You won’t be able to look away…
This review contains spoilers.
Opera, or Terror at the Opera as it was rather crudely re-titled outside of Italy, is for many the last great Dario Argento film, a magnificently twisted, deliriously accomplished mix of high and low art. Following the brilliantly mad Phenomena, Argento went back to the world of the straight-up, non-supernatural giallo, and, on the surface, seemed intent on delivering a knockout, crowd-pleasing, crowd-shocking thriller. After all, the plot is one of the director’s most conventional – deranged fan stalks opera singer, that sort of thing, but the execution is anything but. Of the classic-era Argento (1975-1987) movies, Opera was one of the trickiest to acquire in the UK when I was younger, and my anticipation for it was through the roof. I remember a feature in an issue of Total Film which talked about various movies that were still only available in cut form – I imagine a complete list would have been enormously long, but amongst the issue’s list of highlights was indeed Opera, and they were talking about (but not showing any pics of) stuff like knives going up someone’s neck and inside their mouth – horrible! I wanted in.
Around the same time (2001-2002) I was writing about Argento for my dissertation at university, and was obsessed with tracking down a copy of Opera. eBay was in its infancy, and even then the only copy I would have been able to acquire would have been the UK Orion VHS which, on top of being the shortened US version, had also been censored by the BBFC. I wouldn’t have minded – anything would been okay. Luckily the film got a US release by Anchor Bay in late 2001 (just in time for me to still be able to use it as vital research for my imminently due dissertation) and it ended up being my first imported title. Unfortunately it was a very glitchy transfer (it was eventually repressed, but I must have missed the memo) but I was still able to watch it from start to finish without too much bother. From those early viewings when I was watching partly as a fan and partly as a note-taking film student, via the period where I avoided it, just like all other Argento films, for years to put the stress of that dissertation behind me, to the joy of getting back into Argento with a vengeance, Opera is a film that gets better and better every time, a fascinating, fantastic thrill-ride.
Compared to say, Suspiria or Inferno, Opera may seem like an Argento film that’s relatively restrained in regards to primary-coloured visual pop, but don’t let that fool you (although there is some great use of colour in a few scenes) – I mean, just look at that camera move! Working with DOP Ronnie Taylor, Argento delivered by far and away his most ambitious and insanely exciting film in terms of sheer kinetic verve. It’s the sort of film you want to watch immediately again afterwards because one viewing is just not enough to take in all the magnificent flourishes, tracking shots, miniature close-ups, pulsating screens, POV shots and so on. I remember reading a Time Out review saying that the impact of Opera was doomed to be lost on video, and while the average TV set-up is more impressive now than it was 1987, I still totally get what the reviewer was driving at. Simply put, I would absolutely LOVE to see this on a cinema screen. The impact must be absolutely exhilarating. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about plot. Yeeeeah, I know Argento isn’t usually bothered about things like that (not when there’s a beautiful murder scene he could be concentrating on instead), but I have to do this.
Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is a young opera singer who is shocked to discover that she’s no longer an understudy to the ‘Great Mara Cecova’ for the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in an avant-garde production of the Verdi opera directed by Marco (Ian Charleson), a filmmaker chiefly known for his career in horror movies. Incidentally, Opera came about shortly after Argento failed to get a bloodthirsty production of Rigoletto on the stage. Argento has also admitted that Mark is essentially a stand-in for himself. Join the dots, peeps. Betty is wracked with nerves, thinking she’s too young and not ready for the role….and isn’t Macbeth meant to bring bad luck? Nah, says everyone else, including her agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi), it’ll be fine. Unfortunately, there’s a total psychopath who’s obsessed with her and proceeds to make Betty’s life a living hell. After a magnificent opening night that goes off without a hitch (barring the death of a stage hand, small matter), Betty adjourns to the house of assistant director Stefano (William MacNamara) and, after an unsuccessful attempt at sex, he goes off to make some jasmine tea (as you do), which is when the psycho seizes her, ties her up against a pillar, tapes over her mouth and then….
Okay, deep breath.
Let me state it loud and clear for the cheap seats – Opera‘s most terrifying and famous hook, so good that they put it on the posters, is one of the greatest in all horror cinema history. Seriously, this is up there with ‘you can never sleep again’ from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and just like that nightmare, it involves not being able to close your eyes. Imagine not being able to shield your vision from the worst sights imaginable. More specifically, imagine having a row of needles taped under your eyelids so that ‘if you try and open your eyes, you’ll tear them apart’. The thing is, like Elm Street‘s ‘sleep and die’, it’s such an original concept that no one’s dared to copy it because it’s just too unique, and yet unlike Elm Street, Opera hasn’t had sequel upon sequel follow it, so it still feels utterly fresh, still shocking.
So there we are, tied, bound, taped, and helpless. The killer then waits in hiding as Stefano walks back into the room, who is understandably confused with seeing Betty stood up, tied up and mumbling in panic. He walks closer and closer, Betty’s muffled screams intensifying and just when he’s close enough for Betty to get a proper good close-up of the action to come, the killer stabs him up through the jaw with one hell of a nasty-looking dagger. Of course, being Argento, that alone isn’t enough, so we get a really spectacular shot (clearly a fake head, but fuck it, it still looks great) of the tip of the dagger visible inside Stefano’s screaming mouth.
All the while Betty is forced to look on, unable to turn away or close her eyes as the killer continues to stab the hell out of Stefano’s helpless, flailing hands, with raucous heavy metal pounding over the soundtrack. The killer, finished with Stefano, moves over to Betty and proceeds to grope her, telling her that, contrary to her earlier confession to Stefano that she’s a ‘nightmare’ in bed, ‘it’s not true you’re frigid…you’re a bitch on heat’. Then he unties her.
A sick game is being played with Betty, and the mechanics behind it are more twisted than she could have ever guessed. It turns out that the killer – who is actually Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini), the policeman who will end up investigating the case and who had shown up at her dressing room earlier with flowers and an autograph request – had been in a sadomasochistic relationship with Betty’s mother. The two would play murderous games whereupon he would tie her up and she would be ‘forced’ to witness him as he murdered random young women. A classic case of the one being tied up actually being the one in control, Betty’s mother’s insatiable demands led the killer to murder her in frustration, and now he wishes to replay the past with Betty herself. Of course, unlike her mother, Betty is no sadist, and we can only presume the killer is hoping to unlock some latent darkness in her by forcing her to watch these appalling acts. Despite the killer’s hopes (and those deluded, ugly claims that she’s a ‘bitch on heat’ are essentially the same as a rapist’s ‘you love it really’), Betty is not this idealised figure he wants her to be, no matter how hard he tries to change her.
Of course, and this is to be expected in an Argento film, there are logical flaws in characterisation – Betty’s reactions are often a bit baffling, none more so than directly after Stefano’s murder. Not the whole ‘wandering around at night in the rain’ bit, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when Marco picks her up in his car and the two have a conversation about how men are always assuming that whenever a woman is upset it’s always about a bloke and I’m thinking, er…didn’t someone just get murdered? I mean, if I was feeling generous I could say that Betty’s odd behaviour at this point are the actions suffering from immediate post-trauma, but I think it’s more likely bad writing. Sorry, Dario. It totally spoils the mood, even if we do get a rather revealing line of dialogue from Marco about how he always ‘jerks off’ before he shoots a scene. Remember, Marco is supposed to represent Argento, so we the viewer now have some nicely sticky info about how one of the world’s greatest genre directors gets through his day. Lovely!
Luckily, Opera recovers swiftly after that misstep of a scene and continues to deliver the goods (more about those later), building to an insane final act where Marco, during Betty’s second performance, unleashes an unkindness/conspiracy/shitload of ravens mid-show in order to identify the killer, who earlier had murdered a few of them and ultimately pissed off the others. And ravens never forget. So it’s not just elephants then. The ravens target Santini and proceed to eat his eye out, so he goes utterly ballistic and opens fire on the audience and the actors. There’s a rather funny bit just before Santini starts shooting where Betty gives Marco a happy thumbs up on a job well done – never mind that they’ve just unleashed absolute fucking chaos, the end justifies the means, I guess!
Betty retires to her dressing room (a bit too casually, given that Santini’s still in the building!) and Marco comes in to comfort her, but they’re not alone. Santini’s already in there; he knocks out Marco and takes Betty to another room where he ties her up and confesses his crimes, both past and present. Distraught at the idea that Betty could now never love him due to his new disfigurement, he decides that the two of them should die together, so he sets himself on fire and leaves her to burn.
Now I must admit that writing down the plot, twists and turns of Opera is making explicit just how crazy it is, and there will be lots of people who, maybe stumbling onto this film somehow, will laugh it off the screen. I admit, I do find the occasional ridiculousness of Opera amusing, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t knocked out by it when I first watched it. When your first Argento film is Suspiria, everything afterwards will suffer in comparison. I say that as someone who thinks that Suspiria is the quintessential horror movie, where everything is perfect, nothing is flawed… while the other Argento films from the classic era are not perfect, and as much as I love them all, I do usually get some amusement out of their lapses into silliness, and Opera is definitely no exception. I think when I first watched it I wanted to be flat-out terrified the way I was with Suspiria, and Opera just isn’t that film. It is scary for sure, and shocking, but it’s also host to a lot of silliness, and it’s not helped by the below-par dubbing job the film got. Dubbing in Argento films has always been contentious issue for me – even when the actors are recording their own lines, there’s often a sense of remove and artificiality to the exercise that can sometimes work (like in Suspiria) but here it does take getting used to, especially when the delivery and dialogue is as hysterical as it sometimes is here.
Anyway, the film appears to be over – Betty survives, Santini’s dead – but then we suddenly find ourselves in pastoral, sunny Switzerland, where Betty and Marco now seem to be in a relationship living in splendid isolation. You might have realised that this is where key scenes in Phenomena were also set. Argento has pointed out that Marco attempting to film a fly with his camera is a deliberate nod to his own attempts to do the same during the making of his previous film, while critic Mikel J. Koven has suggested that setting the epilogue here means that both Opera and Phenomena may very well be set in the same universe. The news report that reveals Santini’s death was a fake is broadcast by the same network that reported the death of Vera in Phenomena. The backdrop of the Alps and the shot of Betty running through the grass are reminiscent of Jennifer walking down the path towards the murder house. There’s also the very final moments, which I’ll get to in a mo. So Santini has tracked down Betty and pursues her across the fields – Marco tries to intervene but is stabbed to death, forcing Betty to resort to a ruse to stop Santini from killing her. She says that yes, the two of them were made for each other, and that they should flee together. This was going to be an actual ending for the film, which would have really ended things on a twisted note. But no, in the final cut that was just a lie for the police to arrive in time. Santini is apprehended and Betty furiously protests that she is nothing like her mother. Then, unexpectedly, Betty surrenders herself to nature, decrying humanity and falling down into the grass, freeing a trapped lizard (an interesting counterpoint to the lizard that was perforated as a sick joke by a twisted child in Deep Red) and lulling herself into blissful escape.
This very last bit – Betty’s descent/ascent into another way of life – was edited out for the US release. For some, that was a merciful act of pruning. In fact, the ending to Opera is often ridiculed, but I love it. After the relentless madness, sadism and torture Betty has endured, her friends killed and her faith in humanity shattered, it’s no wonder she has decided to unshackle herself from her past. The fact that Santini is not killed at the end – a first for an Argento villain – means that on one literal level, Betty’s nightmare continues, although it’s probably likely she would have gone this way even if he had suffered a spectacular demise. The embracing of nature is also a logical extension of Argento’s new found cinematic respect for animals that was established in Phenomena – remember, they were eaten, feared, literally hurt and given evil qualities in the past, but here even the bleedin’ ravens, who are not normally a signifier of goodness, are heroic!
Now Argento was, as we all know, a notable example of a director who pushed on-screen violence to its extremes, and while I love Phenomena, for some fans it was a bit of a dip, and maybe one of the reasons was the lack of a truly jaw-dropping death scene, something that rivalled those gruesome kills in Deep Red, Suspiria or Tenebrae. Hey, we love Argento for the beautiful camera work, the gorgeous visuals, the stunning music, the wild storylines, but we also love them for the absolutely great violence. Opera‘s murder scenes really pack a punch, and are an utterly essential component of the film’s overall impact. No wonder Argento was so incensed when it ended up being censored in country after country. Given that the medium of opera itself has been home to extreme violence in its storylines, it only makes some kind of sense that Argento’s film should deliver the bloody goods too. We get that very icky dispatching of the stagehand earlier on – upon discovering Santini the poor man is viciously pushed back onto a coat hook, which goes in and out of his neck rapidly. Grisly sound effects here. Stefano’s murder is an absolute classic – the suspense building up to it is amazing, the bloody release shocking and spectacular. Not content with the ‘knife in the mouth’ shots, we get a load of grisly hand-stabbings too. Oh, and of course, those amazing shots of Betty’s eyes with the needles.
And yet, for all its gore and brutality, Argento seems to know when to hold back. The infamous ‘scissors’ sequence, in which Betty’s costume designer Guilia (Coralina Cataldi-Satoni) swallows an incriminating bracelet whilst she’s being stabbed to death, is notable for what it doesn’t show. Santini takes the rather drastic measure to cutting open Guilia’s throat to retrieve the bracelet, and this moment is a masterclass in ‘less is more’. The build-up is deeply unpleasant, and certainly explicit – Santini’s fingers and the scissors prodding around Guilia’s bloodied mouth made it an unsurprising target for the BBFC, who have an issue with sexualised violence such as this, but the actual moment, the cutting of the throat, is achieved with clever close-up shots of the scissor handles being gripped and a hell of a lot of nasty sound effects. When the bracelet is retrieved, the surrounding gore is out of focus – just enough for us to imagine the horrendous mess that’s just been made.
For many though, the absolute highlight of Opera is the extraordinary peephole sequence. After Guilia’s death, Betty seeks sanctuary in her apartment, and Santini has assured her safety by promising that a policeman will be visiting to guard her. The problem is, after the policeman has arrived, another policeman knocks at the door saying that he’s here to protect her! Which one of the two is the killer? Mira speaks to the policeman outside the door, spying through the peephole to get a better look at him, demanding to see his face. Just as she realises that she recognises him, Santini puts the gun to the peephole and pulls the trigger. In an insanely brilliant shot, we see the bullet pass through the inside of the peephole (!!!!) and then we cut to a side shot of Mira as the bullet comes out of the door and then into and out of the back of her head. The bullet then destroys the telephone that Betty was trying to call for assistance with. It’s such a fucking incredible moment, so good that it was many viewings before I realised the trajectory of the bullet meant that it probably wouldn’t have hit the phone on the floor. Oh who cares? After all, ask Marco says earlier on, ‘it’s unwise to use movies as a guide to reality’.
Argento has been on record as saying he was annoyed when people closed their eyes whenever the gore came on screen during his films – whether or not he seriously proposed the idea of having audiences wear the needles-and-tape get-up as a result of that frustration or if that was just a joke is unclear, but it would have been one hell of a marketing tool. However, for other, more hardened viewers, the violence is as much an attraction as it is a repellent. The act of looking, of seeing, is a key allure of cinema. It is a primarily visual medium, and right from the very beginning, it has been exploited as a means of seeing the forbidden, the illicit, the dangerous, all via the safe shield of a movie screen, safe in the knowledge that this is all unreal. Opera is about, among other things, the act of looking. Opera itself is a spectacle, a precursor to cinema, and we the audience are watching audiences watching opera, as well as watching others watching television, watching monitors, through binoculars, through peepholes, through vents…
Yet as much as the characters in this film enjoy looking, there is as punishment inflicted on those who indulge in this act. Eyes undergo all manner of abuse in this film – aside from Betty’s own ordeal, we have Mira being shot through the eye (after looking through a peephole of all things – punishment maybe for daring to look back at the killer?), Mark has a gun shoved in his eye by Santini and Santini himself has his eye pecked out by ravens. Also, Betty’s vision is compromised when she applies eyedrops to herself, meaning she’s unable to identify the man in her apartment who may be a helpful police officer or a psychotic killer. Sight – its use, its power and its vulnerability, is a major source of tension in Opera.
Funnily enough, for a film obsessed with looking, stalking and obsession itself, the character of Betty, and Marsillach herself, rarely feel objectified, despite moments like the one above, where Santini traps her in a display cabinet, as though he’s trying to keep her as a possession. This may have something to do with Marsillach’s insistence on not being sexualised throughout filming (refusing to wear clothes that accentuated her body, for example), and as such, Opera avoids a potentially nasty, leering quality that may have resulted with another director or even simply another lead actor. Despite the point-of-view shots from Santini and Betty’s horrific experiences, we’re rarely asked to gloat or indulge in her plight. Her ordeal is terrifying, they are the acts of a sadist, but the film merely about sadism, and is not sadistic in itself even though Argento is a self-confessed admirer of the beauty of an on-screen slaying. It’s a fine line Argento’s treading here, and he gets the balance right.
As I mentioned near the start of this review, the cinematography is astonishing. Belying the fact that Argento was already seventeen years into his career as a director, Opera has the excitable restlessness of a first-time filmmaker. He’s worked with incredible cinematographers before – Vittorio Storraro, Luciano Tovoli, Romano Albani, Luigi Kuvieller and so on, but with Ronnie Taylor (and of course, editor Franco Fraticelli) it’s like his appetite for a deliriously mobile camera went into overdrive. Technically, Opera rivals Suspiria in terms of technical excellence, albeit in different ways. So where do I begin? Well, following the super-cool opening shot of an opera house reflected in a raven’s eye, we have an instance of crisis turning into opportunity regarding the character of Mara Cecova – originally Vanessa Redgrave was supposed to play this role but, depending on who you’re talking to, she was cut out because her star power would have lopsided the movie, or she left the production willingly. Either way, with no diva, we only get to see her through POV shots, including an extended one which sees her leave the opera house in a huff and we see her retreat, seemingly backwards, towards the exit, all the while haranguing Mark and his damn ravens and being pampered by her manager and Guilia. There is a brief shot of her outside the opera house, but she gets knocked down by a car a couple of seconds later. Whatever the circumstances were leading to this shot, it must be said that the execution we ended up with is more memorable than a star cameo probably would have been.
We also get some very cool transitions like the one near the start that moves from the inside of a vent grille into darkness and then up to the grand interiors of the opera house, the conductor in the foreground. There are deliriously dizzying shots that defy gravity, such as the one with the feather being dropped into Mark’s hand by Santini, or Betty and her neighbour climbing up into the vent to escape. We have shots of Santini’s pulsating brain. We have shots where the screen ‘thumps’ to mimic said pulsating brain. There is an amazing 360 degree shot inside the opera house that represent the ravens circling the audience, looking for the killer. We have elegant Steadicam shots descending staircases, hovering over a series of tables, passing through corridors and flowery fields. We get Betty’s POV with the needles dominating her vision (as well as the occasional lowering of her eyelid whenever she blinks). We even get a shot from the viewpoint of a plughole! Then there’s the sparing but ravishing use of colour – like the application of icy blues during the flashback sequences to Santini and Betty’s mother’s crimes. Rarely has a dagger been filmed with such silky beauty.
You also have the vivid greens and reds of the kitchen where Betty and Mira hide in the apartment, which can’t help but bring to mind Suspiria and Inferno. Why the lights would be this colour in an ordinary building I don’t know, but oh, doesn’t it just look amazing? And yet the film never becomes excessively flamboyant to the point of exhaustion. Argento and Taylor know when to slow things down, when to not move at all and when to simply let the on-screen action speak for itself. The peephole sequence could have been even more wild when you think about it – we could have had a POV from the bullet, we could have had a frenzy of shots, that sort of thing. The fact that this amazing moment is achieved with just a few edits and a static camera is proof that sometimes you don’t need the extra flash.
Like Phenomena, Opera avoids the single-composer route and features a variety of contributors, including heavy metal bands. However, whereas the use of of metal in Phenomena seemed to represent little more than Argento’s own then-love for the genre, and in Demons it was all part of a big fat commercial soundtrack, here in Opera it’s a very interesting counterpoint to all that Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. If classical music is regarded as the high watermark of musical achievement, then heavy metal must surely be somewhere near the bottom of the respectability-o-meter. High and low art in beautiful harmony. Just like the violence of Macbeth and the music of Verdi is regarded as something refined, classic, artistic, then the violence of Argento and the base-level impact of metal are dismissed as exploitation. Indeed, when I first watched Opera, I wanted those murder scenes to be accompanied with something more, well.. operatic. Now though, I think the metal really works with the violence. Other musical contributions are just as noteworthy – Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor make a welcome return, delivering two great pieces. The main theme by Claudio Simonetti (played after Stefano’s death and over the end credits) is more melancholic and sad than his one for Phenomena but just as memorable. We also get some pieces from not only Brian Eno but his brother Roger Eno too! And of course, there’s the classical music. It’s one of Argento’s most disjointed yet fascinating soundtracks.
In regards to performances, the beautiful Marsillach is a fine lead – score one more point for Argento’s run of strong female protagonists. Some may find her characterisation occasionally difficult to reconcile with – as previously mentioned she seems to be able to keep her cool in the aftermath of what are horrendous ordeals, but you’ll have to take or leave that. The just-as-beautiful Barberini, fresh from playing the the co-lead in the Argento-produced Demons, is a handsome, bashful supporting character to begin with but loses his shit spectacularly once he loses his eye. For the most part Santini is an anonymous killer in a mac and disguise, and is most likely played by Argento rather than Barberini (at the very least, his hands are Argento’s during these bits), but the final act gives the actor a chance to go full throttle. Amusingly, the ‘shock’ reveal of his identity was spoiled by the plethora of Italian lobby cards used to promote the film’s release back in 1987 – there are loads of publicity stills of a bloodied, eyeless Santini attacking Betty! Ian Charleson is very good indeed as Marco. He has great screen charisma and presence (plus a cool voice), and it’s horrible that this would be his last film (some TV work followed) before he died of AIDS-related causes in 1990 aged just 40. Cataldi-Tassoni, who the year before transformed into something exceptionally unpleasant in Demons 2, gets to have plenty of fun as Guilia, up to and including her spectacular death scene. William McNamara, who would later star as the killer in the underrated 1995 thriller Copycat, is a cute and boyish initial love interest who, bless him, comes off as very safe compared to his vicious rival Santini. He never stood a chance, poor man.
And then there’s Daria Nicolodi. Her impact and influence on Dario Argento can never be underestimated, and it’s probably no coincidence that the era that most would consider to be the director’s golden period syncs exactly with the pair’s professional relationship. However, by the time of Opera, their personal relationship had soured, and it would be their last film together. You could say that Argento and Nicolodi’s most impressive collaborations were Deep Red (in which she starred as Gianna Brezzi, definitely her best character in any of his films) and Suspiria, which Nicolodi did not star in but who co-wrote the screenplay and was a major factor in the film’s success. Nicolodi was responsible for Inferno‘s story but didn’t receive credit, and from then on her influence, or at least her credited influence on Argento’s films seemed to diminish more and more. Her characters never matched the classic Brezzi, and it was telling that the most interesting things about them were the amount of terror and trauma they undergo. Nicolodi’s character in Opera is pretty rote – she’s simply there to encourage or console Betty. The most interesting thing she does is look through a peephole and get shot through the eye, which in reality was a pretty damn dangerous stunt involving a small explosive being attached to her head. Following Opera, Nicolodi and Argento only collaborated once more (to date) on 2007’s Mother of Tears, the long-awaited sequel to Suspiria and Inferno.
So there you have it – it’s time to draw the curtains on Argento’s classic period. From Deep Red to Opera, he and his collaborators delivered a golden era of idiosyncratic, stunning genre cinema. After this he would try to break the States, but that’s another story…
PS: Much gratitude to Maitland McDonagh, Chris Gallant and James Gracey, whose writings on Argento and Opera have really opened my eyes. And they didn’t even resort to using needles.
Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:
‘The Animal Trilogy’, aka The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Deep Red/Profondo Rosso