Wednesday, April 1, 2015

OPERA (1987)

Dario Argento, 1987
Starring: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini

Betty, a young, but talented understudy at the opera is suddenly forced to sing the lead role in Verdi’s Macbeth when the domineering star is badly injured. Betty’s anxiety about taking the role is compounded by an eccentric director, who typically works on horror films, live crows on the stage, and a murder in one of the theater boxes on opening night. Betty finds herself the target of a demented killer, who tapes needles under her eyelids and forces her to watch him kill. She, the horror director, and a local inspector rush to figure out the murderer’s identity before Betty is his next victim.

In my opinion, Opera was the last film in Argento’s stretch of masterpieces. Though he occasionally stumbled, he produced consistently mesmerizing films from his debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), to this film 17 years later. Opera also marks the last gasp of the giallo film, which died out in the late ‘70s and lingered on through the ‘80s with a few films from directors like Mario Bava’s son Lamberto and the talented Michele Soavi. Opera lacks many of the giallo standards. Though there is a black-gloved killer, his victims are not beautiful, scantily-clad women; rather they just happen to get between the killer and Betty. The stylish, colorful visuals associated with ‘70s giallo films are replaced by operatic murder set pieces that cleverly use the opera house as its backdrop.

One of my favorite sub-genres within horror and suspense is actually films set in the theatrical world. Though there are not a wealth of these, there’s are consistent entries over the years with films like The Last Warning (1929), Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), Circus of Horrors (1960), and Theatre of Death (1967) with Christopher Lee. Many of them, such as Mad Love (1935) and The Lodger (1944), concern a psychotic man’s obsession with a beautiful actress. For whatever reason, the sub-genre really took off in the ‘70s and ‘80s with a slew of these films, including Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), Wicked Wicked (1973), wonderful Vincent Price-vehicle Theatre of Blood (1973), Australian film Nightmares (1980), Curtains (1983), and even another giallo – one of my favorite films of all time – Soavi’s Stage Fright (1987).

This insular, highly stylized environment full of artifice, drama, ambition, and “artistic” personalities naturally lends itself to movie plots and many of these films perhaps inevitably recall The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Lon Chaney’s sympathetic, grotesque figure who strikes terror into an opera house to get close to the woman he loves is an obvious plot element borrowed for Opera; both films also concern a beautiful young singer making her debut. While Argento would go on to adapt this tale directly for the appallingly awful Phantom of the Opera (1998), here he simply replaced the Phantom with a serial killer.

Another literary inspiration comes in the form of Macbeth, the opera being staged in the film. The director, Marco (Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire), is an obvious stand-in for Argento, as his primary career is directing notoriously violent horror films. His (and thus Argento’s) adaptation of Macbeth is a thing of style and beauty, an anachronistic blend of gritty Early Modern elements with industrial d├ęcor including thick fog, a handgun in place of a sword, ghostly dancers, and live crows. Argento would actually direct an opera adaptation of Macbeth in 2013 – which I believe he presented again this year – and perhaps one of my biggest complaints about Opera is that it relies more on Phantom of the Opera than it does on Macbeth. The latter seems uniquely suited to Argento with its over-the-top violence, sense of paranoia and doomed fate, three incredibly eerie witches, and a strong, but troubled female protagonist driven mad by murder.

SOME SPOILERS. Instead, Argento’s plot for Opera is sort of a riff on his earlier Tenebre. A seemingly normal, heroic character is hiding an obsession with monstrous violence. Both films have flashbacks of past sadism – in this case there is also a close-up of a throbbing brain – with scenes of a winding staircase and a woman being tortured while another bound and gagged woman looks on. Argento’s standard use of complicated family relationships and childhood trauma reoccurs through Betty, who is the daughter of an opera star, a cold, ambitious woman who apparently had a penchant for violence. She forced her lover to tie her up so that she could watch him torture and kill young woman. The film stumbles in the sense that it focuses on the killer’s assumption that Betty is just like her mother – privately obsessed with sadism – but fails to explore the effect these traumatic memories may have had on Betty.

Like Argento’s earlier films, Opera is also fixated on is issues of vision, namely spectatorship and performance, voyeurism and violence. As a performer, Betty becomes publicly recognizable as Lady Macbeth. This character – a ruthless, ambitious woman who participates in a murder – overlaps with the memory of Betty’s own mother, equally ambitious, but sadistic, both oversexed and frigid (the killer later remarks that he was never allowed to touch her). The murderer practices some of his fantasies by running a knife along a television screen that depicts Betty singing, and later – in the film’s most memorable visual – forces open her eyes by taping a row of needles to the bottom lid so that she has to watch him kill. Finally the crows’ vision plays into the conclusion, as they are the only living creatures who can recognize the murderer.

Though it was one of my favorites when I was a teenager, Opera is a flawed film that often works despite itself. This film, Phenomena, and the Argento-produced Demons all introduced heavy metal music into Italian horror soundtracks, which dates Opera and curdles with the other music: a chilling electronic score from Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti and Brian Eno, and some classic opera arias sung primarily by Maria Callas. Despite its flaws and Argento’s alleged issues with Spanish actress Cristina Marsillach, Opera offers up plenty of entertainment and some gripping death scenes. This last solid effort from Argento was also one of his most financially successful and deserves to be seen by all Italian horror fans – and by anyone curious to know how giallo films evolved over the years. I don’t think there’s a U.S. Blu-ray release available yet, but this DVD version comes recommended.


  1. Interesting take. I last watched it on the Japanese Blu-ray, which comes with its share of flaws. Michael Mackenzie over at Land of Whimsy has posted an exhaustive review of that disc (which Diabolik still has in stock I believe):

    1. I had heard that there were issues with that Japanese release (which that Land of Whimsy link explains in full), so I avoided picking up that one -- plus I still have the old Anchor Bay DVD, which still seems like it's probably the superior release, at least for now.