Horror Bites - Weekend with Argento


Dario Argento's first three Giallo movies may lack the signature music from Goblin and Claudio Simonetti and they rarely include the crazy visual flourishes he would become known for with Deep Red and Suspiria. But they sit firmly within the world of murder mysteries as solid examples of the Italian crime genre. There are no ventures into the supernatural, and no examples of extra sensory perception. The eye popping colour schemes are missing too which is kind of a shame. However there are still glimpses of a style developing, and there are imaginative moments to be found sprinkled all over the place. Things never quite come into their own but it's still worth considering each on their own merits, so let's take a look.

A series given this nickname purely because of the titles rather than any kind of actual connection, calling this a trilogy may be stretching truth a little. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has a lot of the typical elements with a foreign visitor to Italy becoming entangled in a twisting plot involving a killer with black gloves. Following several deaths an American tourist witnesses the killer getting away after a failed murder attempt at an art installation. This major gallery set piece is very striking, with stark white walls and jagged sculptures. Trapped inside two glass doors our hero has no option but to watch it all unfold. It's a memorable piece of staging, and of course this attempt to help damns him completely and puts him both under police suspicion and into the sights of the murderer.

Beyond all the suspense things fair less well, and like the other films I'll be looking at here there's a lot of weird attempts at comedy. This is particularly true during an interview with a stuttering convict who gives offers some clues in the case. But there are other genuinely engrossing moments, particularly a chase sequence involving an assassin wearing a yellow sports jacket. The dark streets of Turin are dark and atmospheric, if a little drab and grey looking. In terms of the overall mood Ennio Morricone does a reasonable job with the music, but the score is forgettable on the whole. There are no crazy electronic tunes to be found here, it sticks to the traditional thriller format.

If only the romantic interest in this story wasn't so utterly useless, flailing about on the floor when threatened by a break-in at her apartment instead of actually... doing something? Anything would be nice, it's kind of frustrating to say the least. Beyond the characters the overall mystery plot is very by the numbers with police procedural scenes taking up considerable chunks of the running time. They even include that old cliché of finding one tiny clue hidden in the background noise of a telephone recording. Only after all their attempts to trace the call have failed of course. It's a fair effort and has enough thrill power to keep things interesting, but overall it lacks any real personality. However it has to be said that it's still the most consistent of these three features.

The Cat O'Nine Tails is the one with the most nonsensical title. There is indeed a bird with a Crystal Plumage and there are actually Four Flies involved in the third entry here. But all that we get in this story is a band of amateur sleuths deciding they have nine leads to help solve the case. Randomly one of them says the name of this maritime instrument to sum up the situation, and that's the whole thing. I guess it's kind of poetic, or at least it wants to be. But it's got nothing to do with the actual story which is mystery involving a genetics laboratory.

After some strange business involving a break in at the lab all of the staff are under suspicion, and it's down to a blind man and his little niece to crack the case. Really that's the whole plot. Well alright I'm being a little sarcastic here, and they do in fact enlist a reporter along the way. Check it out, there's the lead from Valley of Gwangi! It's an odd bunch of heroes, but I suppose it's different at least. Once the journalist enters the story it does allow for the best moment with a tense sequence in a photography dark room. There's also a good shock scene at a train station, and there's a great climax involving a rooftop and an elevator shaft. 

Again the typical crime plot elements are frequently utilised, particularly the whole process of elimination as each trail leads to a dead end and all the red herrings are discovered. The motivation of the killer here isn't based on psychiatry again at least, but the reasons feel pretty flat when the big reveal comes around. The information offered up to this point doesn't really seem serious enough that deadly measures would have to be taken. The mixture of violence and humour continues and the visual flourishes during some of the deaths hint at imaginative ideas being given more attention, even if the style never becomes part of the whole. There are a few edge of your seat moments, but overall it's pretty unexceptional.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet continues the trend of bizarre comic relief characters, this time with a hapless postal worker taking abuse on his rounds, and a riverside outcast called 'God' being caught up in the mystery. There's even a really strange moment in which our protagonists meet up in an art gallery which is being used to showcase designer coffins. Perhaps this is saying something about the genre, or about death itself. But the whole scene is played for laughs with the caskets set out like a cars at a design expo. Again the overall tone is kind of uneven.

Interestingly Argento keeps the silliness to a minimum during scenes that involve a private detective. While his portrayal is certainly in the realm of standard cinema flamboyance the inclusion of a gay hero is an interesting choice. He's drawn as a sympathetic figure and it seems to be poking fun at conservative views of the time. Unfortunately the main protagonist is pretty bland, and despite being some kind of rock band front man he comes off as incredibly dull. He's seriously lacking charisma, although it doesn't stop everyone in the story wanting to get into his pants.

This time around there's a murderer with a creepy mask. It doesn't get used nearly enough but the kills are all very sinister. But this has the weakest twist ending of the three films, with a reveal that kind of comes out of nowhere. While the rest of the movie does include flashbacks trying to hint at what is going on, they just don't link together very well. Initially it seems like there's going to be a blackmail storyline as the protagonist gets spotted in criminal circumstances, but it all gets a lot more convoluted very quickly. There's also a silly scene where they view the last moments of a dead person's life through the retina of their eyes. It seems like pop science myth even for the 1970s.

On top of this there's a weird recurring dream going on, and while it certainly lends some drama it seems to have no real use as a plot device. Maybe they were hoping the premonition element would make things seem more mysterious? In terms of visual style there's a strange sequence in which the passage of time speeds up or changes, but these other inclusions are pretty lacklustre. The only real stand out moment is the final shock scene - a very neat effects moment. It's worth seeing for the conclusion but overall it could have done with more ideas like this, a stronger plot, and more weird masks.

Ultimately these are a nice trio of early outings from an imaginative director working out the kinks. They're all worth checking out if you've only ever seen Suspiria or you're just new to the whole leather gloves and prog rock murder mystery genre of the Giallo. Bird with the Crystal Plumage in particular is a solid first entry into the realm of gruesome whodunnit stories. But in the end this is all just a warm up. After this slow start it would all come to a head in 1975 and things would get really good in Profondo Rosso...

[Overall Score 3/5]