EDITOR’S NOTE: If you look at the poster for the 21st Century release of The Phantom of Terror and wonder where you’ve seen it before, well, it’s been on the site at least three times with the last appearance being September 16, 2021. That’s right — it’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. 21st Century re-released it in 1982 and you have to image that people had seen it before twelve years ago and didn’t think it was a new slasher, right?
Other than the films of Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, The Girl Who Knew Too Much), there’s no other film that has no influenced the giallo. In fact, the most well-known version of the form starts right here with Dario Argento’s 1970 directorial debut. Until this movie, he’d been a journalist and had helped write Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer suffering from an inability to write. He’s gone to Rome to recover, along with his British model girlfriend (yes, everyone in giallo can score a gorgeous girl like Suzy Kendall). Just as he decides to return home, he witnesses a black-gloved man attacking a girl inside an art gallery. Desperate to save her, he can only watch, helpless and trapped between two mechanical doors as she wordlessly begs for help.
The woman is Monica Ranier and she’s gallery owner’s wife. She survives the attack, but the police think Sam may have had something to do with the crime, so they keep his passport so he can’t leave the country. What they’re not letting on is that a serial killer has been wiping out young women for weeks and that Sam is the only witness. That said — he’s haunted by what he’s survived and his memory isn’t working well, meaning that he’s missing a vital clue that could solve the crime.
As you can see, the foreign stranger who must become a detective, the missing pieces of memory, the black-clad killer — it’s everything that every post-1970 giallo would pay tribute to (perhaps rip off is the better term).
Another Argento trope shows up here for the first time. It’s the idea that art itself can cause violence. In this film, it’s a painting that shows a raincoat-clad man murdering a woman.
Soon, Sam is getting menacing calls from the killer and Julia is attacked by the black-clad maniac. The police isolate a sound in the background of the killer’s conversations, the call of a rare Siberian “bird with the crystal plumage.” There’s only one in Rome, which gets the police closer to the identity of who is wearing those black gloves (in truth, it’s Argento’s hands). It’s worth noting that the species of bird the film refers to as “Hornitus Nevalis” doesn’t really exist. The bird in the film is actually a Grey Crowned Crane.
Alberto, Monica’s art gallery husband, tries to kill her, finally revealing that he has been behind the attacks. Ah — but this is a giallo. Mistaken identity is the main trick of its trade. And even though this film was made nearly fifty years ago, I’d rather you get the opportunity to learn for yourself who the killer really is.
I may have mentioned before that my parents saw this movie before I was born and hated it to a degree that any time a movie didn’t make any sense, they would always bring up “that weird movie with the bird that makes the noises.” Who knew I would grow up to love Argento so much? It’s one of those cruel ironies that would show up in his movies. I really wonder if my obsession with giallo and movies that are difficult to understand is really me just rebelling.
An uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, this film was thought of as career suicide by actress Eva Renzi. And the producer of the film wanted to remove Argento as the director. However, when Argento’s father Salvatore Argento went to speak to the man, he noticed that the executive’s secretary was all shaken up. He asked her what was wrong and she mentioned that she was still terrified from watching the film. Salvatore asked her to tell her boss why she was so upset and that’s what convinced the man to keep Dario on board.
The results of all this toil and worry? A movie that played for three and a half years in one Milan theater and led to copycats (and lizards and spiders and flies and ducklings and butterflies and so on) for decades. Argento would go on to film the rest of his so-called Animal Trilogy with The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, then Deep Red before moving into more supernatural films like Suspiria and Inferno.