Dario Argento reached the artistic stratosphere with his fifth film, the stunning and breathtaking Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). His first three big-screen features, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, all have their merits and pleasures (I still haven’t seen his atypical fourth film, the comedy The Five Days of Milan, but by most accounts it’s not great). Yet, for all that’s fine and formidable about his pre-1975 work, The Golden Age of Argento truly began with Deep Red.
What a film.
Truly, one of the most dazzling, relentlessly bravura, entertaining and sleek thrillers ever made. The quantum leap from 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet to this is astounding – no more fumbling, no more steady steps – now we’re in the hands of a master, one who appears to be in total control of what he wants to do and who loves fucking around with our expectations. Deep Red on one level is a suspense thriller, a giallo and a crowd pleaser and yet on the other hand it constantly keeps one on edge with its subversion of genre tropes and off-kilter direction. With this, Argento became one of the major players – he would remain so until 1987’s Opera – a director who became the subject of intense cult adoration and admiration. His very next film, the remarkable Suspiria, may for me be his greatest achievement (and my all-time favourite horror movie), but Deep Red runs it awfully close. They were first two Argento films I ever saw and as such towered over everything else he’d made that I’d eventually watch.
The plot, in some ways quite similar to that of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, involves a witnessing of a brutal crime (an attempted murder in the earlier film, an actual murder this time round) and the subsequent amateur investigation undertaken by the witness. The onlooker and eventual sleuth is out-of-towner jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings), who finds himself the unwelcome target of the killer when headstrong journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) rather insensitively plasters his face all over the next day’s paper. Marc’s obsessed with his belief that a painting that he saw just before he discovered the victim’s body has since disappeared, and that this fact must represent something important (or ‘importante’ in Italian – this word is used about a million times in the film and I love the pronunciation). His best friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) – a fellow pianist who is suffering from depression and alcoholism – warns him to back off but Marc’s too fascinated by the morbid mystery, which leads him to an abandoned ‘murder house’ that may reveal the answer to what he’s looking for.
Despite the later controversy surrounding Argento’s supposed misogyny (not helped by that infamous comment of his regarding his preference to seeing a beautiful woman murdered on screen as opposed to an ‘ugly’ one or a man), there are some interesting toying with characters’ and possibly the viewer’s own expectations regarding gender. Viewers of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will already have a head start in this respect, but Deep Red goes one further by making the otherwise likeable Marc an old-school chauvinist (though we pity rather than hate him for this), and then having fun taking down his conservative assumptions down a notch or two, be it his frenzy over losing at an arm wrestling match between him and Gianna, or him looking like a fool sitting on a broken seat in her car. However, both apart and together, they get closer and closer to revealing the killer’s identity, culminating in a shocking, gruesome conclusion.
Ah yes, grue. Argento upped the violence considerably for his return to the giallo thriller – the first victim, clairvoyant Helga Ullman (Macha Meril) who unwittingly reads the thoughts of someone who has already killed in the past, is dispatched with a hatchet before being pushed through a window, where she dies having been perforated on the broken glass. We get a vicious, frankly outrageous act of violence towards a set of teeth that’s merely the build-up to a stabbing. Then there’s the death by scalding hot water, something Halloween II borrowed a few years on, and may very well be the most unpleasant moment in any of Argento’s films. Saying that, the most sadistic moment may be a wildly protracted death (the film’s penultimate) that, as shocking as it is, is something you can almost imagine Argento rubbing his hands together in malevolent glee whilst directing.
Viewers may spot the weird foreshadowing of these deaths (mirroring Helga’s second sight): Marc is burned by hot water from a coffee machine before the scalding murder, the shot of the water seeping out of Helga’s mouth at the start eerily mirrors a shot I can’t detail (spoiler reasons) right near the end. The supernatural element that is introduced at the start of the film is quickly ignored but at the same time never disproven – genuine clairvoyance is simply a part of this film’s real world logic. Argento would fully enter the world of the fantastic with his next film, but he started all of that here, although to be fair there were elements of his earlier films that also flirted with far-out elements. I’d say they were more successfully woven into the narrative with Deep Red though.
If you attempt to approach this film as a straight-up genre film, then the thriller element of Deep Red is engaging, satisfying and occasionally pretty damn chilling. Argento has yet to throw all of his logical caution to the wind at this early stage. However, the film’s greatest pleasure lies in the sheer verve in which Argento delivers all of this.
As Michael McKenzie states in his great documentary that was included as part of the Deep Red’s Arrow Films Blu-Ray release, to criticise Argento for being all about style over substance misses the point. The style is the substance. I mean, we get a five-minute plus sequence of Marc investigating the interiors of the possible murder house and there’s no dialogue – just pure visual and musical splendour, and I dig every moment of it. The house is beautifully eerie and full of atmosphere, so why not take the time to check it out? The music, chiefly by eventual Argento regulars Goblin as well as original composer Giorgio Gaslini (of whom only a few pieces of his made it to the final cut), is utterly spellbinding. The more conventional Gaslini stuff is lush and chilling, but the Goblin stuff is a fantastic prog-funk concoction that brings to mind Rick Wakeman (solo and Yes) and is utterly addictive, delightfully heavy on the bass-groove and full of still-iconic melodies that elevate the film to an even higher degree. They give the murder scenes in particular a real charge that’s unforgettable. A non-murderous musical highlight is during the house-investigation scene when the score suddenly stops when Marc accidentally steps on some broken glass, stays silent for a moment or two, and then abruptly comes in again when a set of curtains falls to the ground. Yep, it’s totally bringing attention to itself, and it’s having lots of fun doing so. I suppose the burning question is whether or not you as the viewer end up having as much fun.
Ah, but what about the performances? Well, whatever disinterest Argento would apparently later have for actors hasn’t manifested yet – his cast here is arguably the most in-sync, engaging and on-form he would ever work with. Hemmings is a delightful lead – he has a great, expressive face and a vulnerable presence which suits the film remarkably well. He’s brilliantly matched by Nicolodi as Gianna – their back-and-forth chemistry is a delight and she is one of the director’s most fun characters. They were a couple in real life during and after this film and as their relationship became more tempestuous, the treatment of her characters got a little nastier to say the least. Here, Gianna is the strongest and resourceful of all Argento’s characters from his classic era – she rightly takes down Marc’s sexism, is brave, funny and confident, even if she does ultimately cheat at arm wrestling. The supporting performances are lively and entertaining, especially Lavia’s tragic Carlo, Clara Calamai as his eccentric mother and Glauco Mauri as the enthusiastic professor Giordani. Not once does any of the acting take you out of the film, which is sadly something that some of the more wooden turns in later Argento films have been guilty of doing. No, here they are essential parts, rich and all part of the film’s lush fabric.
Notably, Deep Red was edited by around 22 minutes for export release, and while this tightens the narrative and surprisingly doesn’t become incoherent in the process, many of the pleasures of the full-length version are missing. The character of Gianna is severely truncated and in the process, much of the film’s gender politics are gone. Elsewhere, lots of nice character touches, humorous elements and moments that may not seem to add much but are just pure pleasure to watch are gone. Take the bit when Marc is snooping around the murder house – there’s a bit where he gets distracted by something and runs outside to investigate. It’s nothing, so he goes back in. The export cut edits this out to make Marc’s detection run a lot smoother, but I did miss this little aside in the shorter cut. Also, there’s the issue of which dub to go for – I’ve always watched the film with the Italian soundtrack because that’s the one I first watched (when it was released by Redemption Video in the 90’s – an almost entirely uncut version) so for me it’s weird watching the English dub, even if that really is David Hemming’s voice!
Deep Red’s entertainment factor may depend on how many thrillers you’ve already experienced – it definitely shakes the genre up a bit, for those who think they might have had their fill of this sort of thing, you may have a lot of the fun seeing the form played around with. That’s not to say it’s a wink-wink parody – no way. As I said, the film is a first-rate thriller and full of suspense, shock and gore. But it’s also gleeful too. Like the investigators in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Marc and Gianna seem to having too much fun at first in their sleuthing, which they probably wouldn’t be having in real life. However, if you think of the characters as stand-in viewers of this kind of mystery, then their enthusiasm makes sense. And wisely, when the stakes become seriously dangerous, that playfulness dissipates to make way for some serious chills. The final scene, as over-the-top as it is, is nonetheless disturbing, horrific and home to one of the all-time great final shots, which I won’t reveal here.
So there you go – on one level a classic chiller of the genre, on the other, one of the all-time great visceral experiences of cinema, a disorienting, off-kilter and wildly odd masterpiece that’ll still knock you sideways and have you coming back for more.
This review of Freejack contains spoilers.
Mostly forgotten now, Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II)’s 1992 SF-action turkey Freejack got some attention back on its release for starring the one and only Mick Jagger. And as a twelve year old at the time the film was getting premiered on Sky’s movie channels, I was certainly interested in it because I thought the ads looked good, plus anything futuristic was always going to fascinate me after having been bowled over by Back to the Future Part II on the big screen a few years earlier. Unfortunately (or so I thought), those movie channels were out of our price range so I forgot about Freejack until it was premiered on BBC1 a few years later.
By then I had become more aware that the film was meant to be… how can I put it… a bit shit, so I geared myself up for a bumpy ride of some sorts. I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, it’s awful, but from the moment Jagger’s bounty hunter/’bonejacker’ Victor Vacendak lifts up the future-visor on his head and says, in that unmistakable camp London accent of his, ‘Okay… let’s do it!’ I knew I was going to love this film.
I had the foresight to tape Freejack at the time and made a point of rewatching it over and over again. Well, the good bits anyway. Bits of this film are really dull. But the good bits (and by that I mean the really bad bits) were pure comedy gold.
Based on Robert Sheckley’s novel Immortality, Inc. (more on that later), Freejack is set in a future where advancements in technology have made it possible for a mind to be transplanted into another human body. Meanwhile in present-day 1992, hot shot racing driver Alex Furlong (Emilio Estevez) is apparently killed mid-race when his car explodes in front of his adoring fans, his adoring girlfriend Julie (Rene Russo) and his adoring agent (David Johansen from the New York Dolls!). However, he’s not really dead because he re-materialises in the year 2009, surrounded by baddies in bacofoil who are ready to lobotomise him with a freaky laser. Luckily, Furlong escapes into a dystopia where people are either living at the top in sleek, plush surroundings or at the bottom where the only things to eat are rats or soup that’s so tasty that people are willing to kill you if you spill it all over them.
Furlong realises that he’s now a ‘freejack’, a fugitive wanted for his BODY by a mystery party. Everyone he turns to for help either betrays him or slams the door in his face, except for a gun-toting nun, aka Mother Exposition, played by Amanda Plummer a few years before she threatened to execute every motherfuckin’ person in the Big Kahuna burger joint in Pulp Fiction. It turns out there’s a thing called the Spiritual Switchboard, which is a kind of cloud where human minds can be uploaded and then downloaded into a different body. Furlong’s body appears to be hot property because it comes from a time before something called the Ten Year Depression and isn’t contaminated with all the toxins, poisons and mutations that today’s underclass have been exposed to. Ah, but why doesn’t Furlong’s mystery party just take his pick of a body from 2009’s non-toxic cultural elite?
Nope, it’s got to be Furlong, and the one who wants him is none other than Anthony Hopkins, who I forgot to mention in this review so far because he didn’t make much impression on the plot up until now. I’m sure he made an impression on viewers at the time – this was the first film he’d made after his award-winning performance in The Silence of the Lambs. This was not the first instance of an actor starring in a total turkey immediately after their Oscar win, and it wouldn’t be the last. It turns out his character in this – the mysterious and recently deceased tycoon McCandless who owns everything in the future and therefore was always untrustworthy – has fallen in love with Julie and of course the only way to win over someone who’s already attached is to possess the body of her boyfriend!
The ending was clearly this was meant to be the Ultimate Trip, the kind that would leave Kubrick whimpering. Forget 2001, this was 2009, baby! This is where Furlong and Julie enter the Spiritual Switchboard, past loads of pixels, squares, time lapse skies and altering environments, culminating in a confrontation with McCandless, who seems to be able to smoke cigars in this virtual world – how does that work? – and who also suspiciously appears to have regretted his rash decision to try and nab Furlong’s body, offering to give everything to him, his riches, his job as an apology … but we know it’s all lies and stalling, as Vacendak shows up and Furlong still ends up undergoing the old switcheroo in a sequence of, and let’s be generous, rather funny special effects that includes a trippy flashback nightmare that, like all bad dream/hallucination sequences, features not one but two random bits of people laughing wickedly.
Weasely deputy villain Michelette (Jonathan Banks), who doesn’t want McCandless in any form to survive as that would prevent him from inheriting the company, destroys the transfer device and we’re all left wondering which mind is currently occupying the disoriented body of Furlong. Michelette has the right idea – if whoever this guy is can correctly identify McCandless’ personal security clearance number then he’s obviously the real deal. The thing is, he actually can! It must be McCandless, god damned McCandless! Michelette shakes his head in despair, laughs to himself and attempts to go out in a blaze of glory before being instantly gunned down by Vacendak.
So Furlong’s dead, right? No. He was just guessing the security number and Vacendak went along with it because, let’s face it, nobody likes Michelette. Furlong’s a bit of a twat about it though, not telling Julie what’s happened until we the viewer also got to find out, which was a bit mean of him, stringing her along like that for what must have felt like a long few minutes. So, Furlong assures Julie that everything’s going to be alright and off they drive. In fact, his specific final line is ‘Come on, buckle up, let’s see what this baby can do!’ which is a line almost as cheesy as the one in this clip:
Cue anthemic metal from whistle-friendly favourites the Scorpions and roll those credits. Terrible ending. Saying that ‘Hit Between the Eyes’ is a fun song. I remember hearing the guitar squeals over that old Sky ad for the movie and I remember thinking this film was going to be ace.
So, what we have here is a film that was probably the last attempt to make Emilio Estevez an action star, but he’s just not well served by the direction or the script. Also, he just doesn’t convey enough of the overwhelmed mind-scramble of what it would be like to be in a new time. Even though the Estevez smirk is almost as good a thing as the Bruce Willis smirk, he’s just too cocky here for us to really care too much. We also have future Breaking Bad legend Jonathan Banks in the role of Michelette, and compared to the dry, been-there-done-that persona of Mike Ehrmentraut, his character here is entertainingly obnoxious, stressed-out and seemingly despised by everybody. The scene where Jagger crushes a Faberge egg and chucks it over to him whilst calling him an asshole is one of the funniest in the film. Banks and Hopkins get the play-it-straight-but-chew-the-scenery-at-the-same-time thing beautifully, which can’t be said for Estevez and Russo. There’s little to no chemistry between the two, which makes their potentially thrilling, 16-year overdue catch-up a little flat. To be fair, the tragedy of their extended separation isn’t helped by the bit just as Furlong ‘dies’ when the camera rapidly zooms into Julie’s face – it’s hilarious. I think even Warners/Morgan Creek realised it was funny as early as 1993, because Brad Pitt’s waster character in True Romance is watching that exact same moment on the telly.
But never mind that.
Let’s talk about Mick Jagger.
Now I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan. I love their sixties stuff, I love their seventies stuff and I even like some of their eighties stuff. And I love Mick Jagger. What a frontman. I mean, there’s precious few like him. Yet there’s always been something kind of hilarious about him too. It’s that preening, camp, lip-smacking sense of mischief, right there even from the start. Like David Bowie, Nicolas Roeg found something intrinsically cinematic about him and both of them enjoyed their best big-screen performances under his wing. However, unlike Bowie, Jagger didn’t really have much of a film career afterwards. I’m not saying Bowie was a screen legend, but he also had The Hunger, Labyrinth and The Prestige among others under his belt, whereas Jagger had few other roles of note. There was Ned Kelly, and then there was Freejack.
I love Jagger in this film – he can’t really act but he does his individual thing and he does it very entertainingly. As I’ve already mentioned, his very first line is a classic of camp delivery, but pretty much everything he says here has this kind of delightful amusement to it. How the hell do nothing lines like ‘power it up’ and ‘he’s good’, both uttered by him in the opening race sequence, end up being so gigglesome? It’s all in the execution. His best extended sequence outside of the Faberge bit is the chase scene involving the ugliest and reddest tank in history. Furlong has escaped in a car/champagne crate and Vacendak and crew are in hot pursuit. Using some kind of bluetooth connection to tap into Furlong’s car, he starts pestering his quarry throughout the car chase, and even though Furlong tries to hang up on him (leading Vacendak to hilariously exclaim ‘Oh no! I hate the dark!’) he just won’t go away. He laughs like a madman, delivers lines like ‘you can’t get rid of me that easily!’ ‘I want him without a scccraaatch!’ and ‘the brake pedal’s the one on the right’ and of course ‘DON’T DO IT!!!!’ with the kind of relish someone who actually gets paid a lot of money to say this stuff does.
So what about the book that Freejack was based on? I wasn’t expecting Robert Sheckley’s 1958 Immortality, Inc. to be so entertaining, but it really is a proper tear-through ride of a novel that is crammed with ideas and twists. Okay, the female characters get short shrift, but for the most part it’s great. To be honest, to adapt it faithfully might have made for a pretty crammed feature-length film, but compromises could nevertheless have been made and we could have got a striking, spectacular SF experience.
When you come down to it, Freejack is mostly a lot of chases, fights and shoot outs, only really going into overdrive (some would say for the worse) for its finale. Immortality, Inc. has a lot more fun delving into the future world that Thomas Blaine (not Alex Furlong) has found himself in. At first his arrival into the future is exploited as a publicity gimmick for the Rex Corporation (there’s no McCandless here) who want to show him off as the world’s first person to be snatched from the past and put in a new body, but is soon forgotten by the media and even his own captors once the novelty’s worn off. Instead of being a target for capture, Blaine is more or less stranded in the future in a new body and with no way to make a living… I don’t want to spoil the rest of the novel as it’s a revelation for those only aware of Freejack, but if you do get round to reading it you’ll be dazzled by how much stuff there is here. Then you think about all that could have been accomplished in adapting this novel and you see what was actually made and released in 1992 and it beggars belief. Freejack essentially adapts a tiny portion of the story – the concept of an old mind occupying a younger body and the presence of the Spiritual Switchboard – and scraps the rest. I mean, there were suicide booths in the novel! Why would you not put something like that in the film? There’s merely a small electronic billboard for ‘suicide assistance’ that you can just about make out in a couple of shots. At least Futurama recognised a great (if fucked-up) SF idea when it saw one. It’s frankly insulting to see what they’ve done to the novel. If there are better examples of just how dumb the worst of Hollywood can be in adapting other mediums, then please let me know.
Of course, there was nothing in Immortality, Inc. that was as funny as the shot below, so both have their own individual merits, I suppose.
PS: Amazingly, one of the co-writers is Dan Gilroy, who would end up directing the terrific Nightcrawler!
PSS: Some of the main characters have alliterative names, like Victor Vacendak and Mark Michelette. Those that don’t are nonetheless played by actors with alliterative names, like Emilio Estevez and Rene Russo. The only exception is Anthony Hopkins as Ian McCandless, but given he had just won an Oscar, I suppose he could get away with it.
PSSS: two non-Jagger highlights from the tank chase scene to mention – the music by Trevor Jones here is really enjoyable, great chase music. And secondly, yes that is a sample of James Brown screaming as a pedestrian jumps out of the way. There’s a few of these in this film, but it wasn’t the first action romp to feature a Brown sample. Raw Deal did it too, spectacularly. Hit me!
PSSSS: Here’s a shot of David Johansen, simply because there hasn’t been one yet in this review.
The wild and weird output of the landmark Italian horror/thriller director Dario Argento can neatly be split up into three chapters.
The middle and most famous chapter, from 1975’s Deep Red to 1987’s Opera, is heralded by those who love him as one of the all-time great runs of genre cinema, films of such verve, idiosyncratic extremes and horrific beauty that it’s no wonder they’ve inspired the kind of intense devotion that true cults are made of.
The third chapter, which covers everything from 1989’s Romero team-up Two Evil Eyes right up until now, is where Argento’s mojo starts to slip away and we get a much spottier output, some of it good, some of it bad.
Then there was the first chapter, when Argento was just starting out. In this period he delivered three fine thrillers that you could (and I try not to, but I ultimately do) regard as mere build-ups for what was to come, but they also mostly work very well as films in their own right. They’re often referred to as ‘The Animal Trilogy’ for no other reason than their titles. Those titles by the way are just so much fancy window-dressing – they sound cool, mysterious and unique, but they barely relate to the actual bloody films, bar a shoe-horned reference here and there. Compared to Argento’s golden period, these films are far more modest in their ambitions and impact, but something like 1969’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is actually a pretty neat entry-point for those who aren’t at all sure about how to approach this most extreme of filmmakers. What’s interesting about Bird is not only how relatively normal it is for an Argento film but also how many of his motifs and themes were right there from the start. Scary paintings, unreliable memories, helpless murder witnesses, obsessed protagonists, unique cinematic tricks, cats – it’s all here. The seeds were being sown.
The plot involves blocked writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnessing the stabbing of a woman in a museum by a mysterious black-clad assailant. He’s unable to help because he’s trapped in-between two sets of glass doors (Argento would take this motif of helpless watching to one hell of an extreme in 1987’s Opera), but nevertheless develops his own obsession with the mystery as the film proceeds, becoming amateur detective (another Argento regularity) and dancing perilously close to death as a result. Argento’s been criticised for his unbelievable characters, and some might balk at the scene when Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are in bed going over the clues (and various grisly crime scene photos) with an enthusiastic glee that surely no sane person would adopt if any of this were real. But if you consider that Argento could be letting his characters approach the case in the same way a viewer would approach a mystery film, then it almost makes some kind of perverse sense. Sam and his girlfriend’s reactions are almost like if you and I were going over the plot of say, a TV crime series the day after it had been screened. This might put some viewers off though for being too remote, and not how people in real life would react, but Argento and ‘real life’ have always been a tricky combination. There’s also a bit earlier Sam is walking home (down a beautifully eerie, foggy street) and is almost hacked by the killer – he pretty much shrugs it off and later relays the previous night and day’s events with a wry dismissal. Blimey. With stuff like that, you’re either happy to go along for the ride or you aren’t. Besides, this is nothing compared to the infamously odd scene in Opera where the heroine, having just been forced to watch her boyfriend get a knife up through his jaw, behaves if she’s only mildly inconvenienced. That really did annoy me.
The violent extremes that Argento would become famous haven’t been reached yet – the first murder takes place entirely off-screen (!!!!), but there are still some unsettlingly nasty moments here – I imagine they were pretty damned strong for 1969, and to think that this director would only get more and more cruel, elaborate and gory from here on in! Also, one thing that differentiates this from Argento’s other gialli is that this has a reasonably happy ending – think of all the others from 1970’s Cat O’ Nine Tails onwards, they have a sting in the tail, are uncertain or are pretty damned bleak.
Speaking of Cat, this is an Argento film that has always been relatively easy to find in the UK – on video it was distributed by Warner Bros. It got a rental release in 1987 to presumably cash in on Argento’s cult popularity (the cover refers to Suspiria and more recent films like Creepers – aka Phenomena – and the Argento-produced Demons) and was also re-released as part of Warners’ very cool Terror Vision collection of horror movies. However, while Bird was a hit in the US, Cat was not. Oddly enough, for a director who has featured kitties in many of his films, Cat O’ Nine Tails doesn’t star any felines at all. This is very disappointing. The plot is a twisty-turny tale of murder, theft, kind-of incest, genetics etc. and while it is no Argento classic, I love it for its tension between giallo grotesquerie and Stateside potboiler. Even though it’s not set in the US, it nevertheless feels like an episode of a crime series like Columbo and The Streets of San Franscisco at times, understandable given that the latter’s star Karl Malden is one of the two leads here.
The plot – something about the criminality of the XXY chromosome and the killer’s desperate attempt to cover up that they have it – is even more convoluted and silly than the one for Bird, and hinges on implausibilities: the one that’s currently bothering me is the second murder: why would the killer bump off the photographer to conceal the fact that a murder took place originally? All you could see in the original photo was a hand! Talk about compounding the situation! To be honest, I’ve watched Cat three times now and the last two times I had forgotten who the murderer was, so this isn’t really a film that revolves around a particularly important revelation. Maitland McDonagh, author of the brilliant Argento book Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds, suggests that the film is a lot more fun if you already know who the killer is. I kind of agree with that – as a whodunnit, Cat is hardly a classic, but as an exercise in style and flair, it’s very enjoyable indeed. One thing that Argento has already upped his game with substantially is his handling of murder scenes. The first, a gruesome killing at a train station, is spectacularly nasty. We also get some pretty vicious first-person kills that are protracted, garish and pretty damned ugly. It’s also a cynical movie – note the way the photographers are distracted from the murder of Calabresi (the first victim) with the arrival of the celebrity arriving on the train for whom they were originally there for, and ‘Smile bitch, your train just killed a guy’ is one of the cruellest asides in any Argento film. In addition, it’s the little extra sadistic touches that stand out – after strangling the photographer, the killer slashes each of his cheeks. The vomit in Bianca’s mouth as she’s getting garotted. When the killer falls down the lift shaft, he/she attempt to hold onto the lift cables but that ends up causing so much friction that their hands begin to smoke – ouch!
And of course, this shot.
Argento, more than in Bird, is clearly interested in set-pieces and individual stand-out moments. Aside from the murders, we also get a car chase, an excursion to a cemetery, a suspense-scene involving poisoned milk and a funny scene at the barber’s that’s half amusing, half squirm-inducing. These are the stand out moments, but Argento joins the dots nicely thanks to charismatic performances from James Franciscus (soon to venture Beneath the Planet of the Apes) and Karl Malden, whose character in turn has a cute double-act with his niece. Catherine Spaak represents that rare thing in an Argento film – a love interest – and even though the dynamic between her and Franciscus isn’t as sharp or fascinating as the one between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, it’ll do well enough, despite a love scene that’s so drained of heat it’s almost alien. Some neat uses of editing (like jumping back and forth in-between scenes as an arresting form of transition, the cutaways that suggest that Malden’s blind character has some kind of second sight), the memorably nasty (and oblique, if you go along with McDonagh’s theory that the killer wasn’t lying about his final victim) ending and great shot composition makes this is a relatively modest but still above-average slice of genre fare.
Accidental murder, phoney murder and out-and-out intentional murder, as well as self-loathing gender identity, filial hatred, infidelity and yes, feline abuse form the bulk of 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet, which is the darkest and weirdest of the Animal Trilogy. It was given some kind of Holy Grail status over the decades due to how rare it was to track down but don’t get excited, this flawed film is most definitely not a ‘lost masterpiece’ as the cover of the eventual Blu-Ray excitedly release claimed it to be. Still, I like it for the most part – it sees Argento venture even further out there in regards to technique and idiosyncrasy. There are some tremendous moments to savour. The opening sequence blends music and visuals brilliantly as we get a prog-rock band in rehearsal whilst the camera explores a guitar by perching on the top of its neck or even occupying a space INSIDE it – we see the hand strumming the strings! There’s a great protracted suspense scene as a doomed maid finds the zoo she’s in becomes deserted and, as she’s pursued by the killer, seems to turn into some kind of cobwebbed catacomb! The final scene proves you can make anything beautiful as long as you add slow-motion and Morricone. Fans of Argento’s later work will notice little touches here and there that he’s repeated later on. Puppets, slow-motion bullets, that sort of thing. As for the absolutely insane method of detection that involves taking the last image seen by the victim before they died? Well, it comes out of nowhere so late in the narrative and is frankly complete twaddle, but it’s so mad that I can’t help but admire its nerve.
However, any resemblance to conventional thriller fare that his first two films might have had are slipping away, and to be honest, we’re occasionally in an awkward middleground between the immediately satisfying if relatively unambitious likes of Bird and Cat and the more successful craziness of Deep Red. Sometimes the film feels flat, and this isn’t helped by Michael Brandon in the lead character of Roberto, a drummer who thinks he’s killed someone (in a spectacularly abandoned concert hall) but hasn’t, yet is still guilty of being a dickhead. He certainly looks the part (and his resemblance to Argento himself has been noted) but he’s one of the director’s more charmless leads. His performance is most odd – at times he seems to be barely reacting to anything. His scenes with girlfriend Mimsy Farmer as she’s practically breaking down in front of him are some of the coldest you’ll ever see. Is it because Roberto is so remote he’s barely there, or is the actor not really trying? Incidentally, Brandon was some way down the list of preferred actors for the role – if you can believe it, the likes of James Taylor (yes, that one) and Tom Courtenay (yes, that one) were considered!
There’s also a would-be humorous element that doesn’t quite work – the bit when Roberto first encounters ‘God’ and this out-of-the-blue musical snippet of ‘Hallelujah’ appears out of nowhere is really bloody weird. Other broadly jokey bits, including a put-upon postman, don’t really work, though the digs at hipster arty-banter are quite amusing – I wish more of these prats had been killed off to be honest. The only light element that truly succeeds is the character of the gay private detective who is hedging his bets on a successful result after eighty-plus unsuccessful cases. It’s an affectionate performance and too sweet to be offensive or patronising, though some viewers might object to it. Nevertheless, he’s the most engaging character in the film. Incidentally, the fact that one of the reasons that a character in Cat O Nine Tails is suspicious because he’s he’s gay is the kind of dated stuff you have to take as a given in a film that’s almost fifty years old, I suppose.
In regards to subtext and themes, Four Flies is definitely the most complex of Argento’s first three films – the killer’s motivations are fascinating for example – but it’s difficult to get swept up in the whole affair mainly because the director has not found the confidence to go full-pelt with his vision. It’s simply not Argento enough. After an anomolous diversion into comedy for his fourth film (The Five Days of Milan), Argento would truly find his thriller-horror mojo from 1975 onwards.
One point of interest regarding these three films is the hiring of Ennio Morricone as composer – Argento’s collaborations with Goblin and its various members are his most celebrated, but the Morricone stuff has a magical appeal all of its own. Sometimes it’s generic, but othertimes it’s very nicely complementary, memorable and effective. Compared to the Goblin and Emerson stuff though, it’s just too damned normal!
It’s been a while. but Mark and I have returned to the audio commentary game with our track for 1989’s Lethal Weapon 2! Listen for free or download as an mp3 via the ‘commentaries’ link to the right!