Release Date(s)1971 (November 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Cinema International Corporation (Severin Films)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
- Overall Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: This was an extremely limited release that was only available during Severin Films’ 2022 Black Friday sale, and the only way to procure a copy now is to buy it second hand, unfortunately. If there are plans for a wide release version of some kind (which makes more sense than not), we’re not privy to such information, but we will update this space when and if one becomes available.]
Four Flies on Grey Velvet was director Dario Argento’s third film, the last of a trio of gialli featuring animals in their titles (the other two being The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’Nine Tails). He had originally intended it to be his swan song for the genre, but after the failure of his follow up historical drama The Five Days (aka Le cinque giornate), he returned to it with a vengeance with Deep Red. Even if Four Flies on Grey Velvet had actually been his final giallo, it still demonstrates just how slippery that the genre can be, especially in the hands of one of the premiere directors who had helped to popularize it. Unfortunately, thanks to legal entanglements over the rights, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has been one of the least accessible of Argento’s films. That’s a shame, because it’s an essential step in his development as a filmmaker, and proof positive that over-emphasizing the classification of any one particular film is missing the forest for the trees.
Discussions about what constitutes a giallo, and whether or not a given film “qualifies” as one, tend to quickly devolve into fruitless bouts of gatekeeping. An entire cottage industry has arisen around determining whether or not Argento’s sixth film Suspiria is or isn’t a giallo, and it’s gotten bad enough that the whole thing is becoming a joke for many fans. When arguments about genre threaten to overwhelm the films themselves, it’s time to take a step back and refocus. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the film’s the thing, not the way that it’s classified.
Argento had been playing around with gialli elements well before he made Suspiria, which is why it’s important not to overlook Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The basic contours of the story that Argento concocted along with Luigi Cozzi and Giorgio Piferi certainly falls into the classic giallo pattern: rock drummer Roberto (Michael Brandon) confronts a stalker only to accidentally kill the man, all while being surreptitiously photographed by a masked killer. Roberto attempts to cover up his crime, but the killer blackmails him with the pictures while simultaneously picking off other people in Roberto’s orbit, one by one. Roberto confesses everything to his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) but refuses to go to the police, instead hiring a private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) to help track down his blackmailer. As the circle tightens around Roberto, he ends up discovering that his tormentor has been hiding in plain sight the whole time, mask or not.
That’s unquestionably giallo material, but as always, the devil’s in the details. Four Flies on Grey Velvet has a distinctly different feel than Argento’s previous two “animal” gialli, with a different approach to framing and cutting—the music and sound effects don’t always carry over from shot to shot, giving the film a deliberately discontinuous quality. As a result, the editing doesn’t flow as smoothly as it does in other Argento films, which helps the viewer to feel Roberto’s disorientation. The story also briefly strays into science fiction territory outside the normal purview of gialli, foreshadowing the way that Argento would freely combine elements from different genres in later films like Phenomena. For Argento, the cinema has always been a canvas, and specific genre details are just different colors of paints. Yellow has always been a primary color for him, but it’s not the only one available on his palette.
Ultimately, what matters the most is that Four Flies on Grey Velvet is indisputably a Dario Argento film, exploring all of his obsessions as a human being, and displaying all of his virtuosity as a filmmaker. Bravura moments include him one-upping Hitchcock with a victim falling backwards down a staircase, using sound effects to punctuate the key difference with his version. He also experimented with high-speed photography for the finale, giving it a unique look unlike anything in his previous work. The humor in the film might not be for all tastes, and the portrayal of a couple of gay characters could charitably be described as a bit dated, but on the whole, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is memorable example of why Argento is such a legend in the field of horror.
Cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo shot Four Flies on Grey Velvet on 35 mm film in 2-perf Techniscope, using spherical lenses, and framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. This version utilizes a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, graded for High Dynamic Range in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. This is another case where there’s an argument to be made that there really isn’t 4K worth of information available on the Techniscope negative, but while any improvements in fine detail may be marginal at best, the actual textures of the film itself are better resolved here than they are on 1080p Blu-ray. Grain management is ideal, with no visible encoding artifacts. There’s not much damage on display, though there are very faint blemishes in a few shots, and there’s occasional small scratches visible at times, including one at the bottom center of the screen that runs off and on for the better part of an entire reel. (Note that the heavy horizontal scratches in a few of the shots during the climax were artifacts from the high-speed camera that was used, and have always been present.) The HDR grade is restrained, but it does offer a wide contrast range with significantly deep blacks, and not at the expense of shadow detail, either. Severin Films has included a note at the beginning of the film that Argento prefers it to be viewed in complete darkness, and while that’s always a good suggestion, it really pays off in this case.
Severin has included both the original uncut version of Four Flies on Grey Velvet and the slightly abbreviated English language cut via seamless branching, and that complicates the audio choices. The director’s cut offers both English and Italian 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, but since the footage that was deleted from the English language cut was never dubbed into English, those few shots remain in Italian, even when selecting English. Argento’s films from the era included a multinational cast and were largely post-synced even in the Italian versions, so the dialogue doesn’t integrate particularly well into the soundstage regardless of which version that you choose. There’s just a touch more sibilance in the Italian track, but that’s the only real difference between the two. Either way, the sound effects have good clarity, and the drums that form a significant part of Ennio Morricone’s score have some real kick to them. (The English language cut offers both English and Italian audio, minus the switching between the two that’s present in the director’s cut.) Subtitle options include English SDH for the English dubbing, and English for the Italian audio.
Severin’s 4K Ultra HD release of Four Flies on Grey Velvet is a four-disc set that includes one UHD, two Blu-rays, and a soundtrack CD. There’s also an embossed slipcase featuring new (and suitably disturbing) artwork, as well as a card tucked inside with the track listing for the CD. The first Blu-ray offers a 1080p copy of the film, while the second is just extras. The UHD has the commentary track and 4K versions of the trailers, while the rest of the extras are spread across the two Blu-rays. It’s a mixture of newly-recorded interviews with a few archival ones as well:
DISC ONE: FILM (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth
- Italian Trailer (4K/SDR – 2:38)
- U.S. Trailer (4K/SDR – 2:20)
DISC TWO: FILM (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth
- Lord of the Flies (HD – 28:12)
- The Day of the Flies (HD – 75:22)
- Italian Trailer (HD – 2:38)
- U.S. Trailer (HD – 2:20)
The commentary teams up Nathaniel Thompson from Mondo Digital with Troy Howarth, author of Murder by Design: The Unsane Cinema of Dario Argento. They analyze the unusual visual style of the film, noting the way that it echoes and harmonizes imagery throughout. They point out some of the references that Argento used, such as naming one character after Carlo Rambaldi, and a street after Fritz Lang (who was as much of an influence on Argento as Hitchcock was). They tell some interesting production stories, like the fallout that happened between Argento and Morricone over the music. They’re also much more sympathetic to the presentation of the gay detective in the film, and offer some praise for the likable Jean-Pierre Marielle. Thompson and Howarth are a great pair to discuss a neglected Argento title like Four Flies on Grey Velvet, so do give this track a listen.
Lord of the Flies is an interview with Argento, who describes Four Flies on Grey Velvet as a very difficult film for him due to the autobiographical elements that he included. It was an unintentional way of acknowledging that the relationship with his own wife was over. He wanted to do something different than his previous work up to that point, with more twists and unusual elements. Argento also tells his own stories about the production, including the challenges of shooting the finale. The Day of the Flies is an extended interview with Four Flies on Grey Velvet co-writer Luigi Cozzi, who is perhaps the ultimate teller of tales related to the film—he’s even written a book of his own on the subject, Four Flies on Grey Velvet: A Film Directed By Dario Argento. This is essentially a one-man documentary on the making of the film, with Cozzi providing a thorough and very detailed dissection of the entire production from its inception to its release, and he covers many ancillary details as well. He even provides a technical explanation for what went wrong with the high-speed camera that created the inadvertent horizontal lines, and says that he insisted that the editor include the flawed shots anyway, because “when the effect overcomes the defect, leave the effect.” The idea of a feature-length interview might seem a bit daunting at first, but Cozzi is such a good storyteller that the time flies by while he’s talking. Don’t make the mistake of skipping this one.
DISC THREE: EXTRAS (BD)
- Have a Talk with God (Upscaled SD – 10:02)
- Please Mr. Postman (HD – 15:55)
- Death in Slo-mo (HD – 7:23)
- Time Flies (HD – 14:01)
- Dissecting Flies (HD – 29:40)
- Flies on the Wall (HD – 15:31)
Have a Talk with God is an archival interview with the inimitable Bud Spencer, who describes his involvement with the film, and humbly admits that he never considered himself to be a “real” actor. (He was wrong on that score, needless to say.) Please Mr. Postman is an interview with actor Gildo Di Marco, who provided some unusual comic relief in the film as the beleaguered postman. He felt that the three films that he worked on for Argento were all harmonious productions. Death in Slo-mo interviews assistant cameraman Roberto Forges Davanzati, who details the challenges of working with the high-speed camera. Time Flies interviews production manager Angelo Iacono, who describes the locations for the film, and his experiences working with Argento over the course of eight different projects. Dissecting Flies is an archival interview with film historian and author Antonio Tentori, who collaborated with Luigi Cozzi on the book Italian Horror Movies, and they also worked together on a monograph about Argento’s Deep Red. He considers Four Flies on Grey Velvet to be the most modern and innovative of the three “animals” gialli that Argento directed. He also sees the influence of Michelangelo Antonioni in Argento’s work, especially in the themes of existential discomfort and incommunicability. Finally, Flies on the Wall is an archival interview with film historian Alan Jones, author of the book Profondo Argento: The Man, The Myths, and The Magic. Jones focuses on personal details about Argento and the actors, including the way that Argento’s divorce shaped the story.
DISC FOUR: SOUNDTRACK (CD)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Titoli) (3:16)
- Come Un Madrigale (Versione Singolo) (3:37)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Suite I) (5:50)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Suite II) (4:37)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Suite III) (8:47)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Suite IV) (2:13)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Shake) (2:12)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Suite V) (6:33)
- 4 Mosche Di Velluto Grigio (Titoli – Versione Alternativa) (2:57)
- Come Un Madrigale (Versione Alternativa) (3:38)
Last but not least is the film’s soundtrack on CD, which offers the Maestro’s music in full stereo. Whatever issues may have actually led to the rift between Argento and Morricone, there’s no denying that it’s an effectively creepy score. Argento was just moving in a different direction, musically speaking, and prog rock would anchor most of his films going forward.
That’s an impressive collection of extras, but despite the fact that Four Flies on Grey Velvet hasn’t been as ubiquitous on home video as some other prominent Argento titles, there are still a few things missing from previous releases. However, since there’s never really been an authorized North American release of the film on home video, just a 2009 DVD of dubious legitimacy, all of those extras were only available on overseas versions. Most of them consist of different interviews with the same people collected here, including a feature-length set of interviews with Argento, Cozzi, and Spencer called The Case of the Four Flies that was originally included on the 2012 German Blu-ray from Koch Media. Owners of any of these overseas versions will want to hang onto them for the sake of completeness, but taken as a whole, it’s safe to say that this new Severin UHD is the definitive release of Four Flies on Grey Velvet. The transfer puts all of the others to shame, even when comparing the included Blu-ray to the previous ones, let alone the UHD. It’s the only complete version of the director’s cut taken from the original camera negative, without using inserts from different sources. While the extras consist entirely of interviews, without even a visual essay to break them up, the interview with Cozzi alone is worth the price of admission, and Morricone’s soundtrack is the icing on the cake. This is an absolutely essential set for Dario Argento fans, and it’s also highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the director and his work, if you can snag a copy.
- Stephen Bjork