The Films of Dario Argento: Opera (1987)

You won’t be able to look away…

Captureop

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.

MV5BYWY1MDM2NWMtMWRlNS00ZDExLThhMjktM2Q4Y2EzNzg4MGYzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-19h07m38s506

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h30m58s248

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-17h51m55s959

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 close 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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-17h51m16s306

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-17h47m47s918

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h55m47s181

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h10m15s743

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!

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h05m45s916.png

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!

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h50m21s848

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h53m02s305

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h03m27s776

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h00m37s657

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!

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h34m18s038

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-19h09m09s811

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h25m50s081

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’.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-19h11m56s592

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…

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-22h58m27s185

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-19h30m13s638

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-22h40m06s831

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h36m24s747

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-17h47m20s601

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-18h42m44s244

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-22h49m56s983

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-22h54m21s449.png

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.

vlcsnap-2019-02-08-22h55m48s522

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 PlumageCat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

Tenebrae

Phenomena

The Films of Dario Argento: Tenebrae (1982)

Back on the giallo brick road….

Capture

This review contains spoilers.

Tenebrae marked Dario Argento’s return to the giallo genre after a detour into supernatural horror for Suspiria and Inferno, and it remains one of his best, most fascinatingly multi-layered thrillers. I first watched it in slightly censored form on VHS at the turn of the century, when Nouveaux Pictures unearthed it from unavailability ever since it was blacklisted as a video nasty back in the early eighties. Note the above UK quad poster, where a red ribbon was superimposed over the original artwork’s slashed neck. It’s since been released totally uncut, and that’s really the only way to truly appreciate this blood-soaked classic.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-20h56m12s515

Despite the title (it means ‘darkness’ in Italian), it’s actually one of Argento’s most brightly lit, starkly shot movies, and in one scene, we’re shown that even hanging out in a public spot in broad daylight is no guarantee of safety. The horror genre had come a long way since Argento’s last giallo – 1975’s Deep Red – and Tenebrae does more than enough to ensure that Argento was not going to be dismissed as out of touch. The gore is bang-up-to-date in line with the expectations of an audience brought up on the grisly likes of Halloween II, The Burning, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dawn of the Dead and the Friday the 13th series, the music is the most electronic of any Argento film to date and the plot so outrageous that even hardened giallo fans would have had difficulty second-guessing it. Oh, and there’s an arcade cabinet in one scene – hello, 1982!!! There’s also far more sexual undertones than in any Argento film to date – I’m not talking about actual sex, although some characters do have it offscreen, but more the seamy, sleazy essence of it in the air, and the darker side of its consequences. The film itself is not sleazy though, this ain’t Fulci’s New York Ripper!

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-20h52m18s154

The plot is bound to confound on first viewing, so it’s best just to enjoy the ride. For what it’s worth, it involves American bestseller Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) arriving in Rome only to be questioned by police over the recent murder of a woman who had pages of his recent paperback hit Tenebrae stuffed in her mouth. It turns out that the murderer is an ultra-prudish psychopath who wishes to cleanse the world of its filthy sinners, and Neal maybe the intended final victim, so in true Argento fashion, he decides to play amateur sleuth, with (in even truer Argento fashion) very unpredictable results. There’s an assortment of characters, and only one with them will make it to the end credits, including Neal’s devoted secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi), his hat-loving agent Bulmer (John Saxon), Bulmer’s wide-eyed junior assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), detectives Germani (Guilano Gemma) and Alteri (Carola Stagnaro), journalists Tilde (Mirelle D’Angelo) and Christiano (John Steiner), friendly neighbour Maria (Lara Wendel) and Neal’s estranged wife Jane (Veronica Lario). Who’s the killer? Who’s going to die in the most grotesque way? Such fun awaits….

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-20h50m38s774

The opening scene is a belter – a fire crackles and burns as an unidentified figure wearing black glove (no, really?) turns the pages of a book – Tenebrae by Peter Neal – and a voiceover narrates the text. A voiceover begins that sounds an awful lot like David Warner, even though he’s not credited. It’s got to be him though, right? The words are an incredibly foreboding and frighteningly vivid depiction of the twisted allure of murder. Really, it makes me think Tenebrae should have been a real-life novel. It could have been a best seller. The book is then thrown onto the fire and then the music kicks in and everything is all well and good in Argentoland. The score is by Goblin in all but name – almost all the band members worked on the film and the results are tremendous – the opening theme replaces the band’s flirtations with prog and updates it with an electro-disco vibe that’s brilliantly catchy.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-20h57m33s498

Apparently set a few years in the future, Tenebrae has no supernatural leanings, but plenty of surrealism. The set-design is clinically neat, full of white (all the better to contrast with the blood), brutalist architecture and (I didn’t notice this until it was brought up) lacking in any obvious signs that this is set in Rome. Really, this film could have been set anywhere, and as such, gives the action a weirdly universal setting. It’s a far cry from Suspiria and Inferno – the whole experience is to be honest, especially given that everybody expected Argento to wrap up his Three Mothers trilogy at this point (especially since the name of the film recalls Mater Tenebrarum, the antagonist in Inferno).

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h00m23s172

Style is in abundance in Tenebrae. The editing is excellent, especially the cutaways to the whirring camera whenever the killer is documenting their handiwork. The jump scares are great – you know they’re coming, but they still get you. Then there are the times when you don’t know they’re coming. For example, there’s a remarkable shot at the end when a character moves out of frame to reveal the killer standing directly behind them – he was there all that time but perfectly obscured by the man in front of him. Brian de Palma borrowed this trick for the closing shot of Raising Cain, and there it scared the living fuck out of me, especially because it ended the film on such an unexpected and WTF shock, perfect to cut to black from and leave the audience flabbergasted. I watched Raising Cain a long time before I saw Tenebrae though, so when I did experience this killer visual jolt once more, it was just as susprising and breathtaking. Saying that, the beauty of this precise kind of shock is that there’s absolutely no way you can see it coming, not unless you remain on edge during every single minute of every single thriller for the rest of your life. No thanks.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h01m54s542

Above all else though, we have the film’s most admired set-piece, and one of the most delightfully unnecessary examples of sheer cinematic flair ever executed. Peter’s friend Tilde comes back to her house, annoyed that her girlfriend has gone off with some beefcake for the night and while she throws a strop in her room, we cut to the outside of the house, where the camera, that we initially assume is representing the POV of the killer, decides to go off on an aerial wander of its own. Soon it becomes obvious – there’s no way this could be the killer – no one could be this graceful. No, the camera is Argento, the camera is YOU, the camera is ME and we’re just getting off on the views. The main Tenebrae theme accompanies this segment, and it’s one of the most delightful cinema-for-cinema’s sake scenes ever. Once we’re done with the scenic route, we cut back to the inside of the house, and in an extra neat touch, it’s revealed that Tilde’s girlfriend is the one playing the Tenebrae theme on her stereo, and naturally it’s too loud. ‘TURN IT DOWN!’. She then attempts to change clothes, but whilst she’s caught up inside her top, the killer (now in the house) has realised that this is the perfect opportunity for a beautifully framed shot, one for the posters, the ads, the trailers – he slashes a hole in her top so that we see Tilde’s shocked face inside the space. There’s a moment to savour the elegance, and then the bloody aftermath.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h03m56s807

Oh yes, the violence. It’s utterly full-on – no holding back here. Of all the films of his to feature violence against women, Tenebrae probably has the most of it, despite, or maybe even because of the fact that the script itself calls to attention this very accusation of the director’s output, with Neal essentially an Argento surrogate for the scenes when he’s under fire. This could have been a dreary act of finger-pointing to his critics, but Argento keeps points short and sweet, and often pretty witty. I must say that of all of Argento’s films, Tenebrae does boast some of his liveliest, most allusive and clever dialogue. The bright script clearly bled into the performances, given the weird glee with which our detectives tread towards the dark side, calling to mind the seemingly at-odds enthusiasm of Argento’s previous giallo sleuths. Take the character of Gianni, Bulmer’s young apprentice, who seems to be loving all of this whodunnit lark. Even after he’s found out that Maria is dead (he seemed to like her; you think he’d have been shaken up by her murder), he’s still going about all of this with a perverse enthusiasm. Of course, like most of Argento’s overly keen sleuths, he ultimately sees too much and ends up pretty messed up because of it, but only in a film like this could he have maintained that much sanity so long into such a blood-drenched narrative.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h05m34s325

Of course, being an Argento film, there’s that unmistakable humorous vibe that may or may not be intentional – the performances are ever-so-slightly broad, slightly soapy, yet very entertaining. Sometimes the comic beats are a little off, but compared to other, later Argento films, it’s a masterclass in timing. Anthony Franciosa is one of Argento’s best leads – engaging, fun and charming, which makes it all the more shocking when Neal turns out to be an absolute psycho. Daria Nicolodi wasn’t too impressed with the character of Anne – indeed, it’s the most functional of all the characters she played in an Argento film and she admits she would have preferred to play Jane – and yet she gives a fine, warm performance and of course gets to scream her head off in the final scene, so much indeed that her voice bleeds over into the end credits after the fade to black. Supporting performances are fun too – there’s a fine roster of actors here who are enjoying the ride up until the point they get brutally murdered.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h06m09s629

Argento has gone on record saying that he’d much rather watch a beautiful woman being murdered on screen, and in that dubious respect, Tenebrae succeeds, with a cast of gorgeous actors who look great and make for glamourous victims too. God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Yet Argento has always staged his murder scenes like art installations, and their look is absolutely vital, and there’s always been a digusting beauty to his killings, with the juxtaposition of beautiful victim and horrendous act indeed making for powerful cinema. Besdies, men often get the bad end of it too in Argento’s films – in fact, the second most spectacular death in this film is indeed inflicted upon a man. The big one though, the one that got the BBFC in a flutter, is the death of Jane, Neal’s wife, who has humiliated him by having an affair with Bulmer. When she gets her hand chopped off by an axe, the ensuing spray of blood resembles an artist throwing paint on the canvas. It’s absolutely spectacular, horrendous and troublingly beautiful. You can see why the British censors got worried about it (though they were overreacting to everything with a vengeance around this time), because it looks too damn good. Yet to be honest, this is what divorces the violence in this film reality – it’s so artfully staged that even the messy stuff has a kind of intentional, staged look to it. Real violence wouldn’t look this good.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h07m36s683

That scene is just one of many acts of violence in an ending which amounts to a total bloodbath, real Grand Guignol stuff – indeed, it this ever had been performed on stage, the first ten rows at least would have been drenched in claret. Pretty much all of the cast are dead by the end, and the lone survivor is clearly going to need therapy for years to come. Inferno more or less killed its cast by the end too, but whereas the deaths of those characters were arguably void of any real emotional impact (barring the two of the earliest victims), by the end of Tenebrae the cumulative effect of all this murder is pretty damn chilling. I’m not saying that the film is a masterclass in three-dimensional characterisation, but Argento does seem more invested in the fate of these characters and their inevitable demises. Whereas I couldn’t really give two hoots about the deaths of Kazanian, the maid, the butler, Varelli, etc. in Inferno (they were all dicks anyway), the brutal dispatching of the nice guys in Tenebrae remains shocking, and even the deaths of the less sympathetic characters chill to the bone. This is definitely Argento at his cruellest and most harsh. And yet, like the enthusiastic response of the characters, it’s difficult not to get swept up in all of the gory chaos. After all, it’s just a film, and when everything comes together in such bloodily spectacular fashion by the end, it’s difficult not to walk away from the film as satisfied as you would be after a great meal.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h09m37s395

Of all of Argento’s films, this is probably the most self-reflexive, and raises a hell of a lot of questions. Does art inspire its viewers to commit crimes? Does the content reflect the views of the artist? In the opening press conference, Tilde, despite being good friends with Neal, uses this opportunity to critique him about the content of his novels, specifically the problematic instances of ‘women as victims, ciphers, the men with their hairy macho bullshit’, to which Neal insists that his novels are not sexist, and what’s more, he supports women’s rights. Tilde retorts with ‘okay, so explain the books’, a question which sadly is never answered because she’s murdered before the planned follow-up interview. This does however bring up the question of an artist’s responsibility when it comes to their content – having evil or sexist characters in a book doesn’t necessarily mean the author is evil or sexist, but if the general tone is sexist, then it’s only to fair to assume that the author is too, unless, as Tilde suggests, Neal is writing to a pattern and knows fully well that this ‘kind of sexism sells’, which in theory makes him just as bad as the authors who do believe this stuff. The message is still the same. Incidentally, Argento himself was stalked by an obsessive fan before starting work on this film, so it’s easy to understand why the subject matter would be so close to the director’s heart, which is maybe why he concentrated on this rather than follow-up on Inferno.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h11m22s107

At the same time, Argento is showing up the mechanics of the horror and exploitation film. Brian de Palma was doing a similar thing near this time with Body Double – check the end credits scene and its ‘film-within-a-film’ gag, where what normally would be a half-convincing scene involving a vampire biting a woman’s neck (causing her blood to seep down onto her breasts) is exposed, thanks to editing, to reveal that the woman having her neck bitten and the woman whose breasts are covered in blood are not the same person. It’s a body double! Tenebrae does a similar thing, if not so blatantly-meta, where Neal slices his own throat with a razor only for us to discover moments later that it was a staged death – the razor is a dummy which spurts fake blood whenever a button is pushed. It’s a neat trick, and it makes one realise that all the horrific gore that we’ve witnessed so far is also fake. Axe in the head? Fake. Strangulation? Fake. This is a bold move, because it potentially takes you out of the film, but Argento’s almost always been one for disrupting narratives and pulling the rug out from underneath us. This may be why Suspiria remains his most popular movie, because it’s arguably the one that plays the least amount of tricks with us, opting for an unrelenting, uninterrupted nightmare.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h13m04s325

Essentially, Argento is saying it’s just a movie, just like Peter Neal’s Tenebrae is just a book. It’s a safe outlet for our fears, and yes, our latent, voyeuristic and even sadistic desires, as well as those of the artist. Hey, I have these desires too, but, I must add, only in the context of movies! I know this is just a film, I know this isn’t real, and yet I do allow myself to suspend disbelief so that I can indulge my desires for a powerful, effective cinematic experience. Horror films wouldn’t be much fun if I kept saying it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie… I want to be scared, I want to be (safely) disturbed, I want to lose myself, I want to experience this illicit (and I must repeat, fictional) danger. In the end, it is just a movie.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h16m38s401

Yet, we also have a bit at the end where Neal is killed with a work of art (a rather pointy sculpture), and some critics have taken this to be Argento’s way of saying that art is dangerous. He definitely believes that art has the power to affect us intensely, as his later thriller The Stendhal Syndrome would prove. Indeed, the novel Tenebrae is the trigger for Berti’s murder spree, if not the root cause. To quote Scream, ‘movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative’. In fact, it’s suggested that organised religion may be a key factor, both killers admit to being brought up as Catholics during their interview together. Yet Berti is no stereotype – he says he believes in abortion and divorce, for example. Berti’s disgust with his victims – and it’s telling that they’re all women, while Neal is definitely an equal ops murderer – is rooted by some kind of sexual repulsion towards the female sex, which may or may not be rooted in his religious upbringing. He pretty much suggests this himself during his interview with Neal. He thinks homosexuality is ‘deviant’, something incidentally, that Neal disagrees with. According to Neal, the killer in his novel doesn’t have a sensible moral outlook because he or she ‘is insane’. Odd that this line is spoken by someone who turns out to be totally insane himself!

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h17m27s407

This is where the logic of Tenebrae becomes confusing – Neal seems perfectly normal for the first two thirds of the movie. The reason the final twist is so shocking is because no one could have seen it coming. When we find out that not only is Neal the second murderer, but that he also killed decades earlier, it makes you re-evaluate everything you’ve just seen. Watching Tenebrae again knowing the facts, it’s interesting to observe Neal as he goes about his business. There’s nothing here that suggests he’s insane, even latently so – some mild frustration with Jane over the phone at the airport, that instant, curt brushing away of the photo of the shoplifter’s body when shown to him by the police, that’s about it.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h20m41s189

Let’s consider the flashbacks. Seen from the point-of-view of the killer, we witness a woman (Eva Robins) seducing a group of young men on the beach, an act which clearly disgusts Neal (for that’s who ‘we’ are here) as he slaps her face. This leads to the woman sending the men after a fleeing Neal, who pounce on and pin him down as she forces her blood-red stiletto into his mouth, a bizarre act, but one loaded with sexual, violent connotations. Many have commented that this is an act of rape upon Neal, which humiliates him to such an extent that he later kills the woman and steals her shoes for good measure, thereby regaining his masculine control. He later anonymously gives the shoes to Jane as a present (she thinks they’re from Bulmer), possibly to anticipate the inevitable renactment of his earlier killing. When watching Tenebrae for the first time, we assume (retrospectively, from his confession onwards) that the flashback scenes are from the mind of Berti, but they turn out to be Neal’s. This is good wrong-footing, as we instantly assume these tormented flashbacks to be those of the killer – never mind that they belong to another killer, it’s still a good twist, even if the character of Berti ends up being a loose end. I mean, what made him the way he is? Argento literally takes an axe to that plot thread. Never mind. Anyway, now that we know that the flashbacks belong to him and not Berti, it’s clear that even from the start of the film, Neal is clearly disturbed, and yet it’s difficult to reconcile the later Neal and the agonised silhouette suffering from memories of past crimes with the cheery, happy-go-lucky amateur sleuth whose company we so enjoyed the first time around. Maybe he’s just too good at supressing this dark side of his nature for the most part, but it would have been nice if Argento had given Neal some characteristics that would have made it all come together on repeat viewings, but then I suppose it wouldn’t have been as shocking a twist, and Argento does love a rug-pull, even if it is at the expense of common sense.

vlcsnap-2018-10-31-21h22m11s515

Tenebrae continued Argento’s golden run in spectacular fashion, but there are some who would argue that this is where it ended for him, with Phenomena and Opera considerable steps down, which is a fair assessment, as they are both flawed films, but they’re also too damned brilliant to be regarded as anything less than prime Argento. Nevertheless, this is super-prime Argento, a giallo classic, a thrilling ride and infinitely rewatchable. After all, there is only one answer to the fury that tortures you when you’re struggling to think of a classic thriller to watch. Well, there’s actually more than one answer, but one of them is definitely Tenebrae.

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

Suspiria

Inferno