Dario Argento is a master of the horror genre, writing and directing films that seem torn straight from our nightmares filled with disturbing unhinged imagery that is as beautiful as it is terrifying.
The distinct style and look of Argento’s movies is unmistakable even though many of his films are set within the Giallo genre which has its own distinct set of themes and tropes. This uncanny ability to innovate within set parameters and inspire such fear creating high art horror that is still accessible to all makes the idea of remaking any of Argento’s work utterly pointless and offensive (although that didn’t seem to stop Hollywood sadly).
Made two years after the phenomenal Phenomena Opera became one of Argento’s most commercially successful films proving especially popular in his native land, Italy Interestingly the inspiration for the film came from Argento’s attempt to remake another genius’s work from a whole other artistic arena.
The plot which sees young up and coming opera singer Betty (Cristina Marsillach) thrust into the lead role of a movie director’s experimental staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth came from Argento’s real life experiences attempting to put on the same opera which sadly failed.
Standing in for Argento Chariots of Fire and Ghandi star Ian Charleson plays Marco the horror film maker whose avant-garde production includes skull faced projections, a post-apocalyptic looking wasteland set and live ravens on stage, cawing throughout the singing.
Plagued with problems from the arrogant diva being hit by a car at the very start of the movie, to the negative press the opera receives and several dangerous technical malfunctions many of the cast and crew believe it to be the curse of Macbeth, a popular superstition that has many theatrical actors referring to Shakespeare’s drama as The Scottish Play rather than say its name for fear of bringing on bad luck.
However when members of the doomed performance start to be brutally murdered it is clear that someone wants not only Marco’s musical masterpiece to fail but to torture Betty for reasons only the killer knows. Distraught and pushed to the edge of sanity Betty must fight on and find out who is behind the sadistic slayings before the operatic tragedy becomes a reality.
From the exceptional one shot opening which places the audience in the eyes of the lead singer before her unfortunate accident, Opera is full of fantastic stylised scenes and gory set pieces.
The sensational central scare comes from the killer’s obsession with eyes as well and his terrorising technique of taping needles on Betty’s eyelids so she is forced to watch while he kills her closest colleagues. This simple yet shocking idea allegedly came from a joke Argento made at how annoyed he was at people looking away during the scariest scenes of his films.
His gruesome suggestion on how to stop them is by far the most memorable motif of the movie although there are some other excellent sections including a prolonged tension filled attack in Betty’s apartment and the films climax which takes place during a packed performance cleverly crafted to catch the killer.
The cast are solid and Ian Charleson is engaging but it is Cristina Marsillach who really shines as the starlet pursued and punished for reasons she cannot comprehend. Composed and performed by Brian Eno, Claudio Simonetti, Bill Wyman and Maria Callas the soundtrack becomes a character in itself with music used throughout in a variety of forms from the heavy metal blaring out during the brutal slayings to the well know excerpts from famous operas that Betty plays alone in her apartment.
Story wise Opera is sadly not Argento’s best work and although the self-referential central idea is an interesting meta manifestation the script seems simplistic and the final reveal and explanation for the eviscerating events lacks the clarity of his earlier murder mysteries or the insanity of his latter works.
In 2015 Argento finally got to bring Verdi’s Macbeth to the stage as he had attempted decades before although it was in a very different setting to the one shown in the movie. Locating it during World War I and packing it with naked witches, horse corpses, decapitations and buckets of blood as only Argento could it received mixed reviews perhaps showing his ideas were better suited to film than the stage.
Stylish, sick and superbly scored Opera contains some wickedly warped and wonderful moments that will have you glued to the screen, emotionally invested and captivated and like Betty unable to turn away from the terror, just like Argento wants it.