This is an attempt to re-evaluate Opera aka Terror at the Opera, a “Giallo” from 1987, written and directed by Dario Argento, starring Christina Marsillach, Daria Nicolodi, Ian Charleston and others.
The Plot (that there is)
The new MacBeth adaptation at the opera in Rome is shaping up to be a disaster. Everybody involved, including the arrogant star Mara, is worried about the risky move to hire the “vulgar” horror movie director and opera-newbie Marco (Ian Charleston), who insists on an anachronistically designed avant-garde interpretation including live ravens (which will become an important plot point!) that the superstitious diva refuses to work with. But fate is twisting the knife even more when Mara has to quit production after she broke her leg in an accident. Her young, pretty and talented but emotionally fragile understudy Betty (Christina Marsillach) is brought in as last-minute replacement and against all odds, she delivers a phenomenal performance that is greeted with standing ovations.
But this is a Giallo movie, so naturally there has to be a crazed masked killer with a mysterious connection to the female main character’s past who starts killing off people in her vicinity. This killer’s shtick is particularly original/cruel though: He (she?) always turns up in a strategically perfectly chosen moment, ties Betty up and forces her to watch the killing by taping needles under her eyes that would pierce through her eyelids if she closed them. The situation gets even more dangerous and complicated when it becomes obvious that the only chance to expose the killer’s identity might be the premiere of the opera.
A Late Giallo
Recently I have been on a prolonged Giallo- binge, as I have always been a fan of the genre but suddenly developed the ambition to become a true expert. Over the course of my self-education, I discovered a lot of gems I haven’t seen before and revisited some of the classics, among them this Giallo from the late period of the genre, which I am, to my own surprise, appreciating now even more than the first time I saw it.
Commonly, the 1970s are defined as the peak of both the Giallo subgenre and Argento’s filmography. I agree to a certain extent with this but that doesn’t mean that the 80s are forgettable, as often some of the most peculiar and interesting flowers grow when an era ends. Actually, I would go as far as to claim that the quality of Argento’s output during the 80s is close to equal to his 70s work, it’s just that the novelty effect had somewhat waned. Inferno, Tenebre and particularly Phenomena are still fantastic, showing that Argento was still a force to be reckoned with as innovator. To be fair, his early to mid- 90s stuff isn’t too shabby as well, just less memorable. Skimming through reviews and imdb comments, it appears that many fans seem to think of Opera as Argento’s jump-the-shark moment, a notion I vehemently disagree with. It might be his last truly great movie though.
Style is Substance?
No doubt, while it’s true that Argento built his films almost always on the same pillars, he also tried to reinvent the formula in new, stylistically exciting ways with each movie.
Opera has all the classic traits of Giallo. There is a sadistic serial killer with a distorted voice (to conceal his identity) and a sinister-looking getup. The reveal of his/her motive is usually equally important as the reveal of the identity and it has in most cases some connection to the traumatic backstory of the hero/heroine. Absurd moments occur throughout the plot that is rather committed to dream logic than realism. It is set in the world of art, the third preferred option besides the two equally popular choices of backdrop, namely the world of fashion and the world of decadent rich people. Visually it is highly stylized, the soundtrack is intrusive and it’s overall not shy of being tacky.
As stated before, Argento reused that concept a few times, yet none of his films is like the other. For a later period work, Opera is a mean, lean movie overflowing with the energy of a curious, hungry filmmaker and not a sluggish behemoth collapsing under self-references (although they are there, more about that later). One can feel the passion and glee that was put into making Opera and thankfully the fun is infectious. Argento pulls off the unbelievable feat to let the movie constantly fire from all cylinders without ever make it feel exhausting for the audience. Opera really live up to its name, it’s glorious, colourful and loud bombast from start to finish.
In the first scene, showing the final rehearsal, the camera switches from a POV of the singer, to a close-up of a reflection of the scenery in a raven’s eye to a crane shot and so on. Sure, it’s Argento flexing his muscles and showing off, but hell it is effective. Generally, the camera is almost constantly in motion throughout the whole movie, boldly ignoring the gobbledigook “law” of snotty filmmakers that says the camera should not be noticeable. Not only that, Argento is also breaking with his own style -spooky compositions and slow camera movements interrupted by sudden pans or zooms- and presents us a visual rollercoaster ride that alternately captures broad, breathtaking vistas or blows up the smallest details into cinemascope glory. At some moments, the combined use of sweeping crane shots and swift steady-cam shots, as well as the nervous editing, are reminiscent of the music videos of the late 80s era, which is only fair as artists of that metier drew a lot of inspiration from Argento’s work as well.
Every scene is a set piece, a small spectacle in itself. Argento constructs again some suspense moments so fine that certain plot conveniences and contrivances are forgiven in the face of this virtuosity. One outstanding scene occurs mid-movie when Betty, half-blind after taking eye-drops, lets a cop who is supposed to protect her enter her apartment, only to be followed by another guy ringing at her doorbell, claiming he is said cop…
What follows, is one of the most iconic visuals of the movie… beware, clip contains a spoiler concerning the fate of a character!
Apart from the suspense, several well-placed moments of grisly violence and gore cover the more basic instincts of the horror movie fan. The image of a knife rammed through a jaw so you could see the blade through the open mouth, stuck with me.
Performances are, gauged by genre standard, solid overall. Spanish-born Marsillach is enchanting as Betty, and while the aloofness of the character might be confusing at first, her behaviour does add up the more we get to know about her. Ian Charleston as the eccentric director Marco is probably the best actor of the ensemble. I was saddened to find out that this talented and likeable actor died of AIDS only two years later at the age of 40. Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s frequent collaborator, former lover and mother of their daughter Asia Argento, has a small but pivotal role as Mira, Betty’s agent.
Like Wes Craven did in the 90s, Argento began to work meta-references to his own career and the horror genre in general into his movies of the 1980s. In Tenebre (1981) for example, the popular horror author Peter -a surrogate for Argento- has to confront himself with the notion that his books might have a bad influence on his readers after all, when a serial killer models his kills after those described in his works. Obviously Marco is Argento’s stand-in in Opera, as the artist who despite all his talent will never be respected by the “serious” art scene due to his background in popular culture. Betty being forced to observe the gruesome murders is a thinly veiled metaphor for the act of watching horror movies, when we cannot avert our gaze from the cruelties on screen.
Following all the praise, I am still obliged to talk about some downsides. Starting with one Argento is in no way responsible for, namely the horrible dubbing. Admittedly, brilliant dialogue and delivery are not exactly a trait of Giallo movies in the original language either and sometimes the dubbing can even develop its own charm, but this is a rather cringe-worthy example of what can go wrong. Somebody thought it’s a good idea to let Betty talk with an Italian accent, yet sadly the voice actresses’ bizarre inflection does not sound Italian or like of any other known language at all and she is constantly dropping it to boot.
Logic and coherence are, as I already pointed out, also of no greater importance to enjoy a visceral movie like a Giallo, but the at the end revealed motivation of the killer is a tad too weak and threadbare even by genre standards, making it lose some of the showdown’s impact. Then there is a second showdown that, although entertaining and suspenseful, comes with a baffling change of location that is a little at odds with the movie’s theme. But the biggest sin Argento commits is his inexplicable decision to use Hard Rock/Metal songs during the killing scenes. Among all the stylistically confident choices he made, this one stands out like a sore thumb. Horror movies and Metal sound like a match made in heaven, but Metal is already such an opulent and emotionally distinctive entity in itself that it usually feels tacked on and distracting in movies. It also hurts the suspense and crashes hard with the beautiful melange of opera-music and Brian Eno- orchestrated synth score.
Nonetheless, despite those faults, Opera remains a great entry into Argento’s oeuvre and should entertain anyone who is not opposed to horror that is frenetic, unhinged and, well, operatic.
Depending on if I find time and/or inspiration, more articles on Giallo movies might follow.