Cast: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, and Urbano Barberini
Director: Dario Argento
108 minutes (18) 1987
Cult Films Blu-ray region B
[Released 21st January]
Review by Christopher Geary
Even for horror fans, Dario Argento’s cinema can be an acquired taste... What one viewer regards as peculiarly fascinating surrealism, another might judge to be simply a narrative incoherence. Although it often seems that the central values of Argento’s oeuvre flip-flop, from his imitation of Hitchcockian intrigues, to pure aesthetic and technological cinematic merits, there can be no doubt his commitment to a dazzling inventiveness for murder has given us more than a handful of genuine horror classics.
Opera (aka: Terror At The Opera) rips off Phantom Of The Opera, but gets away with it because it adds raw fears and unforgettable visual stylisation to its electrifying fusion of macabre shocks, gruesome violence, black comic characterisation, and borderline campy dialogue. Oddly enough, this is a rather superior genre film to Argento’s own version of Phantom Of The Opera, made in 1998.
In Opera, understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) wins a coveted stage role, when the diva’s accident during rehearsals for a new version of Verdi’s Macbeth gives the young singer her first chance in the spotlight. However, the rising star soon becomes a tortured witness to the activities of a vicious killer who forces her to watch as helpless new victims die in agony. Some of this movie’s violence occurs off-screen, but our heroine’s terrified expression as an unwilling observer sells a frightful impact, so we (probably) all prefer not having to look at every single gruesome thing that she sees, anyway. Despite creative misunderstandings of identity and cunning whodunit misdirects, Opera really stands or falls based upon its ingenious and enthralling murder set-pieces, and here Argento surpasses many fans’ expectations with several spectacular and memorable kill-shots that are always worth repeated viewings.
Cast as Lady Macbeth, Betty survives bad luck and the cruelty of her bondage ordeals while she pits her wits against a mysterious psycho-killer. Argento’s renowned signatures of visual dazzle and creative ultra-violence have rarely been this precisely and skilfully composed, or so efficiently choreographed, whether for generating unease or habitually and crazily inventive death scenes, where the intensely theatrical unreality of a staged opera is expertly woven together with nightmarish flashbacks.
Some filmmakers would have us believe that the a vital element in the creative process is writing the script. They tell us that a good script is essential, but I tend to disagree. A screenplay is certainly not a movie, anymore than a shopping list is a dinner party, or a business plan (just ask any self-employed worker how useful a page of numbers really is!) is a factory or any other going concern.
Auteur theory maintains that the director, carrying overall responsibility for the filmmaking project, is the true author of a movie, not the screenwriter, and this idea applies to Argento more than most directors because his best work succeeds while lacking some of the things often deemed to be essential in a proverbial ‘good’ movie. Plot structure, convincingly portrayed characters with credible motives, believable storytelling techniques and comfortable moralising are rarely found in Argento’s brand of slasher cinema.
And yet his work is just as interesting, compelling, and entertaining as other kinds of tragedy depicted on screen, and many Argento pictures boast the kind of demented narrative drive and striking mise en scene which leaves the supposedly shocking horrors of many Hollywood filmic terror masters looking sadly tame and bloodless. Whereas the average US filmmaker uses the apparatus of filmmaking like a sculptor wields a hammer and chisel, chipping and carving away excess to reveal a statuesque artwork beneath, Argento’s approach is more like that of the potter.
When he wants a particularly grand effect, instead of removing existing material he simply adds more clay! Argento’s acrobatic camera would doubtless score highly with a panel of Olympic gymnastics judges and, arguably, the Italian maestro has made better artistic use of tools like Steadicam (intriguing POV shots) and the Louma crane (swooping abound theatrical settings) than American directors, including the widely acclaimed Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese.
Superbly restored and re-graded with a 2K scan, in consultation with Argento, this HD release for the Blu-ray edition includes improved English subtitles for the Italian track.
Aria Of Fear - a brand new candid interview with director Dario Argento
Opera Backstage - a documentary showing Argento making Opera (40 minutes)
Featurette about the restoration process