Opera [a.k.a. Terror at the Opera] (1987)

Dario Argento

Cristina Marsillach - Betty
Ian Charleson - Marco

Urbano Barberini - Inspector Alan S
Daria Nicolodi - Myra

Coralina Cataldi Tassoni - Julia

William McNamara - Urbano

Genre - Horror/Giallo

Running Time - 107 Minutes

As a sometime filmmaker, I get asked that dreaded question that ticks me off quite a bit: Why do you want to direct horror films? By just reading that out of context, it doesn't sound like such a big deal. But when you have people who consider CITIZEN KANE and LA DOLCE VITA the greatest films ever made, they'll present that very question with a condescending tone, as if wondering why anyone would want to make movies involving disturbing and disgusting images to scare people. Even when I tell people that John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN is my favorite film, I get weird and slightly disappointing looks as if they were expecting a better answer. Hey, I love THE GODFATHER as much as anyone else, but I can watch it probably once or twice a year while I could watch HALLOWEEN any time I want and never get bored by it. Some people are just made differently, I guess. But a little respect would still be nice.

In a way, I feel for musical director Marco in Dario Argento's OPERA. Here's a man who is a prolific horror director trying to step out of that genre to create a magnificent opera show with mystery and intrigue. Yet, he still gets no respect for his work because he's a "horror director". It also doesn't help that people keep dying around him and his lead actress, forcing them to live a "real-life" horror movie. But without it, OPERA wouldn't be as entertaining as it is. One of Argento's best and most memorable films, let's see why the fat lady won't be singing any time soon.

An opera, based on Guiseppe Verdi's Macbeth, is being directed by a horror film director named Marco (Ian Charleson). Marco is gaining attention for the production due to his ambitious vision that includes live ravens, laser beams, smoke machines, and magnificent costumes. The production hits a snag when the former lead actress gets injured, leaving Betty (Cristina Marsillach), her understudy, to take over.

Betty is having major issues with this role, mainly because legend says that any theater version of Macbeth is cursed. While some of the production team considers that superstitious, strange things do start to happen right from opening night. For example, someone kills a stagehand and a light fixture almost crushes the nearby audience. Even though both are considered just coincidence, the terror grows as Betty is attacked by this mysterious masked assailant, who ties her up and places needles under her eyes so she can watch the killer do his thing. Eventually, people working on the Macbeth production begin dropping like flies. Will Betty be freed by the insanity of this masked murderer?

OPERA is considered to be Dario Argento's "last great horror film" as a director. While I can't speak for any of his films after OPERA [since I haven't seen them yet], I will agree that OPERA is a great movie that uses the giallo tricks quite well to create memorably tense moments. The movie may not be as good as his classics such DEEP RED, INFERNO, or SUSPIRIA, but the film is definitely a must see for giallo freaks.

As in every giallo, the narrative of the film isn't the strongest or deepest in the world. Watching OPERA for its story would be pretty moot since Argento is more of a visual director than a filmmaker who relies on the words of his screenplay to do the work for him. Still, the narrative does have flaws that keeps OPERA from being truly awesome, even if it's pretty straightforward to follow. For one, the killer's motive seems a bit farfetched, even for giallo standards. As you watch the film, it's easy to see why the killer does what he does - to prove his love to Betty. That's why he kills people that are close to her in someway. That's why he makes her watch his murders. The killer wants Betty's attention and affection, even if he has to torture her to make it happen. It's like Argento himself - he must "murder" in order to impress his audience. In a way, the killer represents any horror director, while Betty represents the horror audience who can't get enough of these grisly scenes on film. It's an interesting metaphor for the horror genre that I believe works well for OPERA.

Apparently, the killer also shares a history with Betty's mom, who was supposedly into sadomasochism - which is why he ties up Betty and make her suffer with needles under her eyes. Even though I understand why the killer is doing these bad things, it just comes across as pretty flimsy and the ending sort of suffers because of it. In fact, that final sequence is just bizarre and doesn't really need to be in the film. It doesn't really add anything to the story but confusion.

Speaking of the killer, it's easy to figure out who this person ends up being. With such a short list of characters that appear in the film, this character just sticks out like a sore thumb. As a matter of fact, when the killer first appears as a civilian, the mystery is gone. I remember watching this film for the first time when I was 11 years old, and even then I figured it out the moment I spotted the killer outside his/her costume. Other giallos craft a better mystery, even if the resolution doesn't make total sense. But at least it manages to keep you guessing. OPERA doesn't manage to do that.

Also, the character of Betty is a pretty weak protagonist. Unlike most horror heroines, especially in Argento's films, Betty doesn't do much of anything but act scared. She doesn't solve the mystery. She doesn't know how to protect herself, allowing others [who may be the killer] take care of her. People around her die and she acts like it's an everyday occurrence. The fact that she's dumb enough to let someone into her home after she's just been attacked and semi-blind due to eye drops makes her a character I can't really root for. Being naive is one thing, but acting stupid is another. Like I mentioned earlier, I get that she represents the audience. But I kind of feel she insults me because she's just so weak and helpless. I have trouble relating to someone like that.

Then again, analyzing the narrative of an Argento film is pretty much a waste of time since he's more focused on creating memorable scenes that will overshadow all the plot holes in the script. And we definitely get some classic moments here for sure. My favorite moment is when one character looks through the peephole and gets a bullet right to the eye and through the back of their head. It just looks awesome and makes the killer look like a total bad ass. In fact, that whole apartment sequence is some of the best work Argento has ever done as a filmmaker. It's so full of tension that you're on the edge of your seat watching it. Another moment is when the seamstress swallows something that will incriminate the killer. The killer finds her, kills her, and cuts the evidence out of her while Betty watches in horror. Wonderfully crafted scenes like these makes OPERA stand out from a lot of horror films. While I will say it's Argento's direction that makes these scenes work, they wouldn't exist if it weren't for a script.

In fact, OPERA is a pretty brutal movie at times with the murders. The make up and special effects team did a fantastic job creating some really gruesome stuff. We get a lot of stabbings, knives going through necks and exiting out of mouths, fun with scissors, bullets through the eye, and even birds pecking at people and pulling out eyes before eating them. For horror fans who like gore and blood, OPERA is definitely a good watch to satisfy that need.

Dario Argento directs a great film here. OPERA is a very surreal film at times and Argento plays that aspect up. We get scenes with very vibrant colors that remind me of SUSPIRIA. We get stylish shots in almost every scene. High angles, low angles, 360 shots, shots not in focus - Argento brings it all. I really love the POV shot from the raven while he flies over the scared audience during the opera. When it starts swooping down, it creates massive amounts of tension. We also get Argento's obsession with extreme close ups on eyes. The first shot of the film is an extreme close up of a raven's eye and it doesn't stop. We get a lot of shots of Betty's eyes, especially when she can't blink due to needles under them. We get shots of the killer's eyes while the rest of his face is covered in a black mask. We get the infamous shot of the bullet going through the eye from the peephole. And a character loses an eye. Argento is obviously portraying the eye as the way to view the horror and terror that the killer is instilling into these characters. They're scared because they see the destruction happening around them. We watch horror films with our eyes, unable to look away at the gore and horrible sights that play in front of us. While sound is a huge factor in making horror films work, they would be nothing without the sense of sight. It's as if taking away our eyes will leave us not only vulnerable, but "dead" in the sense that we can't be horrified by what we see without them.

Speaking of the music, the piano score used is pretty chilling and works to invoke emotion out of the viewer. I love the opera music. It brings a touch a class to what is perceived as a classless genre. However, I didn't really dig the heavy metal soundtrack used here. I love heavy metal and for some films, it can work. But using them during murder sequences is a flawed technique because it doesn't do much of anything for the scene and/or for the viewer. Plus it dates the film heavily, which doesn't help either. Also what was up with those shots of brains and stuff? I wasn't really sure what that was supposed to imply. Was it a reflection of Betty's mental state? Was it a dream sequence? It kind of took me out of the film at times. Still, Argento does a wonderful job creating a memorable film for the most part.

The acting is hard to critique due to the fact that the actors are dubbed, which can make or break even a good performance. Cristina Marsillach is okay as Betty. Not my favorite lead actress in an Argento film, but she does alright with her material. I don't think she acted scared enough for me, because she seemed pretty calm during the film. I'm not sure if that was Argento's decision or Marsillach's, but it wasn't convincing to me. Still, she's a pretty girl and wasn't at all horrible. Ian Charleson as Marco is probably the best actor in the film. He has a quiet charm that makes him very appealing to watch on film. Daria Nicolodi does well with her short, but memorable role as Betty's agent, Myra. She acts like she's somewhat nervous, which I like. And Urbano Barberini, of DEMONS fame, is pretty creepy as Inspector Santini. The rest of the acting was okay and worked in favor of the film.


- "Macbeth brings bad luck." Looks like Mel Gibson made the right move in playing Hamlet instead all those years ago. Obviously, nothing negative is going on in his life...

- Making love supposedly relaxes one's vocal chords. I guess that's why Britney Spears sounds so great live. You would think she was lip synching or something!

- The killer threw an iron to Julia's lower back. That's one way of branding her with a tramp stamp.

- The killer shot a bullet through a peephole to murder Myra while she looked through it. Sometimes it's not worth living up to your name.

- The ravens revealed the killer by attacking this person during a performance. While the killer may not have appreciated it, this attack was just caws.

While it's not his greatest work, Dario Argento's OPERA is still a great giallo even with its flaws. The film has memorable moments, great death scenes, and as usual fantastic direction by Argento. Sure the mystery could have been stronger and some of the characters could have been more interesting, but the movie is still very enjoyable and watchable. You don't need to be a Phantom to enjoy this OPERA.

3.5 Howls Outta 4


  1. Very nice sir. I totally dig this flick, the keyhole death is fantastic.

  2. Thank you sir. The keyhole death is one of my favorite death scenes ever done on film.

  3. Urbano Barabeni's in this!? Well that makes this an IMMEDIATE must-watch then. I will watch anything with him in it, thanks to THE scene in Demons (refraining from spoilers for the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen Demons and wants to experience THE scene in full unspoiled glory)!
    From what I've heard Argento's later The Stendhal Syndrome is pretty good as well.

  4. Yep, Mr. Barberini from DEMONS is in this film as one of the major characters.

    And I also heard that THE STENDHAL SYNDROME was pretty solid as well. But I've never seen it so I can't say for sure.

  5. It's definitely NOT the last great Argento flick (this is undoubtedly the awesome "Sleepless" from 2001 - strongly recommended!), but IMO it's one of his absolute best works.
    Great review!

  6. jervaise brooke hamsterAugust 15, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    Strickly Speaking i think that Dario Argento is a ludicrously over-rated bloody load of old rubbish, the only good things about him are his rampaging heterosexuality and the fact that he isn`t British. By the way, he did produce a gorgeous daughter as well of course, although her looks are fading quite badly now at age 36, but when Asia was 18...WOW...WOW...WOW.


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