Back in secondary school, the idea of watching a euro-horror like Opera pretty much meant me and my fellow teenage mates were guaranteed nudity. It’s crass, immature and completely devalues the social and gender commentary that is so rife in this much varied sub-genre, but that is the reputation these movies still endure to this day for younger fans. The giallo (and gialli, such as Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion) means, for a lot of people: exploitation, sexploitation and lashings of gore.
Today, the likes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento (Suspiria, Phenomena, Tenebrae) mean something different to me. The influence they had on the genre as a whole is plain to see if you watch any modern horror; European, British, American or otherwise. Arguably slashers would never have become a ‘thing’ through the 70s/80s without the influence of the pulp-fiction adaptations that flew out of Italy in the early parts of the decade, films like Argento’s Animal trilogy, Deep Red and Inferno.
Opera, originally released in 1987 (well after Italy stopped churning out giallo movies by the dozen), follows a young opera singer, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), who is repeatedly captured and forced to watch as a disguised super-fan murders her friends and colleagues in the most gruesome ways. CultFilms has released this 2K restoration with colour regrading carried out under instruction from the maestro himself and in reference to his own, preferred, original cinema print. It could be argued that now, more than ever, is the perfect time to watch the horror master’s shocking thriller.
The movie uses Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth as a motif. Music from the opera can be heard throughout with most of the grizzly deaths occurring inside the opera house itself. However, what makes Opera a compelling watch – if you’ll excuse the pun – is how Betty is physically forced to observe the killings by her mysterious assailant. Nails are taped to her eyes to force them open as the murders are committed in front of her. It could be allegorical for what a filmmaker goes through; Argento pours his utmost efforts into realising the most visually shocking and creative concepts imaginable, but people look away. He forces Betty to watch, as he would force his audience to. Alternatively, it could be an allegory to the audience in general, in a Haneke’s Funny Games kind-of-way, begging the question: Why do people want to see these horrendous acts? What is it that makes the person on the other side of the screen wilfully partake in these acts, however passively they occur?
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Or, of course, it could just be that anything to do with pointy objects and their proximity to eyeballs is going to make the audience uneasy and make for some incredibly tense scenes in a movie designed to thrill. Given the fact that the horror director-turned opera director Marco (Ian Charleson) was based on Argento himself, it can safely be assumed that there was more going on than meets the eye. A good question to ask in these circumstances isn’t “what does it mean,” but “what do you see?” In this case, the eyes are the windows to the soul and they are being force-fed brutality. It could be interpreted that Opera is no ordinary film but a cry for help from a filmmaker who feels his very own soul is being tortured by the images he inflicts on not just himself, but also on those loved ones, friends, acquaintances, colleagues and fans. Or, of course, it could just be that pointy objects, eyeballs, tense, blah blah blah.
Opera so keenly fits into the descent of Argento’s oeuvre that it is almost a shame to see it unravel thread by thread in this 107 minute horror. It is not controversial to suggest his best work was well and truly behind him by this stage in his career and that he would never recapture what once made him so unique and such a visionary. In the politest possible sense, he grasped the foundations laid by Hammer for popular horror, remodelled it into something more sinister, twisted and despicable through the 70s right up until Opera’s release, then was forced to sit back and observe as others built on his success. Despite the smattering of typical Argento visual genius and memorable individual scenes, the film is largely a generic slasher full of contrived conveniences, a sedate pace and a pretty nonsensical plot and motive.
However, it’s hard to fault CultFilms’ dual format release. The HD presentation is flawless. Watching ‘Aria of Fear’ – a brand new candid interview with director Dario Argento, revisiting his work from a fresh viewpoint – on the extras that accompany the release will provide some new insight into the movie, as will a behind-the-scenes ‘making of’ documentary called ‘Opera Backstage’. There’s even the option to watch the movie in Italian rather than the English audio, with subtitles for us monolingual language speakers.
Whether the reputation of euro-horror in the UK and the rest of the West will ever escape the trappings of how it is viewed by the young and excitable as “guaranteed nudity” is hard to know; if it even is something that it should (or wants) to escape. A lot of these fans are the reason these movies still live. But if Opera shows us anything, it’s that Argento was capable of delivering greatness and not just gallons of red corn syrup.
CultFilms presents Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece Opera on Dual-Format Blu-ray, DVD and VOD now.