Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, and Urbano Barberini
I’m a Dario Argento apologist up to a point, and that point is his 1998 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera that starred his daughter Asia and Julian Sands. That’s the point in his career where I throw up my hands and say that Susperia is terrific. Fortunately Opera falls in the defensible years by a safe distance; and if it seems ludicrous to hinge a plot on a vengeful raven identifying the killer, just remember that a chimpanzee avenging Donald Pleasence is not the most insane part of Argento’s previous film Phenomena.
Opera is heavily influenced by Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, without quite being an adaptation. There’s a young understudy (Betty, played by Cristina Marsillach) who gets the starring role when the prima donna is injured. There’s a mysterious killer, fixated on the ingénue. A performance is interrupted for the penultimate confrontation. The rest is a wild departure, as it is more of a slasher movie than a Gothic romance.
It’s a pretty good slasher, too. The killer strikes those near Betty, binding her so that she is forced to watch. There’s a reason for this fixation, and it’s honestly a tad contrived, but what I love about the film is the way that sight and voyeurism are emphasized by the camera. From the opening shot of a closeup of a raven’s eye, the lens is fixated on p.o.v. shots, eyes, and focusing the view through narrow spaces.
The ravens and Betty have seen things that we haven’t, and fittingly it’s what Betty doesn’t recall having seen that explains her importance to the killer. Further, it’s what she can’t see when her stalker finally blindfolds her that nearly kills Betty.
For all of the above I adore Opera. Even the choice of an opera based on Macbeth fits thematically, as not only is the play believed to be cursed but Lady Macbeth’s most famous scene is wrapped up in guilt for bloody deeds. This is a bit of a nod to the film’s back-story.
Here I’m just going to say it, so if you really don’t want to know the reveal for a movie nearly 30 years old, skip to the next paragraph. Betty’s mother made the killer torture and kill young women. Betty herself had seen it happen as a child but had repressed it, because repressed memories are a terrific substitute for good writing. So, the mother’s actions ate transferred to the daughter to expiate the killer’s guilt. Thus, Betty plays Lady Macbeth.
Anyway, it’s definitely a flawed movie. The pins under Betty’s eyelids are a good visual but infeasible as presented. The bit with the ravens is well-filmed but downright silly. I don’t even want to know who thought dubbing a creepy adult for a young girl was a good plan. The play’s director being a clear stand-in for Argento and making moves on his much younger star is downright gross.
Yet this is the Argento I prefer to remember. The one who put effort into artistic touches that rise above the material; not the one we have now, cashing in on what’s left of his reputation with artless cheapies where the main attraction is his own naked daughter.