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Blu-ray Review: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – “Excellent madness”

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Out in the UK on the 19th of June is Arrow Video’s brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, in its original aspect ratio, of Dario Argento’s first film: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’.

Written and directed by Argento, the film has a score by Ennio Morricone, and is shot by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now). ‘Crystal Plumage’ also stars Tony Musante (We Own the Night), Eva Rezin (Funeral in Berlin) and Suzy Kendall (Spasmo).

First released in 1970, ‘Crystal Plumage’ establishes many of Dario’s staples that we would go on to see throughout his career: a black gloves clad killer, killer POV and crazy cool camera moves, a preoccupation with art, memory and seeing, and a creative American protagonist – abroad and a suspect – trying to solve the case himself.

One night, walking home, Sam Dalmas (Musante) witnesses an attack in an art gallery and after seeing a mysterious black clad figure flee the scene attempts to help a beautiful stabbed woman (Renzi) crawling and bleeding amongst a set of looming sculptures. This bravura scene is a masterful set piece with Sam becoming trapped between two sets of sliding glass doors and forced to impotently watch the woman struggle.

When the police come and free him, Sam has his passport confiscated and is encouraged to follow up on a clue that he knows he has seen that is important – but can’t remember. Now the killer is coming for him and his British girlfriend (Kendall), and they must survive attacks and threats, while working with the Italian cops and their cutting edge dot matrix technology to solve the mystery and catch the killer.

Tony Musante is great as a lead who is in nearly every scene and must lead us and the cops through an Argento-ian labyrinth of tangents, dream logic, and an insanely quirky supporting cast. Dario instantly established himself as a horror auteur and highly talented visualist with ‘Crystal Plumage’, and it also features terrific action and murderous set pieces, such as a thrilling bus depot foot chase and many terrifying stalk and slash scenes.

The majority of Argento and Storaro’s beautifully composed shots are works of art themselves and in this fabulous new restoration it is even more abundantly clear how they maximise every single pixel of the 2.35:1 picture. The video encode retains the negative’s natural grain, and although there is some film damage at times visible, this feels truer than artificially removing them. The colours vivaciously pop for the entirety in vivid eye-searing reds and beautiful bright bottle greens.

There are two mono audio tracks – English or Italian – and no faux 5.1 stream. Again, this is faithful to the original, but it is a bit of a shame to not feel the force of the catchy and supercool Ennio Morricone score blasting out in surround. There are also English subtitles, which are SDH, so with music and effects subbed – as well as the dialogue.

The main extra is an audio commentary with Troy Howarth – the author of ‘So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films’. This track is a non-stop info dump that will fill you full of facts in thirty seconds. A breathless high-value trivia fest that whizzes by, and wisely pauses and refocusses on important on-screen action, as well as telling the over-arching story of the film’s genesis, it is a great commentary.

‘Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis’ is a thirty minute featurette with critic Kat Ellinger, who explores the film’s themes and place in “giallo” – as well as its relationship to the Frederic Brown novel: ‘The Screaming Mimi’. It is an interesting piece that puts the film in the context of not just Dario’s filmography – but the filmic landscape of gialli thrillers being released around the time. It is a bit overlong, but will make you want to track down a cover of the influential pulp novel.

‘The Power of Perception’ is a “visual essay” that reflects on the recurring themes of seeing and the role of art in Argento’s work. This is something that I have always found fascinating in Dario’s works, so twenty minutes exploration of these themes throughout not just ‘Crystal Plumage’ but ‘Suspiria’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Phenomena’ et al.

‘Crystal Nightmare’ is a half hour Arrow exclusive interview with Dario talking about the inspiration for the film, its making, its release, and its influence. As always, he is a brutally honest subject, lacking any bullshit and full of new nuggets that even the most hardened Argento fan will enjoy.

‘An Argento Icon’ is an interview with Gildo Di Marco who plays the stuttering pimp “So Long” in ‘Crystal Plumage’. He talks passionately of his accidental acting career, his onset experiences, his thoughts on what makes Argento special and his subsequent work with one of the master’s of horror.

‘Eva’s Talking’ is an older (2005) interview with star Eva Renzi. The picture quality is low and she is sat at a table, in a strange empty restaurant, dominated by an enormous wobbly candle. As amusing as this is, she is deadly serious about how a film fell through meaning she ended up cast in ‘Plumage’ and how she feels like it was the death of her career.

There are also three trailers on the disc: the original Italian one, the International one, and the one for this very disc that was shown at the 2017 Texas Frightmare. Jazzy and crazy, this one is a total sizzle reel for the film – expertly highlighting the excellent madness of the film, and quality of this 4K restoration.

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