Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Dario Argento's Animal Trilogy (1970-72)

Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento solidified his reputation as a master of the horror genre with movies such as Deep Red and Suspiria, creating a string of classics that would last until 1987. A screenwriter for a few years (even co-writing Once Upon a Time in the West!) before trying his hand at direction with a trio of films, linked by their titles...

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Sam Dalmas is an American expat living in Italy. After a couple of unproductive years not writing nearly as much as he'd hoped, he's going back to America to get back into the swing of things. One night however he witnesses an attempted murder, and becomes embroiled in a larger case. The police have been after a vicious serial killer, and pressure Sam into staying and helping out. He does so reluctantly, but as it goes on, he can't help but get the feeling he's missed a vitally important detail, that could crack the case wide open...

Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a decent giallo, telling a tense Hitchockian tale. While some in the industry took umbrage with Dario getting such an easy start thanks to his producer daddy (like Lucio Fulci, who took the long way without such a luxury), there's no denying that this is a strong debut.

The movie gets off to a great start, with the attempted murder being a great visual and atmospheric setpiece. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, and establishes the plot in an effective way. Likewise, the climax is great stuff! The mystery gets a good explanation, and there's a suspense-filled final encounter.

Where the movie falls down however is literally everything in between. It is a decent movie, but frustrating, because throughout the whole thing there is nothing that allows us to solve the mystery! Giallos could often be more about the journey than destination, but here it feels especially bad. There are almost no suspects, and zero clues.

None of Sam's discoveries ever seem to amount to anything, not even the visit to the artist. Sam getting the idea to visit him was a big deal. Only 8 hours to go before they leave, yet he's going to risk visiting him. It should be worth it, and lead to a big "A-ha!" moment! Instead it's nothing. He leaves none the wiser, and the visit only offered a bit of mild comedy.

Where the plot takes a total backseat is during an extended chase sequence, but that was a tense and fairly exciting scene, even if it was a bit confusing. It felt like a gangster from another movie suddenly burst in to attack the lead. Us being able to see his face clear as day is what could really confuse you. I'm so used to giallos hiding everything.

The title is a great one, though ultimately has very little to do with the plot. I feel there could've been more effort to tie it together.

Sam is a basic enough protagonist, but is fine, and always likeable. The same goes for his girlfriend, who manages to keep herself fairly safe when the killer attacks. Carlo is an ok friend (and tolerates his mates being perverts well, probably thinking "Get a room, you two!"), but doesn't appear enough, and his end just feels random, not adding anything. And the police are a good presence. Conniving to an extent, but only to help catch a madman and keep the city safe.

The killer isn't seen a lot, but makes a good impression, and looks visually distinctive n their dark coat and wide brimmed hat. When they are uncovered, we see their sadism on full display

The victims are one of the more boring parts of the movie. I get that they are just random women, and targeted only because the killer did so on a whim, but it still fills a bit uninteresting when we know so little about the victims. Most of them don't even say a word.

The rest of the cast are ok. The convict is decent even if he does talk in a bizarre way, and the informant he supplies is amusing. I wish he'd appeared more. The artist is an eccentric weirdo. Fun in some ways, unpleasant in others.

The actors all do decently. Suzy Kendall was my favourite, while Tony Musante is good, if mediocre in places. Eva Renzi is great in her role, though k Barring one scene, her dialogue entirely consists of "Ahhhh!", and "Hahahaha!"

The violence is fairly medium here. Just a little blood, and basic murders for the most part. There are some gnarly moments here and there, 

Argento's direction is neat, taking full advantage of the art world, with an ornate gallery that makes for great suspense scenes, when both well-lit, and shrouded in darkness (and a great transition that shows how much the dark can hide). There are insane sculptures (talk about an accident waiting to happen!), and spooky paintings. The stalking and murder scenes are also directed fantastically, with some creepy moments. My favourite was the home invasion.

Ennio Morricone does the score here, and it's ethereal and spooky, with lots of 'La la la's', feeling only a few steps away from Freddy Krueger territory.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has its issue, but is a neat debut with some great moments, and was one of the films that really set the Giallo genre in motion...

We needed more info about the actors. I would never have guessed who the killer was
We get the beginning and the ending with the killer, but nothing in between. Not a single clue which could have helped me with the discovery
The beginning and ending of the movie were great, but everything else was just decent. No info on anything, and the victims were just random girls with no dialogue
Definitely true! The scenes were quick I understand that. The director didn't want the viewers to discover the killer, but give us some clues, something

The Cat o' Nine Tails

Franco is a middle-aged blind man, living with his young niece Lori. One night he hears something odd, and when he discovers a connection to a murder at a scientific institute, he teams up with journalist Carlo to try and uncover the truth and catch a killer...

The Cat o' Nine Tails is actually one of the more recent Argento films I've seen. I saw both the other 'Animal' films when I was a teen, but this one always eluded me. I never saw any clips from it or even knew what the greater plot was about, who the killer was, or what the death scenes were like. Now that I've finally seen it, I'm pleasantly surprised. It's not a hidden masterpiece or anything, but it's a good time.

A weak spot many point out is the unnecessary runtime of nearly two hours. I agree, though the movie's never tedious. I don't think any scene in particular is useless, but a few just go on for a little too long. With a bit of editing this could've been trimmed to about 90 minutes (and actually was for its well-received U.S. release), and then we'd get the first real plot development less than an hour in. The genetics plot is interesting, though sorely unexplored.

It's at the hour mark when Carlo finally questions all the scientists at the clinic. Some are helpful, if a little brusque, while one amusingly insists that the police and journos are just looking for connections where none exist, and it's just a series of accidents. Dude, three of your coworkers have been butchered in the last few days!

While low-key compared to later giallos, this still has hallmarks of the genre, such as an everpresent killer. When Carlo's photographer pal discovered a clue in the negatives, I said to myself "This is exactly when the killer would sneak up behind and kill him!". But I knew that wouldn't happen, since this is just a random photographer they only just called right now, so how would the killer know who or where he even is? But sure enough, one ajar door and one strangulation later, he is dispatched.

Another example of this comes later, when a lady involved with the institute has discovered an important clue, and calls Franco. She says she she knows the killer's name, but, oh hey, what's that noise, I'll call you back later. *sigh* In that regard, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is a better and more timely movie that Cat o' Nine Tails, since it actually poked fun at that cliche almost 10 years before this.

Franco Arno (Cookie to his niece) is a nice lead, with his disability making for an interesting character, and one who's adapted very well, and has no need to be pitied. I adored his sweet niece Lori, and wished she appeared more. Although I am glad she was sent out of harm's way, instead of being invited to stay or even tag along when this investigation has such a high mortality rate.

The only problem is that many scenes that should be from his point of view are entirely absent. He disappears completely from the midsection, and when he's attacked outside the crypt, we focus exclusively on a stressed Carlo lighting up a ciggie, sitting down, and going "Ah, shit", for about 3 minutes. Then Franco opens the crypt door, the struggle taking place offscreen. I guess it's to avoid showing us too much of the killer, but still! Give us a little, Dario!

Carlo's a good co-lead, and has his moments. One of the funnier scenes of the movie comes during a 'riveting' conversation he and a lady are having, and this smooth player makes the comment "Do you know how many people together right now are making love at this very second?". He then follows it up with "I don't know if you're aware of it or not, but that was an invitation.".

The killer's identity is fairly well hidden, but only because we don't get to know anyone well enough to form much of an opinion. All we know is that the most obvious culprits probably won't be guilty (and they drop like flies as the movie goes on). When we do hear the motive, it's basic, and a little silly.

I actually suspected the policeman Morsella would be the killer because of how unlikely a suspect he would be, and I've read others say the same. Hoping that maybe he snapped after one too many people didn't wanna hear about his wife's ravioli. They'd deserve it too! I was listening to his cooking tips before he got rudely cut off!

The climax has some pretty good action, and both heroes get some punches in, so to speak. The ending is disappointingly abrupt though. Nothing beyond the killer's death is seen. No final wrap-up with the police, no moment shared with Franco and his niece, nor do we see Carlo's romantic subplot resolve. It's all a bit limp, really.

The title is justified with a comment regarding the number of leads, and it's a little tenuous, but nothing worth complaining over. And thankfully it doesn't mean there are nine suspects!

The death scenes in Cat o' Nine Tails are fairly tame. In lieu of gore, there's a strong use of saliva, which is decently effective, if gross.

The direction here is stylish. The film has several moments where we see the killer's point-of-view, as well as their eyes close up. There are also strangely edited moments. Sometimes it effectively shows Franco's sensing of things, other times they're just scene transitions. The locations are particularly interesting. We get plenty of neat Italian pads of the 1970s, but also a few bits of inspired architecture, which really opens up the environment.

The music by Ennio Morricone is quite good in places, with a tender score that reminded me a little of The Beyond's softer tracks. What didn't impress me though was the screechiness in a lot of scenes. It's like a free jazz musician tried making ambient music.

Overall, Cat o' Nine Tails won't blow anyone's world, but it's just simply good. Not great, neither bad or mediocre, just simply good. And that level of simplicity (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) is something I wish Dario had adhered to more in his later career...

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Roberto is a musician who's discovered he's being followed. He tracks down the man, in an encounter resulting in his death. Roberto has barely come to grips with it when he realises someone has seen him. He is soon contacted by a sinister figure, who seems to be blackmailing him at first, but wants no money. They only want to drive Roberto mad, and will kill anyone in their way to do it...

While Cat o' Nine Tails was overlong, Four Flies on Grey Velvet is outright boring in places. That film was simply guilty of extending good scenes too long, while here there are many scenes that don't really add anything, and could've been cut easily.

The central conceit is a good one, but only when the movie chooses to focus on it. Instead it gets distracted by many other little things, to the point where Roberto and the Killer don't actually have an encounter for a full 80 minutes! All he gets are a couple of menacing photos and then spends most of the film un-harassed. It hardly sells the required urgency.

Roberto is a fairly good lead, and you sympathise with his situation. On the flipside, he's a philanderous fellow! I figured it'd be Dalia acting as the seducer, but no, Roberto comes onto her faster than lightning! You're married, dickhead! Luckily for him it turns out his wife is unfaithful in another way, though he doesn't know that yet!

Nina is nice enough in some scenes, a bit cold and almost bitchy in others, and gets the most to do in the climax.

Despite her sleeping with a married man (her cousin's hubby no less!), I liked Dalia. She was one of the nicest characters. I was bit bummed out at her death. Although I was mainly annoyed by her constant inability to get in touch with Roberto at the right time.

The PI Roberto hires is an amusing guy, never having solved a case, but hopeful this time will be the first. He's openly gay, and the movie never shames him or pokes fun at this. The whole Animal trilogy has gay characters, which is an interesting thing to link them together. Most interesting is his death, where he takes it like a champ, since he finally cracked a case.

There's a collection of comic characters through, to varying degrees of success. Some are amusing enough, like the Bible quoting bodyguard, while others are less than funny. And lastly, there's God, aka Godfrey. Roberto's grumpy but helpful friend. I liked his friendship with the lead, and while there's an enormous gap between his first and second scenes, he plays a good role in the climax.

The mystery is a fairly weak one. As hard a time as Roberto has trying to figure out the murderer's identity, everyone else has it easy. Just about the entire cast figure it out, even the PI who's never solved a case.

The biggest problem is that there are no suspects! Roberto's friends and bandmates don't appear enough for any of them to be guilty, and the only other candidates are communicating with the killer the whole time (from a blackmailer, a cohort, etc). At the end of the day, there really is only one character it could be.

The flashbacks we see periodically are decent, but give away too much as they go  I also didn't get why this mysterious patriarch had to be a stepfather instead of just a regular one. It felt like an arbitrary decision.

One scene in particular feels like a cheat, because heroes will discover something we're not privvy too! If a supporting character discovers something, that's alright, because we're not following their point of view. But when Roberto's PI has the whole case explained to him clear as day, yet we don't know because the scene cut in late, it feels underhanded. And you'd better believe there's an "It's probably nothing, I'll tell you later" involved.

Where Four Flies on Grey Velvet often draws the most criticism is in the ending reveal. It's not the killer's identity I take issue with, but their motivations. They're unclear and muddled, and for the longest time, poor quality prints meant making out her dialogue was a chore in itself. Blah blah, something something, daddy issues, etc.

The ending is the film's most memorable sequence, with a car crash that manages to impress, and look oddly beautiful, the glass shimmering in slow motion like water, as the killer has a tranquil moment. The movie does wrap up abruptly, but I didn't mind that as much here, since there really isn't much left to resolve. Roberto's saved by Godfrey and they share a moment of relief, and that's all that's really needed.

The title seems mystifying at first, but draws you in. It takes near the end of the movie for it to be explained, and it's a neat element, even if it is pseudoscience. Although when I first saw the film at 13, I thought Roberto caught a brief flash of the 'four flies' swinging when the killer attacked him, and I kinda prefer that idea. That way the title would be justified early, and we'd have the whole movie to mull over this important clue, not 10 minutes.

The score (Ennio Morricone again) is decent, though not very memorable, and is silent too much of the time. The rock tunes we hear intermittently are pretty decent, and give the movie a nice feel. There's a strange but kinda fun choral leitmotif during God(frey)'s introduction. And the music that plays in the end is really serene.

The acting is decent. Michael Brandon is an alright lead, with an interesting resemblance to Argento at the time. Mimsy Farmer is ok for the most part, and I liked her manic turn at the end, though she shouts enough to burst your eardrums! Bud Spencer is a great presence, and I wish he'd appeared more! Funnily enough this was the first film I ever saw him in, and I didn't even realise it for years. One oddity is his dub actor seems to be voicing two characters! He was a busy bee here.

The direction here is neat, with a few intriguingly done shots, from the mosquito at the beginning, to the whole scene at the end. The film has a lot of visual flair and experimentation too. The killer's childlike mask is effectively creepy (though underused as the movie goes on), and the opening credits have a weird touch to them. Four Flies also contains a slow motion 'bullet time' sequence, predating things like The Matrix by decades!

Also of note is a recurring dream Roberto has, of an Arabian execution. As the movie goes on he feels it must be a premonition, and he may end up being right in a way. It's a neatly shot scene, and while the decapitation itself is hilarious, the scene has an ominous feel, even with the bright sunlight.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet has its ups and downs. It's not bad, and is recognisably an Argento film. It contains quite a few memorable moments, and while it may not be a classic, it's still worth watching for fans...

The Animal Trilogy is an interesting beginning for a filmmaker who would go on to become famous in the horror genre. While these movies may not be classics, in varying degrees, they still have moments of greatness, and laid a solid groundwork for what was to come...

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