Terror at the Opera
Like “Tenebre” and “Phenomena” before it, “Opera” shows Argento evolving pass the giallo framework into creating films that aren’t quite slashers, aren’t quite supernatural horror films, but something distinctly Italian and wholly Argento. It’s a film that trades heavily in Dario’s beloved themes and obsessions. Childhood flashbacks, the killer’s damaged mind being shown visually, voyeurism, psycho-sexual frustration and obsession, architecture, animals, there’s even a precocious kid thrown in pretty randomly… Despite all of these returning concepts and images, the movie never feels derivative or tired.
First off, “Opera” is a gorgeous film. On a strictly visual level, it’s Argento’s strongest film since “Deep Red.” His camera glides, runs, floats, spins, peers, and prowls around the opera house, the protagonist’s apartment building, and just about every setting in the film. The camera voyeuristically probes the character’s private places, suggesting the killer’s presence and building suspense simply with a dolly pan. When the killer appears and attacks, the intimate framing and frenzied camera movement builds the film’s tension up to a fever pitch. The movie’s color palette is also fantastically atmospheric. While the opera house always seems to shimmer and sparkle, the dark is a cool blue. Many shots of the film are like a beautiful, half-remembered nightmare. There’s even a brief splash of “Suspiria”-like color.
Finally, during the film’s climax, the camera takes the point of view of a group of ravens as they swoop around the opera house auditorium, diving down at the audience. It’s such a fantastic sequence and the way it’s shot elevates it into one of my favorites. I’d recommend the film just based on its visual strength. -If the stylistic direction is the main reason people watch Argento films, the second reason are the fantastic murders. And, man, does “Opera” deliver in that regard. The murders start slow. Like the Phantom of the Opera, the killer is interrupted in his private opera box by a stagehand. The film seems to speed up as the murderer strikes at the man, pushing the back of his head repeatedly into a coat rack hook. It’s not an overly gory scene but it does display the ferocity that powers the film.
The first major kill of the film involves a big ass knife being shoved into the throat of a screaming man, so you actually see the blade extending out through his open mouth. The victim falls to the floor and the killer slashes him into a bloody mess, while a speed metal song blares on the soundtrack, informing the viewer that there is no escape, ramping up the viciousness and terror of the attack.
The second attack is more stalk then slash and has a long build-up. Two women discover an important piece of evidence and the intimate camera and cramped framing makes it seem like the killer will appear at any minute. When the murderer does show up, he quickly finishes the one girl with a pair of scissors, but not before she swallows the evidence. Later Argento would properly revel in the gore as the man cuts her open to retrieve the incriminating necklace, but all the slicing is kept off-screen and the sound design causes the audience to imagine something much worse then what the effects team could ever cook up.
The last truly operatic murder occurs about halfway through and it ranks very highly on my list of all time favorites. Trapped in her spooky apartment, Betty and her best friend, played by Dario’s ex-wife Daria Nicoladdi, try to find a way to escape without running afoul of the killer who may or may not be in the room with them. Daria Nicoladdi crotches down at a door peephole, convinced the man outside is the mad slasher. After a few minutes of trying to convince her he’s a cop, by showing his badge and his revolver, the man sticks the gun barrel through the peephole and fires. In close-up, we see the bullet blow through the glass and blasts out Nicoladdi’s head. The bullet then destroys the phone our protagonist was about to call for help on. While all of this might sound over-the-top gory, only one scene really piles on the blood. “Opera” isn’t the gory fireworks of “Tenebre.” It focuses more on suspense and terror.
Maybe the most ingenious act of “Opera” is the way it blatantly puts the audience in the character’s seat and intentionally plays up the inherent voyeurism of the horror genre. Throughout the film, our protagonist is captured by the killer, tied up, and forced to watch the murders of her friends and love ones. The horror doesn’t stop there, because the killer tapes a row of needles under her eyes, forcing her to watch completely. It’s a brilliantly sadistic device and does a great job of involving the viewer in the action.
This brings us to the actual plot of the film. When the lead actress in a high-tech production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” is hit by a car, young, naive, inexperienced Betty is brought on to play Lady Macbeth. Of course, a mysterious man is obsessed with her and soon the murder starts. The story actually works pretty well, pumping along steadily for the first ninety minutes of the 107 minute run-time. “Phantom of the Opera” is obviously an influence, what with a psychotic killer being obsessed with a talented, young soprano and the cursed nature of that Scottish play is brought up a few times.
One of the most interesting points of the plot is that the production of “Macbeth” is being directed by a young horror film director. The staging is radical and new wave, with lasers, a giant floating skull overhead, and a post-nuclear war inspired setting. It brings an interesting personal subtext to the film, since the character of Nigel is obviously inspired by Argento himself. (Dario himself has expressed a desire to direct opera before.) And it’s not a wholly flattering portrayal, since the director is kind of an asshole and even a suspect at one point.
We some times get a peek into the killer’s head, literally, as we see his brain twitching with the murderous impulse. The heroine has reoccurring images from childhood and we get flashbacks to a young woman being both sexually and physically menaced by the masked man. All of this builds up the killer’s motivation and back-story, which is still muffled and more or less just a pretense for the kills. Despite a few red herrings, the identity of the murderer isn’t too hard to figure out just from process of elimination.
The movie’s biggest problem is its lead character. Despite people she’s presumably close to being brutally killed before her very eyes, Betty never shows much concern, trauma, or any sign she’s really upset by this. Literally moments after the first murder occurs, she’s sitting in a car, calmly, idly chatting. Nor does Betty or the director ever decide to cease the opera production, despite the murderous rage it obviously inspires. Our protagonist’s dead, slutty mother is occasionally referred to and it’s, obviously, a plot point.
All of this builds up to the movie’s second biggest problem. After the killer is revealed in spectacular fashion and has an intense confrontation with his favorite opera singer, the story seems to have resolves itself and wrapped up all the loose ends. But we then get a gratuitous epilogue set in the Alps, a psycho killer homage to “The Sound of Music.” The story obviously isn’t done yet and we get a few more uninspired kills before Betty and the killer have their real final confrontation. It all feels rushed, uninspired, and tacked on. Dario is usually really good at giving his killers spectacularly gory send-offs, but not here. The final scene, of our heroine freeing a lizard trapped under a stick, seems to symbolize her being free of her mother’s legacy and emotional baggage. Which is fine, and might have worked, had she actually shown any real empathy or concern throughout the film. Ultimately, this sloppy ending brings the otherwise fantastic “Opera” down a notch.
Despite that, “Opera” is a spellbinding, visually beautiful, suspenseful thriller. Some people dislike the heavy metal on the soundtrack, but I think it actually works, powering the violence. It works as a nice contrast to the soft, atmospheric Simonetti and Brian Eno score. “Opera” would, sadly, be the end of Argento’s unassailable eighties run. It’s the last time his classic style is really apparent. [Grade: A-]