Sunday, October 6, 2013


My (small) understanding of operas tells me they tend to be big, boldly produced, highly stylized productions combing theatrical melodrama with intense yet beautiful music, and those attributes can all be applied to several films of Italian director Dario Argento. Though (or maybe because) he works in the horror and psycho-killer genres, Argento at his best incorporates a beautiful, surreal aesthetic in his work that evokes a nightmarish, hypnotic atmosphere. Sure, he's staging absolutely brutal, graphic murders, but instead of making them ugly and disgusting, Argento conducts then in a manner that makes them gorgeous and gory; it may be horrible but you can't look away.

That summarizes what I admire about Argento's filmmaking. The part of Argento I'm not enthused about is his disinterest in plot clarity, characterization, and logic. Specifically, his characters tend to behave in ways that don't even approximate believable human behavior, and in a genre where a rooting interest in the victims is essential to generating terror and suspense, that makes it hard to care for their fates. Consider Laurie Strode in Halloween and Chief Brody in Jaws; when I watch those movies, I'm invested in their survival. When I watch an Argento character (whose names I can't recall without having to look up), I'm not invested in their fates; I'm transparently aware of a director manipulating an avatar.

Argento's 1987 effort Opera demonstrates both of these tendencies. Argento's direction - his use of camera movement, color, and music - is some of the best he's ever done. There are some absolutely stellar sequences of style and technique, and even the setup, a sort of modernized take on The Phantom of the Opera set against the backdrop of an operatic, post-apocalyptic MacBeth, is pretty cool, but again, Argento treats his characters as props to be moved around and killed. When you're not entranced by the Argento's virtuoso and directorial flourishes, you're laughing at the overwrought silliness of the enterprise underneath the surface.

After an accident incapacitates his leading lady, horror director Marco (Ian Charleson) taps the young understudy Betty (Christina Marsillach) to play the lead in his opera of MacBeth. Betty is nervous and insecure and becomes even more so when a murder occurs during her first performance. It becomes clear soon enough that a psycho is targeting people at the theatre, especially those close to Betty, and the killer is adamant that Betty always has a front row seat to the butchery.

Opera finds Argento back in the Giallo territory. Giallo was a genre of Italian thrillers. Typically they were gruesome murder mysteries in which a deranged killer with a twisted psychological obsession and penchant for wearing black gloves murders beautiful women. These killings are elaborate and glory; stabbings and strangulations aren't enough when the killer can incorporate decapitations, dismemberments, and disembowelments.  As in his other Giallos, Opera allows to showcase brilliant staged set piecees. His camera swoops and dives weightlessly over the opera house and sometimes from the point of view of the killer. These are matched by wince-inducing close shots of blades, needles, and bullets penetrating soft flesh of eyeballs and through mouths.

Even by Giallo standards, this villain is nasty and sadistic. A number of times, he ties Betty up and tapes needles under eyes so she is forced to watch as he butchers people. There's just some sort of immediate, palpable fear of not only being completely at this maniac's mercy but also being unable to look away from a horrible act. It's unsettling and disturbing.

Argento also stages an absolutely amazing scene in which of a flock of ravens are set loose during the opera performance to identify the killer in the audience, and it's a sequence that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud. It's not entirely plausible, but it's so well staged and stunning that I don't care. There's also an absolutely brutal murder involving someone being shot through the eye while looking through a peephole.

But again, the characters and logic are ridiculous. Some of this might be lost in translation from Italian, but after Betty watches her boyfriend get massacred by the killer, her reaction is laughably nonchalant; she walks in the rain while a sad song plays, you'd think she and the boyfriend had just broken up. She calls the police in a pay phone but doesn't wait for them to arrive. For the things she goes through, you'd think she'd take off running screaming murder or calling for help, but instead, she walks off as merely despondent over her personal life, not threatened by a lunatic. The other characters also don't seem to notice how a number of crew members have been killed. Character reactions and behavior are just so jarring to the events they're going through, and it's hard to take seriously.

Opera also has a good score, mixing opera performances with a heavy metal assault during the murders. There's also effective use of the crows' squawking and flapping of wings. It's unusual combination that somehow works.  Sort of like the movie itself.

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