WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS THROUGHOUT!
By far his most expensive movie at the time of its making, and budgeted at around $8 million, Dario Argento's 1987 film "Opera" (now going under its international title "Terror at the Opera" for this UK special edition DVD release by Arrow Video) is the last of the director's great baroque masterpieces. Given a mixed and slightly incredulous reception upon its initial release by confused Argentophiles (and the subject of vast indifference by everybody else), this extravagant and highly polished grand giallo conceit on the part of Italy's premier Horror maestro, now reveals itself as a surreal, subterranean allegory for the darkness at the heart of the creative process itself; a film that plumbs the depths of its maker's deepest, most personal obsessions like no other of his works has done before or since.
What might appear at first glance to be just another unfeasible giallo plot-line with an unlikely setting -- even if one concocted by someone who is undoubtedly the undisputed living master of this uniquely Italian sub-genre -- is soon revealed to be much, much more, gradually unveiling itself (with repeated viewings) as a strange, dislocating exploration of the subconscious processes that have motivated the director's sinister muse ever since his first big hit in 1969 with the groundbreaking "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage". Utilising some of the director's own unpleasant real-life experiences centred around his failed avant-garde staging of Giuseppe Verdi's Opera, Rigoletto, as its kicking off point, "Opera" plays like a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of signifiers, images and motifs from Dario Argento's formidable past oeuvre, here given their purest and most uncompromising artistic outlet yet.
Argento was apparently returning to the reliable and tested giallo form after the somewhat shaky reception afforded his previous movie "Phenomena". That film had attempted to encompass the supernatural and the fantastical, elements of the irrational suffusing his most successful movie to date, "Suspiria" (as well as its 'sequel' "Inferno"), but bounded within a strict giallo-like form that nominally depends on the logical and deductive structure of the detective genre -- all to rather flimsy and unconvincing effect in the eyes of many followers at the time. Again written with "Phenomena" co-writer Franco Ferrini, "Opera" might appear at first glance to be just another straight-forward giallo rehash: an attempt at consolidation after the bruising semi failure of the experiment that was "Phenomena". In fact, it goes much further and is a good deal more radical than anything the director had presented to audiences since "Inferno".
There is nothing supernatural or seemingly all that odd in the plot synopsis itself, although the director's personal artistic inspirations are clearly written directly right into it: Argento had always claimed a fascination with Gaston Leroux's masterpiece of early 20th century literature "The Phantom of the Opera" (and would later go on to mount his own unfairly derided film version of the tale) and so, indeed, the story outline of "Opera" clearly bears much in common with that classic: Betty (Christina Marsillach), an untried opera house ingénue, and understudy to acclaimed diva Myra Chekova, is thrust into the limelight when she is forced to take on the lead role of Lady Macbeth in a flashy Parma production of Verdi's famous opera, after Chekova is involved in a freak car accident. Betty's performance makes her an overnight success, but she soon becomes the target of a deranged, hooded psychopathic killer, who starts bumping off the opera house's backstage staff one by one while forcing a captive Betty to watch all the horrendous bloodshed in morbid detail with needles taped to her eyes!
This giallo twist on the Phantom theme also incorporates another recurrent influence from Argento's childhood with the film's central use of a raven motif (starting with a close-up of the opera house auditorium as reflected in the eye of one of the birds) and the important and outlandish use made of this species of bird in the unlikely dreamlike construction of the plot. The raven is presumably a reference to the work of Edgar Allan Poe: a storyteller of the macabre whom the director had always felt an affinity with, and whose work he would go on to translate directly in his very next project, "Two Evil Eyes". With these deeply felt personal influences placed at the film's very core and the bloody array of violent trademark set-pieces that connect the transitions in its flimsy plot-line, Argento then launches into what becomes almost a Joycian odyssey through his own past work and its underlying motivations, with recurrent themes of transformation through art, the subconscious sexual neurosis that drives its expression, and the Freudian link between art, voyeurism and the act of violence itself.
In many ways, the film is one of his most dreamlike and lyrical, despite the more realist stamp of Ronnie Taylor's cinematography and the gritty and uncompromisingly brutal energy displayed in some of the most savage and cruel scenes of murder and mayhem the director has ever committed to screen. Argento's work had some time previously taken a marked turn toward representing murder and violence almost as though it were the subject of a detached but richly decorous art instillation -- especially in films such as "Suspiria", "Inferno" and "Tenebrea". Here he returns with a shocking portrayal of the harsh, visceral deranged horror of the act itself, first seen in his breakthrough hit "Deep Red", making voyeurism the central plank of an otherwise strangely brittle and thrown-together story.
The visual style is glossy and expensive, the budget is clearly 'up there' on the screen in the sumptuous-looking production design and labyrinthine sets - despite the blood-smeared grunginess of the murder set-pieces. Yet the story is practically nonsensical if taken only on its superficial narrative level, full of the most ridiculous, almost childlike conceits, wafer-thin characters whose motivations and actions are psychologically unrealistic to put it mildly, and 'plot twists' so silly they would seem to have been made up on the spot. "Opera" is more a sketch of the giallo form than a full-on return to the genre as such; even though Argento's plots had previously featured wild and bizarre elements and rather unconventional sleuthing, there was always the sense that they had been carefully thought out nonetheless, despite all their idiosyncrasies. "Opera" though is an unashamed showpiece: unconcerned with plot or character development or even motivation, the film makes a virtue of its surface beauty, presenting a technically audacious spectacle wrapped in a glossy sepia sheen, but the depth comes in how these surface narrative elements are manipulated and contorted to form a kind of Freudian 'dream work' that emerges with subsequent viewings.
Grand spectacle is one of the major themes in a film about the connections between art, its performance, its audience, and the dreams and desires it fulfills for both. Betty is a performer in a medium that thrives on gesture and heightened emotion, and the combination of opera and Shakespeare that she presents on stage to her audience registers the perfect fulfillment of art's capacity for expressing the joys and horrors of the human condition. The twisting corridors of the backstage area down which Argento's camera continually glides and flows with a mesmerising smoothness are like avenues into the subconscious processes that fuel artistic creation. In his other films Argento's camera is often said to 'prowl', but that is never true of it in this film: here the images stream across the retina and are made ever more dreamlike with his camera's constant flowing movements, often accompanied by the sounds of running water or rainfall.
The opening prelude of Verdi's Macbeth seamlessly connects Betty's private domain (her apartment, where she is playing a tape of one of the opera house's previous performances of the piece) with her public persona as Argento dissolves from a shot of the shadowy ventilation system in her bedroom to the hushed auditorium awaiting her entrance as Lady Macbeth, the music from the tape now miraculously becoming that of her own performance without pause or interruption. The killer who is soon to cut a swathe through her backstage colleagues has made the young star into a surrogate for his own Lady Macbeth: Betty's perverted mother, the woman for whom he has killed many times before in bondage sex play. These events Betty must somehow have been made a part of when a child; the killer's memories and Betty's recurring dream appear to be interchangeable and are presented in similarly spiraling, gliding camera movements, making an indelible connection between performer and audience member, abused and abusee,
When the killer commits a series of brutal murders in front of Betty, they are either arranged in a highly contrived and theatrical manner -- Mira's (Daria Nicolodi) death is both dreamlike by virtue of its complete impossibility, and overtly theatrical in the elaborately staged nature of its execution -- or take place in environments that emphasis their function as events designed for spectator-ship. Stage manager Stefano (William McNamara) is bloodily butchered in what appears to be, and is jokingly described as, an ornate museum while Betty is tied to a marble column, but which is in fact supposed to be his bedroom! It's little wonder Betty finds it hard to perform sexually in such an environment; one almost expects a gaggle of foreign tourists to file past any second. Meanwhile, wardrobe mistress Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) is dispatched with dressmakers' scissors while Betty is entombed inside a mannequins' display cabinet, making the singer's enforced voyeurism into a gross spectacle in itself.
But the killer is not the only person watching Betty. The child Alma (Francesca Cassola) who lives next door, escapes into the crawlspace of the ventilation shafts connecting Betty's apartment with all the others on her floor as a means of evading her own abuse at the hands of alcoholic parents, and thus losing herself in observation of the lives of the people she watches in their apartment rooms. It's not clear from the cast list but this child looks very similar to the one also playing Betty in her flashback/dream sequence. Whether it was the intention or not, Betty's escape through these shafts with the little girl when the killer invades her apartment feels like a metaphor, the grown-up Betty coming to terms with her past and her tortured childhood, thus (for a short time) escaping the killer's net.
Naturally, all this mixing of spectacle, performance, fantasy and dream, every layer filmed with exquisite free-flowing thoughtfulness and care, is self-reflexive. We wryly note early on how the opera director Marco (Ian Charleson) is an ex horror movie director, attempting to branch out with an avant garde operatic production. Charleson is even said to have based his performance on observing Argento on-set! The director amends his adaptation of Macbeth by employing the production's decorative ravens as detectives, thus leading to one of Argento's most celebrated POV shots and some of his most unbelievable camera work. But if you watch the Italian version, the film takes on yet another layer of significance when the director suddenly interrupts proceedings in the final third of the movie to provide his own voice-over narration, firmly stamping his authorial voice on the film by deliberately emphasising its artificial nature, its fabrication, its contrived status as a piece of fiction -- as though the thoroughly wooden characters weren't proof enough of that already!
This Hamlet-like play-within-a-play structure (yet another Shakespeare connection) finally justifies the film's most controversial sequence, the one right at the very end in the Alps when the film suddenly references "Phenomena" for no apparent reason and includes another imprisoned lizard image (Argento seems to like Lizards: they have appeared in "Deep Red", "Inferno" and "Tenebrea" besides this bewildering coda to "Opera") with Betty escaping into the idyllic peaceful solitude of madness. It's a strangely moving moment, and Argento's voice on the Italian soundtrack gives it a calm, intimate feel, once again emphasising the uniqueness of the director's bountiful but disturbing vision.
This double-disc DVD edition of "Terror At The Opera" presents for your delectation the full-length 102 minute cut on disc one, with the choice of three audio tracks: The re-dubbed English audio track in 5.1 Dolby Digital (strangely, the weakest of the three with that weird echo effect on many of the dubbed voices), the original 2.0 English audio track (later named the 'Cannes' dub and featuring the original fey, lispy voice of Inspector Santini which was apparently laughed off screen when initially played to preview audiences) and a 2.0 Italian track with English subtitles. This is the best of the bunch in my opinion, although the subtitles are a direct reproduction of the English language script rather than a translation of what is actually being said by the Italian voice artists. The two differ significantly at certain moments, apparently!
Disc one also includes a number of other minor extras in the form of an Argento filmography (it only goes up to "Sleepless" though!), an animated photo album, a music video by Demonia, and the Dario Argento Trailer Gallery (also included on the recent Arrow releases of "The Stendhal Syndrome" and "The Card Player"). We also have the International trailer and the US trailer, as well as, finally, a 'top six Gore moments' menu!
Over to disc Two now, and here we have the shorter US version of the film with the choice of the Cannes dub audio or the re-dubbed English version, both in 2.0. This has curiosity value for completists, but for me you can't beat the full version. Not only do we lose several scenes in their entirety, but there are snips and cuts virtually all the way through to shorten the overall running time, and they can't help but disrupt the flow and rhythm and alter the texture of the fundamental experience of the movie. No one can object to having it included here as an extra though, if only to give you another reason for appreciating Argento's unsullied vision!
This being an Arrow release, that's not all though: packaged with the discs you get a fold-out poster of Rick Melton's distinctive cover artwork, a double-sided sleeve and a glossy 8-page collector's booklet containing Argento's latest thoughts on the movie circa 2007 (on the set of "Mother of Tears") as transcribed by none other than Alan Jones himself.
This is another heady brew of giallo mania from the Italian maestro, put together lovingly by Arrow and the folks at Cult Labs just for you. Buy Now!