Terror at the Opera (1987)


Opera Poster

Terror at the Opera is the international title, although it’s also known as Opera, a title I prefer and will use henceforth.

I’ve written of my love for Dario Argento’s films before, and while this isn’t anywhere near as good as Suspiria, Tenebrae or Deep Red, it’s still a bizarre film with great flamboyance, that, in retrospect, probably reveals a lot more about Argento than he ever intended.

The film opens mid-tantrum as diva opera starlet Mara Czekova storms out of a rehearsal for Verdi’s Macbeth, as reimagined by a music-video director. As she storms out of the opera house, she is hit by a car, and young Betty (Christina Marsillach) is called in to replace her.

Betty doesn’t believe she’s ready to take centre stage, but everyone around her encourages her into it. This becomes a problem when a murderer decides to kill those close to Betty, often tying her up first and making her watch. He even tapes needles under her eyes so she can’t close them, in one of the film’s more iconic images.

As the body count increases, the investigations begin, and Betty’s already nerve-wracked behaviour becomes more erratic, the killer gets more and more vicious, closing in on a finale kill with Betty at the centrepiece.

As a film, this is a bizarre, oddly composed piece, but as an Argento film, it’s right at home. The plot doesn’t really add up to much sense-making when all is said and done, and the set-pieces are spectacular and accompanied by an impressive soundtrack (courtesy of Brian Eno), so everyone used to his flamboyant, over-the-top sensibility will be right at home, but I imagine for the uninitiated viewer this would be a surreal experience.

The interesting, subtextual layer of this film though is how much it betrays what Dario Argento really feels about creating horror movies, and some of the more problematic elements of his films on a political-correctness scale.

His views on women are, at best, accidentally misogynistic, having been quoted as saying that if he’s going to watch a woman be murdered, he’d much prefer her to be beautiful than ugly. As such, the women in his films are doubly-perfunctory, both as victims/plot devices, and also eye candy. While men also suffer in his films, the ratios are skewed pretty heavily towards the female cast, and although it’s never a significant element of the plot or the focus of the movie (unlike Anti-Christ for example, where it’s brought to the forefront) it can make it a little questionable loving a movie that doesn’t exactly aim to bridge the gender gap. For the most part, I’m an equal-opportunist and appreciate a horror movie for its audacity, not its political correctness, but it’s a bit startling in Opera to see how sadistic is his treatment of the female characters.

Secondly, the film places a major emphasis on the act of watching. Now, this is nothing new in the world of symbolism and film literacy – pretty much any film that places an emphasis on the eyes, or on things like cameras and surveillance is asking the audience to address their own habits. Here, however, it’s a much more forceful analogy, with Argento using Betty as a surrogate for the audience, being forced to watch acts of murder; while in the story, Betty has emotional issues that cause her to not react as one would expect to such atrocities (she essentially doesn’t care), the reaction also mirrors that of a horror-movie audience, being subjected to violence and murder without giving it too much of a second thought; and in a way, this is a punishment, as several characters in Opera are killed or maimed through their eyes in moments when they are watching or observing the killer.

Then consider Peter Neal, protagonist of Argento’s earlier Tenebrae, a novelist who writes lurid crime thrillers who’s also been accused of misogyny, and in the final reel is discovered to actually be (one of) the murderers of the tale. An author, a creator of fiction, who subjects his audience to violence and depravity – a surrogate for Argento. In Opera, this seems to have been reiterated, with Argento essentially defiantly stating that his films are what they are, and that he’s going to keep making the audience watch these things for as long as he wants to.

It’s not a director creating movies to scare audiences, it’s a man creating films that let him play around with some problematic ideas and interests, and to have that rewarded with huge success (Opera was one of his more financially successful films, although it marked the beginning of his downfall).

Now, taking all of that into consideration, I’ll stress that it’s subtextual. It doesn’t hamper the enjoyment of the movie at all, although the ideas themselves might give you pause for thought, but I find it interesting that it’s probably unintended on Argento’s part, but says a lot. It also, of course, assumes you know more about his personal life and his troubles with his work to read into his films, so if you’re watching this cold, it’s not going to make a difference.

Having acknowledged the strange subtext, what about the main text?

Opera is a bold, brash and audacious movie that has a surreal performativity to it. There are allusions to Phantom of the Opera and Macbeth throughout, which the savvy viewer will pick up and recognise in a veryself satisfied way (I know I did), but there’s also a strange sense that what your seeing is not a horror movie, but a horror movie performing a horror movie.

Even in the realm of Argento’s excesses, everything seems a little too-highly tweaked, a little too melodramatic, a little too overdone. This is not a bad thing. It means that the film is this kind of elevated construction of oddities, of outlandish set-pieces and strange characterisation, but it all works. In the world of opera, the hyper-real is status quo, and therefore a horror movie about an opera should be similarly heightened.

For instance, Betty’s agent Mira (Daria Niccolodi) is with Betty in her apartment when the killer sets out on the offensive. He pretends to be a policeman, but in a rare moment of genre-savvy for an Argento film, Betty and Mira realise it’s probably a trick, and it then becomes a question of if the policeman outside their door is real or the maniac…or if it’s the policeman inside Betty’s apartment who’s been there all along.

Mira goes to the door and looks through the peephole to see his Police ID, only for this to be the moment that he reveals himself as a killer, and shoots a bullet through the peephole into her peering eye.

This moment is monumentally overblown, with a slow-motion shot of the bullet coursing through the peephole, and when it connects with Mira, she flies back across the room in a spectacular arc; in any other movie it would be laughably out of touch, but within the surreal, exaggerated set-pieces of Opera it makes perfect sense. (Apparently Nicolodi only signed on because of how spectacular her death was; the acrimonious breakdown of her marriage to Argento had left their professional relationship incredibly strained).

It comes off less like a death scene in a horror movie, and more like a performance of a death scene that’s being showcased for it’s construction rather than its efficacy in scaring or shocking, and it’s all the better for it.

The film is full of moments like this; it’s not enough to have Betty tied to a pole with the needles under her eyes the first time the killer makes her watch him in the act, the movie then one-ups itself by placing her in a glass display-case and trapping her even moreso, and more pointlessly. In that same second scene, when the victim of the piece finds her in the display-case, she doesn’t immediately move to help her, but moves away elsewhere in the room – it makes no sense for her to, and comes off as the character willingly performing her designated part in a murder scene.

The opening scene, with Mara Czekova’s tantrum is similarly bizarre, and a blessing of production troubles. Initially, Vanessa Redgrave was set to play the part, but demanded a higher salary when she arrived in Rome. Argento simply fired her, and rewrote the role to a diminished off-screen character. As the film opens, we stick with her P.O.V. (or more specifically, that of the back of her head) as she storms out of the opera house – we never actually see her on screen, and only the chaos caused by her departure, which makes it all the more engrossing.

Even the way the killer is identified is imbued with this sense of theatricality – Betty is performing on-stage, only for the director to break a steel cage full of ravens through the back of the scenery, unleashing them so that they swarm on the killer, who earlier killed one of their flock – this is the first time I’ve heard of ravens actively seeking revenge, but it works as part of the show that is this movie.

Opera is not Argento’s best film, but it is massively entertaining and a true spectacle of a horror film. It has all the trademark oddities of giallo films, and specifically Argento’s oeuvre, but in an strange way, those oddities come across as almost essential for making this movie what it is. It’s strange and amazing, and even if it’s not his best, I don’t think you can ask for more than that.

On one final note, I feel the need to actually mention my DVD of this film. It’s part of the Arrow Video collection, and marks the third purchase I’ve made from them – I really wish that every distributor would put as much effort and content into their collections the same way Arrow does. If you’re a horror fan, it’s essential that you check out their collection, because you won’t find a better presentation of the films you love – they absolutely get us, and what it is we want on a DVD or BluRay.

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2 thoughts on “Terror at the Opera (1987)

    • Well well well. I knew they were meant to have good memories, but the way the film portrays it it’s like they’re in the cage going “let me at ‘im, let me at ‘im!” — which is apparently what they do…huh.

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