Opera aka Terror at the Opera (1987): An appreciation of Dario Argento’s probably last great movie Opera aka Terror at the Opera (1987): An appreciation of Dario Argento’s probably last great movie
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... Opera aka Terror at the Opera (1987): An appreciation of Dario Argento’s probably last great movie

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

*Standing ovation*

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Depending on if I find time and/or inspiration, more articles on Giallo movies might follow.

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DetectiveDee

Detective Dee reviews movies and sometimes TV-series. He likes to indulge in the Asian cinema, exploitation flicks and the horror genre but is no stranger to Blockbuster culture either. He writes whatever he wants, but always aims to entertain.

  • I_am_better

    Definitely the last great Argento-film. Some after this (like “Stendahl Syndrome” and “Sleepless”) still had some good moments, but this was really the last one that held it’s package together.

  • Dee-abolik

    I barely remember Sleepless. Trauma was solid, but also not that memorable.

  • I_am_better

    Trauma was the attempt to do an American film. It kinda looks like a “best of” of previous Argento-movies, and as I recall – the story made absoutely no sense

  • Dee-abolik

    Coincidence that Argento’s work got weaker when he started casting his daughter? Not saying it’s her fault, but maybe he got softer.

  • I_am_better

    I dunno. She still goes through the ringer in those films

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    Many fans on IMDB think of Opera as Argento’s “jump-the-shark moment”? Eh? Those fans are idiots, then. Maybe they’re thinking of his version of Phantom of the Opera. I always believed Opera was commonly regarded as the last great movie of Argento’s golden period (from Deep Red onward), just as this review concludes.

    As for Argento’s work since, over the years it’s descended from decent to atrocious. I haven’t seen that horrible, cheap-looking Dracula 3D movie yet, and don’t really have any desire to. In addition to his declining talents It’s clear Argento’s ‘s no longer afforded the budgets he commanded in his heyday. A lavish Dracula adaptation from this period of his career would’ve been something to see. Sadly, I don’t think he’ll ever direct a good film again.

  • Dee-abolik

    I was surprised about that myself. I haven’t watched Dracula yet, I will have to one day. There is this “theory” that directors that are fuelled by a certain obsession burn out one day- see also DePalma.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    “There is this “theory” that directors that are fuelled by a certain obsession burn out one day”

    What was Argento’s? Beautiful women in peril? That was probably De Palma’s, too.

    I guess they lost interest in that when they got to the stage of needing Viagra to keep it up.

  • Professional writing as always. That beng said, I don’t recall hearing about this Movie.
    When I think of Argento only Suspiria and Demons (Which I really like) comes to mind.
    I was tempted to watch Dracula on Netflix but I heard so much bad reviews about it.
    I wonder where…hmmm…

  • LMMFAO

  • Dee-abolik

    You might dig it! Argento has only a story credit on Demons.

  • Good enuff.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    He wrote and produced all the Demons series, didn’t he? Even if he can’t claim direct authorship, they did seem very much like his films in mood and style.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    You should watch Phenomena, at least. I heard someone once describe it as a Disney fairytale with gore, which seemed like a really appropriate description.

  • Dee-abolik

    Okay, but let’s put some respeck on the name of Lamberto Bava, he is too underrated anyway.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    I haven’t seen much of his other work. Any recommendations?

  • Dee-abolik

    Yeah! I recommend “A blade in the dark”, “Delirium” and “Macabre”.

  • KilliK

    maybe she got too old for him to fap on while she was naked in his films, so he lost his interest as a filmmaker. he lost his mojo.

  • KilliK

    excellent.
    now how about a tribute article about Asia Argento and her naked scenes?

  • Dee-abolik

    ugh

  • Dee-abolik

    Let’s see what I can do!

  • KilliK

    yeah, because a father having his daughter naked in front of him and his entire crew is not already creepy.

  • Dee-abolik

    Maybe he was creatively empty after he realized he can’t top that?

  • KilliK

    that’s what I said.

  • Dee-abolik

    Maybe my secret favourite. I just recently learned that it inspired the video game Clocktower.

  • Really? I need to make note of this ! Sounds like a high concept horror film.

  • [email protected] saying “Put some repect on Bava’s name”!
    You have arrived, mein friend!
    Let’s not forget his dear ol dad Mario Bava, whose film Planet of the Vampires somewhat inspired Alien. (1979)

  • Or like when I thought about doing an article based on Rape in Anime yet decided agasinst it because it was too taboo as subject? It would have been handled more tastefully had I done it or course. (;’

  • Dee-abolik

    vaguely familiar with that film…

  • Dee-abolik

    oh yeah… but Mario does get his respect, luckily

  • Sagamanus

    Oh, you’re going to become a Giallo expert are you now!?

  • Sagamanus

    yet sadly the voice actresses’ bizarre inflection does not sound Italian or like of any other known language at all.

    Haha.

  • Sagamanus

    Man, I don’t think I’ve watched any Giallo at all. Or maybe I have and didn’t know it. Are any of Mario Bava’s work’s Giallo? If so then that is the extent of it for me. What do you suggest I start with if I were to watch a few films?

  • Dee-abolik

    Yeah, jealous? Or should I say Gialleous?

  • Dee-abolik

    Mario Bava is the inventor of Giallo! Particularly his film “Blood and Black Lace”.
    As an entry I recommend “Four flies on grey velvet”, “Deep Red”, “Bird in the Crystal Plumage”, “Don’t torture a duckling”, “Seven blood-stained orchids”, “The strange vice of Mrs Wardh”, “House with the laughing windows”, “Tenebre”

  • Sagamanus

    Ha. Just read upon Giallo for the first time last night. Bava is indeed the inventor. I’ll put down the films you listed on paper so I can search them out. Thx.