MUBI Mondays: Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
Josh Slater-Williams | On 26, Oct 2020
On Mondays, two of our resident cinephiles highlight a film currently available on MUBI UK. We call it MUBI Mondays.
Dario Argento’s first three features as director – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet – are commonly referred to as his “Animal Trilogy”. They are not connected by recurring story threads or characters, but by visual and thematic motifs in their mystery narratives about murder most foul, many involving voyeurism. And each of the three’s titles contains a species’ name, in case you somehow missed that. The most surreal of the three thrillers, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is often considered the most underplotted when it comes to the actual mystery, with the story’s developments almost seeming arbitrary and little in the way of clue breadcrumbs doled out for anyone who might want to deduce the killer’s identity themselves. But as a collection of horror set-pieces, bizarre digressions, creative staging and haunting images, Four Flies on Grey Velvet excels. It’s also among Argento’s funniest efforts – deliberately so, not unintentionally, as has appeared to be the case for much of his more recent output. The plot, such as it is, concerns Roberto (Michael Brandon), a rock drummer who keeps receiving odd phone calls. Seemingly pursued by a mysterious man, he catches up with his follower one night, trying to get him to explain his behaviour. In the ensuing struggle, he accidentally stabs the stalker with the knife the man had pulled. He flees the scene, but notices a masked figure was photographing the encounter. And sure enough, the following day he receives a delivery of photos showing him killing the suspected stalker. He confesses everything to his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), but refuses to go the police, instead hiring a flamboyant detective to identify his tormenter, who now seems to be offing others close to Roberto’s private circle. Once largely unavailable, thanks to Paramount blocking a legitimate release for home media for decades, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a crucial turning point for Argento’s career; the switch between relatively coherent, ostensibly straightforward (though stylish) mysteries and more phantasmagorical works, such as Suspiria six years later. Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s final scene makes that clear as the film’s grand orchestrator of all the murderous mayhem meets their demise in a slow-motion vehicular crash, where Ennio Morricone’s sorrowful score in the moment aids the creation of one of the most perversely beautiful and strangely sad scenes in horror cinema.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.