Sunday, July 8, 2018

Four Flies on Grey Velvet



(1971) Written and directed by Dario Argento; Original story by Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti; Starring: Michael Brandon, Mimsy Farmer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Bud Spencer, Oreste Lionello and Francine Racette; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…I killed this guy. I didn’t even know him. It was an accident. The police don’t know about it, but somebody else does. Someone who was there – took pictures of me killing him. Now they’re blackmailing me. But that’s not all. It isn’t just anyone. Someone who knows me pretty well...” – Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon)


Hmm…what to kick off Giallo Month with? Considering the multitude of available genre titles, I pondered some of Dario Argento’s contributions. Deep Red, arguably his best-known giallo film, was the first to spring to mind, but that would be too obvious. While I can’t guarantee I’ll have anything new or original to say about Four Flies on Grey Velvet (aka: 4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio), it’s the lesser-known Argento film, and worthy of further examination.


Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band, is being stalked by a man in a black suit and fedora, and eventually decides to confront him. Roberto follows him into an empty opera house, and in the ensuing struggle, the man is stabbed with his own knife. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure in a creepy kewpie doll mask watches from a distance, photographing the fatal altercation. He shortly receives a series of phone calls and an unwelcome late-night visit from the individual that witnessed the incident. Roberto concludes he’s being manipulated, but he’s afraid to discuss it with the police, fearing he’ll be jailed for the stalker’s murder. Assisted by his friends and a bumbling private detective, he conducts his own search for the killer. He must also contend with a strained marriage, as his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) begins to eye him with suspicion, and he has an affair with her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette). As the people around him begin to meet horrible ends, he’s no closer to learning the identity of the witness, or what they want from him. The answers spell certain peril for anyone who digs a little too deep, and could lead to Roberto’s demise.


One of the film’s most interesting conceits proposes it could be possible to extract a vital clue from of one of the victims by examining the cadaver’s eyes. Using an experimental type of forensic research, police investigators attempt to view the final thing the murdered woman saw, by examining an image that remained on one of her retinas. While this works great as a plot device, with some basis in actual research conducted in the late 1800s, the reality is much more prosaic. The research was based on false assumptions, stemming from the early days of photography, which equated the eye with a camera, and the retina analogous with film (Source: Smithsonian.com).


One of the best things about Four Flies on Grey Velvet is how it’s populated with a colorful assortment of supporting characters that provide much-needed levity to the intense story. The characters are so much fun that they threaten to steal the spotlight from the leads whenever they appear. Roberto seeks the advice of his irascible hermit friend Godfrey, aka “God” (Bud Spencer), whose initial appearance is heralded by a “Hallelujah” choir. Their meeting leads him to God’s companion, a lovable vagrant known as The Professor (Oreste Lionello). Roberto hires private detective Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who’s been in business as a private eye for three years but hasn’t solved a single case (with a string of 84 failures). Marielle’s performance isn’t likely to win any points with GLAAD for his groan-worthy stereotypical gay portrayal, but his character manages to be sympathetic. There’s also a goofy mailman who has an unfortunate tendency to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.


Because this is an Argento film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has more than its share of delightfully eccentric moments and weird, artsy shots. In one memorable scene, Roberto meets with God and The Professor in a coffin expo, filled with an assortment of strange caskets. In another scene, with Roberto’s band in a recording session, we’re viewing a shot from inside a guitar looking out. I’m not sure who would be hiding inside the guitar, but it’s an interesting vantage point. In a later scene, there’s an intriguing shot of a shiny dagger dropping toward its victim.* Besides the obvious phallic imagery of daggers and syringes, the movie delves into additional Freudian territory when Roberto is startled awake by a recurring nightmare, recalling a bandmate’s story about a public execution in Saudi Arabia. The story creeps into Roberto’s subconscious, as he repeatedly sees a head being chopped off (Is it a case of castration anxiety or fear that his head will be next on the chopping block?). 

* If you turn the shot around 90 degrees, it’s oddly similar to the silver ball in Phantasm (1979). Even if it wasn’t a conscious choice, I’m left to speculate if it could have indirectly influenced such an iconic visual in Don Coscarelli’s film.


Four Flies on Grey Velvet is full of red herrings designed to steer you away from the trail, along with dubious psychological explanations for the killer’s behavior and a cool, if scientifically suspect plot device. Accompanied by a discordant Ennio Morricone score, designed to keep you on edge, Argento’s film takes us on a subjective, often polarizing, visceral experience. Like a good thrill ride, it’s filled with surprises and thrills, which pause only a moment for you to catch your breath before the next shock. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is another stylish offering from Dario Argento, which keeps you guessing until the end, and ranks among his best.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

June Quick Picks and Pans




Highway 61 (1991) Director/co-writer Bruce McDonald’s bizarre odyssey (his style could be described as David Lynch by way of Jim Jarmusch) is a road trip like no other. Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) is a socially inept barber living in a small town in Ontario, Canada. His humdrum life takes an interesting turn when he discovers a dead heavy metal musician in his backyard, and meets up with Jackie (Valerie Buhagiar), a roadie for the band. They head south to New Orleans, with coffin in tow, while pursued by a mysterious man who might be the devil (Earl Pastk). Like any good road trip, it’s full of weird surprises along the way, accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack. It also features a host of cool cameos, including Peter Breck and punk icon Jello Biafra. To describe the myriad twists and turns would spoil most of the fun. Highway 61 is best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Note: Big thanks to Michael Denney (follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWDenney) for recommending this weird, wonderful little film.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD


Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) This 1978 made-for-TV movies starts with a goofy premise, but has the conviction to follow through. The cast plays it straight throughout, without resorting to camp, which works to the movie’s advantage. Richard Crenna and Yvette Mimieux star as Mike and Betty Barry, an ordinary couple in an ordinary suburban family. After the family dog meets an untimely end, their grief-stricken kids adopt “Lucky,” a cute German shepherd puppy with an evil streak. Not long after Lucky enters their household, odd things begin to happen, with tragedy befalling anyone who gets in his way. Sure, it’s silly, but I dug it. Maybe you will too. Hammer enthusiasts take note: Martine Beswick appears in the prologue as the leader of a satanic cult.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD


The Angry Red Planet (1959) A rocket from an ill-fated Mars mission returns to Earth with half of the crew missing. The other half isn’t doing so well, either, with Dr. Iris Ryan (Nora Hayden) clinging to her sanity, and Col. Thomas O'Bannion (Gerald Mohr) teetering near death. You might think it was a progressive touch on the part of the filmmakers to include a female astronaut among the crew, but she’s mainly there to scream and endure sexist remarks from her fellow space travelers. Most of the story is told in flashback, as the intrepid explorers encounter hostile flora and fauna on the red planet. In an interesting touch, the scenes that take place outside the ship on the Martian landscape are tinted red (pro tip, taken from personal experience: don’t watch this when you have a headache), but the real highlight is a rat-bat-spider thing that terrorizes the crew. The basic concept (i.e., astronauts run into malevolent alien forces) has been recycled numerous times, sometimes to better effect, but it’s interesting to see one of the earlier examples. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime


Blood Freak (1972) A drug-addled drifter (Steve Hawkes) eats some experimental poultry and transforms into a bloodthirsty turkey man (only his head changes). He goes on a rampage, abducting young women and draining their blood. The best part of the movie is host Brad F. Grinter (who also directed and co-wrote the film), who pops in like a low-rent Rod Serling, to comment on what we’re seeing. Was it all a hallucination? Did anyone really die? Who knows. Blood Freak has some dubious entertainment value; just don’t expect body horror along the lines of Cronenberg. I’m not sure if this was meant to be taken seriously or it was intended as a joke (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), but if you sit through the whole thing, the joke’s probably on you.

Rating: 2 stars. Available on DVD

Monday, June 25, 2018

Krull



(1983) Directed by Peter Yates; Written by: Stanford Sherman; Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis, David Battley, Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***

“What we were doing was portraying a fantasy story with realities of its own. This is no period no country. It’s completely a fantasy about what could happen.” – Peter Yates (from “Cast and Crew” DVD commentary)


Thanks to Becky from Film Music Central for hosting the 3rd Annual James Horner Blogathon, profiling the career of this talented and prolific film composer on the third anniversary of his untimely death. Horner created some of my favorite film scores from the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and The Rocketeer (1991). Today, I’m taking a look at Krull, featuring another fine score.


Director Peter Yates stated he wanted to distance his movie from the sword and sorcery films of the era, but other than a few odd sci-fi flourishes, it doesn’t quite diverge from the conventions of the genre. Krull* could best be described as sword and sorcery meets Star Wars, combining swashbuckling derring-do with alien invaders. It’s notorious for being an expensive flop, with budget estimates ranging from $40 to $50 million, and a paltry $16.5 million box-office take. There are plenty of possible reasons why Krull never won over audiences back in the day, but perhaps Columbia Pictures’ biggest mistake was releasing it two months after Return of the Jedi, into a summer crowded with sequels.* Moviegoers might have suffered from fantasy fatigue by this point, and were probably looking for the safe harbor of established properties, rather than new adventures. Despite the diminutive box office receipts, Krull gained a small but ardent fan base over the years, due in no small part to the starfish-shaped weapon, the Glaive (more on this later).


On the eve of two kingdoms uniting, a dark force arrives from the stars in a massive fortress. The horrible Beast, and his army of Slayers (who resemble a cross between a storm trooper and a crustacean), lay siege to the castle where Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and his betrothed, Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) are about to be wed. The Slayers handily defeat the combined armies, and capture the princess. Thus, begins the hero’s epic quest to defeat the Beast, rescue the princess, and restore peace to his shattered kingdom. But first, he must assemble a bunch of misfits and endure many trials and travails, as he learns what it means to be a king. None of this sounds very original, of course, and I would be misrepresenting the film if I said it was. What Krull lacks in surprises, however, it makes up with a desire to entertain.

Fun Fact #1: As a means of cashing in on the early ‘80s sword and sorcery craze, the original title was The Dragons of Krull – even though there were no dragons featured in the script.


The good: For starters, the practical effects are quite fun, particularly the stop motion spider by Steven Archer. It’s suitably creepy, and its lifelike movements are worthy of Ray Harryhausen.* I always thought the cyclops Rell** (played by 6’ 7” Bernard Bresslaw) was pretty neat. In his tragic backstory, he explains how his ancient race made a deal with the Beast, trading one of their eyes for the ability to see into the future. Alas, the only future they could see was the time of their own death. Krell also boasts some fine performances, including veteran actor Freddie Jones as Prince Colwyn’s sage mentor Ynyr. Jones lends his role the necessary gravitas and bearing, as is if he were acting in a Shakespearean play. In a similar vein, Francesca Annis is great as the doleful Widow of the Web. David Battley (who played Charlie’s teacher in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is the shape-shifter Ergo. He’s mostly played for comic relief, but Battley gives his selfish character heart, and more than proves his mettle before the movie is over. A discussion of the good elements in Krull wouldn’t be complete without mentioning James Horner’s lush score, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Yates, Horner’s “…music contributed enormously to the film,” and imbued the characters with a sense of “size and majesty.” There’s something about a great score, which can elevate a movie, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the level suggested by the music.  

* Fun Fact #2: If the animation style looks like familiar, there’s a good reason. Archer apprenticed with Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans, and was recommended by the effects master himself for the job.

** Fun Fact #3: According to makeup designer Nick Maley, “It was important that the shapes we model into his face had a gentleness, a pleasantness, without going overboard. He’s a nice, gentle character, but has a melancholy quality about him.” (from “Behind the Scenes” DVD commentary, from November 1982 Cinefantastique magazine article).


The not-so-good: Calling this film derivative is a gross understatement. You only need to watch The Seven Samurai, its American remake The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars, or even its quickie Corman-produced knockoff, Battle Beyond the Stars to see where this movie is going. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A young, eager (albeit green) protagonist, under the tutelage of a wise old man, bands together with a rough but like-minded bunch of freedom fighters to fight a common oppressive foe. The leads are attractive, but unimpressive. Marshall has an amiable presence as Colwyn, but he comes across as a low-rent Errol Flynn. As Lyssa, Anthony is pretty to look at, but she’s given nothing to do, except act the damsel in distress while she’s waiting to be rescued from the clutches of the foul Beast. Speaking of the bad guys, a worthy adversary is required for any good hero story. Unfortunately, the Beast doesn’t quite measure up (pun intended). We never get a good idea of scale – is he human-sized, 10 feet tall, or the proportions of King Kong? Also, what does he have to offer Lyssa, outside of a lifetime of imprisonment? Was he keeping track of her before he arrived on her home world? Everything about him is vague and indistinct, from his motivations to his physical appearance (the Beast and his lair is shot in soft focus). The Beast and his army have mastered interstellar space, conquering one planet after another, yet they still ride on horseback. It doesn’t appear to be a choice made out of necessity, so is it a traditional thing?


While some effects are quite good, others are less than awe inspiring. When the warriors fly through the air astride their Fire Mares, it resembles a scene from E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (think kids on bikes). The biggest letdown, however, is reserved for Krull’s raison d'être, the cool-looking but unwieldly Glaive. In the end it’s only a MacGuffin. We’re led to believe it’s an ancient, all-powerful weapon powered by mystical energy, which Ynyr cautions not to use until the right time. When Colwyn finally does, at the film’s climax, it’s little more than an over-glorified can opener. (Spoiler Alert) In a moment of hastily constructed mythos, we learn the weapon’s power is nothing more than an extension of the power he wields inside (The Force, anyone?).

* Fun Fact #4: The Glaive’s original design looked more sword-like, as a cross-shaped weapon, before it evolved into a five-pronged throwing star.


Krull was an expensive failure at the box office, but as I’ve indicated many times before, poor performance and/or initial critical reception doesn’t necessarily correlate with a movie’s true worth. It’s difficult to dispute that Krull had several strikes against it, as a victim of bad timing and not enough distinguishing features, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a look. There’s a liberal dose of mindless fantasy mayhem, a few notable performances, and it’s fun to see Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane before they were famous. Krull isn’t easy to defend, but it’s hard to hate. While it might fall short in certain respects, it’s worthy Saturday morning matinee material.