Color, 1971, 103m.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Francine Racette
Koch (Blu-Ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Shameless (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Mya (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Another World (Scandinavia R2 PAL), Retrofilm (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

After leaving his studio one evening, rock drummer Tobias (Brandon) confronts and accidentally stabs a mysterious stalker in sunglasses in an abandoned opera house. The slaying is captured on camera by another observer wearing a creepy doll mask and tuxedo, and over the next few days Tobias is tormented by sinister notes and photos which he keeps secret from his wife (Farmer). However, the blackmail soon turns to murder as his extortionist maid winds up murdered in a park, and with the aid of a gay, incompetent private eye (Marielle), Tobias tries to unFour Flies on Grey Velvetcover the murderer before he winds up next on the list of dead bodies.

This third and least-seen installment in Dario Argento’s initial “Animal Trilogy” of Italian thrillers (along with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’ Nine Tails) is easily the most stylistically extreme and eccentric of the trio. Once again the plot relies on outlandish gimmicks (in this case, a device capable of capturing the last image on a dead person’s retina) and uses detective literature and film noir for frequent inspiration, in this case with a notable debt to Cornell Woolrich’s Black Alibi. The real fun here lies in the delirious visual details: a whiplash series of pans and cuts following a phone call across town from a blackmailer to a murderer; a potential victim stalked through a nocturnal graveyard surrounded by forbidding stone walls; the opening credits intercutting a pounding human heart with Brandon attempting to kill a mosquito during a recording session; and the justly celebrated finale, a slow-motion waterfall of shattering glass perfectly timed to Ennio Morricone’s sublime score. The script by Argento and Luigi Cozzi seems to go out of its way to make the most passive hero possible out of Brandon’s androgynous, victimized character, leaving Farmer wide and clear to steal the film in the third act.  The mystery itself should be obvious to most viewers since there’s really only one viable suspect, but Argento’s masterful hand with individual suspense sequences easily carries the film over any speed bumps and really pays off in the stalking sequence involving Francine Racette, one of the most terrifying highlights in the director’s repertoire.

Distributed by Paramount in most English-speaking areas, Four Flies received a substantial theatrical release but promptly disappeared from circulation, only earning a legitimate VHS release in France. As Argento’s star rose over the next few decades, fan demand lifted this film to holy grail status among Italian horror buffs who longed to see a watchable release better than the miserable bootlegs floating around. A scratchy but watchable transfer of a 35mm film print interspersed with a handful of VHS inserts eventually appeared in Germany, but it was quickly made obsolete by a subsequent US release from the enigmatic Mya Communications. This 2009 DVD was transferred from the original Italian Four Flies on Grey Velvetnegative (thus the Italian opening credits) and the visual quality is clearly superior what came before, though the means used to release the film remain mired in controversy. Unfortunately the disc drops the ball in other key areas which could have easily been avoided; most egregious is the English audio track, which sounds draggy and is pitched much lower than it should be with Brandon and Farmer’s voices in particular sounding as if they’re suffering from a bad head cold. The Italian audio track is also included, but in a cheapskate move, no English subtitle option is available which renders it a frustrating bonus at best. Strangest of all, in a move reminiscent of the controversy over Tenebrae, some brief slivers of footage are inexplicably missing which drop a few quick lines of dialogue, though some additional (if entirely superfluous) Italian-only dialogue has been restored to the killer’s final monologue. Extras on the Mya disc incluFour Flies on Grey Velvetde the alternate US opening credits (from one of the terrible aforementioned bootleg VHS copies), the spectacular and striking Italian theatrical trailer, a great US TV spot based on the same trailer, and the original, very different US theatrical trailer sourced from an old Sinister Cinema VHS trailer compilation.

Almost three years later in early 2012, Shameless in the UK managed to correct several of these issues with their Blu-Ray release (and accompanying DVD); the audio was corrected thanks to access to the original mag tracks in the Paramount vaults, the missing footage was reinstated via a soft-looking VHS source (albeit with different framing presumably matting off the top a bit to remove some film damage), and the quality's a bit of a step up in HD without any overzealous digital fudging of the picture. It's a bit on the pale side with weak black levels and chalky-looking flesh tones, but the increase in detail is indisputable. Unfortunately the English track is compromised by some audio dropouts and distortion, including a now-infamous blast of blown-out noise during the actual crash shot at the end that could do some serious damage to your sound system. (This applies to both the mono and two-channel stereo mixes of the English version, which sound pretty close in quality.) On the other hand the one ace this release still holds is the Italian audio track with optional English subtitles, which can be found nowhere else. While most of the film was obviously shot in English with Brandon and Farmer's original voices, the Italian track is in many respects a more artistic and powerful representation of the film as it adds some emotion to many of the performances. On the extras side you get the Italian trailer, a rejiggered English trailer for this release, some bonus Shameless previews for titles like Dellamorte Dellamore, and a video intro and a 40-minute interview with Cozzi (and a quick arbitrary appearance by Sergio Martino) about the genesis of the film, its literary references, and the original plans to cast Michael York and have a score by the rock group Deep Purple.

Four Flies on Grey VelvetAmazingly for such a "lost" film, another Blu-Ray appeared a few months later in Germany from Koch; as with their lavish presentation of Argento's Inferno, it features beautiful packaging (with a description on the back calling this "ein Pop Art-Shocker") including a thick booklet illustrated with lobby cards, liner notes (in German), and some hilarious American promotional campaigns suggested in the original press kit. How's the video quality? Absolutely stellar, and it blows away all of its predecessors including the UK Blu-Ray. Colors are significantly stronger, black levels are deeper, detail is tighter, and overall it's such a rich and, well, velvety presentation it's hard to believe given the film's history. The inserted footage this time is taken mostly from a 35mm print, which means those elusive seconds are now better quality and the same aspect ratio. The one exception is a very quick snippet at the beginning of Brandon's first meeting with Bud Spencer, which is still VHS-sourced. While the Shameless release blew up some problematic shots from the climax featuring a black horizontal line across the frame (a side effect of the camera used to capture such extreme slow motion in close up), the Koch release leaves the entire image intact. It's also worth noting that all current transfers feature the same color timing during the cemetery stalking sequence, which abruptly shifts from day to night; given the odd jump cuts and other disorienting effects used in the same scene, there's still an ongoing debate about how this scene should correctly play out (i.e., with a more gradual fade to darkness). For a quick comparison, look at this screen grab from the Shameless release and this same shot from the Koch one.

The English audio is still corrected this time and comparable to the Shameless one, while Italian and German audio are also included with optional German subtitles. The one hiccup here is those bits of extra Italian dialogue restored to the killer's monologue at the end, which now play out without English sub options; it'll definitely confuse any first-time viewers, but anyone who's seen the film before shouldn't find it a deal breaker. The Blu-Ray also contains the German and Italian trailers (both essentially identical apart from the language of the text cards), the American teaser, and the same VHS-sourced American trailer. (Incidentally, a gorgeous fresh transfer of the full Paramount trailer can be found in the Argento trailer compilation included in the UK Arrow release of Inferno.) The second disc is a DVD containing the same material in SD, while the third disc is a DVD of extras. There's only two, but you'll get a hefty amount of content! Running 92 minutes, "Der Fall der Vier Fliegen" features interviews with Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi, and Bud Spencer (in Italian with optional English and German subtitles); the opening segment is basically a lengthy explanation by Cozzi about the film's bizarre distribution history and the reasons for its lengthy plunge into oblivion, while the rest expands on the same ground from the Shameless interview complete with talks about working with the actors, the influences on the script and ideas for the murder sequences, and the technical challenges of bringing the finale to life as it was originally scripted. The 28-minute "Autopsie Einer Fliege" with film critic Antonio Tentori covers the film's place within the Animal Trilogy and its significance and themes within the Argento canon along with his own thoughts on the psychological impact of the director's visual choices. A truly impressive package all around, though it's also the most expensive one by far. Check your wallet and judge accordingly, but at least one Blu-Ray version should absolutely be in every Italian horror fan's library.

Reviewed on July 14, 2012.