Tuesday Terror: Dario Argento's Opera (1987)

Mi, mi, mi. U, u, u. Oh, hey there I was just getting warmed up for tonight's film. For tonight The ol' Bug has put on his tailcoat, slipped on the white gloves, got some tiny binoculars, and is ready to get all cultured up in here. Of course, this is the Bug we're talking about so don't expect too much culture. (It gives me a rash.) See I'm not a big fan of opera music. If I wanted to listen to tunes with words that I can't understand, then the world is full of death metal and crazy Japanese pop music. That's ok though cause Dario Argento knows how to break up glass shattering singing with good old Italian tradition. You know bloody, bloody gore, and that's what I'm here to bring you tonight. Take a dose of Verdi, add a pinch of giallo, kick it up with some splatter, and what you get is film like....

Opera (1987) starring Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, and William MacNamara. Directed by Dario Argento.

As the film opens a cast is readying themselves for tonight's opening performance of Verdi's Macbeth. The diva soprano is not happy with the direction that Marco (Charleson), a former horror movie director turned high brow, is taking the production. She storms out of the theater in a huff, and since opera divas do not learn their basic safety lessons very well, she walks right out into traffic and gets hit by a car. It doesn't kill her, but it breaks her leg which takes her out of the performance.

Lovely Betty (not to be confused by any other kind of Betty), her understudy, is relaxing in her apartment when she gets a strange call from a husky voiced man telling her that she will be debuting as Lady Macbeth tonight. She doesn't know what to make of it and dismisses it as a crank call until her agent and some other opera folk (I swear they are creepier than carnies. Well, maybe not, but close) show up at her place to give her the good news. Betty is a bit scared of taking the role as Verdi's Macbeth is legendarily cursed.

She goes on though, and during her performance she wonders if her fears will be realized. A lighting fixture drops to the floor and crashes stunning the soprano and the audience, but the show goes on like normal and Betty gets rave reviews. What none of them know is the light fell because of a struggle between a mysterious man in a private box and the usher that tries to ush him out of it. The black gloved killer makes his first tally on the body count by impaling the usher on a coat rack, and while checking out Betty though his binoculars intones ominously "You've finally returned."

After the first night party, she goes back to stage manager Stefano's (MacNamara) place. After an aborted love making session, Stefano goes off to make Betty some tea. When he returns he
finds her tied to a column with tape over her mouth and needles taped under her eyes so she cant close her eyes or look away. The hooded killer steps from the shadows and makes quick work of the man; then he cuts Betty free and lets her go. After a quick stop by a phone to call the police, Betty wanders the streets until she happens to get picked up by Marco. She confides in him what happened, and that she has had dreams since she was a child of a killer in a black hood coming to get her.

Soon people around her are dropping like flies, and the killer has his routine down. Tie up Betty, slaughter her friend, and let her go. As Betty begins to lose the rest of her mind, can she find out the killer's identity before he works though everyone she knows?

Film Facts

--Vanessa Redgrave was originally slated to play the role of Betty.
--There were many tragedies on the set including the death of one of the actors. Dario Argento began to wonder if the MacBeth curse was in fact real.

--Marco, the horror director turned opera lover, was based on Argento himself.

--Argento called Cristina Marsillach the most difficult actress he's ever worked with.

--When the film premiered in Cannes, the dubbing was so bad that the film was laughed off screen.

The Bug Speaks
The thing that strikes me the most about this film is the stylistic qualities of Argento's film making. Assisted by cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, whose other credits include Circle of Iron, The Who's Tommy, Ghandi, and oddly enough Dario Argento's Phantom of the Opera, they managed to create many striking shots in the film. As the film opens there is a wonderful close up of a raven's eye with the opera house reflected in it. It is simply one of the more stunning things I have seen in the pre-CGI era. There are also a ton of well done POV shots as well as tracking shots that intensify the mood that Argento was creating. As I've said before, the Italian horror movie directors were masters of the camera who grafted the stylistic gravitas of Fellini with the gritty goriness of the macabre.

Yet for all the style what the film lacks is substance. In the first act I thought we were in for a treatment of The Phantom of the Opera, but it really only holds the loosest resemblance to that story. Perhaps that is why eleven years later Argento would take another more faithful try at the tale. The story is confusing at best with dream sequences that come out of nowhere way before we know that Betty suffers from nightmares. There is also imagery of a brain that seems to be swelling that was neither necessary or sensical. The main problem to me is that unlike other giallo type films the killer was easily identified early on so the ending held very little surprise. It does take a nice turn in the last few minutes that nearly saves this, but it still left me a bit unsatisfied.

On the other hand, there's the gore. While it never overreaches and becomes graphic for graphic's sake, it does deliver. The pins under the eyes is an imaginative torture that apparently came from Argento's wish that that people would not look away during gore scenes in his films. This was his solution. Thankfully for people like my wife he's not able to enact it in real life. There's also a nice bit of gore when a woman gets shot in the head though a peephole. The back of her skull explodes very realistically, and the shot of the bullet coming though the hole was well handled. In an age where directors overuse the camera going though a vent, keyhole, etc. (and I'm looking at you Panic Room's David Fincher) it was nice to see this one done so well.

The quality of the filming and the gore saves the film from the plot, but there are still more detractions to be found. The main thing that bothered me is that every time the killer stuck he brought with him a metal soundtrack. It was so jarring and out of place that it took me out of the moment in a crucial time of the film. There are also some very silly gaffes. At one point the killer is stalking Betty though an air duct, and he makes footsteps. Unless the girl was being pursued by the inch high private eye I see little chance of that happening. In the end, I found it an average film, and surely not up to the heights Argento went to in classics like Susperia and Deep Red. This is one for die hard Italian horror fans or Argento completists, so beware. There are much better films in Dario's catalog to watch for the first time or to watch again.

Bug Rating


  1. I actually have not seen this one yet, but I know that it is in my Netflix Queue :-)

    Wonderful Review!!

  2. Thanks 'breaker. Now we've both queued something on netflix from each others blog. We're keeping them suckers in business.

  3. Although I agree w/everything you say about the film, I probably enjoyed this one a bit more than you. I've always considered OPERA Dario's last 'great' film. After that his films were either bad or just o.k.--MOTHER OF TEARS didn't do much for me--I didn't hate it, but I didn't think it was great. Here's hoping GIALLO will be a winner--I'm not betting on it though.


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