Known for their trademark black-gloved faceless killers and sadistic violence, the gialli were the pre-cursor to the American slasher that dated back to as early as the 1960s. Both subgenres share similar traits but one distinct difference; where the slashers were about body count, the giallo was more of a bloody psychological whodunit. Despite taking its literal name from the yellow covers of the paperback mystery novels in Italy, the term has now become a muddied blanket term for Italian horror everywhere else. To understand what is truly classified as a giallo, it’s best to start at the film that catapulted it into popularity, Dario Argento’s directorial debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Arrow Video, in their continuing effort to release beautiful transfers of all things cult and esoteric, delivers us this limited edition 4K Blu-ray of the film that solidified Dario Argento as Italy’s answer to Hitchcock.
As th first installment in what is known as his “animal trilogy”, with The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) following, CRYSTAL PLUMAGE opens with an innocent but also hauntingly foreboding Ennio Morricone score as a young woman makes her way down the street. The screen shutters like a camera eye and it’s then we realize that we, the audience, are not the ones watching, but someone far more sinister. It’s here that you get your first real inkling of a common theme in Dario’s film which is voyeurism, be it leering, forced or complacent. John Carpenter would be the only director to match Argento’s subtle brilliance of turning a seemingly “everyday” act, like walking down the street, into something far more ominous in Halloween. Quentin Tarantino would also go on to mimic this scene in Death Proof, even using the same Morricone score piece, as Kurt Russell snaps creepier pictures of a gaggle of young women, but to a less effective measure.
We’re introduced to our protagonist Sam (Tony Musante), an American writer who lives in Rome with his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall), as he walks home one night and spots an altercation inside an art gallery. A woman is under attack by, you guessed it, a man dressed in all black leather (including gloves) who’s attempting to kill her. Sam is physically unable to reach her, she’s behind two mechanized planes of glass that make up the building foyer and gallery entrance. He’s able to get into the foyer, but ends up trapped in between the two. Sam is forced to watch her crawl towards him, bleeding out, a helpless witness to her attempted murder. The scene is fraught with tension and stands out as one of the director’s most memorable set pieces. Bringing us back to his themes of voyeurism, the scene makes the viewer wonder: are we willing participants with an insatiable bloodlust or victims held against our will to participate in a theater of violence? If there were a single moment in Argento’s earlier career that you could imagine Hitchcock would’ve appreciated himself, this is likely it.
I won’t go too much further into the plot, but after the attack, Sam decides to aid Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) in the investigation, since he’s now grown increasingly obsessed with the incident, trying to recall a pertinent clue from that night in hopes to unlock the mystery. Despite the solid performance in the beginning, Musante isn’t my favorite of early Argento’s leading men. His performance throughout wobbles, with moments where he delivers, only to then have points where he seems a bit drab, like he’s not able to act with his expressions at all. It may not be Musante’s fault entirely though, because a lot of Dario Argento’s leading men, with the exception to David Hemmings in Deep Red, tend to be sticks in the mud. As with all his films that followed, the women are the most interesting characters, as are his queer ones. As Sam’s girlfriend, Julia, Suzy Kendall is under-used and could have been a more fleshed out character, had she been given the space. The two don’t really have much chemistry though, and Sam seems far too interested in Monica (Eva Renzi), the woman who survived the attack. The hunky Mario Adorf (who I like to refer to as Italy’s Bob Hoskins) shows up for a few minutes, but he’s an asshole who apparently likes to eat cats.
Aside from the questionable casting decisions, PLUMAGE is still a remarkably bold debut for a then first-time director. Some of the innovative camera work that Dario would onto to use in films like Tenebrae is apparent here. The murder set pieces here are shot beautifully and also incredibly tense. There’s a darkened stairwell attack (a clear influence on Brian Depalma’s Dressed to Kill) with a woman meeting her death at the end of a straight razor. Also, there’s a relatively taut scene where Julia cowers on the floor as the killer attempts to whittle his way through a barricaded door (though I can’t imagine how long that would actually take…you have to be a pretty patient killer). It’s slightly absurd and funny, like some of Argento’s death scene can be, but nonetheless effective. However, there is one thing I have always found to be amusing about Dario Argento’s films. In nearly all of them, the killer ends up being someone who was rather innocuous for most of the film, and yet, during the finale, that killer suddenly becomes bat-shit crazy – I mean the kind of crazy you would think one wouldn’t be able to hide very well.
One has to understand that 70s Argento and 80s Argento are two different beasts. For example, if you’ve seen Dario’s most famous film, Suspiria, first and then decide to go backwards, you’re likely going to have a bit of a chip on your shoulder as far as expectations go. You’re much better off starting at the beginning with THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and working your way up. His earlier work is still slightly reserved compared to his more fantastical work like Phenomena or Inferno. PLUMAGE was his calling card to start with, and even thought it was highly influential and an important film, Deep Red and Tenebrae are far superior gialli that showcase his true brilliance in the subgenre. Those expecting to hear a signature synth-prog score by Goblin (which has now become synonymous with his films) in any of the three “animal trilogy” will be disappointed. However, Morricone and Argento together are just as effective.
Arrow Video has once again shown they don’t just sell you another Blu-ray in a case with cool original artwork on it. THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with a limited edition 60-page booklet illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie and new writing by Howard Hughes and Jack Seabrook. The transfer is beautiful, the colors are rich and saturated (as any good Argento film deserves). “Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis” is a great featurette with Kat ellinger where she explains a little about the history of giallo and the film’s relation to the Frederic Brown novel “The Screaming Mimi”. You’ve also got “The Power of Perception” which is a visual essay on Dario Argento’s work by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, audio commentary by Troy Howarth, a 2017 interview with Argento himself and a few more goodies I’ll leave unsaid for you to discover.
So, in conclusion folks, if you’re ready to fall into the wonderfully perverse and (sometimes pleasingly) exploitative rabbit-hole that is Giallo cinema, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is your gateway drug. While you’re at it, you may want to also pick up Arrow’s releases of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the latter beingi what most consider to be the definitive first giallo. If you’re still hesitant, but you love slasher films, do yourself a favor and see the films that inspired their invention. Like all births, it’s a bloody mess.