Synopsis: When a young opera singer takes over the leading role in an avant-garde presentation of Verdi’s Macbeth, she triggers the madness of a crazed fan who repeatedly forces the diva to watch the brutal murders of her loved ones. Will the woman’s recurring nightmare hold the key to the identity of this psychopath or does an even more horrific evil lay waiting in the wings?
The legendary Dario Argento co-wrote and directed this savagely stunning thriller featuring some of the most shocking sequences of the maestro’s entire career. Previously available in the U.S. only in heavily edited form, this horror classic has now been restored from original Italian vault materials and is presented uncut and uncensored.
eyelights: the bullet shot. the eye pins. its overall style. its creepiness.
eyesores: the “crow” cam. its thrash metal tunes. its nonsensical ending.
Up until recently, I had only seen three Dario Argento films: ‘Suspiria’, ‘Inferno’ and ‘Opera’. The only one that I had enjoyed had been the latter – and even then I felt that the picture had plenty of weaknesses, most notably in the plausibility department.
But, given that Argento’s work has somewhat been growing on me of late, I figured that it would be time to revisit the one “gem” and see if it holds up after all this time. Truth be told, I also needed a sure-fire hit to make up for the less stellar Argento films I’d recently watched.
It so turns out that ‘Opera’ remains a gem – a flawed, but entertaining, gem.
‘Opera’ takes place in the world of… you guessed it… opera. It follows the nightmarish debut of a young opera singer after she becomes the lead in Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’, an opera that is considered cursed. Immediately after she gets the part, she is stalked and forced to witness the murders of some of her friends and colleagues.
What makes it work is the simplicity of its plot mixed with a visual grandiosity befitting of its name: at its core, ‘Opera’ is a simple slasher film, with nothing especially innovative on the offer, but, beyond the typical plot twists and contrivances, there is a stylishness in the direction and in the overall production that makes it stand out.
I don’t know if Argento had a larger-than-usual budget for ‘Opera’, but my impression is that it was made more meticulously than many -if not most- of his preceding pictures. Just in using an opera house as a setting, it benefitted from larger spaces and opened it up, giving it room to breathe.
But even the look of the film is an improvement, having a slicker, more manicured style. The impression one gets from the onset is that we are not watching just any old giallo film (which tend to be very low-budget), but instead a higher grade production: it feels full, vibrant, tended to, professional. I can’t quite put it into words, but one just needs to compare it to his previous films, which sometimes looked artificial, makeshift.
If anything brings us down to earth, it’s the acting: the moment that we see the amateurish histrionics of the stage director (or whoever she is) as Betty makes her debut, we are violently thrown out of ‘Opera’. And she’s not the only one – it wouldn’t be an Argento film otherwise. It just goes to show that you can throw all sorts of money at a movie, but it’s all in vain if the casting director makes poor choices.
Having said this, I’m pleased to report that the lead, Cristina Marsillach, was actually pretty decent. This is unusual in Argento pictures, whose protagonists often tend to chew the scenery at least moderately. I enjoyed Marsillach’s whole performance, but was especially impressed with the way that she captured her character’s concert performances. I know nothing of classical or opera music, but I was totally sold by her credible lip-synching.
Less pleasant, however, was the !@#$-ing horrible dubbing throughout the rest of the film. Recorded in at least two languages, French and English, Argento films usually suffer from dubbing issues. ‘Opera’, however, is one of the worst: even though most actors speak English throughout, they were re-dubbed with voices that don’t match – and with poor synching at that! Given this artificiality, the picture has a layer of credibility stripped from it.
But the script doesn’t help: characters end up doing things that are too ridiculous for words, including an ending in which a dummy is mistaken for a human cadaver (Really? This can happen?) and a moment when, thinking it’s the police, the heroine lets a stranger in… leaving the door wide open. All this while she has drops in her eyes and can’t see who it is, and even though she knows that there is a serial killer prowling about. Ridiculous!
Still, that same scene is saved by Argento’s creative direction: there’s a gunshot that runs through a peephole, killing the person on the other side and ricocheting inside the apartment, destroying a phone. It’s totally manufactured, but watching how Argento showed the bullet driving through and his next angle, from across a room, is a thing of beauty. It’s like watching ballet: it’s not natural human movement whatsoever, but the skill involved is breathtaking.
Argento also peppered things by using an unusual plot device: the killer tapes a series of pins under Betty’s eyes so that she can’t close them (Argento supposedly once joked that he wanted to do this to audiences who look away at the scary bits in his films!). The idea of being forced to watch grisly murders is a horrific notion in and of itself, but to have one’s vision put at risk this way is scarier still; it makes the danger more palpable. The image of Betty’s (slightly) bleeding eyelids will remain a vivid memory.
This is why ‘Opera’ stands out amongst its peers. It’s may be hobbled by a number of issues along the way, but Argento managed to give it a visceral quality that lends itself quite nicely to paranoia and tension. So, even though it doesn’t entirely make sense, ‘Opera’ can nonetheless grip you and keep a hold on you for most of its runtime. It’s not an exceptional suspense/horror film, but it had that potential – and its standout qualities make it memorable enough. Frankly, that’s good enough for me.
Date of viewing: March 3, 2013