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February 16, 2021

Gialli Dreams In Yellow: Volume #4 - Analyzing Argento's Animal Trilogy

Gialli Dreams in Yellow will be a series of articles, essays and reviews of my favorite horror sub-genre, Giallo. Giallo is the Italian word for YELLOW but is also used to describe the whole sub-genre of horror films that weave elements of mystery, thriller and horror all into one narrative... sprinkle in over the top violence alongside some gratuitous nudity and you got yourself a GIALLO!  Here are my thoughts on the genre... I hope to infuse some new opinions & views into what I consider the most diverse sub-genre in horror movie history.

Today I am going to attempt to analyze Dario Argento's "Animal Trilogy" to see which film is the "Gialliest" of them all... (see what I did there... hehehe)

Maestro

Before we start, a little context into the providence of this article. After attending a virtual screening of Argento's "Bird with the Crystal Plumage" hosted by the USC School of Cinematic Arts on 1/29/21 I instantly felt the need to revisit the other two movies in Argento's so called "Animal Trilogy", The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). The name "Animal Trilogy" refers to the animal elements contained in each film’s titles. I had seen all three movies MANY times before but hearing the conversation in the Q&A session that followed the screening (led by the Colors of the Dark podcast hosts Elric Kane and Rebekah McKendry alongside AGFA & Arrow Video) made me want to see them again. I wanted to contrast the other two films to the stone cold classic that Plumage is... see if they hold up or even outperform such a great film. After all, I have seen what seems like a billion Giallo movies (especially in this last 2 years) so maybe I was not remembering them quite like I should. Finally, I usually do not need much of excuse to watch an Argento film. He is my first love in the genre, and one of my overall favorite directors. Long live the Maestro of Horror!

Beautiful Italian Original Posters

All that said, the thing that probably impresses me the most about the films in the "Animal Trilogy" is the fact that they came so early in Argento's career. He had only entered the business in 1966, and even then, that was primarily in the role of a writer. All the sudden a few short years later he is DIRECTING his own feature, with not one but TWO films in the can and released within the next year! That is 3 films completed and released from 1969-1971, all from someone who had never directed anything in his life. That is PRODUCTIVE as hell. What is even more impressive is how much of a massive hit "Plumage" was, and in retrospect what it did for the Gialli sub-genre over the next 10 years as the inspiration to many directors of Gialli movies to follow. Of course, these directors wanted to replicate the BOX OFFICE success of "Plumage" (it doubled its budget just in Italy and had a large success globally as well), but more importantly they took notice to the visual cues that Argento included in the film and turned them into hallmarks of Gialli's to come. All of this from a relative novice behind the camera who frequently has stated he had no idea "how" to truly direct a movie (let alone 3) … sometimes it is better to be lucky than good! 

Mysterious/Sexy/Violent

For the purpose of this article, I decided to focus on the three main components of Gialli movies and how they play out over the three movies of the "Animal Trilogy" to determine which of the films is the best prototypical Gialli.  Although the Gialli genre can be a bit all over the place in terms of how the films are executed, almost all of them contain overarching aspects of three components: 

1) A Mystery element that usually involves amateur investigative work by regular people 

2) A healthy dose of Eroticism/Sexuality that in most cases is an unnecessary addition to the telling of the story and   

3) Violence... Extreme Violence... and then MORE VIOLENCE! 

Without these three things you really do not have yourself a true Gialli film, and these components are all on FULL DISPLAY in Argento's "Animal Trilogy". Argento provided a roadmap on how to properly include and execute all these elements into a Gialli film, examples that would be jacked repeatedly over the following decades. So, let us get to it...

Mystery:

The cops on the scene in  Plumage

All three of these films feature intriguing mysteries at the core of their stories. Out of the three components, this may very well be the hardest category to determine a clear cut "best". "Crystal Plumage" features the most grounded murder mystery, involving an out-of-town writer who witnessed a murder on what was supposed to be his last night in Rome. Since he may hold the key to the murder in his eyewitness memories, the Roman police seize his passport and ask him to stay.... while he is stuck in Roma he might as well throw on his amateur detective hat and start sleuthing, am I right? 

Franco and Carlo, investigators supreme!

In "9 Tails" things start to get a bit more fantastical, with retired (and BLIND) reporter Franco and his intrepid granddaughter thrust into a world of scientific espionage and murder. I know... I cannot believe I just typed that line either! While the overall "crime" of the film, the break in at a Genetics Lab, seems a bit highbrow the film eventually finds its way back to its gritty Gialli roots. Add in Karl Malden as the blind journalist and we are in for a fun adventure along the way to identifying the perpetrators. 

This is the craziest mask in blackmailer history!

"Four Flies" is probably the most batshit crazy, and that is saying a lot. Not only is the main protagonist a drummer in a Rock and Roll band, but he is the victim of a horrendous attack in which he fights off his would be killer.  He slays his attacker, only to realize that he is being photographed by a masked man (the mask is SOOO EXTRA ridiculous) who captures the killing on film! Determined to uncover the masked photographer and clear his name by proving the killing was in self-defense, Roberto takes on the role of detective alongside a private eye he has hired to figure the whole mess out. 

Rock n Roll baby!

All three of these films have very good mystery elements, but for me it must be "Four Flies" due to the two-pronged nuttiness of the plot. On one hand you have the idea of the drummer being attacked and killing someone as self-defense... but then being filmed to look like a killer himself. Then you have the aspect of the masked man and his ensuing blackmail. It all leads to tons of tension, lots of double & triple crosses and a story that starts off high concept and finishes very satisfyingly.  The masked element of the blackmailer really makes the mood creepy throughout the film. It is such a ridiculous mask, one that would not exactly lend itself to being conspicuous on the streets of Italy. 

Verdict: "Crystal Plumage" and "9 Tails" certainly have their mystery moments, but "Four Flies" delivers the best intrigue of the bunch!  

Eroticism/Sexuality:

Right off the bat let me say that if you are looking for a high concentration of Eroticism/Sexuality from Argento in these movies you will be SEVERELY disappointed. Unlike many of the copycat films to come after, and even future films from his own filmography (and even his films with his OWN DAUGHTER!), the "Animal Trilogy" has minimal nudity. This would not be the industry standard in the following decade of Gialli films... hell, it had not been the industry standard for Mario Bava up until this point! But for this brief period Argento had not begun inserting the standardized nudity/sex into the narratives of his films. For better or worse, depending on your point of view of course, we get three Gialli that are unique in this prudish nature.  

The execution of this shot is magical

"Crystal Plumage" features no nudity, even though you may think you remember some. There is a scene on a bed that many will say "I'm pretty sure there was some nudity there..." but they would be mistaken. It is implied, but not actually seen. That does not mean that it is completely devoid of Eroticism/Sexuality. In this case it is much more interwoven into the actions of the killer and some of the kills themselves. In that aforementioned bed scene, we get a killer who uses a rather large knife to cut open a nightshirt of the victim, although Argento utilizes clever angles and cuts to not expose any of the victim’s breast. The killer also rips the victim’s panties off her body with great force, but again not private parts are revealed. Even the actual kill in this scene is off camera and only implied. This makes for a sexual tension in the film, but not one that is over important or central to the plot's overall success.

Franco and his lovely niece

Now in "9 Tails" we get an altogether different type of movie. This time the lead is played by an older Karl Malden, who is blind at that and constantly accompanied by his 10-year-old niece. Not exactly the tandem that you would expect to generate hot and heavy sexuality. Couple this with the fact that the films plot centers around a science-based theft of information from a genetics lab and you are not exactly on the path to typical Gialli shenanigans. However, we do get a brief glimpse of nudity and an actual scene depicting sexual behavior, albeit a short and uneventful one. It is perfectly clear looking back on these movies that Argento was not as comfortable with working this "sexual" angle into his films just yet. But fret not... he would get VERY comfortable with the idea throughout his career!

As sexy as it gets in Flies...
I thought everyone was supposed to "Give the Drummer Some"

"Four Flies" continues the sexless path Argento seems to be very comfortable taking with these movies, and I for one am pretty bummed out about it! In a movie that features a lead who is a drummer in a Rock and Roll band as the main protagonist in the early 70's, I am under the impression he is gonna be getting tons of ass. Turns out, not so much. This movie also plays it safe, with one ridiculous bathroom scene revealing the only true nudity in the film. Just another example of many other things influencing the plot besides gratuitous sex... as crazy as that sounds for a Gialli.

Perfect body placement and the reflection of the knife!!!

Verdict: If I had to pick one, and the pickings are certainly slim here, I am going to have to go with "Crystal Plumage". That is kind of hilarious considering that is the only one of the three movies with ZERO NUDITY, but, that bed scene is the most erotic thing in all three movies. Argento accomplishes more in that scene showing NO nudity then many other directors due when they are not shooting a censored scene. It is tense, it feels dirty... and it is integral to the actual movie. This is the killer exposing his kink mid murder. That is bold stuff. Full disclosure I have seen the movie a dozen times and I had to re-watch the scene before writing this article just to make sure there was no nudity. That is effectively executing suggestive filmmaking. The other two films might show some boobs and go for the cheap nudity laden scenes, but they do not have the same gravitas as "Crystal Plumage" and it shows. Isn't it ironic that the movie that would inspire COUNTLESS Gialli movies to come would have zero nudity and use Eroticism/Sexuality better? I think so...

Violence:

Now we are finally at a category that is going to require a tough choice. All three of these movies are quite brutal, and just because they may be a bit tamer then future Gialli that does not mean Argento takes it easy by any stretch of the imagination. He even gives himself FUTURE IDEAS of re-doing some of the most violent scenes in these films when he had bigger budgets/better handle on effects shots. One thing is abundantly clear here in these three movies: Argento was BORN to make horror movies. There is no question about that when watching the "Animal Trilogy". He is always on brand with his over-the-top scenarios, the violence within those scenarios and the visuals of the final execution on film. They are all there on full display, and it is glorious.

Helpless to assist...

"Crystal Plumage' establishes that it is not fucking around right from the opening jump. The scene in which our protagonist Sam witnesses an attack through the glass window of an art gallery sets the stage for one hell of a ride. Argento may not use any nudity for cheap effect in this film, but he does not skimp on the sheer displays of gratuitous violence throughout. The proto-typical clack gloved trench coat sporting killer in this movie is NO JOKE... he is as violent as could be in his attacks, even though they are not always successful in completing the task. As a matter of fact, the idea that the killer is fallible and does not always fulfill the execution of his victims is even more effective. This gives you the distinct feeling that this "killer" could be anyone. That is much more menacing than the brute who always completes his kill. The most effective scene depicting violence is the scene when Julia (Sam's girlfriend) is under siege in her apartment from the killer. The killer does not get in to complete the deed... but it’s no less nerve racking then if he had gotten in and gutted her. More is less in this film, and Argento executes the balance magically.

Squish....

Now in the past two categories "9 Tails" has fallen short of its trilogy counterparts. But this is definitely not the case in the violence department. This is one of the rare films where QUALITY of the kills easily trumps the QUANTITY of the kills. In the Gialli genre, this is very rare. There are only 5 deaths in the whole movie, and only 4 occur on screen. The standard method of the early kills in the film are strangulation, and they are extremely brutal. But the train accident and elevator scene are both the kind of set pieces that Argento would become synonymous with later in his career. This is glorious violence for the sake of just that... because why not... let us do it and do it as violent as possible! 

Creepy eye shot... 


The third film in the trilogy is always in a precarious position. The film series has two installments on the books. So, you cannot exactly deviate from the style/tone without it sticking out like a sore thumb. While the "Animal Trilogy' is not exactly a straight through line of story, it certainly has plenty of elements in common within the three films. One of the areas Argento clearly never intended to come up short in was VIOLENCE. "Four Flies' delivers on the violence, right from the opening scene. Anytime you can make the violence weird it is a certain plus, and the mask that the blackmailer wears while photographing our propogandist commuting self-defense murder is super weird to say the least!  6 kills in this movie and they all happen ON SCREEN, none of that IMPLIED bullshit from his earlier works. Argento goes for it here, and not only does he go for it he delivers it spectacularly! The final kill of the movie is almost more satisfying than all the other kills combined, and it has nothing to do with HOW the killing takes place... it is ALL execution, LITERALLY!  

Right before the villainess loses her head... 

Verdict: This is going to have to go to "Four Flies: again, for me, simply because all of the killings are executed on screen. Because of this, the violence has more opportunities to shine... and Argento embraces them all. I wanted to go with "9 Tails" for some of the sheer brutality that film shows, but it all come back to that final scene in "Four Flies". Considering when it occurs in the film and just how brutal it is, it is hard to pick against it. There are some great moments of violence in both films 1 and 2, but Argento got better at his set pieces and execution as time went on. Truth is he would only get better... but this is a definitive flash of greatness early on! 

 

Overall Verdict:

I am going to have to say that based on this ANALYSIS that I have conducted (I also cannot believe I just typed that... lol) I am going to have to say that Four Flies on Grey Velvet may be the best prototypical Gialli movie of the three films. 

The title shot in the actual movie!

I will stand by my prior thoughts that Bird with the Crystal Plumage is probably the best overall film of the bunch and that all three films certainly have their merit... but "Four Flies" is the most prototypical Gialli of the three. Full disclosure in this postscript: It was always my least favorite of the three movies (I always ranked them Plumage/9 Tails/Four Flies) but now it may have crept its way up to the top spot. Maybe not overtaking Plumage but putting it right on equal par with it.

What I am more aware of then ever is that these seminal movies were integral steppingstones for the later works that Argento would unleash on the world. Once he had some experience under his belt with these three films, he was able to understand what he "could" and "couldn't" do in the areas of Mystery/Eroticism/Violence. His BEST work in all three of those categories would come down the pipe for him. 

His best in terms of Mystery/Eroticism/Violence

For me Tenebre (1981) would be his best "mystery" film, Suspiria (1977) uses "eroticism/sexuality" the best and Deep Red (1975) or Opera (1987) would be his most "violent"! But none of those would be possible without the "Animal Trilogy" and the groundwork those three films laid out. For that I am forever grateful.

Original Italian Theatrical Posters:








 




 

   



 


 

   

2 comments:

  1. Good job Mike D, a pretty interesting read. I've never watched any of these but now I definitely won't...I mean will, I definitely will

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