If there’s anything that Giallo pioneer and black murder-glove enthusiast, Dario Argento is famous for is overwhelmingly vicious violence and stunningly beautiful visuals, so could there be any better setting for the Italian master of horror than the grand drama of the opera?
When casting an eye over the maestro’s filmography, you couldn’t be blamed for wondering why he hadn’t used this opulent setting for one of his violent thrillers before as previous titles such as Suspiria and Inferno were barely one step removed from being rainbow coloured, grisly, rock operas with their whirling images and magnificently overblown soundtracks – and yet there’s something different about Opera (clumsily renamed Terror At The Opera overseas). It seems the high ceilings and high notes have caused Argento to go all out on creating a sadistic tale that exceeds virtually everything he’s done before (and he wasn’t exactly holding back then, either) to create what fans agree is his last, great masterpiece.
Taking a blindingly obvious cue from Phantom Of The Opera, we see young understudy soprano Betty, thrust into the limelight when the tyrannical star of an avant garde production of Macbeth is bumped from the show thanks to the bonnet of a passing car. Everyone, including her agent, her friend in the costume department and a handsome young stage hand who keeps giving her the eye, seems to be rooting for her, but none of them more so than a shadowy, obsessive figure who seems to be stalking her thanks to some mystery event from her past and who has a vicious run-in with the ravens used for the performance after he butchers a few while trying to grab a trophy for himself.
After a stella first performance, Betty celebrates by spending the night with that stage hand I mentioned earlier, but when her mystery fan decides to crash the party – equipped not with champagne and flowers, but with rope and a formidable looking knife – he ties Betty up and ensures that she watches the butchering of her gentleman caller by taping freaking pins under her eyes to prevent her closing her eyelids. When the ordeal is over, the intruder hisses some words to her that makes Betty think that he knows her in some way and then cuts her bonds before fleeing the scene.
Betty is unable to call the police directly but confides in her director, who slowly concocts a plan to bring this hooded killer into the light, but before he can do so, the killer strikes again, getting into a violent altercation with the fiery costumer while Betty is once again reduced to being a bound witness. The police are stumped, but with every attack, Betty gets that little bit closer to figuring out her stalker’s identity and a plan is conceived that will utilize the only real eyewitness that’s left… the ravens.
When I say that Opera may be Argento’s most nastiest film to date, you know this must be a real doozy to sit through – after all, this is a man who has created moments where someone was once stabbed so much their heart was exposed and another where someone had their teeth smashed out on various bits of furniture – so you know we’re not fucking around here. This is chiefly because of the killer’s rather, uh, extreme method of guaranteeing that Betty doesn’t miss a single moment of carnage due to the cringe inducing placement of pins under the eye lids. It’s possibly the most Dario Argento image that Dario Argento has ever managed to put on celluloid and it’s as relentlessly cinematic as it is squirm inducing and even serves as a fitting, visual metaphor to the director’s famously unflinching style of filmmaking. In fact, after decades of forcing audiences to watch his sadistic – yet glorious – set pieces, he amusingly puts us front and centre, even giving us shots from Betty’s POV, complete with those spiteful needles placed oppressively in the forefront.
Interestingly, Argento got the idea for Opea from his own experiences from the time he himself tried (and failed) to stage a live performance of Macbeth – I assume no one actually got murdered, but you never know with Dario – and the fact that the director in the film has also made the move from making horror movies to live theater gives the film a slightly autobiographical tinge that also ran through the character’s complaints about horror that laced his earlier flick, Tenebrae.
Lead actress Cristina Marsillach has to be praised for the sheer endurance test her director put her through (remember, it’s actually Dario’s hands wearing the gloves) – although it’s tough not to appear vunerable when lashed to a pillar and bleeding from the eyes – and the rest of the cast perform the usual Giallo beats with aplomb, but as always, it’s the director’s style that takes (a literal) centre stage as his camera swoops through an auditorium along side some outraged ravens; gives us close ups of the killer’s pulsating brain as he’s triggered to kill and – most spectacular of all – a stunning shot of a bullet travelling in agonising slow motion through a peep hole before it blows through the eye of the victim (the long suffering Daria Nicolodi) foolish enough to be using it. On top of that, other gruesome treats Opera has in store has one unfortunate bastard stabbed in the throat so that the blade can be seen protruding next to his wiggling tongue and the killer taking some shears to the throat of a dead body in order to retrieve some swallowed evidence. It’s this balance of the gruesome and hypnotic that makes Opera so impressive and if I’m being truthful, he still hasn’t made a movie this good since, but it isn’t without its problems. A last act shift from the streets of Rome to the lush Sound Of Music-esque hills of the Swiss Alps is so jarring it genuinely feels like the surviving characters has wandered into a completely different movie and Argento sometimes seems to be so in love with his setting, he takes his eye off the ball than once, causing the story to veer a little when it should be focused. Maybe the oddest thing is is that despite being a radical retelling of Phantom Of The Opera (if the Phantom had a disturbing kink caused by the voracious, sexual appetite caused by the heroine’s mother, that is), Argento still hadn’t gotten the theatre out of his system and even went on to make a noticably inferior remake with Julian Sands under the mask.
While Opera doesn’t quite hit the dizzying heights as his previous masterpieces, such as Deep Red or Suspiria, it still manages to hit those grisly high notes with ease and thanks to it’s most prominent visual, remains a defiantly eye-opening experience – no pins required.