Saturday, September 26, 2009

#70: Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)

I was a bit tepid about this movie the first time I saw it, but circumstances were different. I had recently seen two of Argento's best movies, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, so Opera suffered in close comparison. Also, Opera wasn't yet available on DVD, so I watched a crappy panned-and-scanned VHS copy. Most damagingly, I watched Opera at perhaps the worst possible time to watch a horror film: a bright Sunday summer afternoon. That's no way to set the mood for giallo, baby. What was I thinking?
Fortunately, this list gave me the chance to see Opera a second time in a beautiful, letterboxed DVD edition on a dark Friday night, and my opinion of the film considerably improved due in no small part to getting the full view of Argento's shot compositions. It also helped to have the knowledge that the film's final scene is a parody of The Sound of Music. It's been a goal of mine to go through life without ever seeing The Sound of Music, so the first time I saw Opera's ending, I was completely baffled.

Dario Argento is a master visual stylist with an expert handling of color, light and shadow, elegant and unusual gliding camera movement, freakishly outlandish and precisely choreographed scenes of extreme violence, suspense, and menace, and eccentric POV shots. He's great at mood and tone, and pretty awful at dialogue, characterization, and narrative drive. In his awesome run of horror and suspense classics from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, he minimized his weaknesses and amplified his strengths to insane heights, but he's had a long slide into mediocrity in recent years, with occasional bright spots. He does nothing with his formerly brilliant color palette, and he spends too much time on ridiculous exposition and dull plot points. Opera contains many of Argento's weaknesses, but it also contains many of his highs and is only slightly less impressive than Argento at his best.

Opera is about an opera company's series of performances of Verdi's Macbeth, and the gloved, masked psycho killer who is stalking the cast and crew. In the opening POV shot, the audience becomes the opera's lead as she has a titanic diva tantrum after one of the hundreds of ravens appearing onstage caws too loudly, interrupting her concentration. She runs out into the street and is promptly hit by a car, breaking her leg. This opening scene was shot from the camera's POV without an actress because Vanessa Redgrave quit the role right before shooting, and Argento had no time to cast a replacement. The diva's understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets the role and knocks it out of the park, attracting the crazed, obsessive killer. Fun fact: Argento said Marsillach was the most difficult actress he'd ever had to direct.
Our psycho killer likes to tie up Betty and tape needles to her eyelids so she can't close them and then kill an opera employee in front of her before letting her go. These scenes are hard to watch if you have squeamishness issues about eyeball torture, yet they are also visually striking and memorable. Argento got the idea for these scenes from a running joke of his. He was irritated about seeing people turn their eyes away from violent or suspenseful scenes during screenings of his films, and he joked about taping needles to their eyelids so they had to watch. That's pretty much the gist of the story, and despite lots of ridiculous dialogue (ex. "Could this be another manifestation of the curse of Macbeth?"), the horror setpieces are spectacularly filmed. The movie is one visual treat after another.

Fun fact #2: Both the Shakespeare play and Verdi's opera have reputations for being cursed. One theory posits that so many productions are plagued with misfortune due to Shakespeare's use of actual, word-for-word ancient curses in the play's dialogue. Once these lines are spoken aloud, the curse is unleashed. My own take on this "curse" is that any play and/or opera that has been performed thousands of times has most likely met with enough anecdotal misfortune to inspire urban legends. Life is full of misfortune and I'm a skeptic so I don't believe this nonsense, but I enjoy the legend anyway. Nevertheless, Opera met with many misfortunes of its own, fueling the Macbeth curse legend's continued appeal. Besides Redgrave's last-minute abandonment of the film, other problems included the death of Argento's father mid-filming, an on-set accident that almost blinded an actress and convinced her that Argento was actively trying to harm her, an off-set car accident involving an actor that broke several of his ribs, Marsillach's constant butting of heads with Argento, and the final screen appearance by Ian Charleson, whose untimely death from AIDS would occur a few years later. I still don't believe in the curse, even though the high school kids I worked with last year who performed Macbeth all died when their school exploded during a performance of Macbeth.*
Opera is well worth seeing if you're an Argento fan. It's definitely the high point of the spotty later portion of his career. It's also plenty creepy if you have a fear of eyeball torture and large birds.
Fun fact #3: Ravens can remember individuals who harmed them, even years later, even if the person only harmed them once. Argento uses this fun fact as an element of his story.

*This fact is possibly a lie.

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