Terror at the Opera Review

Mike Sutton updates Michael Mackenzie’s review of Dario Argento’s splendid thriller with a look at the recent Arrow 2-disc Region 0 release.

Film Review by Michael Mackenzie

Opera is regarded by many as the last great movie from Italian thriller director Dario Argento, and while this is not a comment I would necessarily agree with (I think that many of his subsequent productions have definitely had their merits, especially his 1996 effort, The Stendhal Syndrome), it is certainly easy to see why fans have latched on to it, with many proclaiming it to be the giallo maestro’s greatest work. Opera is a delightfully sadistic and convoluted tale, and provided that you are able to suspend your belief for two hours and accept the various shortcomings that are common in all of Argento’s films, it is an incredibly rewarding experience that stops just short of being a classic.

The lead singer in a production of Verdi’s Macbeth is knocked down by a car, and the role is given to her young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach). Directed by horror filmmaker Marco (played by the late Ian Charleson as a thinly veiled impersonation of Argento himself), she achieves massive success on her opening night, but soon finds herself pursued by a particularly sadistic maniac, a masked man who likes to tie her up and make her watch people close to her being murdered. By placing needles under her eyes, he forces her to see every gory detail of the deaths he is responsible for. As with every Argento thriller, there is a long line of suspects, all with possible connections and shifty behaviour. And of course, to complicate matters further, Betty remembers dreams from her childhood where she saw a similar masked murderer. It’s all very confusing and, as usual, there’s no way you can logically work out the identity of the assassin, so you simply have to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Acting is rarely Argento’s primary focus, and this is not helped by the fact that almost all of his films are recorded in English but post-dubbed (some, such as Asia Argento and Julian Sands in The Phantom of the Opera, a couple of scenes in Suspiria, and Max Von Sydow’s dialogue in Non Ho Sonno, have used the actual recorded dialogue), creating a rather wooden, “out of body” feel. All things considered, though, Cristina Marsillach works wonders as Betty. There are plenty of horror stories of her being impossible to work with and refusing to take direction from Argento, but she acquits herself quite well, giving a sympathetic and believable performance. There is an innocent beauty about her that makes the horrors she endures seem all the more appalling. In many ways she recalls Jessica Harper from Suspiria. Ian Charleson is superb as director Marco, giving a low-key performance that leaves you unsure of his intentions. Urbano Barlerini’s Inspector Santini is bland and lifeless, but that criticism can be leveled against many of Argento’s actors. Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s ex-girlfriend, makes her last appearance in one of his movies, with a rather thankless and irrelevant role as Betty’s friend Mira.

The real star, however, is Ronnie Taylor’s outstanding photography. This was the first time that the English cinematographer worked with Argento (they collaborated again in The Phantom of the Opera and Non Ho Sonno), and the results are superb. Argento is notorious for pushing the envelope when it comes to photography, and Opera is no exception. The camera is frequently on the move, going to places you would never expect, with plenty of subjective shots shown from the view of not only the killer but also the crows that are part of the performance. The sweeping pans and flyarounds of the opera theatre are stunning and often leave you wondering just how they were achieved. Unlike the garish colours of Suspiria, Argento here uses a gritty and realistic colour palette with stark contrasts between light and dark. The look of the film is at times akin to what David Fincher is famous for in his thrillers. That said, he does at times throw in some fluorescent lighting and other interesting uses of colour, the stand-out being a moment when the entire screen is tinted green, when Betty hides from the killer in her apartment with Mira. Overall, though, Opera represented the beginnings of a move away from the stylised fantasy looks of Suspiria and Inferno and the futuristic unreality of Tenebre and a gradual adoption of a grittier, realistic look and feel.

Equally unique is the music, and as usual, it’s the kind of material you will either love or loathe. As with Phenomena, Argento worked with a number of different composers and groups, including Brian Eno, Bill Wyman and long-term collaborator Claudio Simonetti (one of the people behind alternative rock group Goblin, who provided the weird and wonderful sounds of Suspiria, Profondo Rosso, Tenebre and Non Ho Sonno). This results in a multitude of different styles, with opera music contrasting with creepy electronic synthesizers and heavy metal. Yes, heavy metal. It really is a matter of personal preference whether or not you can accept it suddenly leaping into action during the murder sequences. Personally, I think it works well, but it is definitely at odds with the visuals and I can see why other people hate it. One thing’s for sure, the inclusion of the soundtrack CD was a great idea, as it lets you appreciate the vastly varying score on its own.

Something that has always bothered me has been the accusations of misogyny leveled against Argento. In my opinion they are completely unfair and are the kneejerk reactions of people who dedicate their lives to finding ways to criticise the makers of violent films. For these indictments to have any credibility, Argento would have to be specifically singling out women, and would also have to be condoning the violence he depicts. Anyone who has any knowledge of his films will know that this is not the case. Both women and men are brutally murdered in his films, and although his murders are creative and visually interesting it seems ludicrous to claim that he is condoning the violence. If anything, Argento’s work seems more feminist than misogynistic, as his protagonists and characters of power are frequently women. In Opera, the killer forcing Betty to watch his murderous actions seems to be an analogy to the act of rape. Argento has often said that he sees a strong connection between sex and murder (both involve acts of penetration), and this motif comes across very strongly in Opera, moreso even than the decidedly feminist The Stendhal Syndrome (which featured his daughter Asia Argento as a rape victim). Certainly Betty’s reactions to the horrors she is forced to watch seem to be very similar to those of a rape victim. She comes across as distant and ashamed, and is reluctant to talk about it, especially to the police. It is interesting that the killer frequently calls her a “whore”, and that two different people tell her about the myth that opera singers make love before performing to improve their voices: in a way this is an analogy to the common myth that rape victims are somehow “asking for it”.

It is true that Opera is a remarkably brutal film, even for Argento. He shows us the things that most other directors, including the strongest gore aficionados, would cut away from, a perfect example being a scene where a character is stabbed in the jaw. Not content to show the knife going through flesh, Argento provides a close-up of the blade going straight through the victim’s jaw and out through his mouth. Quite apart from the squeamishness of having to witness a woman with needles placed under her eyes (something which Argento created as a deliberate nod to the fact that he wanted audiences to be in the same position as Betty: unable to shut their eyes to the violence going on in front of them), there are violent stabbings, eye gougings and beatings a-plenty. The most memorable of these is the death of Daria Nicolodi’s character (it’s not too big a spoiler to reveal that she is killed, honestly), which features a bullet travelling through a peephole and through her eye in slow motion. This moment has to be seen to be believed, and it is up there with the beheading in The Omen and the impalement of Margaret White in Carrie in terms of great cinematic deaths.

As stated previously, all the usual criticisms that you can level against Argento’s films are on full display here, but as usual they can be forgiven simply because of the sheer mastery of cinematography and cinematic violence on display. Much of the acting is clumsy, the plot is full of inconsistencies and odd behaviour, and it is full of quirks and seemingly pointless characters. While probably quite off-putting for newcomers, those who have seen Argento films before will know what to expect. Argento does not make films in the typical Hollywood vein: he is far more interested in subtext, look and tension than realism, character development and dialogue. This brings us naturally on to the film’s conclusion. I don’t want to reveal any details about the conclusion, so I’ll just say that it is quite bizarre and contradictory to the mood and style of the rest of the film, and has been the subject of a huge amount of criticism. In fact, when Orion Pictures released the film in the US (butchered and under the title “Terror at the Opera”), they omitted the ending completely. While lengths such as these are a little extreme, it is undeniable that the ending doesn’t quite work and is more weird than satisfying.

That said, Opera is a little less bizarre than some of Argento’s other films, so if you haven’t yet seen any of the master of terror’s work yet, this might be as good a place as any to start. While not quite on the same level as the superb Suspiria, it is one of Argento’s best efforts – in my opinion his strongest “pure” thriller – and well worth watching.

The Disc

Arrow’s recent release of this excellent Argento movie is a 2-disc affair which goes under the title Terror at the Opera. Do not fear, however. This disc contains both the edited US version which was given the longer name and the international version which is simply called Opera.

The first disc includes both the 103 minute cut of the film and the bulk of the extra features. Although many fans will be disappointed that Arrow haven’t given this a Blu-Ray release, this DVD version is fairly strong with excellent, rich colours and an impressive amount of detail. Sharpness varies throughout but on the whole this a pleasingly film-like image with a suitable amount of grain and a crisp, clean appearance. It looks to me to be virtually identical to the original Arrow release from a few years ago. The film, shot in Super 35, is framed at the correct 2.35:1 ratio.

There are three soundtrack options available on this disc. There is an Italian version in Dolby 2.0 and English dubs in 2.0 and 5.1. The 2.0 English dub is called the “Cannes Dub”, referring to its poor reception at the Cannes Film Festival. However, give or take some of the vocal acting choices, it’s not all that bad and those familiar with the defects of English tracks in Argento’s work and Giallo cinema in general should find little to overly disturb them. The English 5.1 track has a better selection of voices for the non-English speaking actors and adds considerable oomph to the music score and effects track. The Italian 2.0 track is certainly very acceptable but, personally, I prefer the English version. English subtitles are available if needed.

The extras on this disc are a little disappointing. On the plus side, we get the extensive Argento trailer gallery which runs 40 minutes and is highly entertaining to sit thorough. missing only Do You Like Hitchcock and his latest movie Giallo. Apart from this, there’s a brief and, as other reviewers have noted, incomplete Argento biography and list of directorial credits, two trailers for Opera, a photo gallery and a slightly bizarre collection of the “Top Six Gore Scenes”. This is presumably useful for any gorehounds who don’t want to watch the film – but would you want to associate with anyone of those leanings who wouldn’t sit through an Argento film, particularly one as good as this? Finally, we get the “Daemonia” music video which is, at best, a one-time viewing experience.

The second disc contains the 91 minute US cut of the film which is fascinating. It is the version which Orion Pictures intended to release in the United States but which was cancelled before it could be submitted to the MPAA. It did eventually appear elsewhere in the world but not, amusingly, in the US. No violence has been removed but a good deal of build-up and character material is missing and the result is a very different, speedier, rather less elegant film. Most seriously, there’s little of Julia, the costumier, before she’s killed, the character of Betty is less developed, and some of the point of view shots are notably shorter.

The US edit is presented, once again, at 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a great transfer and is not progressive but the colours are generally accurate and the level of detail is acceptable. There are two soundtracks; an English 2.0 dub; and the original ‘Cannes Dub’ mentioned above.

Arrow’s release is accompanied by an excellent booklet by Alan Jones and also a poster which contains the wonderfully atmospheric original Italian artwork.

I don’t think Opera is quite top-flight Argento; the epilogue bothers me and the music track is disappointing. But the visual invention is astounding throughout and the gory set-pieces , which are relatively sparing, arebeautifully integrated into the overall film rather than seeming excessive and separate as they did, to this viewer, in Phenomena and, particularly, Trauma. It’s unlikely, on recent evidence, that Argento has another great movie in him, so it’s all the more important to remember that, once upon a time, he was a truly brilliant filmmaker.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 10, 2010

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