If you've never checked out Dario Argento's ''Bird With the Crystal Plumage,'' Chris Nashawaty says, you're in for a fantastically stylish and campy treat
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Credit: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Everett Collection

The best of ”The Italian Hitchcock”

Unless you’re a real horror nerd — the kind that goes to Fangoria conventions and paints Hellraiser figurines in your basement — the name Dario Argento likely means very little to you.

Let’s do something about that.

Argento is most famous for three hugely important cinematic achievements and one much less important, genetic one: He co-wrote Sergio Leone’s greatest spaghetti Western (which is really saying something), Once Upon a Time in the West; he directed the 1977 blood-and-ballerinas masterpiece Suspiria (featuring the genius tagline ”The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92”); he collaborated with zombie maestro George A. Romero on 1978’s Dawn of the Dead; and he fathered tattooed temptress Asia Argento.

Now, regardless of what you thought of his daughter’s acting opposite Vin Diesel in XXX, you have to admit that’s a pretty impressive list. But it doesn’t even get at some of the greatest films on Dario Argento’s résumé.

Nearly impossible to track down for years, Argento’s first three films are an underappreciated trilogy of campy, stylishly bloodcurdling thrillers. Some fans call it his ”animal trilogy” due to the films’ titles: 1970’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1971’s The Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, also from 1971, and the only one that’s still never been released on DVD.

Each of these films is what grindhouse geeks call a giallo, which means ”yellow” in Italian, and refers to the color of the lurid, dime-store-paperback thrillers that Italians used to scarf down like peanuts.

They’re also singlehandedly responsible for earning Argento the nickname ”The Italian Hitchcock,” which to be honest would only really fit if Hitchcock had a sweet tooth for lithe Italian models in go-go boots and the kind of psychedelic freakout music that’s one part Ennio Morricone and two parts European porno soundtrack.

All three of these early Argento films are fantastically stylish and also fantastically campy, what with their bad dubbing and cheesy Freudian back stories. Watching them is like sitting through The Good, the Bad, and the Sexually Pent-up.

My favorite of the bunch is The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Why? Well, for starters, there would be no Basic Instinct without it. Or any of the other early-’90s erotic thrillers that sprung up like toadstools at the dawn of the Clinton era.

Granted, the age-old formula of scantily clad women getting it from fetishistic weirdos dates back to way before Argento (here, Hitchcock truly was the master). But making his films in Europe — and during the sexual revolution, no less — really cut Argento all sorts of softcore leeway.

But before I start to sound like some mouth-breather in a trenchcoat, let’s get to the plot. Tony Musante, an American expat actor who resembles a young Joe Pesci or an uglier Mark Ruffalo, plays Sam Dalmas, a struggling writer who’s moved to Italy in search of inspiration. One night, while walking past an art gallery on a deserted street, he sees a woman inside being stabbed by a dark figure dressed in black. Sam helplessly watches as she screams in terror. When the cops show up, they grill him about her attacker. What did he see? How much does he remember? Did he do it?

When he returns to his rented apartment and his beautiful British girlfriend (played by Julie Christie look-alike Suzy Kendall, better known as the onetime Mrs. Dudley Moore), he’s haunted by images of the attack. And soon he finds himself being stalked by the man in black, who meanwhile has stepped up his killing spree.

Musante’s Sam, a not very sympathetic character played by a not very sympathetic actor, starts to play detective, snooping around and chasing leads while no woman in a see-through negligee in the greater Rome area is safe to coyly brush her hair in front of the mirror.

If Argento were a more artsy director, the second half of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage might unfold like Blow Up or Peeping Tom. But he’s not interested in highbrow, arthouse stuff. His agenda is straightforward: There’s a nutjob killer, and there are a bunch of sexy bella donnas in peril.

Will Sam stop him before he eventually works his way down that nubile list to Mrs. Dudley Moore? Will Musante wipe the smug off his mug before the cops wind up fingering him for the crimes? And will we ever find out what the hell ”the bird with the crystal plumage” is?

Damned if I’m going to say. But I will say this much: There’s a hell of a twist at the end, and there are few more entertaining ways to spend an evening than kicking back with a bevy of European knockouts, badly dubbed macho actors, and the deft hand of the Italian Hitchcock.

Buon appetito!