?” career. Our feature starts with Roberto Tobias (Brandon), a drummer for a progressive rock band, being followed around by a mysterious man. When the aggressive musician confronts the darkly-attired individual in an empty theater, their confrontation turns deadly when Roberto accidentally murders the man! To make matters worse, the entire killing is nothing but a set-up by another mysterious person (in a creepy mask that reminds me of Steve Franken from The Party) who has photographed the entire killing.

Next thing you know, the phone calls begin. Photos start to appear in Roberto’s house. The blackmailer lurks around and throughout his own home, unseen by either Roberto or even his loveless wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer, just four years away from thrilling everybody in Autopsy and a full decade away from putting everyone to sleep in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat)–and soon, that which made the entire giallo genre famous occurs: the inventive, grisly, relentless, and untimely deaths of innocent people.

God bless those Italian folks.

Despite the fact that it’s the first time it’s hit video in the States, and no matter how wonderful the movie may sound to those of you who have never seen it, I should point out that Four Flies On Grey Velvet isn’t Dario Argento’s masterwork. Actually, it’s far from his finest piece, and ranks right up there with his that Inferno travesty from 1980: both movies are impressive in the artistic vein, but fail to thrill in a fulfilling sense. However, unlike Inferno or just about any of Argento’s other works (before or after), Four Flies strives for something entirely different: humor.

Yes, the man who would be Italy’s Hitchcock decided to throw in a few jokes this time around…with some pretty disastrous results. Take for example the goofy spectacled mailman that can’t get an address right; the inclusion of Trinity star Terrence Hill’s frequent co-star Bud Spencer as Godfrey (aka “God”) and his vagabond partner (voice actor Oreste Lionello, as The Professor); and, probably most offensive of all, Jean-Pierre Marielle as the over-the-top flamboyantly gay detective hired to find the blackmailer/killer (Marielle reportedly added the stereotypical touch to his character personally).

Okay, so the jokes fail — but what really puts the hurt on for this feature (aside from the occasionally boring moment) is Michael Brandon’s rather bland performance. He does rather well as Roberto Tobias, but Brandon is nothing but a television actor at best (yes, that was a subtle Arrested Development joke — see Brandon’s character’s name again if you find yourself stuck on that one, kiddies).

Fortunately, no matter how much of a letdown the movie may be (for whatever reasons), there are still plenty of moments that will appeal to Argento-philes, such as the imaginative photography, editing, and (of course), Dario’s well-tuned ability to create a stylishly gruesome murder onscreen. The music by Ennio Morricone has a nice theme, but I find most of his score to be rather powerless — a feeling Argento reportedly had as well, as there were some of those fabled “creative differences” between the two icons that would result in this being Ennio’s third and final score for Argento until that god-awful Stendhal Syndrome flick in ‘96 (which was followed by the equally tepid Phantom Of The Opera two years later).

About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of Adam Becvar, a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has wasted a vast majority of his life watching movies - so much so, that a conventional life is no longer in the equation for him. He lives alone (big surprise there) in a rural home with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Really.