Terror at the Opera
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 28 October 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
features: October: 31 Days of Horror
A death in a Dario Argento film is usually brutal, and often constructed with such meticulous precision that it can be justifiably described as beautiful. In Suspira a victim smashes through an art deco skylight, covering the tile floor below in blood – it is a disaster that ruins the perfectly geometric architecture, but the scene is a thing of technical expertise: built with fluid camerawork, balanced compositions, vibrant colors, and an aural highlight in the score. Argento demonstrates his penchant for such aesthetically distinguished deaths continually (among my favorites is the victim in Tenebre who paints a wall with the flurry of blood hosing out of her freshly dissected forearm), but it is secondary to his in intention to frighten. It is this trait that finds the director at his most masochistic, and one exemplified in Opera.
Categorically, Opera recalls the director’s early gialli, namely, Deep Red, and his seminal Tenebre. We are given an anonymous killer, and witness the increasing brutality of his crimes until the identity is revealed. Investigation is one of the fundamental tenets of horror; it promotes suspense and ensures the shock of revelation. Opera, however, is not enhanced by the revelation of its killer’s identity (which is predictable), but by ambience and its classically gothic setting. It opens with the enormously foreboding image of an opera house reflected in the close-up eye of a crow, one of many (or, a murder) that permanently inhabit the venue. On stage is a production rehearsal of Verdi’s avant-garde rendition of Macbeth – the notorious curse of this fiction intends to spell the fate of the film. There is nothing explicitly alarming in these initial frames, and nothing comforting in them either.
The ensuing horrors are sufficiently gruesome, but the viewer is able to look away. It is this very option that Argento deprives the film’s primary victim, Betty: a beautiful and defenseless female who replaces the production’s lead after a minor car accident (a product of the curse, no doubt). She becomes the killer’s obsession, and he subsequently murders those she’s involved with: her boyfriend or costume designer. In each instance the killer ties her upright, tapes her mouth shut, and fastens a row of needles below her eyelids, forcing her eyes open in the duration of his imprecise knifings. She is a martyr, and suffers for us. Although the murders in this film are gruesome (as with many of Argento’s films, Opera was edited in its US theatrical release), the image of Betty’s eyes – like they are trapped in the impending swallow of a Venus’ flytrap – is more disturbing than the otherwise emotionless horrors that populate not only this film, but those in the majority of Argento’s filmography.
Other elements contribute to the film’s aura of unease. Scored with diversity, Verdi’s opera highlights the film’s aural periphery, and each murder cues a reprisal of generic heavy metal (even Brian Eno is available on the film’s soundtrack). Opera is also distinctly modeled after, although liberally disconnected from Phantom of the Opera, a source Argento would remake in 1998. Late in the film, the crows are released en masse upon a full house in search of the attending killer (shot in an astounding, uninterrupted point of view that spirals down from the venue’s ceiling). They do so, and tag him by prying out (and digesting) one of his eyes; in this manner, the opera’s phantom is identified.
Opera is an amalgam of disconnected elements that Argento has tended to favor in his career (Claudio Simonetti’s [of Goblin] scoring, supernatural animals, dubbing), and as such it is flawed. It lacks the precision and revelations of his superlative early work, and has an erroneous conclusion that occurs in the Swiss Alps in broad daylight. The strengths outweigh the weaknesses, and although ineligible as Argento’s best film, Opera possesses his most succinct maltreatment of his audience, which is a theme explored comparatively insufficiently in every one of his films.