Opera (1987)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-03-26 14:45

Directed by: Dario Argento
Written by: Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini
Starring: Cristina Marsillach, Daria Nicolodi, Urbano Barberini, and Ian Charleson

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“Take a good look. If you try to close your eyes, you’ll tear them apart.
So, you’ll just have to watch everything!”

Though nearly all horror fans have a favorite in the Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci battle for “style over substance”, I will always stand proudly in Argento’s corner. I don’t wish to take anything away from Fulci’s contributions to the genre (for no one can truly shoot an exploding cranium better than he) but for what I want in horror films and in films in general, Dario almost always delivers scenes in the ways I like them delivered. Dario’s killers are always disturbing, mysterious and act with a spooky efficiency that you know right off if you were to encounter them, you’d be dead in a matter of seconds. I also like the fact that his films portray reality in less of a realistic sense and in more of a surreal, nightmarish sense. In an Argento film, you’re not seeing events as they actually are, but instead you’re seeing them as perhaps Dario sees them. He never wastes a shot. He uses color, camera set-up, actor position, and camera movement to achieve the kind of shots that virtually no one else would ever think to capture. Through his early career, he made his name by directing skillful and artistic entries in the thoroughly Italian giallo sub-genre, his most famous horror achievement was 1977’s Suspiria. In the 1980s, he married his earlier violent giallo style with the more colorful and surreal aspects of Suspiria to create some of the most unique films of his career. Opera was regrettably the last truly great film Argento made, and ever since its release, he has struggled to recapture the unique style he once so effortlessly created.

Betty is a young opera understudy in Rome. One night after the lead singer in a recent production of Lady Macbeth is injured in an accident, Betty is asked to take her place. It won’t be an easy task, however. The production has had a long, troubled history, and Betty is hesitant at first about taking on such a role. As you probably have already guessed, Betty was right to be cautious…for on the night of her debut, a theater worker is murdered in the balcony and a lamp comes crashing down to the crowd below. The next night, as she and her new boyfriend finish up an unsatisfying round of sex, a mysterious masked stranger enters the room. He binds Betty’s hands and feet, and props her eyelids open with needles, so she will be forced to watch him brutally stab her boyfriend to death. Soon, others involved with the production begin dying in equally savage ways. Each time, the killer again wants Betty to watch everything he does. Is he trying to impress her or simply drive her mad? Who is Betty’s deranged fan, and why is he committing such horrible crimes?

Opera is a masterful giallo of the more modern 80s age. The sub-genre had been around for two decades prior, but by the time films like A Blade in the Dark, Opera, and Stage Fright were made, they seemed to draw a heavier influence from their American "body count" slasher cousins than they did the original pulp Italian detective films that started the giallo. Like Lamberto Bava's A Blade in the Dark and Michele Soavi's Stage Fright, Opera features a much stronger emphasis on the murders and the stalking by the killer, and less emphasis on the investigation. In fact, the one detective on the case is given very little to do from Dario and Franco Ferrini’s script. The mystery aspect of the film is actually one of Dario’s weakest, as we aren't given a whole lot of potential suspects to sift through. Though, not having seen the film in a while, I did forget the identity of the killer and by the end of the movie I was actually surprised all over again. I still feel the mystery is lacking, but to those who have never seen it, I feel it works well enough to pass. The killer's presence is chilling enough to keep you on edge. Agento's killers are often ghost-like in their movements and execution of murder sequences, and the masked and black gloved assailant in Opera is just as good as any of the killers in his other films.

My favorite scene of the film was the killer’s struggle with the seamstress. This little woman is quite feisty and isn't about to go down without a fight. It was refreshing to see her give Argento's killer such a tough time. This is one kill he truly earned, and the ultimate fate of the seamstress (involving a piece of swallowed incriminating evidence) will leave bloodthirsty fans both cringing and grinning from ear to ear. It's an extremely well-staged sequence. Another notably famous scene involves the killer shooting a victim looking through a peephole. We see a close-up of the bullet traveling in slow motion through the peephole and then we cut away to see it enter the victim’s eye. To a great cue of screams, we then see the bullet shatter a phone across the room. Even though I have described this sequence, you truly have to see it to appreciate how effective and well staged it is. This sequence displays the beauty and skill of Dario Argento better than most. Yes, Fulci can display gut-munching horror better than almost anyone, but a scene like this, with so many stylistic layers, could only have been born of the broken mirror of a mind of Argento’s. Upon first viewing this scene many years ago, my eyes didn't blink for a full minute and my jaw quite literally hit the floor. When horror fans discuss some of the more violently innovative kills in Argento's repertoire, these two sequences are often the most talked about.

The acting in the film is pretty weak. The one who comes off best is probably Ian Charleson, who portrays Betty’s friend and director Marco. Longtime Argento collaborator and partner, Daria Nicolodi, turns in another one of her usual melodramatic and nervous performances. The characters in the film aren’t particularly interesting, but Dario’s characters never usually are. The most compelling character of a Dario Argento film is Dario himself. He uses nearly every camera effect in his arsenal in this one: first person point of view shots, close-ups, color saturated shots, shot blurring, slow motion, etc. Another point in which Argento excels but is never given credit: He knows probably better than anyone how to cast a good dead body. The actors he chooses often look quirky and weird when actually living, breathing, and acting during scenes, but once they’ve met their ultimate fate and are lifeless and still, they are among the most chilling and haunting faces of a corpse that you will ever see. Again, Argento never wastes a shot, even on a still warm but lifeless face. There is one nude scene in the film, but any titillation derived from the sight of the actress' bare breasts is immediately eliminated by the sight (because of Dario and his blasted close-ups) of her quite visible underarm hair (this IS Italy after all). The level of blood in the film is healthy, but not a splatterfest. The content and quality of the violence, though, puts the death scenes on a much stronger level than they would've otherwise been. The bodies don't spray or spurt large amounts of blood and gore when the killer does his work, however, enough interesting things happen to the backs of skulls, eyeballs, hands, and chins to make even a hardened gorehound stand in applause.

Though the killer’s level of derangement and violence gives us a nervous feeling when we fear he’s about to strike, there is only one real sequence of good suspense: when the killer nearly catches Betty and a neighboring girl hiding inside an air vent. There aren’t many real jump scares. Most of the scenes here are pretty straight forward and of the “there is a killer here somewhere and he’s about to get someone” variety. The film’s climax, brought upon by Betty’s director’s idea on how to catch the killer during the next performance is pretty hokey, and would never actually work in a million years in real life. Being an Argento film, you just kind of have to accept his dream-inspired logic and go with it. The film’s score by former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti, is the most dream-like and enchanting in the Argento canon. One could easily imagine it in the background of an 80s sword and sorcery flick. Yet, it still fits as a beautiful offset to the film’s dark themes and graphic violence. Strangely, Argento chooses to pair Simonetti’s soundtrack with a few forgettable late 80s heavy metal tracks. While some of the cues from the tracks amp up the pace and tension of the attack scenes, I can’t help but think that they seem out of place in a film about an opera house.

Opera is at best a minor classic by Italian master of horror Dario Argento, and at worst a bag of mixed results. It provides perhaps the most unflinchingly brutal sequences he’s ever filmed (the murder of Betty’s boyfriend is probably among the greatest and most vicious stabbing sequences ever put to film), but there aren’t enough scares and suspense to truly drive this one home. It is, however, a great showcase of the man’s talents behind the camera. There are enough creative shots, impressive set-ups, and swooping camera flourishes to inspire even the most jaded of film students. People criticize Argento for the lack of story, characterization, and true cinematic substance in his films, and that’s a somewhat fair assessment. Argento certainly doesn’t try to refute it. But what Dario does in his films, I believe, can truly be considered art. In a genre that many dismiss as simple “trash”, Argento gives us unique sights to behold. True art is everything from beautiful, to surreal, to evocative, to haunting, to emotional: and most of the films that Dario has given fans can clearly be considered any or all of the above. This is a highly recommended purchase if you want to see horror at both its most beautiful and most gruesome. Buy it!

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