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Opera (1987) Review

Opera was directed and written by Dario Argento (Suspiria, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage) and stars Cristina Marsillach (Simple Like Silver, Adolescence), Ian Charleson (Gandhi, Chariots of Fire), Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red, Mother of Tears), William McNamara (The 2nd, Rottentail), Francesca Cassola (The Gamble, Anni 90) and Urbano Barberini (Demons, Casino Royale). It follows a young opera singer as she’s stalked and repeatedly battered by a masked killer.

The Plot: Argento can deliver a compelling setup with his directorial style, favouring idiosyncratic motifs and uncommon locations; it’s what he promises with said setup that falls into a slump in short order.

After a famous opera singer can’t deal with the idea of ravens cawing during her performance, she quits the play at hand, leaving director Marco (Charleson) searching for a replacement. He decides to gamble on an unknown in the form of Betty (Marsillach), an up-and-comer who at first can’t bring herself to take the job due to the play supposedly being cursed. This curse idea comes up several times throughout the feature but no one ever elaborates on it. Unfulfilled setups are the lifeblood of Opera. Of course, Betty joins the crew, but not all goes to plan.

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During her first show, a masked killer observes the show, and a stage light is destroyed in their skirmish with a stagehand, which results in the stagehand’s death, bringing inspector Santini (Barberini) into the foil. Opera introduces Betty’s crewmates, including Stefano (McNamara) as suspects in the mystery of the killer’s identity, but the movie drops this idea too, only showing characters without casting doubt on their intentions. The exceptions to this are Betty’s friend Mira (Nicolodi) and young spectator Alma (Cassola). After the show, the killer strikes, tying up Betty and making her watch Stefano as he’s killed, which continues to happen to Betty when she least expects it.

In truth, there isn’t much of a plot beyond that first act, finding Argento eager to drop opportunities to turn Opera into a mystery with audience involvement or a thriller hinged on Betty’s survival and lack of sleep due to the killer’s impact on her. Repetition is abound here, with the same general scenario being played out at least three times until the movie finds its way to an ending – more like three endings – that doesn’t explain much or pack a punch thanks to the movie’s refusal to end.

Opera lacks a compelling follow-up to its intriguing setup, although this seems more like a conscious decision rather than a series of screw-ups during the process.

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The Characters: Similar to the way the plot is treated in Opera, the characters are cast aside after the introductions are complete. There are inklings of traits and links between the cast of the play, but the lack of substantive dialogue or visual descriptions detaches the movie from its characters.

It’s understood that Betty is nervous about getting up on stage in front of a crowd of people with high expectations given the previous singer’s stardom. She uses an audio track of breathing exercises to calm down when stressed which makes sense given her ideal profession, but it’s her past (which is never explained, even during the reveals of the last act) that caused her to use it up to this point.

Beyond that, she doesn’t act like a normal person would during or after being tortured, like she is for the duration of the movie. When she escapes the killer’s clutches for the first time, she doesn’t call the cops or go for help at all, she doesn’t take any precautions going forward, and she doesn’t stick to populated areas.

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Mira and Stefano are given light touches of personality, Stefano more so than Mira, but anything is appreciated after watching Betty. Mira has evidently known Betty the longest, with Betty electing to stay with her. That’s really it. Stefano makes a good impression on the leading lady, gifting her flowers after her debut but is promptly killed mere minutes after, denying the audience a suspect or a relationship of any kind.

Marco and Santini are left as the chief suspects, but given one’s behaviour during his first sighting, the choice should be clear, but by the time the end rolls around, one of them disappears for long enough to be forgotten; so the surprise sort of works. I guess.

Opera doesn’t offer insight into the lead’s backstory despite discussing it as if we do, and kills off its only other real character in record time. No attachment to be had.

The Horror: A genuinely stomach-churning method of making Betty watch her colleagues be killed is offered during the first strike, but Argento runs out of ideas immediately afterwards, relying on the same trick with exactly zero alteration until the very end.

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Witnessing a murder is bad enough, but the killer/stalker in Opera takes it to another level, tying up Betty and attaching pins to pieces of tape which are then stuck under her eyes, scraping the eyelids if she dares come close to blinking. It’s a superbly sick thing, but it’s the only thing here.

During the first encounter, in which Betty escapes her bindings, it’d be reasonable to assume that the killer would do something to remedy that, but they don’t, and Betty ends up in the same situation three times before they take a different approach. By this point, the method loses its lustre, both because of the ease of escape and because of the movie’s reliance on the tactic.

There’s one instance of variety, though, finding Betty staying inside her apartment to inhibit the killer that’s shattered after a stupid decision. She’s got the advantage here, with her apartment having three locks, a window without a balcony so the killer can’t enter without warning, and Mira on the way. What breaks the immersion is her decision to open the door for anyone but Mira, which does allow for the second-best horror sequence of the movie in which it briefly becomes a siege thriller, but it’s a bad decision that even someone in a state of mind like Betty’s shouldn’t/wouldn’t make.

Gore makes up for the eye stuff losing impact, at least partially. When the killer gets their hands on Betty and those around her, they make their mark with ease via tons of stabbing, bashing, and a gunshot that, while not all that surprising during the scene it occurs in, is creatively shot (no pun intended) and lands on one of the few actual characters the movie has.

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Opera again makes a stark impression but lacks creativity when it needs it the most, with stupid decisions being made more than a couple of times and the lack of attachment to most of the characters, the horror fades quickly.

The Technics: Argento has a great eye (pun somewhat intended) for visuals. He, along with DoP Ronny Taylor (Sea of Love, Cry Freedom), create a sweeping movie that uses its unique setting to the fullest, especially during the (first) finale. From the beginning to the end, Opera is striking in its usage of angles and architecture to create a sense of place. You can see the camera in one scene, though, so it’s not exactly perfect.

When the score uses the titular genre of music, it too is audible bliss, but whenever the killer is present, this switches to rock that doesn’t fit the tone no matter how you slice it. Sound design is great too, with the kills given appropriately nasty sound effects and the environments littered with noise when it makes sense, more of this quality would’ve been appreciated.

Opera fails on most metrics: with character, musical tone, creativity in its scares, and certainly with its plot; but it’s so well shot that it’s enjoyable to watch, and its couple solid scenes don’t hurt either (eyether if you will).

Opera is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms. And if it doesn’t satisfy your taste for blood, FilmTagger has some other suggestions.

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