Nine Nights of Argento #9 – Opera (1987)

xWrQW9R3PwrPOEAhFl8f8cEFY05I will be watching Dario Argento‘s first nine films (not counting The Five Days, which is currently unavailable in the US), from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to Opera.

While you can always expect haunting imagery, a raspy-voiced killer, and creative murder sequences in a Dario Argento film, what I’ve come to learn through this marathon is that, perhaps because the storylines are always so minimal, it is ultimately the protagonist that makes or breaks them.

When the hero is strong and helps drive the mystery forward (Deep Red, Phenomena), then serious weight is added to the material. On the other hand, if the central character is underdeveloped (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Cat O’ Nine Tails) or just kind of stands there with sweat dripping from his mustache (Inferno), then whatever evil forces are lurking in the shadows lose their luster. Unfortunately, I found Opera‘s Cristina Marsillach to belong to the latter category, but that didn’t stop the film from being a slick addition to the Argento canon.

In Opera, a fancy-pants horror movie director is putting on a bombastic production of Verdi‘s Macbeth, replete with smoke, lasers, and live ravens flying about the opera house. When the star diva gets hit by a car, young understudy Betsy (Marsillach) lands the coveted role of Lady Macbeth. Almost immediately, Betsy finds herself the target of a sadomasochistic superfan who enjoys sneaking around in fetish leather and forcing her to watch as he butchers his way through her friends, all the while reminding her in a menacing rasp that all opera singers are “bitches in heels”. You know, standard Argento stuff.

Playing like Argento’s own gruesome take on Gaston Leroux‘s Phantom of the Opera (at least until he made his own ‘Phantom’ in 1998), Opera is a glossy affair, with high production value and apparently a much bigger budget than the Giallo master usually gets to play with. The opera house is a character unto itself, and hosts some of the biggest and most ambitious setpieces of Argento’s career, including a virtuoso sequence in which a flock of ravens is unleashed on a theater full of unsuspecting audience members to track down the killer. In fact, Opera has so many grandiose stylistic flourishes and sweeping camera moves that it’s all the more disappointing when it doesn’t add up to much.

Top among Opera’s faults is the main character of Betsy. Depending on your view, she’s either a complete idiot or a stone cold sociopath. It’s hard to sympathize with a character who doesn’t go to the police after a man puts needles under her eyes and forces her to watch as he skewers her boyfriend. Like the worst of Argento’s characters, events aren’t affected by Betsy, they just kind of happen around her. Much of the film is just Betsy flailing from setpiece to setpiece without any sort of mystery unraveling in the meantime. By the extended climax of the film, she’s literally rolling around in the grass, seemingly unmoved by the bloodbath that has played out before her.

Also defusing much of the terror is Argento’s odd choice to use heavy metal during the kill scenes. Metal was used sparingly in Phenomena to nice effect, but here it just doesn’t work. It’s almost as if Argento thought that it would make the killer more menacing, but through 21st century eyes it just seems silly and pandering to young audiences of the time. With all the trouble that goes into shooting these elaborate kills, you would think somebody would have noticed that all the tension was getting sucked out by the soundtrack.

Wrapping up this little Giallo marathon, I have to say what a blast it has been to watch the early films of Dario Argento. For anyone out there looking for insight into the evolution of a celebrated filmmaker, whether it’s Argento or someone completely different, I highly recommend starting from the top and diving in. Whether or not I’m brave enough to plow through the infamous second half of this horror master’s career is another story…

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Categories: Dario Argento, Director Spotlight, Reviews

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  1. Another Nine Nights of Argento #9 – “Pelts” (2006) | Filmbalaya.com - November 6, 2015

    […] OPERA (1987)- This high-style slasher loses some points for its lame lead actress, tiresome plot, and […]

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