"I think someone is trying to drive you crazy before finally killing you."
Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is a young rock drummer living in Rome with his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer). When Roberto notices a strange figure in black spying on him, he follows the man into an abandoned theater to confront the stranger. Suddenly the stranger pulls a knife, there's a struggle, and the man in black is stabbed and falls into the orchestra pit, dead. It's then that Roberto sees a figure high in the balcony wearing a doll mask, taking photos. Days later, Roberto receives the dead man's ID card in the mail, then photos of the struggle, and menacing notes from the doll-masked stranger – but no blackmail demands. Roberto hires private detective Gianni Arrioso (Jean-Pierre Marielle), but anyone who gets too close to the truth is suddenly murdered. It seems that the murderer is closer than anyone suspects!
After The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat O'Nine Tails, Four Flies on Gray Velvet is the third installment of Argento's "Animal Trilogy," a series of unrelated gialli that only have animal titles as a common link. This one has style to burn, full of crazy camera angles, macro lens shots, a youthful aesthetic, and of-the-moment music cues, courtesy of Roberto's rock band and composer Ennio Morricone. The action starts in earnest as Roberto runs into a theater, parting the red velvet curtains in the doorways, and literally "opening the curtain" on his story (an effect Argento would repeat Deep Red and Opera). Sadly, the stylish direction overcompensates for a weak script which ultimately makes no sense. One of Argento's great strengths, though, is that he understands the need for a rhythm of tension and release throughout a film. And in this case, he throws in quite a few light moments, courtesy of Godwin (Bud Spencer), The Professor (Oreste Lionello, in top form), the slapstick antics of the Postman (Gildo DiMarco), the gay detective, and a visit to a coffin designers' expo.
- Four Flies on Gray Velvet is the least-known of Argento's early films, because it wasn't available on DVD until 2009.
- A poster for Four Flies on Gray Velvet appears in the lobby of the theater in the horror film Demons.
- The opening credits are creepily interrupted by a pulsing heart against a black background – an effect Argento would repeat in Susperia.
- Roberto and Nina live on "Via F. Lang. " As in "Fritz Lang." As in the German silent film pioneer who created the expressionist horror masterpiece Nosferatu.
- I want Gianni's eye-shaped door handle. And I want Roberto's contoured steel phone
- Nina's cousin Dalia is played by Francine Racette, whom you may know as Donald Sutherland's wife and Kiefer Sutherland's stepmother.
- Roberto has recurring nightmares of a prisoner getting beheaded. Since it's just a dream, I counted it as a "fake murder."
- Jean-Pierre Marielle's detective Gianni Arrioso is one of my favorite giallo characters. I wish he could have had a spin-off TV series. Somebody get on that.
We're introduced to the character God (short for "Godwin") with a sudden Alleluia chorus. It's just a crazy, random moment. Oh, and Godwin has a parakeet named "Jerkoff."
Let's talk about naked bath time. When Nina flees for her safety, cousin Dalia draws Roberto a bath and gives him a neck massage. After some weak protests, she succumbs to his charms and ends up in the tub with him, sharing some adult time. This is the film's only sexy scene.
At the end of the film, the murderer gets a long speech, revealing the reasons for killing everyone. This isn't a monologue as much as it is an aria, and the actor really lets loose, taking it way over the top into an unhinged, lunatic rant. Some of the lines in this speech weren't dubbed into English, and on YouTube they're not subtitled. But you're not missing much – just a little more shouting about daddy issues and living in an asylum.
There are some beautifully staged kill scenes in this movie. My favorite is defined by a brilliant sense of rhythm. The following events occur quickly and at a steady beat:
- Surprise knife to the forehead
- Fall down the stairs. BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM
- Bloody knife glints in the light
- Stabbed in the chest
A Wardrobe Assistant (Giovanni Viti) is credited, but not a Costume Designer. It's a shame, because someone got Roberto's cool-casual 70's rock star wardrobe exactly right. Lots of fitted shirts, T's, and tight jackets. But you gotta love Gianni in his swanky double-breasted suit. You can tell that times are a little lean for him, because it's just slightly too big.
Honorable mention goes to Nina's pendant necklace, which provides a vital clue in the case.