Friday, 3 April 2015

Opera (1987)


‘Opera’ (alternative USA title ‘Terror at the Opera’) is Dario Argento’s reaction to being refused his wish of directing a stage adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera ‘Rigoletto’. British filmmaker the late Ken Russell had previously in 1984 directed a version of Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ that veered away from the classical to something very weird not going down at all well with the management of the opera house and was met with an at best mixed reception from critics and audiences. This dissatisfaction with Russell’s vision meant that a risk was not willing to be taken with Argento, as he is a genre director - an auteur of graphically violent giallo mystery thrillers and supernatural horror. With that, the filmmaker got cracking on a screenplay for this opera themed entry into gialli that would go on to be considered by many critics and fans alike as his last great work… although I cannot see why as that honour goes to 1982’s ‘Tenebre’.


Betty (Cristina Marsillach) a young insecure understudy to the star of a production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ gets her chance in the spotlight when the leading lady has an accident being knocked down by a car. Fearing an old saying that ‘Macbeth’ is an opera that is cursed, she is reluctant to take the role. Making her debut a stagehand is murdered in one of the opera boxes during her performance. She is being stalked by an obsessed fan and deranged killer who bumps off anyone in grisly fashion who is associated with her. Two murders of which she is forced to watch as the mysterious black masked assailant gags her, ties her up with rope and with the use of tape places needles under her eyelids so she is unable to blink and has to look on as he brutally kills. She has recurring nightmares - memories of her mother who was as well an opera singer and was murdered when Betty was a young girl. In these dream sequences is also a man wearing the exact same black mask doing harm to another woman as Betty’s tied up mother looks on just like how the killer makes Betty watch his horrific crimes. The killer also has the same memories.


This is a beautifully shot film taking full advantage of the sumptuous location of the opera house setting. The operatic musical performances and the mise-en-scène of the stage gel wonderfully with the visuals that make for strikingly stylish imagery and there are innovative camera angles. It is also rich in atmosphere greatly heightened by Brian Eno and Claudio Simonetti’s score. The explicit murder sequences are for the most part brilliantly executed making for some of Dario Argento’s most memorable set-pieces. So far so good then, for a potentially classic Argento outing but all of this is hindered by an array of flaws. There are great leaps of logic in the script showing laziness in the director’s writing. How the killer is revealed and the just tacked on final shots are absolute nonsense. The acting is woodier than Keanu Reeves portraying an oak tree and the dialogue is cringe-making all of which is made worse by the terrible English dubbing track (the original Italian print makes the acting and dialogue a little more tolerable) and the protagonist played by Marsillach is one of the most annoying and unlikable Dario Argento leading ladies.


Opening with an extreme close-up of a raven’s eye, we hear the diegetic sound of opera music being performed as we can see a conductor commanding an orchestra in the reflection of the bird’s eye. The camera then goes to a mid-shot of this black bird against the backdrop of the grand old opera house and the title sequence starts over these opening events. The images of the raven and the reflections in its eye showing us what it can see foreshadows how the killer is revealed in the climax in one of the biggest WTF moments in giallo history as the ravens remember the face of the mystery murderer who cruelly kills one of the birds… yeah WTF. There are Raven’s all over the stage as the cast and crew rehearse and it is pissing off the opera production’s prima donna who takes off one of her shoes and throws it at one of the birds and storms off complaining about the director’s vision for ‘Macbeth’ with the ravens, back projection and laser beams. The director Marco (the late Scottish actor Ian Charleson of 1981’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ fame in his last role) is a horror filmmaker, which is evident from the opera sequences with the props on stage realizing the character’s dark visions. This and the complaints from the cast and crew about his direction as costume designer Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) also has a problem with it is Dario Argento commentating on his rejection by the opera house who refused to grant his wish of directing their production of ‘Rigoletto’.


After the bitchy leading lady leaves in a huff this is when a car outside the opera house knocks her down. With a performance that night, we now cut to the understudy Betty in her apartment who receives a mysterious phone call from a man with a sinister sounding voice informing her that she has got the part in ‘Macbeth’ and asks her if she is happy. This leads to the murder of the stagehand in the opera box as the unseen stranger watches Betty on stage and we see his flashback of Betty’s mother tied up looking on at a woman being terrorized. After this first murder, we are given the suspects/red herrings - the aforementioned Marco (Charleson), Betty's publicist Mira (Daria Nicolodi) and police inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini).


The constant presence of the irritating Marsillach as Betty is always a downer but it is in the second act focused on the torment the killer puts her through that we see things really starting to become unstuck. As I stated before these are finely executed set-pieces for the most part such as the first with the murder of one of the crew Betty is romantically involved with after a bit of rumpy pumpy. However, Argento questionably chooses an awful heavy metal soundtrack for the set-pieces in juxtaposition to the operatic score in an attempt to highlight the significance of the polar opposites of horror and opera with the brutal imagery against the beauty of the operatic setting. It fails miserably though coming over as nothing but pure cheese cornball ruining otherwise well staged kills. The director carried over this genre of music from his previous work the terrible ‘Phenomena’ (1985).


Dario Argento is also a tad careless here as well with the killer placing needles under Betty’s eyelids as if you look carefully there is no way the needles would touch her eyes. This idea came out of Argento’s frustration of when people scared of the sequences of horror in his films would turn away from the screen in fright and this is him commenting on how he would like to do this to his audiences so they would have to watch. This little mistake is forgiven though when the rest of these two sequences are so well staged and the director redeems himself further here later by executing one of the best bullet through the eye/head shots ever committed to celluloid. All this is cut off by the knees though when taking in to consideration that he does not bother to layer his screenplay with an emotive lending with Betty’s reactions to the murders - you know one including her lover - being completely blasé. This draws little sympathy for a character who we are supposed to be relating to as our protagonist.


'Opera’ is a passable entry in Dario Argento’s filmography. It is definitely worth watching to be reminded for a little while at least of what a great filmmaker he used to be only for the movie to descend into a multitude of lazy writing with illogical inconsistences that remind you of just how badly he has lost this touch. Recommended for Argento completests and giallo aficionados only.

** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson

©2015 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

11 comments:

  1. Nice review. I agree with a lot of your criticisms but I can forgive Opera most of its faults. For me it's the ultimate example of style ruling over substance, and despite all its failings, it's probably my favourite Argento movie. The cinematography, production design, set pieces and kills are what do it for me.

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    1. Thank you, Aylmer. My favourite Argento films are ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, ‘Deep Red’, ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Tenebre’.

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  2. Although I prefer Argento's earlier work I just love Opera, it was the first film I ever saw from Argento but would like to think I'm not simply being nostalgic certainly more than passable - of course that is subjective - I feel that comparatively to some other films of that era it really had a strong storyline and great effects - the only thing I will say is that my love for it, and for opening the gateway to Argento, does mean I don't watch it in an scrutinising light. I have to say, I actually really love the madness of Phenomena.

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    1. ‘Suspiria’ was the first film I saw of Dario Argento’s and I was in awe. I agree that ‘Opera’ is a visual treat but I think its script falls flat. And this isn’t a popular opinion amongst Argento fans as I think ‘Phenomena’ is one of his worst. I think things really started to turn sour after ‘Tenebre’.

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    2. I have to say, as much as I like them it is hard to come after Tenebre as it is such a strong film, it's so gorgeous to look at I can watch it over and over. With Argento I hold so many films of his in high regard that, as much as I enjoy Opera and Phenomena, Tenebre, Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o' Nine Tails, and Suspiria will always come out on top.

      What are your thoughts on Four Flies on Grey Velvet? I'd read so many reviews of fans being disappointed I wasn't expecting much but I actually loved it. I am fond of Mimsy Farmer though.

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    3. I’m fond of Mimsy Farmer as well. If you haven’t seen it, check out the giallo ‘Autopsy’ in which she co-stars with Ray Lovelock.

      Yeah I like ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ and ‘The Cat o' Nine Tails’ as well but I don’t think they are as strong as my favourite Argento films that I listed above.

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    4. I have Autopsy on my "to pick up" list which currently stands at over 300 titles, I think I'll boost it to the top of my list before it becomes buried.

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    5. It's convoluted but a giallo still well worth seeing.

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    6. When it comes to giallo I don't believe there are any that aren't worth seeing!

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