Starring – Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno.
So for my final contribution to Slasher Month, I have chosen giallo maestro Dario Argento’s debut feature ‘The Bird With The Crystal Plumage’ for my ‘Slasher I Have Always Wanted To See’ piece. Why? Well, as a man on a mission to watch all of Argento’s films, I’ve gone back to his earlier work and been surprised by what I have found. ‘Suspiria’, Argento’s masterpiece, remains one of the proud select few horror films to truly ‘get at’ me, genuinely scaring me in places.
I went into it with absolutely zero idea of what to expect and what I got was breathtaking chills, a thumping score and possibly one of the few times a horror film could be said to actually look like a piece of art (the red paint used as blood adds to thus further still). Whilst exploring the start of Argento’s prolific filmography, I have noticed that whilst stylistically there is little change from the hauntingly beautiful cinematography, tonally and subject-wise, ‘Suspiria’ is far removed from ‘The Bird’. Considering their mere seven year difference in age, both films could almost be seen to come from two completely different minds. One is a deliriously hallucinogenic nightmare and the other is the kick-starter of the black-gloved murderer ‘giallo’ genre.
Which Argento film do I prefer watching? Let us see…
An American writer living in Rome witnesses the attempted murder of a young woman at the hands of a mysterious figure wearing black gloves and a trench coat. Determined to find the assailant, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) knows he must uncover the man’s identity before he and his wife become the new targets.
Right from the word go, Argento sets out his stall with all his tricks that would come to make him one of horror’s most revered and imitated directors. Whilst giallo purists will be keen to point out that it was in fact Mario Bava who first started the black gloves and trench coat outfit that became a staple of the subgenre, Argento still manages to make it his own here, presenting a methodical killer wrapped up in eerie mystery. After seeing the figure pull out a file on their next victim, Argento brilliantly captures the ritualistic sense of the killings that are about to take place.
Barely 15 minutes into the film and we see a simply gorgeous-looking set piece of an attempted murder as witnessed by the lead Sam Dalmas. Trapped between the glass walls of an art gallery, Argento already firmly establishes his distinct style of brutal acts surrounded by the stylistic flair of both the set and graceful camera movements. A staple of Argento’s directing style is the startlingly uncomfortable close-up shots designed to make augment the uneasy sense of voyeurism and make an audience almost feel implicit in what they are seeing, forcing them to not look away.
This artistic temperament is prevalent throughout the film, with the use of paintings, bathing everything in shadows and lavish interior designs. Nowhere is this art-style more amplified than in a fantastically drawn-out elevator sequence with masterful tension and chillingly oppressive camera angles that give a clear indication of the future even more lavish flourishes of grandeur from the director.
For a horror director so beloved for his violent and creative dispatches, it is a shock that ‘The Bird’ is relatively tame, with only the occasional dash of blood in comparison to ‘Suspira’s opening sequence where it flows like a fountain.
Whilst every Argento fan’s preferred musical accompaniment to his films is the work of wonderfully creepy Italian prog-rockers Goblin, here maestro Ennio Morricone does a masterful score that accompanies the film perfectly. The use of haunting chimes and children chanting may be considered a tad old hat in this day and age, but here it still resonates as being a deceptively chilling soundtrack that fits the film like the iconic black leather gloves.
One area in which no Argento film has aged well in is the hilariously awful dubbing, made all the worse for the accompanying terribly hokey acting. That being said, it takes nothing away from just how enjoyable all of his films are, if anything, it adds to the fun! Using the stereotype of the cocky writer, Argento is able to give him more depth with the use of having Dalmas haunted by clever freeze flame flashbacks to the attempted murder. Where ‘The Bird’ differs most of all from the other works in Argento’s vast filmography is a far great emphasis on the police work during the investigation.
In many of Argento’s films, the police are always arriving just too late or they completely disbelief the lead character’s story, here, there nitty gritty of police work does often make the film less interesting, however, the overall plot manages to keep things afloat. Argento’s trademark black humour is also used to great effect here in a police line-up that I shan’t ruin.
The film and consequently Argento’s constant Achilles heel is its slack pacing and often completely irrelevant tangents. It is a problem that Argento’s films certainly would continue to suffer from, but there are still fantastic examples of masterful build up of tension, heightened further still by the maddening score and often surprises that catch you completely off-guard.
With a fantastic title, the relevance of which only becomes clear at the end, constant red herrings, the film is concluded with a neat but predictable final twist, wrapping everything up with great over the top Italian style and flair. Whilst it is true that you could have seen the twist coming if you had paid close attention, it is still pulled off with great conviction combined with a shocking reveal and proved to be so good that unfortunately Argento has used it again in other of his films.
So ultimately I thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the humble beginnings of one of the most iconic horror directors, however, as much as I enjoy his murder thrillers, Argento’s supernatural-based horror films will always have the terrifying edge.
About Oliver Ryder
Ever since he saw 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' at the tender age of five, Oli was dragged into the wonderfully disturbing world of horror and has never looked back. He enjoys all things macabre, dark comedy, penguins and likes his coffee black just like his metal.