A star is born tonight... will she live to see tomorrow?
Aspiring opera understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big break when the lead diva in a modern, new wave staging of Verdi's Macbeth, storms out of rehearsals only to get run over by a car. Though this is her first chance in the limelight, Betty worries about taking the role, not because she is fearful of her abilities, but because of the old superstition surrounding Verdi's Macbeth, the problems and misfortune that seem to plague staging the work. Little does Betty know, that someone is crawling around in the air ducts of her apartment and stalking her.
Opening night does not go well. First there are the crows onstage cawing too loud and flying where they shouldn't go, and then a lighting rig falls from one of the auditorium boxes. Why do the lights fall? Well, our stalker gets caught by an usher, and as they struggle, right before the stalker brains the usher, they knock over the lights. However, no one knows of the murder going on, so the opera continues, and Betty is lauded for her effort, her composure and grace as everything went awry around her. By morning, she is an overnight sensation. The police begin an investigation, headed by Inspector Santini, but the stalker breaks into the Opera house, cuts up Betty's costume, and upsets the crows which get loose. It isn't very long before the black hooded, leather gloved, trenchcoat wearing stalker moves beyond slicing up costumes, to finally confronting Betty. While she has bedded down with a stagehand, the stalker appears, ties her up, and pins needles underneath her eyes forcing her to watch the slaughtering of her lover. The stalker lets her go, and she flees into the arms of her director, Marco (Ian Charleson).
***In order not to spoil the rest of the film, I'm going to go into heavy summation mode. Those who haven't seen the film will thank me for it.*** A bracelet left behind during the damaging of Betty's costume may hold the killers identity, but lets just say, at such an early point on the film, they don't find the killer by using the bracelet and there are consequences when the killer wants it back. Betty finally goes to the police and is under guarded custody, but the killer manages further torment her at every turn. (Remember how he was sneaking around in her air ducts?) She is plagued by pounding headaches and strange visions, but are they clues, dreamy flashbacks, or is it just the stress? Marco, the opera director, devises a unique way to possibly identify the killer during the next performance- and it works (resulting in one of my favorite Dario Argento sequences). But, like any good horror-thriller, revealing the identity of the killer doesn't mean its the end, and just when you think its over,... the horror continues.
The Film: Now, I have a real soft spot for Opera. It was the first Dario Argento film I saw that made me take note of who the guy was. I had seen Suspiria and Phenomena (the US "Creepers" cut) and really liked them, but never noticed who directed them, much less connected that the same person was responsible for both. But, back in the early 90's, I was watching Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Theater on the Movie Channel and I saw Opera for the first and only time until this DVD release. Needless to say, the film stuck in my head, I wrote down the name "Dario Argento", quickly realized I had seen some of his films, had passed others up on the rental shelf, and had maybe half a dozen articles about him in old Fangoria magazines. Opera was the first film that made me a fan. After all these years and having finally seen the film again, I still think it is the last really good Argento film. Not great or a masterpiece, but pretty good, belonging somewhere in the middle, behind the likes of Suspiria, Phenomena, and Tenbre. It is a good starting point for non-fans because it is flawed, therefore if you like it, you're bound to like the majority of his previous (70's and 80's) work. Some disagree of course, but many horror fans will back me up in the opinion that his work since Opera has suffered; throughout the 90's the master seemed to lose his touch.
Argento, like Hitchcock, is primarily an idea man first and foremost. That is, his films start with a general idea and then he comes up with sequences, or vice versa. Character and plot work, the meat of the film, is a bit secondary sometimes, the really important part is the thrills, the mystery, the horror. But, unlike Hitchcock, Dario could really care less about character, logic, and narrative. Dario always has what I call a "logic hurdle" in all of his films. It is some moment when a character makes a bad decision, points himself in stupid direction, something that you just have to suspend your disbelief and get over. That is why I think Dario's two best films are his wildest, most, imaginative, most surreal, Phenomenon and Suspiria, because they are so outlandish and cleary operating on a different gear. If you can accept that a girl psychically controls and communicates with bugs, like in Phenomena, then you'll get over any logic hurdle in the film... In Opera, this moment comes after the second murder, when Betty is forced to watch the young stud she was just with get killed. After being let go by the killer, Betty anonymously calls the police and then has her director pick her up. She later explains her actions by saying two things A) She was traumatized because the killer reminded her of a man she saw in a dream she had as a child, and B) She didn't want to be involved in the mess and just wanted to put it out of her mind. Personally, neither explanation really helped me get over the hurdle. I tried to leap over it, Dario gave me some 'pounding head' sequences and flashback-dreams to show the girl was unbalanced, but it just didn't quite work, so the rest of the film suffers, never letting you fully believe in it. And, that makes the films sore spots, like the bad heavy metal music during the murders, lame killer motivation, ill defined female in distress, and the awkward ending stick out more, keeps it from being a perfect Dario film.
But, what makes Opera worthwhile, rise above its clumsiness in character and story, are all the things that make you want to watch a Dario Argento film- thrills, mystery, and setting. Opera contains some of the best thrill sequences in Argento's career. The camerawork is amazing, going from extreme close ups of crow eyes, knives, Betty's eyes, exacto blades, to the contrasting wide open spaces of the opera house, the fitting room, and Betty's apartment. The camera moves, across huge wonderfully designed sets, and in gliding point of views (from the killers, Betty's, to the flying crows over the opera audience)- just great cinematography and use of Dario's distinctive, wonderfully cruel, and beautifully brutal, imaginative eye.
The DVD: Anchor Bay- after a widespread recall- finally presents a very nice edition of Argento's film with just enough extras to please fans. ***Opera is also available in a Limited Edition, that features this disc plus the films soundtrack.***
Picture-The film is Anamorphic letterboxed 2:35:1, finally letting home viewers see the macabre spectacle in all its glory. Overall the image is nice and sharp with good color, although the colors are somewhat, I believe, intentionally drab and dark. The only real complaint is that the film may be too grainy. In order to enhance the mood, I'm sure Argento intended for the film to look a bit rough, but I think this transfer may be just a tad grainier than intended.
Sound- 5.1 Dolby Digital Stereo, is very crisp and clear, and Anchor Bay has also added a THX optimizer function for those with nice home theater setups. Like many Italian films, although the film has an international cast, the film was intended to be seen dubbed, and that is what we get, the English dub. While an Italian language track with English subs would be nice, most US viewers who fell in love with Opera fell in love with it dubbed. So, if you don't like it, too bad.
Extras- Scene Selections- A Dario Argento bio section- Both the US and International trailers for the film- A Daemonia music video- And finally, A new 36 min documentary, Conducting Dario Argento's OPERA, that boils down all aspects of the film-making, from cinematography, to story, acting, music, special effects, and general history. They managed to gather all the principles, from Dario, to cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, Italian fx guru Sergio Stivaletti, and all the main actors- except Ian Charleson (because he died of AIDS) and lead actress Cristina Marsillach (who the doc explains did not have the best relationship working with Dario, therefore, she is absent). Although the previous Dario Argento titles put out by Anchor Bay have had commentary by Dario instead of a behind the scenes feature, I actually prefer this documentary. Dario's, slow, monotone, broken English was never particularly something I found I could listen to for two hours straight, plus he seems to be just as informative here in this documentary despite less time to talk (and he's subtitled).
Conclusion- Anchor Bay does a fine job and Italian horror/Dario Argento fans should be pleased. The film really is, in my opinion, one of the swan songs of Italian horror, a genre that thrived in the 70's and then slowly faded away. Die-hard fans will no doubt want the SE version, but the standard version mroe than delivers for your average consumer.