DIR: DARIO ARGENTO
GEN; ITALIAN GIALLO
For the final entry in this Giallo series, we finish by taking a deeper look at what’s widely considered the genre maestro Dario Argento’s last great film, Opera. The film is a mixture of cruel, relentless horror sequences and larger than life characters, while pushing for a more emotionally resonant edge than any of Argento’s other works. Doing all this while adapting a grimier presentation that moved from Giallo eccentricities toward the Slasher movies that the genre inspired. Though Opera is far from a pale imitator of a successful genre. Rather, it shows Argento at his most creative and belligerent, resulting in a truly unique sense of terror.
Opera’s main plot is essentially a hyper violent retelling of Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, telling a story of obsession and murder in an esteemed opera house. (Ironically far better than Argento’s 1998 adaptation of Leroux’s novel). In this version we follow Betty (Cristina Marsillach) an opera singer working as an understudy for famed performer Mara Czekova, who was to be played by Vanessa Redgrave before pay disputes ended with her role being moved offscreen. When Mara is wounded before a show Betty must take on her role as Lady Macbeth. However, unknown to Betty, this event has been orchestrated by someone keen to get closer to her for their own sadistic pleasure. This leads to an intense game played by the unknown killer, which they claim is in order to further her career. Their methods of doing so including extreme violence and forced voyeurism. As the killer’s obsession and fury at her rejection grows, she must uncover their identity before this role becomes her last.
The murders in Opera are astoundingly brutal, even for Argento’s oeuvre. Here, the notion of the killer being an unseen menace is reversed, with their presence undoubtedly felt by the heroine and audience alike as they force Betty to watch each vicious killing of cast members and associates by placing needles beneath her eyelids. Whilst this may sound simply like furthered brutality from the esteemed Giallo director, it actually comes from the surprising place of providing commentary to his audience about his audience. Argento was infuriated by viewers of his work diverting their gaze during the gorier moments of his films and decided to create horror in the idea of having that luxury removed. The result is terrifying, with the constant impending threat of brutality if she refuses to act as audience for the killer’s macabre performance.
Argento goes a long way to create a chilling mood in Opera, with each kill warping the production and its players into callous caricatures. This is seen especially in director Marco (Ian Charleson) whose malicious glee from the increasing chaos trumps his concern for his rapidly diminishing cast’s wellbeing at nearly every turn. Troy Howarth suggests that the character is in fact a grim self-portrait of Argento himself. Both he and Marco are renowned horror filmmakers known for their gory content and both attempted failed productions of Rigoletto, with the real attempt by Argento being rejected due to company fears over his inclusion of brutal violence and violence. Marco is a suspect for the killings by investigating police because of his work’s graphic content, which suggests an inherent potential for cruelty, with the viewer being led to consider this a possibility through a series of red herrings. This is a line of commentary explored in more depth within this week’s supplementary film Tenebrae, which Argento uses as a vehicle to respond to criticisms about his character over his films’ violent content.
Visually, Opera also contains a subtle link to Tenebrae which featured a lavish overhead rooftop tracking scene, which Argento tops through using Louma Cranes and a SkyCam to present literal bird’s eye view in a climactic sequence. Yet when asked about Opera’s linking to Tenebrae, Argento said he felt the former had far more in common with Suspiria than in his latter, a return to purist Giallo. As in Suspiria he utilised every new piece of equipment to create visceral horror, and with his highest budget yet of eight million dollars in Opera, he had considerably more tech than ever to experiment with. Shot by Oscar winning cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, Opera contains numerous point of view shots as nods to previous Gialli but to add to the terror we see each murder not only through the killer’s eyes but Betty’s as she stands helpless to stop the chaos. The aesthetic also diverges massively from Argento’s previous work. Choosing to opt for a muted colour scheme keeps the film far more in tune with the slasher films that had overrun 80s cinema with series such as Friday the 13th. Argento’s taste for the baroque, seen to great effect in Deep Red, remains however, with the opera house’s grandeur contrasting the brutality taking place in backstage.
It’s a shame that Argento’s Giallo turn out went so rapidly downhill after his inadvertent 87 swansong. Examples such as Do You Like Hitchcock? and the appropriately titled Giallo starring Adrien Brody show little in the way of the innovation or experimentation for which he had become renowned for. Opera marked the end of a great 17-year streak for the director, which is no small feat, especially for a genre filmmaker. Argento remains the master of the Giallo genre to this day and maybe with his rumoured projects, including a Gialli starring Iggy Pop and a remake of the Bird with the Crystal Plumage, he’ll be able to terrify a new generation all over again.
Where to watch
Cult Films have released a DVD and Blu-ray dual edition of the film, which is available online or in stores across the UK.
So Deadly, So Perverse, Vol. 1 by Troy Howarth
Dario Argento. The Man, The Myths & The Magic by Alan Jones
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick is a freelance journalist working in Edinburgh, currently writing for ShortCom. He has always been interested in cinema, but developed particular obsessions for horror and Studio Ghibli. He post written reviews on his social media platforms and will soon be starting a podcast.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.