|Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
|Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, William McNamara and Daria Nicolodi
“I think it’s unwise to use movies as a guide for reality” – Marco the director (Ian Charleson)
During the staging of Verdi’s MacBeth at a famous opera house in Parma, Italy, the star of the show has an accident which puts her out of commission. This means the ultimate breakthrough for her understudy Betty (Marsillach). As she makes her debut a black gloved heavy breather watches her from an empty box and promptly kills an employee when he walks in on him.
Detective Alan Santini (Barberini) is on the case but the director Marco (Charleson) and stagehand Stefano (McNamara) are more concerned about reassuring a distressed Betty that she will do the opera justice. Later that night Betty and Stefano head for some lovemaking but a masked madman ties her up and forces Betty to watch the slaughter of Stefano by taping a row of needles beneath each of her eyes.
Thus, begins a stalking and killing game between a hooded and black gloved maniac and the understudy. As the killings continue Betty is convinced that the murderer has some ties to her past and deceased mother.
The Italian master of suspense Dario Argento is considered by many to have had a whopping 12 year period in which he could do no wrong. The films “Deep Red” (1975), “Suspiria” (1977), “Inferno” (1980), “Tenebre” (1982), “Phenomena” (1984) and “Opera” represent an incredibly fertile period by the director where he made one smash after the other and all these movies are highly regarded by thriller and horror aficionados. While he didn’t kickstart the genre known as Giallo’s (basically graphic and sexually explicit murder mysteries that drew inspiration from the yellow covered paperbacks of the 40’s and 50’s which consisted of fetishistic killings of young and desirable women usually with the phallic symbol of a knife by a black gloved assailant) Argento arguably contributed some of the best films attributed to it (“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1969), “Deep Red”, “Tenebre”).
“Opera” is fairly giallo-esque with the black gloved killer, his black hood and preferred use of a knife but Argento basically uses the story as a springboard for some over the top set-pieces, wild and horrific imagery laced with bombastic music ranging from sweet ballads to famous opera numbers to heavy metal, tons of images of ravens and some incredible camera acrobatics. There’s style to burn here but three things make sure “Opera” will be at the bottom of Argento’s 12 year flawless run.
Performers here are really not up to scratch and it reaches distracting levels especially in the film’s subpar English dubbing. Although renowned for considering actors as mere human props; Argento nevertheless usually cast his films well and central performers delivered while co-starrers were a little hit or miss. Daria Nicolodi has never been a great actress but pro’s like David Hemmings (“Deep Red”) and Anthony Franciosa (“Tenebre”) elevated her performance but here she’s saddled with Marsillach who’s painfully bad with expressions and emotions and the two of them conveying terror is something else. Barberini (“Demons”) is really stone faced and flat but somehow comes off considerably better with the Italian dubbing while Charleson is the only one to come off well enough. Supporting players like Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni and Antonella Vitale are also having a very bad day here. While B-movie and horror lovers can usually tolerate questionable acting more so than most; “Opera” nevertheless offends with lousy performances and very bad English dubbing.
One criticism I have never agreed with concerning Argento is the assumption that he always drowns his films in style and dispenses with content. While it’s true that his most famous work, “Suspiria”, is exactly that; style over substance and the paper thin story a springboard for arresting visuals the same can not be said for Argento’s early Giallos. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and “Deep Red” mine the same territory but they are very well written mysteries and a film called “The Cat O’Nine Tails” (1970) has a brilliantly constructed and complicated plot that unfolds well and “Tenebre” has a delicious twist in a rock solid mystery that manages to surprise everyone. But “Opera” offers little to no story, a weak plot and motive for the killer and makes it’s characters behave in such an incomprehensible manner that it’s artificiality makes it impossible to invest any interest in them. It sets them up for slaughter, and that’s fine, but the payoff in the end is so hurried and uninteresting that the viewer feels a bit cheated. It’s one of those scenes that has the killer ranting like a lunatic about his reasons but instead of awe you’ll be rolling your eyes.
Argento’s films usually end with a bang but not “Opera”. An additional ending is tacked on which shows the killer somehow escaped from a seemingly impossible situation to force another showdown with Betty which then promptly displays that her sanity has taken a permanent leave of absence. It’s such a needless addition to an overly long and simple film that has already tested the patience of it’s audience and adds nothing. Maybe this was the best indicator that a flawless run of films was about to end.
But these criticisms do not make “Opera” a bad film in any way. The parts that work more than make up for it’s shortcomings and it’s no surprise why the film is highly regarded among Argento admirers. The murder set-pieces are brimming with imagination and fury and executed with style and gore that really pushes the envelope. The central gimmick of Betty having needles placed on her so she can’t look away is a great one and the fluidity of the camera is really a marvel to behold. As with many Argento films animals play a central role here and the ravens here are really impressive. The master stroke story wise has the ravens play a pivotal role in identifying the killer and while it’s execution is somewhat nonsensical it makes for a thrilling sequence.
Argento also imbues the film with self referential comments owing to his commitments as a filmmaker and an artist (note the quote by Marco) not unlike what he did in “Tenebre”. It’s fun stuff but mostly appreciated by fans of either the man himself or connoisseurs of the horror genre.
With warts and all; “Opera” comes highly recommended.