Four Flies on Grey Velvet & Dario Argento's Themes

Malleus Rock Art Lab
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is Dario Argento's third feature film, and it's hard to imagine how he went from this mediocre giallo to making the incredible masterpiece Deep Red just a few years later. For the man who put the "murder" back in murder mystery, the only thing surprising about this is how few thrills it has. Argento is famous for blurring the line separating the horror genre from your average detective stories, but you'd never know based on this evidence alone. And what's worse: when it's not being dull, it's trying to do broad comedy (like the "I don't want a bath!" scene), which somehow manages to be worse than boring.

But as disappointing as the movie may be as a movie, it is interesting to look at as a piece of Argento's filmography in the way it continues to develop a variety of his common themes.

Nonsensical science and technology are invented as a means of finding the killer (here they are discovered by looking at the last image imprinted on a victim's eyes), but the provided answer isn't quite enough. Technology in his films always gives us something that doesn't help until it's already too late, until we've already figured it out ourselves anyway (We don't know what the "four flies on grey velvet" are until the killer attacks their final victim). This always feels to me like a commentary on our attempts to objectify or pin down our own identity with machines that fundamentally don't understand us.

Argento's visual style is also very much in evidence here. Point of view shots from the killer's perspective are used to get the audience close to the murders—closer than they feel comfortable being—without revealing the killer's identity. Argento also has a penchant for using murder weapons which are relatable to the audience: most of us haven't been shot by a gun before, but we've all cut ourselves shaving. He uses this along with the camera as another method of getting the audience as close to the murders as possible.

Finally (and most problematically), the film also continues Argento's exploration of the links between psychology and sexuality. Early on, we hear a character explaining how libidinal frustration can create homicidal impulses in people. This is then connected back to the murders themselves, which are often sexual in nature (expressing the repressed tensions, but also in the eroticism of the camera's gaze). Where this gets problematic is Argento's portrayal of queer sexuality: it's so offensively stereotypical it borders on homophobia.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet is not quite my flavor of Argento, but it nonetheless feels like a small part of the larger puzzle of his filmography, and for that reason it's at least somewhat compelling.

Dario Argento