Color, 1971, 103 mins. 23 secs. / 101 mins. 22 secs.
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Francine Racette
Severin Films (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), Koch (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Surf (Blu-ray & DVD) (Italy RB/R2 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)
After leaving his studio one evening, rock drummer Roberto 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 Roberto 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), he tries to uncover 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 U.S. release from the enigmatic Mya Communications. This 2009 DVD was transferred from the original Italian negative (thus the Italian opening credits) and the visual quality is clearly superior what came before, though the legally suspect 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 early DVDs of Tenebrae, some brief slivers of footage are inexplicably missing which drop a few quick lines of dialogue, though some additional Italian-only material has been restored to the killer’s final monologue. Extras on the Mya disc include the alternate American opening credits (from one of the terrible aforementioned bootleg VHS copies), the spectacular and striking Italian theatrical trailer, a great U.S. TV spot based on the same trailer, and the original, very different U.S. theatrical trailer sourced from an old Sinister Cinema VHS trailer compilation.
Almost three years later in early 2012, Shameless in the U.K. managed to correct some of these issues with their Blu-ray release (and accompanying DVD); the audio was corrected thanks to access to the original magnetic audio 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. Unfortunately it's also hobbled by very weak black levels and chalky-looking flesh tones; even worse, 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 this was the firs time we got the Italian audio track with optional English subtitles. While most of the film was obviously shot in English with Brandon and Farmer's original voices, the Italian track is in some respects a more artistic and powerful representation of the film as it adds some emotion to a couple 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.
Amazingly 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? Mostly stellar; 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 but still hampered by significant damage. 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 transfers to this point featured the same color timing during the cemetery stalking sequence, which abruptly shifts from day to night versus the more gradual fade to darkness seen in theatrical prints (and which Argento later called out specifically in his autobiography, Fear). The English audio is unfortunately the distorted one found on the Mya DVD, 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.
The German 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. 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. An Italian Blu-ray followed in 2016 (with a separate DVD release) from Surf, which is visually comparable to the German one but still has the distorted English track and, for some reason, plays at PAL 25fps speed which monkeys with the running time. Skip it.
Miracle of miracles, Argento's film did eventually earn a bona fide, legit U.S. release from Severin Films that proves to be a godsend across the board. Containing a 4K UHD, two Blu-rays, and a soundtrack CD, it features a 4K restoration from the negative (the 100% complete version, finally, with no nasty inserts) of both the full-length European version as well as the trimmed U.S. version for comparison if you don't want any Italian bits at the end. Both cuts are on the UHD and the Blu-ray with English and Italian DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono options with English SDH or English translated subtitles; of course, in its complete version the English track still reverts to subtitled Italian for the extra footage in the climax. The English track finally sounds excellent all the way through with no distortion issues. It's also worth noting that the opening and closing titles (plus the killer's notes) are taken from the negative material for the English-language version, so at long last you can see "You have been watching Four Flies on Grey Velvet" in pristine quality. The transfer itself looks staggering, with the UHD in particular glowing with the HDR bringing out some gorgeous colors like the deep blues of Brandon's shirts to the many gradations of darkness in the central house. Also the color timing has been corrected for the cemetery sequence, which now gradually goes from late afternoon to nightfall as intended. (See the third frame grab comparison below.) The UHD and first Blu-ray feature an audio commentary by Troy Howarth and yours truly on the director's cut (so no evaluation of that here) along with the Italian and U.S. theatrical trailers. The first Blu-ray also contains two featurettes: "Lord of the Flies" (28m12s), with Argento recalling the autobiographical elements of the project, its effect on his marriage at the time, his good rapport with Brandon, and his approach to the giallo at the time that he would briefly try to veer away from after this. In "The Day of the Flies" (75m22s), Cozzi delivers a very in-depth and epic dissection of the film (essentially a video companion to his excellent Four Flies book) about the integration of sci-fi elements with the eyeball angle, the pulp mystery nods in the story (like The Screaming Mimi), the overall writing process, the desire to get Deep Purple for the soundtrack, and some ideas jettisoned along the way that ended up in other projects.
The second Blu-ray of the Severin releases features six substantive featurettes starting with "Have a Talk with God" (10m2s) with the mighty Bud Spencer (R.I.P.) chatting about his love for Argento, the nature of his "God" character, his views on acting, his general aversion to doing thrillers, and the past brushes he had with Argento on other movies that led to this one. In "Please Mr. Postman" (15m55s), actor Gildo Di Marco (who already had a scene-stealing role in Plumage) explains how he got into acting (via a Bud Spencer and Terence Hill film, appropriately enough), his first casting meeting with Argento, his three roles for the director, and the circumstances with his agent behind his sudden lack of jobs. In "Death in Slo-Mo" (7m23s), assistant cameraman Roberto Forges Davanzati focuses entirely on the arduous technical challenges involved in pulling off that impressive final sequence, which won't be described any further here for spoiler reasons. In "Time Flies" (14m1s), production manager Angelo Iacono recalls coming onto this film right after Cat, working in that otherworldly Tunisian location for Brandon's dream sequences, and the eight subsequent features he and Argento would do together. In "Dissecting Flies" (29m40s), film historian Antonio Tentori analyzes this as the most modern of the animal trilogy with a use of flashbacks, nightmares, and various cinematic tools to craft a densely layered work deeper than your average thriller as well as a portent on things to come from the director. Finally "Flies on the Wall" (15m31s) features the prolific Alan Jones sharing memories of his own chats with Argento about the film (which the filmmaker thought could be his last at the time), the real-life marital situation unfolding at the time, and how the film played a pivotal role in deciding where to go next with a number of unrealized ideas scattered along the path. Also included is a 10-track soundtrack CD representing Cinevox's expanded edition of Morricone's score.
Severin Blu-ray (US)
Koch Blu-ray (Germany)
Shameless Blu-ray (UK)
Updated review on November 24, 2022.