There are few slasher films that make a horror fan rethink the genre, but if there is any one movie of the sort, it is most definitely a giallo film. For me, the giallo film that changed the horror genre was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the first of many an astounding thriller by the Italian maestro himself, Dario Argento. With fine performances on all fronts, a lineup of interesting characters, and fantastic cinematography, combined with the usual memorable score, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an atmospheric thriller with little competition.
The plot concerns a writer named Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) who is trapped in Rome after witnessing the tail end of a murder attempt on a woman’s life. The police are quick to believe his innocence, but keep his passport, urging him to remember what exactly he saw—hoping to dislodge something in his memory that might aid in capturing the serial killer, who is equally quick to go after Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) while continuing the murder spree already begun well before the attempt. As Sam tries to figure out what seemed off about the life-changing event, things get more dangerous and more clues are discovered as the story flies higher and higher into an unforgettable twist ending.
Argento’s directing style is something to be commended, as always. Every shot is well thought-out and gives the viewer a good bit of eye candy without resorting to naked girls or nonsensical floods of gore. All of the kills are handled with an understanding touch that they become a pleasurable foreshadowing of Argento’s later films, while the atmosphere rings true with many of his oft-mentioned classics, most notably Deep Red. Also, it could be said that the cinematography is really what keeps up the tension of the plot; one missed step could have easily meant giving away the mystery of the film, giving a red herring or two nowhere to go. One of the most notable aspects of giallo films is the soundtrack that (usually) graces the best of them. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is blessed with a very diverse score, ranging from a creepy chorus chanting whenever the killer is making a move to the drums used in the chase scene that would fit just as well in a jazz club. Each scene is given extra life with a multitude of beats that manage to creep the viewer out while adding excitement to nearly every moment.
Argento wrote the script for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with as much a master’s eye as he used in his direction. The dialogue never comes off as too cliché, and even manages to be very humorous with a funny and memorable transvestite joke, a stuttering pimp and a cat-eating crazed artist who “only paints mystical things”, among other things. The plot moves along with the amateur detective skills of Sam Dalmas and his girlfriend Julia, who are a fun pair to watch, along with a few very memorable murders and even a chase scene that is equally, if not more, enjoyable. Going on, there are many films that have created a cool atmosphere and used brilliant cinematography to compliment a fabulous story, only to have cheap and inexperienced actors screw it up. Luckily, Dario Argento’s first film was made with some of the best backing a filmmaker new to the game can—a rich producer for a father. So it should be understood how Dario was able to skip the lack of talent phase of low-budget filmmaking and obtain actors who, while not being a grouping of seamless thespians barraging the screen with unforgettable characterizations, manage to give truthful and well-developed performances. I was even able to pick up on some subtext that rarely gets through in such films. Of course, we do have the quintessential trench coat-wearing detective who knows there’s more to the situation than there appears, but it is performed well by Enrico Maria Salerno and so it works just fine. Just as a side note, at the point of the attempted murder, it seems that being knifed hurts to the point of orgasm, but I’ll just let you see that one for yourself.
The scare factor of the film is nothing exponentially great, but Argento manages to add enough tension and violence to the film to satisfy many a horror slave’s thirst. The scene in which a young woman has a blade rubbed between her breasts and down her abdomen before having her panties torn off (while maintaining a PG rating) is one of the more memorable examples, along with the attack on Julia’s life, which brings with it an extraordinary amount of energy considering that there is always a door between the two. Just don’t expect any Friday the 13th-esque gore effects, as most of the violence occurs off-screen, with very little blood. Overall, I highly recommend this as viewing for any fan of the horror genre; and I demand that fans of the slasher subgenre see it. Yes, there are a few better films in both the Dario Argento and collective giallo catalog, but that does not change the fact that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of the finest horror films ever made, as well as one hell of a debut.