‘Opera’ (1987) dir. Dario Argento

Dario Argento. I was such a dork for this guy back in high school. I even had t-shirts made from the posters of some of his films. I got the images from a big interview piece I read with him in a ‘Psychotronic Magazine’ I had picked up. Did lots of presentations on his work in high school and later in film school. I’m still a huge mark for this guy and he’s a huge influence on my own work. Definitely one of my filmmaking heroes.

Objective historical fact: Dario Argento revolutionized the horror genre at three different times with the films ‘The Bird With The Crystal Plumage’ (1970), ‘Profondo Rosso’ (1975) and ‘Suspiria’ (1977). Awe inspiring. Everything outside of that is subjective but undoubtedly he has left a serious cultural footprint on the cinematic landscape that cannot be ignored.

In my opinion, he has made three great films – ‘Suspiria’, ‘Opera’ and ‘Profound Rosso’ and three very good films – ‘Phenomena’ (1985), ‘Tenebre'(1982) and ‘The Bird with Crystal Plumage’. Love them! Then there’s the rest. Some would toss ‘Inferno'(1980) and ‘The Stendhal Syndrome’ (1996) in there. I hear ya. They contain some truly wonderful moments. Stuff I certainly couldn’t do. But I just don’t think they come together as well as those others.

‘Opera’ revolves around the troubled production of an avant-garde staging of ‘Macbeth’ and the understudy who must rise to the occasion after the original ingenue is injured. Naturally, there’s also a serial killer on the loose dispatching people in all sorts of imaginative and grizzly ways.

After this film, Argento would never again make something as accomplished or impressive from a production stand point. His camera would never move as confidently or innovatively. His pacing would never be as urgent. And his spellbinding blend of the macabre, the artistic and the banal would never work so well together. Cristina Marsillach would also never be equaled as the quintessential Argento heroine. She is visually and emotionally the perfect foil for Argento’s filmmaking. Supposedly they did not get along during filming. It’s a shame but the film is probably better for it.

The gag with the killer taping pins under our heroine’s eyes so she is forced to watch the murders is a gimmick that runs rather shallow, packing less and less a punch with each viewing though they definitely frame it up like it’s the hottest thing going and the marketing to this day still pushes it to the moon.

Legendary cinematographer Ronnie Taylor rocks the arena with this one, composing some of Argento’s finest shots. A bit where the killer shoots his gun through the apartment peephole is still one of the best sequences of its type ever lensed.

I want to go on record as saying I find this film unusually erotic. I’m a big horror film guy but I don’t normally find the films all that erotic. I don’t. Sure, there’s naked ladies and sex scenes scattered about but I don’t find the genre as intrinsically erotic as many would claim. But I find this movie sexually charged in a strange way even though there’s little to no superficial eroticism to be had. Make sense?

I’ll never forget the first time I watched this film (re-titled ‘Terror At The Opera’ for US consumption) and it came to its controversial existential conclusion. I ADORED IT. It cuts to the most ridiculous switcharoo committed in film history and then ends as an esoteric art film. It is silly yet endearing, poetic and, like the rest of the film, unlike anything I had seen in a horror film. It also brought a peaceful resolve to the hysterical madness that had proceeded it.

The psychology deployed in this film in regards to the mother/daughter/killer relationship gets the job done without being too trite. It’s not one note like in Hitchcock ‘Marnie’ (1964), for example. It is more along the lines of Mamet’s ‘House Of Games’ (1987) or Demme’s ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ (1991) though it falls short of the latter two films’ cerebral panache and opts instead for flinging literal insanity up on the screen with gallons of blood and Heavy Metal music.

When I was younger I used to intellectualize Argento’s work a lot more. Now I feel silly doing it. Maybe it’s because the later work is a little hit and miss but I think mainly it’s because I believe the artistry is in the alchemy and not so much the content. When I see people over analyzing the content like I used to it makes me kind of uneasy. It’s his unique blending of cinematic elements – bravura camera work, complex yet contrived narratives, international casts, daring soundtracks and immense blood letting all with a signature style that is the secret sauce. Argento has a style but he also has a tone and when the two work together – everything else becomes irrelevant.

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