Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Italian Horror Blogathon: Opera (aka Terror at the Opera)

Dario Argento’s Opera is aptly titled. Operatic in its aesthetics, this is the Italian maestro’s most gruesomely violent aria. A swan song of sorts for an aging diva; a final showcase for a once great entertainer (with hindsight we say this) to remind us one last time just why we rushed out to see whatever their name was attached to. This is Argento at his most gloriously indulgent; visually and aurally throughout, the viewer is bombarded with an excessiveness that can only be compared to the onslaught of neon and shadows and Goblin found in his 1977 masterpiece Suspria (and in some cases Inferno). Don’t get me wrong, Opera isn’t even close to being the stone-cold masterpiece that Suspiria is (a swap of Goblin for shitty ‘80s metal is the first thing that will tip you off); however, they both share that they’re utterly, truly trying to be art films that masquerade as horror films. Much like Suspiria, Argento is being really showy here with his camera. Of course we could say that about a lot of Italian horror films, but Opera in particular feels like something people could get behind as a transcendent art-house horror film.

So what kind of film is Opera? Opera is the kind of film that opens with a shot of an opera house interior seen through the reflection of a raven’s eye. Important? No, not really. But it looks really damn cool even if it is utterly pointless. For this reason, Opera is everything we expect Italian horror to be: exercises in style over substance where style is the substance. What Opera is not is a straight giallo; the very subgenre Argento helped popularize. Argento does not care a lick about the story here and neither should we, but he does throw in some flourishes (black gloves, psycho-sexual motive for the killer) that are rooted in the giallo. What Opera seems to be, though, is a hybrid of the giallo and the American slasher. Argento’s film, released in 1987, was pegged as the last true Italian horror film. Knowing that Michele Soavi (who acted as 2nd Unit Director on Opera) was yet to make his most surreal and hypnotic films (The Church, The Sect, and Cemetery Man), I cannot say with conviction that Opera is the last true Italian horror film; however, one man – no matter the quality of his work – does not equal a revitalized industry, and so even though Soavi was still carrying the flag for Italian horror, the genre was all but dead after the release of Opera. America was also experiencing its own decline in regards to the horror film. With countless sequels designed solely for the purpose of extracting more money from a loyal fanbase, the slasher film would die (it was already well on its way before Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street buoyed it for a while, only postponing the inevitable by that point) around the same time that the giallo – and all of Italian horror sans Soavi – would die in 1987 with Opera (Soavi’s first feature, Deliria, it should be noted, was also an extremely well made slasher/giallo hybrid made in 1987, but it did not derail the decline of the subgenre in any way).

So enough context, how about the plot. Here’s what you need to know since these things are of little importance to us in regards to Opera: A young and insecure opera singer Betty (Cristina Marsillach) – an understudy for a production of Verdi’s Macbeth – is thrust into the starring role after the lead actress storms off the stage one day during rehearsals (shot in a glorious reverse POV tracking shot; you see, even in the plot synopsis I cannot contain my giddiness for how the film looks) is hit by a car. Betty is reluctant, thinking she’s not ready for the part, but she is ultimately convinced to do it even though she whole heartedly believes in the Macbeth curse. This is of course the legend that doom will befall the production if you utter the actual name of The Scottish Play inside a theater; in fact, Argento claimed that the curse did indeed affect his production, and that the production company even urged him to switch the play within his movie to something else. Back to Betty: she’s a tad nervous about taking the lead role under such dubious circumstances, and her worse fears are realized on opening night when during her first performance, a murder takes place in one of the opera boxes.

It is here that we start to realize that Betty is being stalked by (what we assume) is a crazed fan. And what follows is a string of extremely graphic deaths to all of Betty’s friends and acquaintances. The most disturbing aspect of these murders is that the killer tapes Betty’s mouth shut, ties her up, and places tape under eyes with needles attached so that she can’t blink – forcing her to watch the nastiness take place in front of her.  All of the things she sees happen in front of her disturb her even further when she confesses to the opera’s director that images from a nightmare she had as a child – a man in a black hood with black gloves – materialized when she was forced to watch her friend murdered. These images continue to haunt Betty as the rest of Opera plays out as one long nightmare scenario – a giant stalk and slash sequence if you will – where Betty is subjected to both physical and psychological brutality.

And that’s pretty much all we need to know. Betty is our heroine (Final Girl if we’re using slasher terminology), and she is being stalked by a madman. There ya have it; nice and simple. Deeper interpretations are here if you want to make the leap: Betty being forced to watch the violence could be Argento’s perverse desire to force us to watch the ugliness just like Betty has to; images of pulsating brain (followed by the POV of the killer) and side doors and back stairways that could double as the subconscious. There’s even a bit of self-reflexivity in the beginning as the (unseen) diva storms off the stage, fed up with the horror director who is trying to direct an opera. You see, Argento (who has never been averse to putting a bit of self-reflexivity in his films) was being constantly hounded to direct an opera; he wanted to the notoriously dark and violent Verdi opera Rigoletto, but the producers rejected his idea and asked him to pick a more “traditional” opera (read: safe). Argento declined and decided to base his next giallo around the production of Verdi’s Macbeth (which is what we have here in Opera). Argento was set to make the film with veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave before she acrimoniously left the production due to her differences with Argento. So, that’s a roundabout way of getting to this: Argento liked to implement a lot of his experiences in the film. So deeper readings are there if you seek them, but what I’m most concerned with here – and what makes Opera stand out to me as one of Argento’s best – is Argento’s élan.

In typical Italian horror fashion, we find ourselves saying, “plot be damned!” and moving on so that we can just drink in every second of the film’s aesthetics. The mystery here is worthless, and it’s to the betterment of the film. It’s why I like Opera more than Tenebre because Argento doesn’t pretend that he’s making a legitimate giallo with this one. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tenebre, but it also has a tendency to get bogged down by a soggy middle and its classical approach to the giallo narrative. It actually works in Opera’s favor that it is so much indebted to the American slasher. Like the best slashers, Opera is more concerned with atmosphere and style and gruesome, gory setpieces. The narrative’s sole purpose here is to just not get in the way of the images, giving the characters simple conflict and motivation as nothing more than a backdrop for the ultra-violent, neon phantasmagorias that Argento was so adept at creating.

Opera was Argento’s most expensive production to that point, and it shows in every shot. From the opera production itself to the opera house setting to just the overall look of the film, there’s a reason why people think that the Italian horror film (and Argento’s career) died in 1987: it was the last time an Italian horror film had this kind of budget and these kinds of production values. The cinematography by Ronnie Taylor (a great DP who shot one of my favorite Ken Russell films, Tommy; won an Oscar for Gandhi; and was the camera operator on Barry Lyndon) is like a mad dash through a fever dream; the camera is always tracking as it pushes in on the action instead relying on the zoom (a favorite technique of the Italians) and almost always is canted or rotating. With hindsight we can see that this was Argento’s last gasp; it’s as if he left it all on the screen here knowing that this may be the last time he was ever going to get to play with a budget this big (although he did get to do a few more films that cracked the 10 million dollar budget) and a film of this scale.

This would be the last time Argento’s camera moved with such lithe energy – now his films are just clunky in both narrative and aesthetics.. Instead of zooms, Argento pushes in with dolly shots; the camera is always moving in this movie as he once again uses steadicam (as he did in Suspiria) to track the action. The tracking shots in Opera are a thing of beauty: whether it’s pushing us towards or through the action, whether it’s giving us an onrushing POV that would be doubly effective two years later in Soavi’s The Church, or whether he’s giving us the fantastic reverse (or backwards) POV found in the beginning of the film where it has the effect of the character (behind the camera, of course) walking backwards. It seems like such a simple thing, but it announces the film properly: this is going to be such a different, in-your-face film – whether it’s gore or aesthetics – this film is going to assault you. But I don’t want to make it sound like the film is rubbing your nose in the violence or that it’s an assault on the senses in a way that Michael Bay movies are (a different type of movie, to be sure, where the camera is always moving; however, the difference is that Argento isn’t a schizophrenic editor the way Bay is).

Here’s the difference between Opera and the ugliest of slasher films: We don’t just observe the deaths through the point of view of the killer in a way that most slasher movies do; no, Argento, with the steadicam, is making us aware of the style he using to showcase these murders. The first murder is G-R-U-E-S-O-M-E, but not in that, “I’m going to rub your nose in it” kind of way that is associated with so many hackneyed slashers of that era. Because of how the camera so gracefully moves through the setpieces, we’re allowed to appreciate the paradox that Argento presents us: the beauty of something so brutally violent and ugly. The violence is sudden and shocking, but only because it almost always comes right after a beautifully constructed shot (the raven’s point of view in the opera house comes to mind).

Opera is operatic, indeed, with its Grand Guignol setpieces. Like a bloody ballet, too (to keep with the stage performance metaphor), the entire film is set to an allegro pace, the camera pirouetting and plié-ing, gracefully filming the very thing that we don’t expect to be gracefully filmed. It’s one of the best tricks Argento employs in the film.  Oh, and about those gorepieces: There are some inventive deaths throughout Opera, perhaps the most extravagantly conceived/executed of his career. A woman is shot through a peephole and it’s shown in crazy John Woo style slow motion (Woo, by the way, would use a similar shot in his first American film, Hard Target…how’s that for random trivia?), a man’s head is impaled on a coat hook, and in one of the most bizarre and brutal moments, the killer has to improvise in retrieving a bracelet that they really want due to the fact that it has been swallowed by the victim.

Everything in this film is indulgence; it’s all there just for the hell of it. Everything is over-the-top: How about a bizarre reverse POV tracking shot? Sure, why not. How about a shot from the raven’s point of view as swoops through the audience at the opera house? Sure, why not. How about a random shot of a pulsating brain? Sure, why not. How about a disorientating POV shot (reversed again, as if the camera were mounted to the back of the character behind the camera) up a spiral staircase? Sure, why not. How about when Betty escapes the killer by retreating into a ventilation system, we shoot it canted and then continue turning the camera 360 degrees? Sure, why not. There are countless other examples throughout the film where one could simply sit back and analyze, “okay, that looks neat but was it necessary?” but to do that is to miss out on what makes the film (and almost all of Italian horror) work. I admire the bravado of it all, the whole, “let’s throw this on the wall and see if it sticks” mentality of Argento on this one.  Even when the camera is stationary, there’s opera music in the background that gives even the most monotonous of scenes a theatrical feel to them. And you know what: I love every second of it. I mean, it’s not like Italian horror is concerned with narrative coherency anyway, but here it just seems like Argento wanted to make an art-house horror film like Suspiria but this time present it as a down-and-dirty slasher movie.

So what then keeps the film from being in that upper echelon of Italian horror film? Well, the soundtrack is one of the reasons. And unless you think I’m being too prickly about such things, understand that I just got done watching The Red Queen Kills Seven Times and made mention of how important (and haunting) that film’s score was; in fact, one of the things that I wish I would have added to my Italian horror primer was the importance of music. Italian horror is just as much about the sound(track)s as it is the visuals. Whether it’s Goblin or Fabio Frizzi or Keith Emerson, the music is important to the atmosphere. Here, for some reason that only Argento could explain, the director juxtaposes the beautiful arias from Verdi’s Macbeth (as well as the all-too-briefly heard ambient compositions created by Brian and Roger Eno) with the worst kind of ‘80s Metal. It’s odd that Argento went to the Metal well as often as he did. He did the same thing as producer for the Demons films, and I can only thank Christ that Michele Soavi had the sense on The Church to battle with Argento on numerous aspects of that film, one of them being that Soavi had Keith Emerson cover Philip Glass and not create some horrid Prog-rock/Metal soundtrack. I suppose we this penchant for using Metal music can be chalked up to Metal being popular in American and really popular in Europe at the time, and so Argento thought his films would be more popular because of it (that was certainly the case with Demons).  It’s one of the main culprits that hold Opera back from being on the very best Italian horror films.

The other thing that holds the film back is the awful (seriously, it’s fuckawful, to borrow a phrase from Tim Brayton) denouement. A botched attempt to mix the serenity and beauty of the Alps with horrific violence, Argento has Betty running through the hillsides a la The Sound of Music before coming face-to-face with her stalker who supposedly burned up in a fire at the opera house but somehow escaped. It’s one of those truly awful “gotcha!” moments that littered the very worst of the American slasher films. I suppose we can look to the ending of Opera as a presage for the trajectory Argento’s career was heading.

I mentioned at the very beginning of this piece that I think people could get behind Opera as being a kind transcendent art-house horror film. One could argue that the extremely violent setpieces and its ridiculous ending hold the film back from realizing that, but I could see fans of De Palma (who borrows heavily from Argento and is not averse to violence) or the recent (inexplicable if you ask me) cults of Neveldine/Taylor, Paul W.S. Anderson, or John Hyams really getting behind something like Opera even if they abhor the horror genre. Argento’s camera was never as lively as it was here, and in true Italian horror fashion, he eschews all of the troublesome narrative contrivances that dragged down his previous giallo/slasher hybrid Tenebre, and just goes balls-to-the-wall, relentlessly hitting you in the face with STYLE! and ENERGY! in a way that a young, Evil Dead Sam Raimi would approve of.

It really is something to look back upon Opera with the benefit of hindsight; to see a once great visionary who seemed so invested in his art, who was so great at creating outré violent nightmares, and whose films were filled with so much vim and vigor now be reduced to the shell of the man that is releasing dreck like Mother of Tears and Giallo. Opera is something of a bittersweet paradox: a brilliant, arty horror film whose visual brilliance should be shouted from the rooftops, reminding everyone of that once-upon-time era when the Italian maestro had complete control of the subgenre; however, it’s also depressing as hell watching this movie knowing that it marks the beginning of the end for the once great filmmaker.


  1. I have to say I have a very different interpretation of the end of Opera than most. (spoilers) When Betty crawls through the grass at the end, I didn't understand it as her being overwhelmed with joy (as Tim Brayton posited in his review of Opera), instead I took it to mean the horrors she endured has rendered her completely insane. Think of the final moments of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre when the heroine is driving off in the back of a pickup truck laughing hysterically. Given the emphasis Argento puts on the horror of witnessing violence first hand throughout the film the end is Argento's statement that the human mind can only endure so much horror before the observer is damaged beyond repair. I got the impression that Betty would probably be committed to an insane asylum shortly after the credits rolled. In my estimation it's one of the best endings I've ever seen because it distills Argento's thesis of how watching violence warps a person's mind (a theme that runs throughout the feature) in a startling curveball of an image that shocks and unsettles the viewer. Even the parody of the Sound of Music is Argento's statement that the typical happy ending of the final girl in a slasher film is ridiculous because a person who has lived through such horrific experiences would always have to deal with the psychological ramifications of witnessing such extreme violence, which Argento makes literal through the reappearance of the supposedly dead serial killer in an idyllic setting. For me, the ending of Opera makes it surpass Suspiria as Argento's ultimate masterpiece because he undermines the principles of the narratives he's been putting forward ever since his first foray into the Giallo genre. In my opinion Argento shot his wad on Opera because he turned his cinematic eye to the relationship between the viewer and the exploitative violence Argento himself traffics in and ultimately deduces there is no clear answer as to how such a narrative effects the viewer and what the ultimate ramifications of this relationship are. Or maybe I've had to many beers. It's Halloween after all. Either way I really enjoyed the write-up and thanks for putting on the blogathon.

    1. KingKubrick, sorry this has taken me so long to respond to. Work has been crazy the last couple of days. Also, thanks for stopping by and visiting the site (and leaving a comment, to boot!). Welcome!.

      Okay, Opera: I like your interpretation, and I would be willing to get behind it -- and may have even brought it up -- had I gone further with the "deeper interpretations" paragraph I wrote. The ending just makes me roll my eyes because of the terrible metal music and the way Argento just kind of throws the viewer right into it. Having said that, it does fit in with the dream-like tone of the rest of the film.

      I still don't care for it, but I appreciate your interpretation of it (especially when compared to the ending of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and I can see where you're coming from, especially with the last shot where she smiles like a wacko at the lizard and then embraces the grass as the film cuts to black. It certainly ties in with what you're saying in regards to Argento's deeper theme about the effects of violence (considering he has Betty's eyes forced open with those pins) on those who watch it. The style is there...I just don't know if I can be convinced about the intent.

      Thanks again for your comment and interpretation.

  2. Golly, I get name dropped in the review and the comments - I shall become even more full of myself than is already the case.

    Anyway, wonderful piece to end the 'thon with; a great analysis of what is one might actually be my favorite Argento film, even if you've pointed out the reasons its impossible to call it his best. Especially liked your thoughts on the moving camera in this one, which is so much more ambitious than anywhere else in horror outside of The Shining, if you ask me.

    1. Yes, Tim, your ego should be quite inflated by all of this, hehe. Thanks for the kind words. I feared this piece got away from me in parts (I had been working on it since day one of the blogathon, and I think it suffered from being one of those things that you work so long on, that you're eyes just don't see the errors like they should) and came off as repetitive. Yes, I think this is probably my favorite Argento as well. I know my brother would champion Tenebre over this one, but I think the fact that Argento went all-in on Opera gives it the edge over the more self-serious Tenebre. And that camera, my god, that camera. The film just moves from moment to moment so effortlessly that I couldn't help but be reminded of moments like little Danny riding his trike through the halls of the Overlook Hotel. It had been years since I had seen Opera, and I remembered moments like the raven circling the opera house, the gory setpieces, et al.; however, I didn't remember just how much the camera tracked the action and did all of those crazy rotations. It's not surprising that this style is what stuck with Soavi when he went on to make his own crazy features. And I would even go as far as saying that Soavi actually improved on this kind of style with his four horror films.

      Thanks again, Tim, for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  3. Hello,
    300B Monoblock Amplifier

    Thanks for the tips. Usually, I do not post on blogs, but I wish to say that this post really forced me to do so! Thanks, incredibly nice article. I love this kind of horror movie or pictures.

  4. Hi,
    Best DAC in the World

    It really a good blog with good analysis. All the information are unique and heart touching. I never seen this kind of blog ever. Thanks..