Thursday, October 30, 2008

Random Movie Report #56: Opera

Link to OPERA DVD on
Dorian at Postmodern Barney has Dario Argento Week up and running, and it inspired me to take a look at one of the Italian horror meister’s films. The most appealing one on the local video store’s shelves was OPERA, a giallo thriller from the late 80s that’s among his better regarded pictures. It’s a break from the supernatural stuff I’ve been watching, but no less eerie and still pretty fun. It occupies a space between suspense thriller and outright slasher flick, often being both at the same time, and it’s comfortable territory for the director.

The action centers around a production of Verdi’s operatic rendition of MACBETH, which like its non-singing counterpart is apparently cursed. (Unlike the play, you can’t circumvent the curse by calling it something else- at least, nobody tried.) At least that’s what it seems like when the female lead, storming out of the theater, is hit by a car. Taking over for the injured soprano is Betty (Cristina Marsillach), a young understudy following in the footsteps of her diva mother, and finally getting her big break. But she’s attracted the attention of a crazed fan, who not only begins killing the people around her but making her watch, capturing her beforehand and taping needles under her eyelids so she can’t close them. After each killing he sets her free, but always manages to track her down again. He’s masked, so obviously she can’t identify him, but she recalls seeing a memory or dream of seeing the figure when she was a little girl and her mother was alive. Whatever it is, it seems a vital clue to what’s happening now.

This is a murder mystery, at least partly, and on that level Dario Argento plays pretty fair. There aren’t a whole lot of suspects and this doesn’t seem to be the kind of mystery where every scene contains a clue to the killer’s identity that in retrospect should seem obvious, but it’s definitely possible to guess who it is. The script doesn’t cheat, and everything gets enough foreshadowing that when it actually appears or happens, it doesn’t seem like it’s been pulled from nowhere. The revelation of the killer is done without much work from Betty herself, and his motivation quickly delivered in a way that’s not wholly satisfying, but then, I’m a fan of big revelation scenes and had higher expectations than most.

As a slasher picture, OPERA plays around a lot with convention. The typical set-up for a slasher movie death involves the victim being isolated and stalked; here, everyone is in the most danger when they’re close to Betty. She has to be captured before the actual killing can take place (with at least one exception), and this lends each death scene a sense of performance that ties in with the operatic motif and the whole idea of horror film as voyeurism that film critics have been writing about since REAR WINDOW. Argento, more than anything, is known as a stylist, and here he manages to find a plot justification for making the murders so staged- the whole thing is a performance, and in that context nothing stretches plausibility too much.

Okay, there’s some business with a bunch of ravens I’m not sure I entirely buy, but it’s kind of cool.

Key to the film working as well as it does is Cristina Marsillach, who is ideal for this kind of role. She projects a very innocent beauty, seeming innately vulnerable and sweet, so of course she’s being preyed upon by some random psychopath. (Argento has an eye for this kind of lead; see also Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA and Jennifer Connelly in PHENOMENA.) It almost goes without saying that the movie looks good, with the kind of polished elegance that was becoming common with late 80s horror as it distanced itself from the grimy carnage of the first part of the decade; there’s a lot of very pretty monochromatic work, and it goes without saying that blood red shows up quite a bit too. The music score is an interesting blend of opera, mood pieces, and Italian trash rock.

So I liked this one. It didn’t completely draw me in, for whatever reason, but it had a few surprises and, despite a slow start, achieved an energetic tone. It can be enjoyed for Argento’s style, for the story, and/or for the metacommentary contained therein, so it’s a film with a few layers to it. Sort of a giallo version of tiramisu, though I’m sure I’m indulging in a patronizing and ethnocentric cliché by comparing an Italian film to Italian food. Whatever. I’ve received my own punishment because now I’m hungry for tiramisu.

Story by Dario Argento
Screenplay by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Directed by Dario Argento

Grade: B+

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