Four Flies in Grey Velvet

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Say you’re a drummer in a rock ‘n roll band. You have a stalker, a mysterious older man who follows you everywhere. Instead of going to the police or arming yourself with a weapon, you confront your tormenter in an empty movie theatre. The man pulls a knife, and before you know it he falls to the ground, seemingly dead. But, wait: a second stalker takes pictures of the entire incident! Do you: a) go to the police; b) suspect someone is setting you up; c) go home and try to forget it ever happened?

Roberto – the main character of Four Flies in Grey Velvet – is the biggest damsel in distress I’ve ever seen in my life. He is utterly without agency. When it turns out that the second stalker is a homicidal maniac who wants to ruin his life and then kill him, he does nothing. Roberto refuses to talk to the police, but tells no less than three people –he doesn’t even know one of them! – his sad tale. After hiring a private eye who hasn’t cracked a case in years, Roberto tries to get on with his life, even after someone breaks into his home (too many times to count), threatens to strangle him, leaves murder photos at his dinner parties and kidnaps his cat.

Soon Roberto’s wife Nina can’t stand anymore and leaves. Nina’s cousin Dalia stays, and pretty soon Roberto – whose philosophy seems to be this – is in the bathtub playing footsie with her. In the meantime his pet homicidal maniac is having a grand ole’ time, going on a murder spree.

Four Flies in Grey Velvet is mediocre Argento, which means it’s still better than 90% of the horror movies out there. The plot is sketchy, throwing is some silly pseudoscience, and I found Roberto to be an unlikable hero. There’s a point at the end when the killer is happily chewing the scenery, and the dubbing ends and I didn’t understand half the monologue. That’s okay, because – spoiler alert! – the killer is crazy, which is all you need to know. I’ve noticed that Argento recycles plot elements in his giallo, so parts of this movie were familiar. However, Four Flies in Grey Velvet is stylishly shot and the movie itself is quite entertaining. The final scene in particular is great. Early Dario Argento is always worth a watch.

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage introduces us to Mr. Argento’s visually striking style and fascination with voyeurism. Stuck between two panes of glass like a trapped fly, Sam – an American writer in Italy – witnesses an attempted murder at an art gallery. Soon he’s pursued by the killer, as well as an Inspector Clouseau type cop, through a grimy-looking Italy.

Sam decides to play detective, enlisting the help of gal pal Julia (Suzy Kendall). I am not sure why anyone sane would do this, but people did all sorts of bizarre shit in the 70’s. Shrugging off the attempts on his life, Sam’s amateur investigation leads him to a ghoulish painting. His visit to the artist is one of the highlights of the movie. While Sam’s away, the black-glove-wearing serial killer decides to play, threatening Julia in a plot development anyone who’s ever watched a thriller can see coming. Speaking of which: a few of the plot developments are ridiculous, but who cares? This movie holds together very well.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is well-worth watching, if you can find it (I watched it through my Fandor subscription). Since this is a giallo, there is a whodunit? element and a fiendish plot twist at the end. Be warned that Mr. Argento’s Deep Red, a better movie, is almost a remake of this film.

 

Blood and Black Lace

Watching Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace reminded me of an episode of Charlie’s Angels. The music sounds like TV show music and the girls look like TV show actresses. In a way, that makes the violence that much more shocking. This is a very pretty movie with a few very ugly moments, including a short but nasty torture scene.

A man wearing a cloth mask over his face strangles a fashion model and dumps her body in a closet. When the dead girl’s co-workers discover her diary it sets off a daisy chain of murders. The killer stalks his prey through mansions stuffed full of rugs, fancy furniture, exotic art and marble statues. I never knew modeling paid so well! Maybe the killings are the work of a sexual psychopath, but the slayings seem too calculated for that. The modeling world has a seamy side, with drugs and money and sleaze, and the killer seems right at home.

Blood and Black Lace is a giallo, and thus has both mystery and horror elements. What this movie doesn’t have is a protagonist. None of the characters in the ensemble cast are all that likable. The players display a distinct lack of morality, or perhaps it’s personality. Since they live in a superficial world dominated by looks, that’s not much of a surprise. But it is a fairly sophisticated bit of writing/filmmaking.

I saw Blood and Black Lace on Fandor, where it was advertised as ‘retro VHS style,’ not a selling point for anyone who remembers VHS. Despite this, Blood and Black Lace is still a very pretty movie. It’s dubbed, and the dubbing is good, but don’t look at the characters’ lips when they are talking. Despite all the positives, to me this movie gives off a Charlie’s Angels/Murder Mystery of the Week vibe. There are classics that don’t age well, but perhaps that isn’t fair. Blood and Black Lace was influential and it’s not Mr. Bava’s fault other directors imitated him.

Berberian Sound Stage

Is it a bad sign when you go to Wikipedia because you aren’t sure what the movie you’ve just watched is about? That’s what I did after watching Berberian Sound Stage. I gather from the reviews I’ve read that a lot of people think this film is a work of genius, which means maybe I’m missing something. Maybe.

Gilderoy is an English sound engineer who travels to Italy to work on a movie he thinks is about horses. Too late, he discovers that the film is a giallo (an Italian thriller with mystery and horror elements) about witches. Berberian Sound Stage is set in the 70’s – the heyday of giallo – and the sound is dubbed in later, which is why Gilderoy’s services are needed. Members of the tech crew wear black gloves, another tribute to giallo.

Gilderoy is a pro. He’s also a little middle-aged man who lives with his mom in the English countryside. He doesn’t understand the language, so when the Italians speak amongst themselves he thinks they might be talking about him. Sometimes they are. They’re also trying to cheat him out of his plane fare; at one point the producer lectures Gilderoy about the joys of working for free.

Berberian Sound Stage begins with two plots. The giallo’s plot involves witches, torture and murder. The producer has fits making his starlets scream convincingly because the director – who does nothing but party – chooses his girlfriends as actresses. This leads to a subplot about sexual harassment that casts Gilderoy in a sympathetic light, but that plot never goes anywhere.

Gilderoy spends his days making skillets hiss and smashing watermelons with hammers to simulate the burning and piercing of human flesh. Since Gilderoy is a sensitive soul this bothers him. Why he doesn’t just quit is unclear. At Berberian Sound Stage’s halfway point a third storyline unfolds, which is when the plot fractures and this movie falls apart for me.

There are many things to like about Berberian Sound Stage. The movie looks great, with a spooky, atmospheric vibe, and Toby Jones’ performance as Gilderoy is excellent. I found the behind-the-scenes stuff about 1970’s movie sound work mildly interesting. I like movies, but – aside from the writing – don’t care about how they’re made.

The problem with Berberian Sound Stage is the plot; by the end I had no idea what was happening. I do think that sometimes plot can be overrated, but another element of the movie needs to step up, and that doesn’t happen here. Like the dubbing in a giallo, where the moving lips and the voice coming from the mouth don’t quite mesh, Berberian Sound Stage never quite comes together as a movie for me.

What Have You Done to Solange?

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What Have You Done to Solange is one of those movies that you used to see being sold at horror conventions on grainy videotape. This is a giallo, an Italian/West German (?!?!) thriller/mystery/horror film. It is dubbed, and the dubbing seemed good to me. To my knowledge What Have You Done to Solange has never been widely released in the United States, and it took me about ten minutes to figure out why.

Enrico teaches at a Catholic girls’ school (college?) in London. A handsome Italian, he’s like a peacock strutting amidst a flock of peahens. Enrico rents a swinging bachelor’s flat even though he’s married and is having an affair with Elizabeth, one of his students. Later in the movie Enrico seems proud that their relationship is ‘pure,’ even though he spends all his time onscreen pressuring her to have sex.

Enrico and Elizabeth are on a boat on the river when Elizabeth witnesses a murder. The killer wears a long black frock and might be a priest. He or she seems to be targeting students at Enrico’s school, which already employs two sexual predators (Enrico and the teacher who peeks at the girls in the shower). By the way, the school’s dean gives Enrico’s relationship an unofficial thumb’s up.

Enrico is what passes for the hero in What Have You Done to Solange, which is this movie’s first big problem (out of three). Things might have been different back in 1974, but today a guy like Enrico would be in jail. At the very least, he is an unsympathetic character. After a nasty twist halfway through the movie, he’s not even vital to the plot.

What Have You Done to Solange contains a lot of symbolism – a white cat, four red apples wrapped in white paper, pins, a red towel – none of which is subtle. The murders are extremely brutal, and the misogyny of this movie is pretty in your face (the second problem). There’s no secret code. According to the makers of this film the girls do evil things like go to parties and do drugs and date and even have sex, and thus bring retribution on themselves.

The third problem with What Have You Done to Solange is that it doesn’t work as a mystery. In Dario Argento’s Deep Red you can figure out or at least guess the identity of the killer. That’s impossible here, because the writers don’t play fair. Solange is the key to the mystery, and she isn’t even mentioned until the movie is half over. If you are a fan of giallo, What Have You Done to Solange might be of interest; if not, don’t bother.

Deep Red

Deep Red is a Giallo, an Italian horror/thriller/mystery directed by Dario Argento. Despite Deep Red’s availability in the video stores of the early 80’s, this is yet another movie I missed. As a kid I subsisted on a diet of American slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and thus missed a lot of great horror movies.

The plot: famed psychic Amanda Righetti witnesses a murder in front of a packed auditorium. The catch: the murder occurred decades ago, and the killer is in the audience. Amanda doesn’t seem bothered by that second fact, which is a big mistake. Cut to Marcus and his drunken buddy Carlo, who are hanging outside a bar. Marcus witnesses Amanda’s murder through her apartment window.

Marcus rushes into the psychic’s apartment and finds her body; too bad she didn’t foresee her own death. When the police arrive he tells them he thinks the murderer took one of the many creepy paintings hanging on the walls. Feisty reporter Gianna pastes Marcus’ face all over the front page of the newspaper with the headline EYEWITNESS TO MURDER. This turns out to be yet another big mistake. Later that night Marcus is in his den when we see bits of plaster fall on his piano. The killer is walking on the roof. And then a children’s song starts to play. It’s an eerie, creepy scene, one of many in this gem.

The kiddy song leads to an urban legend about a murder house that turns out to be true. Marcus follows the killer’s trail because – really, I have no clue why. There are a lot of things in this movie that don’t make any sense. Unlike Argento’s masterful Suspiria, Deep Red has a plot, but boy oh boy do the characters do some stupid shit.

Marcus finds the murder house, which has been deserted for years. The realtor’s daughter likes to impale lizards and is a future candidate for the Tanz Academy if I ever saw one. In the house Marcus finds a child’s drawing buried beneath the plaster depicting a brutal murder. In the meantime the killer has been busy. Will Marcus be the next victim?

The body count of Deep Red isn’t high, but Argento makes every death count. Highly choreographed, these murders are works of art. The other thing that impressed me about Deep Red is the ending. I figured out the part about the painting because I have access to the rewind and pause button, so I thought I had the murderer pegged. I was wrong.

Highly recommended!