One of two films in Dario Argento’s filmography to feature the word ‘opera’ in the title (the other being his woeful Phantom of the Opera retread), this ultra-stylish, ultra-silly giallo remains surprisingly fresh 17 years on. It’s the tale of Betty (Cristina Marsillach), an upcoming opera star who at the last minute has to step into the shoes of Lady Macbeth at Rome’s La Scala, when the Verdi opera’s leading lady is hit by a car. Betty’s opening night goes spectacularly well, but it becomes clear she has one fan she could do without when her boyfriend is murdered in front of her that same evening. Soon her friends are dropping like flies but the opera’s maverick director Marco (Ian Charleson) has an ingenious plan to catch the killer.
On a purely technical level, Opera is Argento’s extravagant peak; the camera glides, swoops and spins around the rooms and corridors of the opera house. The director puts a lot of technology up front too – we are constantly shown close-ups of TV monitors, tape players and cameras, and the sense of a living, breathing opera house is ably conveyed. It’s well cast too – Cristina Marsillach doesn’t always have much to do but scream and look scared, but she does that very well (and mimes her opera parts convincingly), while the late Ian Charleson cuts an amusing, sympathetic figure who in a very British way refuses to get upset even when half his crew have been slaughtered. Elsewhere we have ex-Mrs Argento Daria Nicolodi as Mira, Betty’s agent, and Urbano Barberini (also seen the same year in the Argento-produced Demons) as a creepy cop.
The film’s other main highlight is the murder sequences. Argento spoils things somewhat by setting them to terrible eighties metal, but there’s a deliciously nasty streak at work here. To force Betty to watch his murders, the killer ties her up and places a row of needles under her eyelids; another choice moment sees our masked man snip open a victim’s windpipe to remove a vital piece of swallowed evidence. The finest set piece is the sequence in which Betty and Mira find themselves in an apartment with a man who may – or may not – be the killer. It is one of Argento’s most suspenseful sequences (and not just because he refrains from the heavy metal) and ends with the brilliantly edited, shocking moment when Nicolodi receives a bullet straight through her cranium.
Opera’s main flaw is in the plotting. Argento’s detractors argue that his films always put style before story, but while this is true of his supernatural horrors (Suspiria, Inferno), his best thrillers – Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Deep Red, Tenebrae – hit a perfect balance between the two. Opera’s flash overcomes the slight story however – there’s no real sense of mystery, the identity of the killer is never in any doubt, and the ‘twist’ near the end is pinched from Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. And Marco’s ‘ingenious’ plan – that vengeful ravens will flush out the villain during a performance of the opera – is just too ridiculous, even by Argento’s standards. Nevertheless, Opera is a highly entertaining shocker, with more than enough to compensate for its flaws. And if nothing else, the ending – a weird pastiche of The Sound of Music I think – remains barmy and strangely beautiful.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.