Oh Dario Argento, that pip. He's been working at making the kinds of films he makes for forty years. Like Brian De Palma, he doesn't necessarily always make his particular 'Argento' movie, but they're the ones he likes to make most: thrillers and horror, or the more inclusive if not altogether true term, "Giallo'. Some of them may blend together, but they do vary depending on how much of an erection Dario has for his killing sequences, how much Goblin music pans into it, and perhaps color (Suspiria) or acting ability (Deep Red, The Black Cat). Here are two films from his oeuvre that vary, by nature of it being almost forty years of difference, in quality:
This is the story of a guy who just wants to be a drummer in a rock and roll band, and is (and is pretty darn good, for a sessions player in a band without a singer). At one of the sessions he sees a mysterious figure watching. Who could it be? He follows this figure to a place, and he accosts a man who looks as confused as Roberto the drummer (Michael Brandon) looks pissed off. The other guy pulls out a knife, Roberto tries to pull it away but by accident it goes right into the guy's gullet. And from in the very same vacant auditorium there is another person there in a bizarre baby-doll mask or something, that takes a picture and runs off. Roberto can't just go to the cops, mind you, as he could get fifteen years even on an accident. And now the witness isn't even blackmailing - he/she/it is toying with Roberto, trying to make him go crazy, and in the process bumping off anyone close to him.
Sure, Argento has done the mystery killer, many, many times. So much so that if you come to 4 Flies on Grey Velvet after seeing several of his major works - which is preferred, seeing it as your first Argento one could find it so bizarre with its mixture of wild humor, surrealism and dead-faced suspense sequences - it should come as familiar as seeing an old friend. The change-up here is that instead of it being the guy or girl who is witness to a murder and the cops are involved a little but he/she will crack the case (i.e. Deep Red, Opera, so on), this time the guy is the killer, but by accident, and there's another one who takes the main stage. There's also some very distinct psycho-ness going on as we see from the same sort of first person point of view perspective of the killer the sight of the padded walls of a mental asylum room, spinning around like the camera is going crazy itself.
In the meantime as Roberto tries with little success to find who this killer-blackmailer-psycho is, he hires a private detective and his two sort-of friends (one guy with a big beard the other with a moustache, both peculiar chaps) do their part to do what they can. That's another thing that should be noted here with these supporting characters: the distinguishing factor is the comedy. Some of this is of the eccentric nature, as Argento is a Hitchcock fan (it's even the title of one of his fucking movies for Godfrey sakes. Godfrey the supporting character with the beard who is also called 'God', hence the pun), and it is, actually, very funny. There's the mistaken physical struggle with a man Roberto sees who is just the postman, and this happens in the rain and with a little suspense so it's a good pay-off. There's the private detective who is so flaming gay that he has to mention it repeatedly, though this is only funny at first (he finally has to be toned down for the sake of the plot). And there's even a scene where Roberto and Godfrey are at some function where it's like a mortician's convention- a double-casket for convenience sake, and one of those stand-up tombs that a dealer tries to sell to a customer.
Some of this is so bizarre that it could, in more hackneyed hands, derail the rest of the movie. The only faults with Argento here in constructing this film are a few moments, like right after one particular death scene, that cuts too quickly to the next shot. These small pacing issues don't take away from Argento's real strength here, which is to get a juicy kick out of the pulpy nature of the Giallo he's working in, and to keep the audience really guessing, which is hard to do. At one point he almost goes too far with misdirection with a key piece of voice-over that a character has, and for a full moment we think this character is the killer... and then it gets dark, and the Argento's smooth camera pan lets us know things are not alright. The revelation in the climax might not be the most unexpected, but the way it is revealed, and how the killer does the exposition and the demise is absolutely astonishing in its dramatic conviction and the stylistic overture of operatic proportions. Argento being operatic? You don't say...
4 Flies on Grey Velvet is one of the director's most entertaining features. It's not altogether perfect, and may not carry the same visual gloss and astonishment of Suspiria, but on its own terms its a really solid thriller that takes rock and roll of the period into some good use, not to mention an Ennio Morrcione score that is so chilling you'll curl up in your chair from that more than the roving camera and moments of still terror. Oh, and it's surreal, did I mention that? The re-occurring dream here carries a power with each repetition, all based on a minor character describing a story that sticks with Roberto. It will stick with me too, if not in dreams then my movie-laden subconscious.
There may be SPOILERS
According to the IMDb.com trivia for Dario Argento's 2009 film Giallo (or "Yellow" as it's actual translation is, based on the style of paper used for original Giallo-print stories), this was the first film that wasn't written originally by Dario Argento. Funny then (though not really funny) that at the end of the film the first credit to pop up is "Written and Directed by Dario Argento", when he he only worked in some part on the screenplay after it was presented to him by the writers (who are, weirdly enough, also credited as "Written by"). I never thought I would think that the credit Quentin Tarantino gave himself at the end of Pulp Fiction as "Written & Directed by" when the 'Stories by' indicated Roger Avary as really his co-writer was diminished by comparison to something else. And, frankly, I really wonder why Argento was so happy to have both credits here.
Sure, he was (and maybe still is) one of the major artists, maybe the most worldwide recognized and renown for creating his own style in these Italian films, but it's really just not the same anymore as it used to be. Argento's changed, the film world has changed, killing's changed a bit too, and sadly not for the better. The story here, as thin as it is, could be at least somewhat promising, about a fashion model who is one of many girls abducted by a mysterious figure (well, not so mysterious, will get to that in a moment). This man is "Yellow", for his skin, albeit he is slim competition as Yellowest Bastard (Nick Stahl in Sin City beats him by a mile, but I digress again). Her sister (Emmanuelle Siegner) is all she has in the world, or visa-versa, and so she visits the detective Enzo (Adrien Brody) who is the kind of brooding detective that works out of the basement of the police station and works by "his own rules." And so the investigation goes.
Where to start with this? This is such a mess of a movie that is most saddening because of the name Argento as the director. To be sure, his reputation has fallen over time in his later films; while unseen by me, films like Trauma, The Card Player and the remake of Phantom of the Opera carry some awful buzz by even his die-hard fans. I wanted to keep some hope, or some benefit of the doubt, as I was among the handful that really enjoyed his third entry in the Three-Mothers saga, Mother of Tears, which was his previous effort. But, quite simply I ask, where is any passion or a sense of creativity here? I don't have to be perverse in putting this forward with this director: where is even the joy in the stalking-killing scenes? Those kind of classic scenes don't have to be repeated again and again (he already did that in the 70's and 80's just fine). At the same time there's nothing here to reveal anything in simply enjoyment of his own material. It comes off like the work of a hack who is just going through the motions, with the occasional odd-ended visual flourish or strange editing beat.
The thing I held out for, after realizing about ten minutes in that this wouldn't be high-quality thriller-horror work, is that Adrien Brody was the star, and one of the biggest names in an Argento movie. This is the most bizarre thing of all, and not always in a good way. So, (spoiler), Brody plays two roles, both the detective and "Yellow" the killer. I wish this could be something that I could leave out of this review, yet it's difficult to expound about how tasteless and crude and wonky a double-performance it is without mentioning it. And, to be fair, Argento does very little to hide from the viewer that this is Brody, right from the get-go when Yellow drives his red-herring cab (no offense, it's the schnoz, it's plain as day even in a rearview mirror). One might expect that Brody will at least have fun with this, like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde turn (or, better yet, like Edward Norton in Leaves of Grass). There's the halfway-hopeful expectation that it's the same character, which would have held many possibilities and which I was rooting for in the first half of the film - this, to me, would have been the way to give the much-done Giallo-Italian-thriller a good twist.
But, alas, they're two characters, and oddly enough it's Enzo the detective that's more intriguing (the one really gripping and well-shot and surprisingly un-Argento death scene, ironically, comes in a flashback with his character as a kid getting revenge). It does not help in the slightest that Siegner's performance, and by some extent her character, is hard to watch. She looks bored by this movie, this character, what she's doing, and no wonder as it's the kind of whiny but stone-faced and dull character who has nothing else but this whole thing with her sister. It's understandable to an extent, but she never makes herself useful, and at one point actively gets in the way of the investigation. And despite her, and despite the weird but not weird enough turn by Brody as Yellow in the heavy make-up, I could forgive it if the filmmaking had some heart to it. Yes, I know it's a thriller and it should follow the beats, but where's the kind of spirit and passion for taking the camera by the balls and going to the limit?
One could blame the tired writing if Argento's name was not so present at the end - but on the other hand, he was presented with this script and, apparently, tried to make it *better*. How so is anyone's guess. It's the work of a master who just doesn't give a shit, despite the appearances. I'd much rather it was made by someone else. As it stands it's one of the low-points of his entire career.
ADDENDUM: That same IMDB.com trivia states that originally the film was going to have Vincent Gallo as Yellow (and maybe the Detective? Ray Liotta was also approached for Enzo), but dropped out after his former girlfriend, Asia Argento, was cast in the female lead (no shit, in a Dario movie?), but then dropped out when she got pregnant. As tired as having Asia in her father's films have become, despite always being a good actress, I can only imagine the possibilities of a better film with her, and especially with the already quirky and strange Gallo as a jaundiced serial killer. One can only think what-ifs back on these things.