(Dario Argento, 1970)
Dario made his debut with this stunning little psycho-thriller, and in doing so popularizd a genre introduced to theatre patrons by Mario Bava only seven years prior. Although the "giallo boom" only lasted until the mid-70's, it's influence on modern cinema lingers to this day. Loaded with amazing cinematic style, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage laid the foundation for any future thriller with its trademark use of black leather gloves and straight razors, as well as fetishism of death and voyeurism.
The story unfolds at a brisk pace as writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is witness to an attempted murder in an art gallery one night. The event haunts him, as he feels as though he saw something that was out of place at the time, though no attempt to remember just what bears fruit. After learning of a string of recent, similar murders, he and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) are drawn into the mystery and begin their own amateur investigation. This proves to be hazardous for them both as the killer is quite aware of their intrusion.
Bar the usual subpar dub job, the acting herein is uniformly solid. Despite the subject matter, violence, and then-unheard of gore, the story is sprinkled liberally with humor, however dark it may be. Argento got the balance between suspense, fright, and comedy just right, and the story never drags as it does in much of his later films.
On the technical side, which is where Dario has always excelled, TBWTCP was groundbreaking. The extreme close-ups of the killer's eye, the POV murder shots, and Argento's inventive lighting, paired with the chillingly minimal Ennio Morricone soundtrack, made this a brand new experience for theatre goers of the time, and the film has lost little of its potency 41 years since. Highly recommended, and a great introduction to the world of Italian horror and thriller cinema. Buy it here.
(Dario Argento, 1971)
After the success of his 1970 debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento had a lot to live up to with his second feature. Though no BWTCP, The Cat 'O Nine Tails does offer a heaping helping of style, a little violence, and some good ol' 70's camp.
While passing a parked car one night, a blind puzzle-maker, Franco Arno (Karl Malden), and his niece overhear a conversation regarding someone's blackmail. That same night, at the nearby Terzi Institute, a guard is murdered and the institute robbed.
The following morning, Arno runs into journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) outside of the institute. When Giordani tells him of the previous night's murder, Arno puts two and two together. Thus begins a round of amateur sleuthing which brings them to the Terzi Institute, where we are introduced to some decidedly seedy and decadent scientists, as well as Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak), daughter of the director.
Soon after, another scientist from the institute is pushed to his death under a speeding train, and the incident is captured by a photographer there to greet an arriving starlet. Again Arno and Giordani make the connection and dive into the investigation, despite attempts on their own lives and the subsequent murders of the remaining faculty.
It seems that Argento made TCONT more to complement TBWTCP than to repeat or replace it. Most of the victims here are male, and most are strangled as opposed to stabbed and slashed. One may get the impression that Argento was playing it quite safe with TCONT, as there is little blood or nudity. Indeed, Argento was catering more to American audiences than European, and it's little wonder why TCONT is one of his least favorite films. In all, it's not bad, though it little resembles the maestro's more popular work. Buy it here.
(Dario Argento, 1971)
For some time, rock drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) has been followed by a moustached man in sunglasses. One night he confronts the man after following him into a deserted theatre. In the ensuing scuffle, Roberto accidentally stabs the fellow. To make matters worse, the event is photographed from the balcony by someone in a creepy dummy mask.
This is only the beginning of Roberto's nightmare, as the deranged witness to the murder begins breaking into the flat Roberto shares with his wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer), and leaving incriminating photos about the place in addition to choking Roberto and killing their cat. It's not long before the viewer is privy to the fact that the mysterious man killed by Roberto is actually alive, and that someone wants to drive the drummer mad. With the help of a gay private investigator and a couple misfit friends, Roberto attempts to unmask the killer before he himself is done in.
The third and final title in Argento's so-called Animal Trilogy, Four Flies was once one of rarest and most sought-after gialli ever as it was never released anywhere after its theatrical run. Prior to its official DVD release, home viewers could only see it in dark, murky, bootleg form, which proved frusrating to most as almost all of the best scenes in the film occurr in nearly complete darkness.
Story-wise, Four Flies is among the weakest of Argento's gialli, as it's not terribly difficult to point out the killer within the first twenty minutes. The murderer's motive is a little wonky, but makes sense thanks to the Italian language-only explanation that was cut from previous releases. There are also too many misplaced comedy scenes considering that there's not a lot of bloodshed and the violent bits are few and far-between.
Being of early-Argento origin, Four Flies does feature some nifty experimental camerawork, compositions, and lighting. The performances by Brandon and Farmer are a litle flat, though this does somewhat highlight the awkwardness of their relationship. There are a couple of stand-out murder scenes, most notably a wire hanger garrotting, and the killer's decapitation by windshield at the end. Finally, I might mention that Four Flies was scored by the great Ennio Morricone, and his upbeat funk-rock sound adds much-needed excitement to the proceedings. Recommended, though one may prefer to see the superior The Bird with the Crystal Plumage beforehand. Available here.
I feel I have to somehow justify the hours, nay, years I've spent watching some of the best, worst, and most unique horror and thriller movies ever made. I hope casual browsers might just catch on, and that experienced Italian horror fans might come across new and unheard-of titles to track down. If nothing else, please enjoy the pretty (and occasionally frightening) pictures.