A writer is witness to an attempted murder and is then stalked by a serial killer.
In 1970, Dario Argento made his first real mark on the horror world with “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. The film is undeniably stylish; its storyline is filled with murder and intriguing (while sometimes farfetched) twists, and some truly unique characters. While Argento’s heavy Giallo style had yet to fully develop in this film, this is still a movie that is incredibly enjoyable, and for a debut film it’s certainly impressive.
“Go to Italy. It’s a peaceful country, nothing much ever happens there.”
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, “The Incident”) is a writer living with is girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall, “To Sir, With Love”) in Italy, where he is battling writer’s block, trying eagerly to work on his next piece. While walking home one night, Sam wanders past an art studio where he witnesses the attempted murder of Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi, “Funeral in Berlin”). After calling the police, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno, “The Anonymous Venetian”) arrives at the scene and interrogates Sam, telling him he is not to leave the country, as he is too important as a witness to the case. Sam becomes interested in the case, which is suspected to be linked to several other murders, and is soon stalked by a serial killer bent on silencing him for good.
Dario Argento is a unique director because he executes everything with such style and pizazz that I’ve come to forgive him for the little flaws in his work. Argento has never made a perfect film (though “Deep Red” and “Suspiria” come close), but he’s made genre films that are far more creative than the average horror flick today, and even when some of the elements are cheesy or absurd I find myself totally engaged with his stories. He’s a director that isn’t afraid to take risks, and sometimes that works well for him, other times it fails, but he’s never a boring filmmaker to watch. This film is far more reserved than some of his later works- it’s as if Argento was simply testing the waters to see what he could really get away with in terms of violence and bizarre plot points. His style in this film is almost like a premonition of the greater things to come, and for that reason alone I really enjoyed this movie. This is also an Argento film that I think non-horror fans could enjoy, because it honestly feels more like a murder mystery movie than a slasher film.
I think one of the things that I liked most about this film were the characters, many of which were incredibly memorable. Sam isn’t that memorable as a protagonist, but some of the more minor characters were. For instance I really liked the stuttering pimp with a tick that Sam confronts about halfway through the film. He’s a character that has a seemingly strange duality to him- a character that lives by extorting women, but can’t even form a proper sentence without saying ‘So long’. Another really memorable character was the reclusive painter that lives in a boarded up home on the edge of town. The characters are unique enough to create a world that feels just slightly foreign so that the twist at the end seems reasonable, yet it’s grounded enough to truly have some frightening moments.
Another thing I really liked in this film was the cinematography and the staging of characters during certain scenes. One of my favorite scenes of the whole film comes when Sam first sees Monica almost murdered and is trapped in a glass hallway, unable to get to her. The tension that Argento creates by making Sam a helpless witness to attempted murder is wonderful, and it really helps establish why Sam would be so obsessive about solving the case. There are other beautifully shot scenes in this film too, like the scene where Sam wanders through the foggy streets after the attempted murder and is almost killed by an unseen assailant. Argento loves to show off Italy in a number of his films, and this one is no different; there are sweeping shots of the beautiful city, long tracking shots that use deep staging, and marvelously executed reveals that happen throughout.
As far as pacing goes, this film is a touch slower than some of Argento’s other work, though it honestly didn’t bother me after we got past the first act, which was where the pacing was the biggest issue. Towards the ending, Argento also wraps everything up rather quickly, to the point where things feel a bit rushed. The final scene is just a monologue over a montage of images explaining what happened, and that felt a bit forced and cheap. Overall, though, the storyline made more sense than some of his other works, the twist was satisfying, and the tension was high to the very end.
As I mentioned before, Argento is a man that I, personally, can forgive for his little flaws and eccentricities. He’s a director whose work I unequivocally love, but you might see his work as the cheap thrills of a schlocky slasher director. I think Argento is a mastermind, and his first film gives inklings of what is to come from the director that mastered the giallo. I absolutely recommend this film, but if you’re unfamiliar with Argento, maybe start with "Deep Red” or "Suspiria”, those are a touch better, and will give you a greater idea of what Argento set out to accomplish.
If you liked this film, check out our Dario Argento Spotlight!
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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