Dario Argento continues his streak of making the world’s best-looking and least-comprehensible horror movies with 1987’s Opera.
Based on his experiences directing a failed version of Verdi’s Macbeth, Argento’s giallo proved less cathartic than he hoped when the production supposedly fell victim to the Shakespearean curse; his father died, Vanessa Redgrave quit before filming began and he fought on-set with his ex (Deep Red‘s Daria Nicolodi). He also called Cristina Marsillach the most difficult actress he ever worked with, though based on his directorial demands this probably cuts both ways. “When you said you’d make me the next Tippi Hedren I didn’t think you just meant throwing birds at me.”
Marsillach plays an opera singer who steps into the role of Lady Macbeth after the star gets run over in a frantic backwards POV shot, throwing us scalp-first into Argento’s world (see also Suspiria) of female performers and violent voyeurs. The picture’s focus is on the eye, which Argento is intent on destroying in every scene; the killer’s method of sticking pins under Marsillach’s eyes to force her to watch his acts of violence came from Argento’s frustration over audiences looking away during his scary scenes, resulting in an image so ingeniously twisted it’s equally impossible to look away.
Not that you’d want to; the cinematography by Ronnie Taylor (who had won an Oscar for Gandhi and met Argento while shooting a Fiat advert) is breathtaking, boasting spectacular camera acrobatics, raven POV shots and an extreme close-up of a bullet shooting through a peephole and into Nicolodi’s eye (an effect that required her to have a small amount of explosive placed on the back of her head, because it’s good for exes to still be friends). The screen literally pulsates with violence and cries with opera, alongside a progressive score by Brian Eno, Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti and the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman.
Argento exploits the opera setting for all its worth, and features a moment where someone’s head gets impaled on a coat peg. His later version of The Phantom of the Opera seems redundant considering he throws everything in here, including the kitchen sink (which gets its own POV shot, naturally). This is awe-inspiring, ambitious filmmaking with more than meets the eye, a nod to The Sound of Music and self-referential inclusion of the critique: “Advice to the director: go back to horror films, forget opera.” But what’s opera if not Argento’s aria of expertise?