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Review: ‘Opera’ (1987) – Panic! At the Opera House



Review: 'Opera' (1987) - Panic! At the Opera House

One of the best tools a storyteller can have is the ability to make the audience lean in. Picture a tale told around the campfire. In a perfect world, the night would be chilly, and all the listeners would be huddled around the fire for warmth. The storyteller uses hushed tones, letting their words blend into the nighttime outdoor sounds. Maybe some crickets chirp. Maybe something is howling off in the distance. The person telling the story, though, stays quiet, forcing the audience to pay close attention. As the action rises, the listeners come closer. The anticipation builds, everyone is at the edge of their seat. Silence. And then THE WORST THING IMAGINABLE HAPPENS!

Whatever this big scare is at the end of the story, it’s only as big as the rest of the story was not. We have to be drawn forward, past our guard. We have to be made vulnerable. A great teller of scary stories is like a pied piper, leading us almost against our best interest. There’s a seduction, and we leave behind our guile for the promise of something exciting. It’s a bait and switch. And when we set aside our better judgement and engage fully, it’s then that the curtain can be ripped back to reveal the terrible thing, the worst thing imaginable. It’s then that we can really and truly be scared.

One movie that does a great job of luring us in with a careful bait and switch is Opera from 1987. Opera is a movie directed by Dario Argento, an Italian filmmaker with a long career full of important, innovative movies. Opera comes after a full 15 years of genre work. If he were a carpenter, this movie would be an ornate armoire, built with the attention to detail and steady hand of a master craftsman.

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The film is beautiful. Ornate might be the best word. The sets and costumes are perfect. The camerawork is intricate in an attention-drawing way. This is film and filmmaker as one, with direction that purposefully pulls awareness toward what the director is doing. It’s ornate, it’s beautiful and it’s all a clever misdirection before some very lurid events.

As a story, Opera couldn’t be simpler. A woman is pursued by a mysterious slasher. It’s straightforward enough; this is a plain canvas onto which an accomplished artist can create a masterwork. It’s also the kind of story Argento was an expert in telling. This is typical giallo stuff, and Argento was a maestro of these black-gloved killer stories. By keeping the story simple, Argento allows his embellishments to flourish, and each flashy detail is all the more eye-catching.

Cristina Marsillach is Betty, the understudy in a production at the Parma Opera House. She knows all the lines and has the voice to replace the lead should anything go wrong. The first clue that anything might be is the fact that they’re performing Macbeth, a play notorious for bringing bad luck backstage. Now granted, the cast and crew are rehearsing and performing Verdi’s Macbeth, an opera, but it doesn’t take long to see the same superstitions apply. Almost immediately, the opera’s lead, a powerhouse, high-note-hitting diva is hit by a car and taken out of commission. So now Betty is thrust into the spotlight, with this huge production resting on the shoulders of her Lady Macbeth.

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Just this brief bit of setup is conveyed to us in such a fun way. We’re introduced to the production through the point-of-view of the soon-to-be-sidelined Mara Cecova, the star of the show. Instead of seeing Mara, we’re shown everything from her eyes, up to and including her fateful step into oncoming traffic. It’s incredible. The timing in the choreography to get this shot alone is mind-boggling. Right away we’re shown some formal filmmaking techniques that match the showy adornments of the theater the opera gets staged in.

Now it’s Betty’s turn to step it up and carry this entire opera. Talk about pressure. But that’s not the worst of it. She’s barely comfortable  before things take a violent and creepy turn. Here’s where that bait and switch occurs. Argento is so careful in presenting everything in this classy, artful package that it’s way more jarring when something dangerous happens.

There are these ravens that are associated pretty heavily with Lady Macbeth, and the production has about fifty of them trained for the show. You can tell that these ravens are some sort of thematic symbol the way they keep popping up over and over again. They’re definitely a bad omen, and it only gets worse when this bad guy breaks into the theater and trashes the backstage area. The guy kills three or four ravens and he ruins Betty’s costume.

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This bad guy, it should be noted, is firmly in line with the giallo tradition of black-gloved killers. He stalks his prey like they always do in this kind of movie, and does a great job of keeping his face, and his identity, hidden.

This shadowy murderer is what makes Opera so shocking. His modus operandi may fit in with the rest of the giallo subgenre, but it does not fit with the artful, almost tasteful movie we’ve been shown so far. And that’s Argento’s real strength here. Because he builds up so much through set design and careful camera movement, he is then able to fully plunge into this grisly action. And oh boy, it is violent.

For all the high-art accoutrements Opera offers, it’s violence feels like exploitation. It’s wonderful. Pure shlock-y goodness, rendered gorgeously by someone who really knew how to get the best out of an image. One of the most striking of these moments of brutality will stay with you after the movie ends. The killer, not happy to just inflict simple bodily harm on his prey, ties Betty up and forces her through the trauma of watching him ruin Betty’s friend. Why doesn’t Betty close her eyes? The killer has taped needles to her eyelids, so she can’t even blink as he carries out his vicious plan.

If you’d enjoy a movie where high-art aspirations meet grindhouse thrills, Dario Argento’s Opera is available to stream for free on Tubi and Vudu. It is also available to stream with Amazon Prime.