OPERA October 4, 2016
Few horror directors are as simultaneously gifted as they are strikingly inept as Dario Argento. On one hand, he’s a visual maestro, a virtuoso of color, of killer POV editing tricks, and of breakneck photographic maneuverings remarkable in their movement and their energy. But on the other, he’s completely tone deaf, oblivious to his own penning of awful dialogue that oftentimes peppers the scenery of even his best films, to soundtracks that don’t make a whole lot of sense aesthetically, and to character based action that rings as more manipulatively cinematic than tangible. With age have Argento’s directorial flaws begun to outweigh his lasting talents. Beginning with 1985’s atrocious Phenomena, his movies have declined in their self-awareness and their violent beauty; though his stylistic flourishes mostly remain intact, they’ve struggled in being flashy enough to help excuse the overarching surrounding clumsiness.
But 1987’s Opera can be seen as a comeback of sorts before the going really got rough for Argento’s career. In light of the disaster that was Phenomena, it makes for a compelling return to giallo, his genre of choice. Its thrills are kinetic and its stalk-and-slashes are exceptionally well shot.
But the film also feels like the result of Argento going on autopilot, with most of its dextrous plot points reeking of déjà vu — even the killer reveal is none too surprising. And yet the movie is facilely entertaining, maybe because we do find ourselves morbidly curious as to who’s terrorizing our leading heroine or maybe because the death scenes really do shock.
In the film, Cristina Marsillach portrays Betty, a young opera singer given the opportunity of a lifetime after the lead of Verdi’s allegedly cursed Macbeth is hurt in a car accident. An understudy without much experience under her belt, Betty is enlivened but also keenly aware that her elatedness is the direct outcome of someone else’s misfortune. And the first performance does little to keep the tragedy out of audiences’ minds: dramatically and bizarrely, someone is murdered in one of the opera boxes just as Betty’s making her debut.
Days pass and it becomes increasingly clear that the killer on the prowl is fixated on Betty, perhaps responsible for Macbeth’s original lead’s “accident” in the first place. Suspects proliferate and bloody offings continue, but while motivations are foggy, the murderer’s connection to Betty is crystalline, and it’s up to her to get to the bottom of the mystery before she becomes another causality in a madman’s mean streak.
Scariest of all about Opera is its antagonist’s manner of bloodlust — whereas most of Argento’s past villains have merely attacked various targets individually, the baddie of the film ensures that Betty is in the room with his latest victim, tying her up and taping needles under her eyes in a moment of separation in order to force her to watch his handiwork firsthand.
But while Argento’s methods of madness are ingeniously executed, missing are the limb twisting shakes of Suspiria and the pulse-pounding horrors of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Without its inventive mock slaughterings, we’d have a strictly average murder mystery on our hands. So it’s a good thing that Argento is a competent master of style and knows a thing or two about the art of the death scene — then we’d have something fairly common.
Its frenetic approach is what gets it somewhere, and so I can’t lament too enthusiastically about Argento’s disparate sources of weakness; I fancied too much of Opera to dwell excessively upon the frequently atrocious instances of conversation, the unfitting understatedness of Marsillach’s performance, and the heavy metal soundtrack that doesn’t work nearly as well as Argento would like you to think (despite the persuasive use of prog-rock in Suspiria and Inferno). This is an effective late giallo not to be missed by the most devoted fans of the cult subgenre. B