Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Opera

Film: Opera
Format: DVD from NetFlix on Sue’s Mother’s Day present.

So I think it’s something I can say now officially—I don’t like Italian horror. It’s something I’ve struggled with in the past. There are a few gialli that I like, but even those have issues with not being that coherent all of the time. Films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for instance, are interesting and have some good parts, but even those are movies that I’m not convinced I want to watch again any time soon. Even the really celebrated ones like Suspiria are ones I like for reasons beyond the disjointed plot. So Opera, another Argento film, is one that has gotten a great deal of praise. I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best.

Now that I’ve seen it, I have a new hypothesis about a lot of Italian horror films. I don’t think the plot comes first. I think instead that the director or the screenwriter gets an idea or two for particular scenes that would look really interesting. For Suspiria, for instance, the first death scene, the barbed wire room, and the blocks of primary colors were probably the initial thoughts. For Blood and Black Lace, it was probably the fashion, and shots like the model being drowned. For Opera, it’s probably the ravens and the needles. Once those visuals have been thought of, the director/screenwriter tries to figure out a way to connect all of those different scenes into a narrative. Typically, this is done with…varying results of coherence.

Opera, as the name suggests, takes place at the opera, and there are minor shades of stories like The Phantom of the Opera if only because of the setting. Our diva, and she is a diva, storms out of a rehearsal and is promptly struck by a car. Because of this, her understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is given the starring role as Lady Macbeth. This is important, because Macbeth is considered by many superstitious theater people to be bad luck, even if it’s Verdi’s operatic version. Betty debuts that night and all goes well, except that there is an accident and one of the stage hands is killed.

That death is going to prove to be not an accident soon enough. Betty spends time with her boyfriend Stefano (William McNamara), but the pair is attacked by our film’s masked killer. Betty is tied to a pillar and the killer tapes lines of needles under her eyes, preventing her from blinking and forcing her to watch what happens. What happens is Stefano’s brutal murder. This is something that is going to be repeated several times throughout the film…not Stefano’s brutal murder, but Betty being tied up and forced to watch a murder take place.

The murder, and subsequent ones, gets investigated by Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini), while Betty is protected, at least in part, by her director, Marco (Ian Charleson). More and more murders happen, the killer does things like rip up Betty’s costume and for some reason attacks the ravens that the director has decided to include in the show. Eventually, the killer is going to be unmasked. We’re also going to get some moments of people finding out who the killer is, but then acting in such stupid ways that they don’t reveal it to anyone else. There will be a false ending or two before we finally get to the credits, too.

So, what can I say about Opera that doesn’t make me sound like a grouchy old man? There are some moments in it that are visually impressive. It’s these moments that have led me to that opinion that Argento things of particular visuals and then builds the film around them. For instance, there is a moment here where one of the people attempting to keep Betty safe gets shot through a door. It’s pretty cool to look at even if you knew it was coming.

Other than that, though, Opera is a mish-mash of ideas and scenes that are loosely tied together. Like so many giallo films, the connection as we move from scene to scene is tenuous at best. A lot of the plot only works because everyone is kind of stupid. The killer manages to get the upper hand on everybody all the time because, despite the fact that murders are occurring at a constant clip, no one seems to take it that seriously.

Case in point—Stefano gets brutally murdered while Betty is forced to watch. Rather than contact the police, she calls Marco, and then more or less refuses to tell him why, even when he jokes with her about relationship problems. It’s not unintelligible; it’s just nonsensical.

So I get it for the visuals. I just want there to be a damn plot that makes sense and people who don’t act in ways because the plot demands it.

Why to watch Opera: Like a lot of Argento, it has some inventive moments.
Why not to watch: Like a lot of Argento, it’s opaque and doesn’t always make sense.


  1. Did this come out before the age of CGI? I took a look, via Google Images, at some closeups of victims with their eyes forced open, and it's obvious from the outward-pointing angle of the pins that the victims can actually close their eyes just fine. Do we ever see the bloody consequences of trying to close one's eyes? It's not a real party until someone's eyelids get perforated.

    1. Addendum: the woman in the link I provided does have a little trickle of blood coming from the corner of an upper eyelid... but that's not enough to satisfy my lust. We wants ventilation, Precious!

    2. Yeah, this is from 1987, so our actress definitely has something attached to her lower eyelid. As you say, it's not quite the real thing, though.

      It's a great visual, but this is the story of Argento films in general. There are great visuals in service of a story cobbled together to get those visuals into something like a narrative.

    3. So...a bit like the way an 80s porn movie has a sketchy plot in service of getting us from one sex scene to another.

    4. Substitute "violence" for "sex," and yes--that's it exactly.