Art imitates life in Dario Argento’s 1987 masterpiece, Terror at the Opera; a labyrinthine codex of biting self satire, reflexive commentary and eerie meta-tragedies.
Featuring a plot which revolves around ‘The Scottish Play’, it also borrows heavily from its themes and, it would seem, the eternal myth that surrounds it.
The shoot was notoriously troubled, the cast and crew attributing their bad luck to ‘the curse of Macbeth’.
One of the stars, the late Ian Charleson, was involved in a life threatening car crash and would be reminded of it throughout the production, his cracked ribs causing regular discomfort.
The female lead, Cristina Marsillach, would be no more fortunate. She suffered from minor burns during the filming of the movies fiery, penultimate climax, Argento deliberately extending her time near the flames – his revenge for her diva like performance both on and off screen.
These may be just a couple of the reasons why Argento himself was unable to look at Opera – as it was simply titled in Italy – with any fondness until many years later, when he would spill his heart out to film critic and trusted confidant, Alan Jones.
“Only now from a distance can I see it is one of my most successful pictures in putting across my feelings, my obsessions, my art.”
And he was right. His ‘art’ and his ‘obsessions’ are presented to us, vulnerable, naked and utterly enthralling.
Giallo films, Argento’s especially, are synonymous for their voyeuristic devices. Blood, guts and bare flesh are gazed upon with equal parts persistence and perversity.
Opera opens on a raven’s eye, the theatre stage before it reflected in its obsidian peepers. Edgar Allen Poe’s ominous symbol of death, here, stares beyond the artifice of the stage and onto the drama that lurks behind as it quickly becomes apparent that the bird’s squawks are disturbing an actress’ performance.
The actress in question was set to be played by Vanessa Redgrave. At the last minute, however, she pulled out. Consequently the character becomes a minor one and is run down by a car whilst hounded by the paparazzi, all of which is viewed from her first person perspective.
Considering Argento’s twisted sense of humour and his lust for vengeance and voyeurism, this becomes a multi layered event infected with meaning. And further down the rabbit hole we go…
Attempting to organise the chaos both on and off stage is Marco (Ian Chareson), an ex-horror-director-come-theatre-director and spiritual doppelganger to Argento himself. He is a snippy fellow with a dry vocabulary of bitter quips and sardonic one-liners. He smirks as his wife reads out a review of his opera, ‘Go back to horror’ she says.
This is, on no uncertain terms, a direct jab at the critics who resisted Argento’s real life sojourn into opera, or more specifically, his offer by the Sferisterio Theatre to direct a version of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Moreover it is a swipe at his self, a masochistic comedy of self deprecation and tongue ‘n’ cheek revelry. This is proof, if it were ever needed, that Argento can not only dish out the torture but take it as well, enjoy it in fact.
The most remarkable thing about this movie, however, is in the sparseness of the killings.
For a bloody Giallo like Opera the body count is surprisingly low.
This – plus the ridiculous tribute to Thomas Harris in the final reel – is likely to split fans right down the middle. The violence is still there, extreme and thuggishly poetic, except it is paced around hallucinogenic intervals of barbaric madness and vibrating brains – go figure on the last part.
However, if you are willing to go with it, to solve the riddles and connect the dots, you will be rewarded in dividends with a film that is both mentally challenging and straight forwardly entertaining.
P.S. Most of the information regarding the background of this film can be found in the excellent Alan Jones booklet that comes free with the Arrow Video, DVD release. I urge to track down this fantastic package.
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