To me, Opera (1987) is the last true masterpiece in Dario Argento’s long career filled with cinematic masterpieces. Though he occasionally stumbled, he produced consistently mesmerizing films from his debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), to this film 17 years later. Opera also marks the last gasp of the giallo film, which died out in the late ‘70s and lingered on through the ‘80s with a few films from directors like Mario Bava’s son Lamberto and the talented Michele Soavi. Opera deviates from many of the giallo standards established by Bava Sr and Argento’s early films: though there is a black-gloved killer, his victims are not beautiful, scantily-clad women; rather they just happen to get between the killer and Betty (Cristina Marsillach), the film’s doe-eyed protagonist who isn’t as innocent or helpless as she first seems. In addition, the stylish, colorful visuals associated with ‘70s giallo films are replaced by operatic murder set pieces that cleverly use the opera house as its backdrop. Opera succeeds largely because of these deviations and is a fascinating exploration of Argento’s key themes: the effects of past trauma returning in the present, identity as a kind of performance, the violence of desire, and the perverse voyeurism central to both the crimes being carried out on screen and the act of watching the films themselves.
A young, but talented understudy at the opera, Betty, is suddenly forced to sing the lead role in Verdi’s Macbeth when the domineering star is badly injured in a strange accident. Betty’s anxiety about taking the role is compounded by an eccentric horror movie director (Ian Charleston), live crows on the stage, and a murder in one of the theater boxes on opening night. Betty finds herself the target of a demented killer, who tapes needles under her eyelids and forces her to watch him kill. Soon Betty, Marco the horror director, and a local inspector (Urbano Barberini) rush to figure out the murderer’s identity before he claims Betty as his next victim.
I have to admit my weakness for films, particularly where horror, thrillers, and suspense films are concerned, set in the theatrical world—whether that means opera, dance, theater, or cinema. Though there are not a wealth of these—not really enough to consider it a sub-genre in and of itself—there are a number of consistent entries over the years with films like The Last Warning (1929), Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), Circus of Horrors (1960), and Theatre of Death (1967) with Christopher Lee. Many of them, such as Mad Love (1935) and The Lodger (1944), concern a psychotic man’s obsession with a beautiful actress. For whatever reason, this theme really took off in the ‘70s and ‘80s with a slew of these films, including Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), Wicked Wicked (1973), wonderful Vincent Price-vehicle Theatre of Blood (1973), Australian film Nightmares (1980), Curtains (1983), and even another giallo–one of my favorite films of all time–Soavi’s Stage Fright (1987).
This insular, highly stylized environment full of artifice, drama, ambition, and “artistic” personalities naturally lends itself to movie plots and many of these films perhaps inevitably recall The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Lon Chaney’s sympathetic, grotesque figure who strikes terror into an opera house to get close to the woman he loves is an obvious plot element borrowed for Opera; both films also concern a beautiful young singer making her debut, a debut orchestrated by the monster/murderer/antagonist himself. While Argento would go on to adapt this tale directly for the appallingly awful Phantom of the Opera (1998), here he simply replaced the Phantom with a serial killer.
Another important theatrical inspiration comes in the form of Macbeth, the opera being staged in the film. The director, Marco (Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire), can be seen as something of a stand-in for Argento, as his primary career is directing notoriously violent horror films. His (and thus Argento’s) adaptation of Macbeth is a thing of style and beauty, an anachronistic blend of gritty Early Modern elements with industrial décor including thick fog, a handgun in place of a sword, ghostly dancers, and live crows. Argento would actually direct an opera adaptation of Macbeth in 2013, which I believe he resurrected again later, and perhaps one of my biggest complaints about Opera is that it relies more on Phantom of the Opera than it does on Macbeth. The latter seems uniquely suited to Argento with its over-the-top violence, sense of paranoia and doomed fate, three incredibly eerie witches, and a strong, but troubled female protagonist driven mad by murder.
Instead, Argento’s plot for Opera is sort of a riff on his earlier Tenebre. Fair warning: I can’t really discuss Opera without revealing some spoilers for Opera or Tenebre. In both films, a seemingly normal, heroic character is hiding an obsession with monstrous violence. Both films have flashbacks of past sadism—in this case there is also a close-up of a throbbing brain—with scenes of a winding staircase and a woman being tortured while another bound and gagged woman looks on. But where in Tenebre the protagonist is revealed to be a murderer, Opera curiously turns this formula on its head. The memories of past trauma also belong to the protagonist, Betty, but she is innocent of the murderous impulses that emerge in Tenebre’s Peter Neal; she resist them and uses her memories to solve the mystery of who the killer is and what his motivations are.
Argento’s recurring use of complicated family relationships and childhood trauma reoccurs through Betty, who is the daughter of an opera star, a cold, ambitious woman who apparently had a penchant for violence. She forced her lover to tie her up so that she could watch him torture and kill young woman. The killer assumes that Betty is just like her mother—privately obsessed with sadism—but stumbles a little in the sense that it fails to explore the effect these traumatic memories may have had on Betty. This theme would emerge more fully in Argento’s following film, The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), but Betty remains something of a cypher, a beautiful young woman who is both the object and receptacle for male fantasies of violence but is oddly removed from both. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she does not take an active role in the violence unfolding around her and remains curiously untouched, like a child left wandering along but contented in the idyllic woods at the end of a fairy tale.
Like Argento’s earlier films, Opera is also fixated on is issues of vision, namely spectatorship and performance, voyeurism and violence. As a performer, Betty becomes publicly recognizable as Lady Macbeth. This character—a ruthless, ambitious woman who participates in a murder—overlaps with the memory of Betty’s own mother, equally ambitious, but sadistic, both oversexed and frigid (the killer later remarks that he was never allowed to touch her). The murderer practices some of his fantasies by running a knife along a television screen that depicts Betty singing, and later—in the film’s most memorable visual—forces open her eyes by taping a row of needles to the bottom lid so that she has to watch him kill. Finally the crows’ vision plays into the conclusion, as they are the only living creatures who can recognize the murderer, in a sort of nod back to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Gray Velvet, where animals unwittingly possess key clues to the identity of a killer.
In a sense, Opera can be seen as a culmination of many of Argento’s key themes and is a fascinating look at the development of the giallo over two decades. The introduction of heavy metal music into the score does date the film—which also has chilling electronic contributions from Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti and Brian Eno, and some classic opera arias sung primarily by the great Maria Callas—but it is a stylish and entertaining example of some of the genre’s excesses in that decade. It also serves as an interesting thesis on the resistance to violence and perversion, a theme somewhat shared by Phenomena (1985). Anyone still railing on about Argento’s misogynistic impulses has clearly missed the boat, not only with films like Suspiria or Inferno, but with these later female protagonist characters, figures who are thoughtful and introspective, allowed to be both incredibly vulnerable and believably strong—the younger sisters of Suzy Bannion determined to survive in a darker, more cynical, and more sadistic world.