Terror At The Opera

cast: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Daria Nicolodi, Urbano Barberini, and Coralina Cataldi

director: Dario Argento

107 minutes (18) 1987
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by James Starkey

Made during a brief renaissance period in the Italian director’s career, Terror At The Opera (aka: Opera) is truly a work of great assurance but of great disappointment also. Here is a film that could have been the greatest murder-mystery ever. There is no other Argento work that can come close to this film in terms of visual and technical excellence. However, a selection of truly awful music really tarnishes what could have glittered like gold. When attempting to get into the head of some of your favourite directors, you simply believe that they know what works and what doesn’t. You always believe that they will make the right decisions. Much of Argento’s work is littered with good decisions and gambles that paid off. A number of such gambles however serve only to spoil this, the seminal work that never was.
A young diva striving for her operatic big break gets her chance when the lead is knocked down and injured by a taxi. The production of Verdi’s Macbeth features a number of interesting innovations such as billowing smoke effects and ravens onstage. Argento is his usual self when it comes to these creatures. Long lingering close-ups of their beady eyes really add to the disconcerting atmosphere woven by the Italian maestro. The young lead’s performance is a revelation with the critics and is only slightly marred by an interruption from a broken light and the strange death of a stagehand. Unfortunately for her, her performance has also attracted the attentions of a crazed killer who leaves a trail of bodies in a quest to get at the diva. When he finally manages to, he inflicts upon her a humiliating and terrifying ordeal that has become legendary amongst both Argento and horror fans generally. Our killer ties the young singer up and places pins beneath her eyes in order to stop her closing her eyes to the ensuing ordeal. He then proceeds to murder one of her many admirers in supremely brutal fashion. (This scene became infamous and was banned in UK.) Although obviously distraught, the girl is otherwise unharmed and the killer allows her to go. What is odd about Opera is Argento’s tact on the killer’s motives. Without doubt, this is his most overtly sexual piece and strongly hints at a desire for domination and power on the part of the killer. The whole idea of making someone watch such an awful spectacle is to say ‘I can get to you at any time and there is nothing you can do about it.’ Of all Argento’s films, this would be the least likely to be released uncut. British censors were extremely touchy about the portrayal of sexual violence.
Opera is probably the most European of Argento’s later works. Much of the dialogue and acting style is firmly set in the Euro tradition. It also features a number of highly effective plot twists (apart from the last one) I personally enjoyed the scene where the diva and Daria Nicolodi are in the flat trying desperately to discover whether the other individual in their midst is actually a policeman or the killer himself. The death of Nicolodi is also something that will not fade fast from the memory.
Opera’s main strength is its technical and stylistic approach to the introduction of scenery. One of the final scenes where a large group of ravens are portrayed swooping around the theatre is truly magnificent. On the recent An Eye For Horror documentary, an explanation was given on how this was achieved. A series of cameras on a form of scaffold canopy were manoeuvred around the auditorium. This was then speeded up and used with footage of the ravens. The end product is truly phenomenal – some of Argento’s best technical work.
What is unfortunate about this particular film is that its flaws prevent it from being a true horror masterpiece. As with Phenomena (although to a much lesser degree) the murder set pieces are almost completely ruined by a stale and infuriating rock score. This type of music is the real bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, what Argento was thinking when he included this, God only knows. Also, the ending to the film is unnecessary and weak. It’s not that it leaves too many questions unanswered but that it strives to answer them all – and as such is over-burdened in the extreme. One thing to say however, I rather enjoyed the brief glimpses of the killer. Unlike the majority of Argento films, the murderer’s masked face is slightly visible through various dark and atmospheric shots.
DVD extras include a stills gallery, biography and filmography. This selection is by no means a disaster but is totally outclassed by the excellent limited edition double disc set from Anchor Bay (mostly available in the US only). The American disc features the brilliant Claudio Simonetti soundtrack to the film. The other includes a nice feature titled Conducting Dario Argento’s Opera.