Dario Argento is an iconic name most associated with the horror genre from outside the good ole’ USA. Unlike many of the later 20th century masters of horror who burst onto the scene, Argento silently rose to prominence in the late 1960's as a screenwriter for spaghetti westerns (co-writing Once Upon a Time in the West with Sergio Leone). Quiet, unsuspecting or assuming, he was lurking in the shadows for the right moment to strike with his first feature. Beginning in 1970, Argento popularized giallo horror, a call back to pulpy Italian murder mysteries. If you’re not familiar with giallo, imagine if Film-Noir focused on primary colors instead of just back and white and was unrestricted by the haze code (sex, drugs, and gallons of blood). Argento’s mark is forever imprinted, serving as an inspiration to the golden age of slashers and helping usher in the zombie genre by producing George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
Surprisingly, however, despite having a filmography that spans over 40 years, most people only know him for one film, Suspiria. This is a film that I feel is a victim of its own bar; it has a spectacular opening with two of the most imaginative death scenes of the 1970's, and they both play out one after the other. From there, it’s just a waiting game as you’re read a technicolor storybook about a once powerful witch (and later her sisters if you dive into the sequels). Not enough people talk about Argento’s far superior work in the 1980's, three unrelated giallo films focusing on the maddening trials of the creative process. This began in 1982 with Tenebrae, focusing on a serial killer stalking a horror writer, and furthered with Phenomena in 1985, where a young telepathic Jennifer Connelly unravels a serial killing at a boarding school (a better successor to Suspiria to be honest). I bring this up to lead into the third entry, 1987’s Opera, Argento’s most commercially successful but underrated film.
Opera tells the story of Betty, played by Cristina Marsillach, a young understudy given the opportunity to take the role of Lady Macbeth after the ill-tempered lead is hit by a car (in a hilariously quick opening scene). This both excites and horrifies the young actress, and Betty has every right to be superstitious. Her family has fallen victim to the Scottish curse, as her mother was murdered for playing Lady Macbeth a decade prior at the same opera house. This doesn’t seem to faze the over-confident and ambitious director, Marco (played by the late Ian Charleson), a once promising filmmaker looking to rekindle his career with a stage debut (maybe he’s a stand-in for somebody). With the encouragement of her closest friends, who all have crew roles, Betty is all in.
Opening night goes off perfectly and Betty is a success, but all is not well in Parma as a sinister “black glove” killer stalks the balconies and has taken a liking to the young leading lady. Could there be a connection? The killer wastes no time making his presence known to Betty, not to kill her, but to make the point that nobody is safe around her. He kills when she’s alone with someone else, tying Betty up and taping needles under her eyes, forcing her to watch as he murders everyone close to her. Despite the danger Betty faces, the show must go on, and the director, and the killer, will have their encore.
If the plot sounds familiar, then you probably already guessed it. This is a modern version of The Phantom of the Opera, just not Webber’s musical. Premiering a year after the debut of the popular musical, Opera marks the 8th adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel dating back to the silent era, and immortalized in the Universal Golden Age of horror. Opera is also the first Phantom that Argento directed, helming another loose adaptation of the story in 1998 that signaled the beginning of his decline as a director.
Argento is always a visual director first and foremost, with the performances coming second. Acting is appropriately theatrical and over the top, with heavy dubbing and narration. It’s pretty much a staple of Argento’s style, so it’s not worth criticizing. Speaking of staples, Opera is Argento at his most excessive. His trademarks are on full display: his obsession with eyes rivalling Tarantino’s foot fetish, his preference for brunette leading ladies (a take on the Hitchcockian blond), broken glass, close-ups of an elaborate knife with light reflecting off the blade before that last deadly plunge, and progressive rock soundtracks. Oh man, this soundtrack! On top of getting some classic, tragic opera compositions, the death scenes in this film come equipped with some good old heavy metal. It features “Knights of the Night” by Italy’s Gow and “No Escape” by Sweden’s Norden Light, the latter of which becomes the unofficial theme song of the film. Neither of these bands released a second album, but they’re forever remembered for their contribution to horror.
It’s safe to say this is probably my favorite film by Argento, but it’s far from perfect. In fact, in some places it's downright sloppy. The entire plot hinges on the mystery killer and the killer’s identity. There are plenty of possible candidates: the director, the former lead’s manservant, the detective brought in to access the situation, even the catty neighbor. It’s all set up well, but a single zoom shot pretty much spoils the reveal before the murders start. It doesn’t even take repeated viewing to catch on. There’s also a minor plot device brought in leading up to the third death scene, where we’re led to believe it’s more important than it really is because the killer seems hellbent on retrieving it during the death scene, but then prominently discards it in a drain shortly after. It’s all style over substance.
Overall, I can say Opera is worth seeing for its visual presentation alone. Ronnie Taylor, the Academy Award winning cinematographer of Ghandi, fills the film with many glorious steadi-cam tracking shots, tight first person POV shots, and some amazing crane shots. This is a film with scale that goes all out and feels larger than life at times. Opera has the ability to really put the viewer in the place of its lead, thrusting you into this world with no room to breathe. And when the killer tapes those needles under her eyes, you cringe every time. It may lack polish, but it’s still terrifying and visceral. Track it down and give it a watch.
Though under-discussed in giallo history, Opera was listed next to Suspiria when promoting Argento’s episode, Jennifer, for Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror. Opera also marks the last appearance of Argento’s partner and frequent actress, Daria Nicolodi, before their separation. Nicolodi wouldn’t appear in another Argento film until 2007’s The Mother of Tears, alongside their daughter, Asia. Opera would also serve as the final feature film for Ian Charleson, who was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after the film’s completion. He would quietly return to theater for the following three years before his death in early 1990.
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media Pages