Opera (1987, also known as Terror at the Opera) was Italian horror maestro Dario Argento's tenth film and a return to form following the supernaturally-tinged Phenomena (1985, also known as Creepers). Like the rest of his work, it is a stylish exercise in murder, this time taking place during the staging of the opera of MacBeth by Giuseppe Verdi.
It is the story of Betty, young opera singer who is thrust into the role of Lady MacBeth when the woman playing the role is injured in an auto accident. Soon she finds herself with a homicidal "fan" who kills those around her while forcing her to watch. All the while, she has what may be dreams or perhaps recollections of a disturbing natureone that may mean a connection with her and the killer.
Much like his directorial debut L'uccelo dalle piume di cristallo (1970, The Bird with Crystal Plummage) and the later Profondo Rosso (1976, Deep Red) and Tenebrae (1982, a butchered version of which was released in the United States as Unsane), it falls right into the category of the giallo. A genre, originating in Italy,1 gialli are violent thrillers ("giallo," meaning "yellow," refers to the yellow covers that mystery-detective-crime novels once had in Italy). They usually feature black-gloved killers, wild plots, and brutal killingsthe killings and the murderer as important (or more) as the solving of the crimes.
Film and opera are both about spectacle and audience. Sight and sound2 and voyeurism at its finest. When a film uses another medium, whether it is a performing art or film/television, it comments on both the medium, itself, and on the audience(s) that watches. In the case of theater or opera, an audience is often part of the film, itself, making the viewer ("you") watching other viewers watching.
Opera is probably the most developed film by Argento, thematically speaking (with the exception of the nightmare-fairytale world of 1977's Suspiria and possibly the deliberate surreality of the sequel, 1980's Inferno). While there is no real pretense that this is some intellectual exercise on celluloid as opposed to another stylish over-the-top thriller, the exploration of the theme is inescapable. It's all about watching and being watched.
The idea is not new to Argento. What a character sees, doesn't see, or think he/she sees has played an important role before. Trying to recall what was seen during the murder in The Bird with Crystal Plummage, what happened to the painting in Deep Red (what turns out to be a reflection in a mirror), and an interpretation of the killer's interaction with another creates confusion in Tenebrae.
The horror film is a particularly visual medium, as everything must be staged for the viewer. Though a more subtle, existential horror can be suggested, unlike a book or other text, the expression and execution must necessarily be through a visual medium. Music does helpwhich is part of its kinship to opera, which depends on the visual as well (though convention allows more leeway through dialogue, or in some cases a chorus).
But no matter what might be suggested thorugh music or dialogue, the fear comes through what is actually seen (or imagined, based on what is seen) and what the film promises to show. Again, suggestion can be powerful but the reason why one closes or covers one's eyes is that it is what can be viewed/anticipated that creates the fear. It also breaks the connection between viewer and film, adding a layer of reality to diffuse the fear.
Opera exploits these ideas and forces the viewer and the characters to watch what is going on, and in doing so, placing both into the context of what another sees, creating a bond between them. The opening shot is of the old opera house reflected in the eye of a raven. In fact, not just the opera house, but the seats, where the audience will sit to watch the performance. One step further, it is symbolically reflecting the theater-goer or viewer (depending on whatever medium is used to view the film)"you." The viewer is drawn into the movie from the beginning.
With watching and implicit voyeurism of the viewer, the typical giallo convention of using a point of view shot to make the viewer see through his eyes has even more impact. That use of POV is particularly strong in horror films because it not only takes the viewer into the head of the subject but makes the viewer complcit in his (almost invariably male) actions. Actions that, given the genre, usually involve cruelty, torture, and killing. Since the object of those actionsthe victimis reacting to and interacting with the killer, the viewer is drawn into the act.
This may or may not bring with it a level of discomfort (depending on one's tolerance for this sort of cinema) that is key to the inherent voyeurism. It is the push and pull that is a part of the horror film, itself. The desire to watch, to be frightened, to be disgusted, in contrast with the desire to avoid it or for its quick resolutionto look or avert one's eyes. It is that dynamic that plays out throughout the film.
Within the movie that becomes an element of Betty's victimization (the technique is often used as a method to do the same from the victim's POVas will be discussed later). Additionally, there is the punishment for indulging in watching. The killer forces her to watch her acquaintances viciously murdered by way of an ingenious device: a series of razor sharp needles affixed to a piece of tape and placed on her lower eyelids. If she tries to shut her eyes, she will lose her sight. She has no choice but to watch the deaths take place before her eyes. The viewer has a similar compulsion. When the camera shows her POV through the jagged fence of needles, in turn frustrating (because of what can't quite be seen) and repelling (by what can be seen). Like Betty, the viewer has to watch.
Whoever sees the killer dies or becomes a part of the killing. The first death is of an usher at the opera who catches him watching through binoculars from a box. The wardrobe mistress (thinking him unconcious), rather than running for help, stops to unmask him and dies. Another of her crimes was to find a gold chain bracelet belonging to the killer. She cannot make out the inscription but manages to see a date. In the struggle culminating in her death, the bracelet falls down her throat. Using dress shears, he opens her up to retrieve it.
When Betty and her agent believe the man in her apartment is the killer and not a policeman, they arm themselves. He has seemingly left the apartment and the agent calls out to someone identifying himself as another officer on the other side of the front door (seen via the peephole). She asks for proof and he shows her a badge which she rejects. He then shows her his standard issue gun. She remains skeptical and continues peering through the peephole. She asks to see his face again and the means through which seeing is enabled makes her a perfect target as the bullet is shown slowing turning its way through the channel of the orifice. She is shot through the eye from the "eye" in the door. Punishment for persisting in viewing.
The bullet then bursts through the back of her skull, hitting and destroying a telephone on the floor meters away across the room. A bravado shot typical of Argento's style. In fact, his style is best suited to the theme, as his use of tracking and stedicam work are characteristic of his work. There is a celebrated two and a half minute shot in Tenebrae that prowls around an apartment from the outside of one window to another on the other side of the building.
Moving camera is common in his films, but in Opera they have never seemed quite so fluid; a compulsion to move. And unlike cases where it is a matter of mere style or as a POV shot, the movement underscores the gaze of the viewer and the characters. The viewer is watching the screen and what happens upon it and the camera moves in ways that calls attention to that fact.
During the apartment scene, he combines POV with a more expressionistic form of filming, where the camera mimics the state of mind of Betty, tilting and angling to represent her fear and confusionand putting the viewer into that state without using a POV shot. The killer is also given the same treatment. Even when not in the room, during a few shots Argento makes it appear that the "view" is pulsating (cutting away to shots of a brain doing the same). Not a POV shot, but a shot representing an almost physical expression of his madness (the shots of the brain arguably doing the same, though they may be meant to be taken somewhat more literally).
But Argento saves his most acrobatic camerawork for shots that express the disorientation and confusion of the scene/situation, itselfshots that are not POV or directly portraying the mental state of a charcter. In particular is one that slowly moves toward the wall where Betty is climbing into a air conditioning duct near the ceiling. Without stopping, it smoothly tilts, continuing until the camera is actually filming upside down as she disappears into the duct.
Shots like this are not connected to character but are solely for the viewer. Similar (stylized, though without the ostentatious camerawork) are shots of wind blowing away the feathers that erupt from a split open pillow that had fallen from the window to land on the street below. They function to drag the viewer into the film not through the eyes of the character(s) but as directly through the viewer's own eyes.
As the film progresses, the "punishment" theme is even more developed. The killer is finally unmasked because he was seenearlier in the film, when he acts out, slashing Betty's costume, some of the ravens being used for the opera are murdered by him. As their keeper claims: "Ravens are very vindictive, they never forget. They remember for years and years and at the right momentzap!" Based on that, the director rigs a cage to release the birds during the opening night performance when everyone is certain the killer will be there. In another stunning display of camerawork, Argento uses the bird's POV as it circles above the audience and swoops over the panicking patrons before a mass of them attack an audience member andappropriatelypecking out and eating his left eye.
When he reveals himself to Betty, she finds that those visions or dreams or memories (she has been unable to understand what they were) she has been having of a woman being chased and killed by a similar-looking killer (and perhaps another woman) connect her to him. Those visions are really memories. Memories of seeing her mother and him (her lover) torturing and killing someone. Having witnessed the incident (apparently one of many), there is a bond between them and one that the killer wishes to strengthen through forcing her to watch him kill. Having started with a forced complicity, much like the viewer, he tries to make her a full participant by giving her a gun to shoot him. When she cannot, he appears to die.
That brings up another aspect of the film. One of the things a filmmaker has to do beyond the simple suspension of disbelief, is a suspension of the critical faculties that acknowledge the layers between the viewer and the work. A horror film is often unplausible or illogical (Argento is well known for plot holes and strange conclusions of his own). It sometimes relies on the supernatural and special effects are an important part in the creation of the film.
It isn't just enough for the viewer to accept within the context of the work that what is on the screen could happen, but the viewer must be made to "see" is as actually happening. This is why poor special effects and acting can destroy any sense of fear being attempted. It takes away that sense of the "real." This makes it necessary to draw one in, to merge the layers between the viewer and the screen. Again, the POV shot functions to do this. Following the killer or seeing through the eyes of the victim, the participatory act, almost an interaction (the nature of filmor text, for that mattermakes it a passive acceptance which is part of the "contract" made by the viewer going in), allows the viewer to experience the fear and uneasiness that is desired by both filmmaker and viewer.
In Opera, Argento manages to use his often flashy style and showy camera movement to great effect in creating a work that is able to engage the viewer in such a way as to evoke the fear, apprehension, and suspense that is necessary to make a good thriller. The act of viewing and the breaking down of the barrier between audience and actor are exploited effectively and thematically, making the film instructive as a means to explore that dynamic.
The film can also be seen as commentary on Argento, himself (this was not his intention). The director who stages the opera is better known for horror films (and is considered "sadistic" in that capacity even by his friends). It is mentioned about the problems with his staging of Rigoletto, something that happened with Argentohe was to direct a version of that opera and was taken off the project in part because of a modernized, nontraditional staging (including making one of the characters a vampire).
In Opera, the production of MacBeth has crashed plane wreckage, laser lights, mirrors, and the ravens. Given that Argento once staged a fashion show to reenact the elaborate murder from the beginning of Suspiria, the concern may have been warranted. Commentary on the horror film director is better explored through the writer in Tenebrae.
Argento claims he was trying to make a "movie without love, where nobody can love anybody" and when they try, "they fail." It was, in his words, a result of the AIDS explosion, what he and others saw as "the end of love" with "AIDS silently invading our world" (the actor who played the director subsequently died of AIDS complications) and that now the only way to make love would be in a "perverse way."
This may or may not explain the enigmatic ending, where Betty strikes back and asserts (almost as if she is trying to convince herself) that she is not like her mother. She is then left retreating into herself, cutting herself off from other people, as she hides in the open spaces of a Swiss meadow, far from the confines of the opera house. Interestingly, the US distributor (Orion) requested he change the ending so that she went away with the killerbecoming her mother. The one we are left with is still troubling.
All that said, it is really just a thriller by someone who has spent a career perfecting his craft. Argento has no pretensions of making an art film or an "important" film. No expectation of an Academy Award (though he is something of a celebrity in Italy and elsewhere in Europein the United States he is finally becoming "known" as a biographical detail mentioned in articles written about his daughter Asia Argento).
More style than substance, questionable plotting, inconsistant acting and dubbing, excessively violent (though far less than some of his contemporaries in Italy horror cinema)all valid criticsms of his work. But given some tolerance for some of the faults, his work pays off. His often over the top plots and filming methods are not that much of a distant cousin to opera, itself.
Though far less known than Suspiria or Tenebrae or even his first film (which was actually fairly well received upon its release), Opera is classic Argento and one of the best examples of the giallo genre.
1The first giallo is usually considered to be Mario Bava's similarly lush and stylish 1964 film Sei donne per l'assassino ("six women for the murderer," best known as Blood and Black Lace). The films became more popular during the 1970s and into the 1980s as the western faded as a genre.
2Strangely, for something called "opera," the music is the weakest part of the film. Missing are the interesting scores of Ennio Morricone from Argento's first three movies, the unsettling little motif that plays throughout Deep Red which both imitates and mocks a children's song, or the wonderful, eerie cacophony of Suspiria. The music used that isn't from actual opera recordings is a rather watered down pastiche and the killings take place under a barrage of poorly chosen heavy metal music (which was the director's decision, according to the DVD documentary).
Source: numerous viewings of the film; my limited edition DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment (number 21961 of 30000)