Opera (1987)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #515


Also known as Terror at The Opera
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: December 19, 1987
Sub-Genre: Giallo
Country of Origin: Italy
Budget: $8,000,000
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Producers: Dario Argento, Ferdinando Caputo, Mario Cecchi Gori, Vittorio Cecchi Gori
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Story: Dario Argento, Franco Ferrini
Special Effects: Sergio Stivaletti
Cinematography: Ronnie Taylor
Score: Brian Eno, Roger Eno, Steel Grave, Claudio Simonetti, Bill Wyman
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Studios: ADC Films, Cecchi Gori Group Tiger Cinematografica, Radiotelevisione Italiana
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Stars: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, Daria Nicolodi, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Antonella Vitale, William McNamara, Barbara Cupisti, Antonino Iuorio, Carola Stagnaro, Francesca Cassola, Maurizio Garrone, Cristina Giachino, György Gyõriványi


Suggested Audio Candy

[1] Bill Wyman & Terry Taylor “Main Titles/Black Notes”

[2] Steel Grave “Knights of the Night”


Much has been made of the so-called decline of the Godfather of The Macabre, Dario Argento over the years although anyone familiar with my work will be more than aware that it isn’t a viewpoint that I necessarily endorse. Granted, the eighties witnessed a creative flourish from the Italian which he has never since quite repeated but closure to a number of key collaborations and death of his influential father would invariably have had a knock on effect on his later output. Besides, few can argue that the likes of The Stendhal Syndrome and Sleepless in particular aren’t worthy of merit.


Perhaps the last of his works to receive unanimous praise from his following arrived in 1987. Opera is frequently referred to as the turning point for Argento and many regard is as his last truly memorable work. It is certainly one of his most ambitious projects to date and, after Inferno almost finished him off from a creative standpoint, we should count ourselves lucky that he tackled such an audacious project as this in the first place. If you are looking for vintage Argento set-pieces then take your pick as this film has them in almost embarrassing abundance. It also features some of his most breathtaking camerawork not to mention a number of showstopping kills which rank amongst his very finest.


It involves fresh-faced operetta Betty (Cristina Marsillach) who is gifted the dubious honor of headlining a stage production of Guiseppe Verdi’s Macbeth after the leading lady meets with an unfortunate accident just prior to its opening night. Betty should be thrilled at the opportunity but can’t shake the feeling that her eleventh hour blessing is likely a curse in disguise as superstition suggests that bad omens come with the territory where this coveted role of Lady Macbeth is concerned. While she is initially reluctant to accept her graduation from understudy, she is soon talked around by her director Marco (Ian Charleson) and earns rave reviews for her performance.


Perhaps Betty should have trusted her gut on this one as, despite a massively successful launch, her hunch proves to be far more than simple stage fright, resulting in the death of a stage hand before she can complete her encore. Although it is played down as a tragic accident, she remains unconvinced and, later that evening, her boyfriend Stefano (William McNamara) is brutally murdered before her very eyes. Moreover, the killer decides to provide her a front row seat to the spiteful act and ensures that she doesn’t miss a thing by binding her to a pillar and placing tape beneath her eyelids with needles attached to prevent her from blinking.


Whilst no actual harm is inflicted on Betty, the show must go on and, with Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) woefully short on reliable leads and the killer still very much at large, it isn’t long before history repeats itself. Her every move seems to lead further into peril and anyone connected with the production is placed in mortal danger, with Betty providing unwitting sole audience each time. To make matters worse, she has some deep-rooted emotional scarring to contend with which culminates in recurring nightmares which she has suffered since childhood.


These involve a hooded psychopath who worryingly fits the bill of her current antagonist rather closely. Her career may well be blossoming, but she is terrified of following in her mother’s footsteps, and this plays havoc on her psyche. Throw in constant skull-crushing migraines and a tendency to associate violence with the act of sex and her already frail subconscious is left resembling a soundly rigged minefield. To stand any hope of holding onto both her sanity and mortality, Betty will be required to face up to these persistent demons once and for all and her options are looking decidedly thin on the ground by the time her final performance begins looming large.



Argento pulls out all the stops here and Opera is every bit as grandiose as the title suggests. He uses a number of wildly inventive camera techniques in order to achieve the desired effect, with long travelling shots and swooping overhead gymnastics ensuring that the depth of the opera house setting is showcased fully while Ronnie Taylor’s breathtaking cinematography brings it all vividly to life. As with Phenomena previously, he opts for a far more contemporary score than is customary and each kill is accompanied by intrusive guitar riffs, providing stark contrast to the classical setting. Meanwhile, Sergio Stivaletti more than earns his keep with his application of practical splatter and is kept decidedly busy throughout.


By the time we have reached a conclusion which is remarkably left-field, even by Argento standards, we will likely be just as discombobulated as poor Betty and I have no doubt that this was his intention. Speaking of which, he has since remarked that Marsillach was the most troublesome actress he has ever worked with although he still manages to coax a decent turn from his leading lady. While I wouldn’t consider Opera to be his magnum opus, there can be no questioning that it is one of his most brash and rebellious features, rich in both subtext and irony. As for it signalling the final curtain for the flamboyant Italian’s most creative output, perhaps that is true to a degree. However, I’ll never give up hope of an encore.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: The kills here are vicious and unrelenting in the extreme and anyone sensitive to eye-themed brutality may want to give Opera a decidedly wide berth as numerous optical violations occur throughout. Speaking of which, one particularly cunning dispatch ranks amongst his very finest and involves a bullet being fired through the peephole in a door directly into the retina of one unfortunate observer. In addition to being captured in painfully slow-motion as it tears through the back of her skullcap, Argento then adds an extra level of irony by further trailing its trajectory as it finishes by obliterating the telephone behind her, thus eliminating the only form of communication for our horrified onlooker. Sheer unbridled genius and, of course, it just had to be Daria Nicolodi proving, beyond any reasonable doubt, that there really is a fine line between love and hate.

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Richard Charles Stevens

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