As far as many are concerned Opera made in 1987 is the last film truly deserving of director Dario Argento’s auteur status. It also saw the end of the golden era for Italian genre cinema which was rapidly in decline and about to plummet. The golden years which had run from the late 60’s and seen countless films, many of them still being discovered by a new breed of fan today with the advent of the high definition format, were over. The studios had simply run out of money, the writers ideas and the directors the means of bringing their wild visions to the screen. This was the death of the Italian giallo, horror and indeed splatter era of cinema. Some persevered and you can clearly see the drop in quality in films from the likes of Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava, Bruno Mattei and Umberto Lenzi whilst others such as Ruggero Deodato simply seemed to give up rather than bang their heads into a bloody pulp against a brick wall. It was only really understudy to many of the greats Michele Soavi who seemed to prosper and get things right as we moved into the 90’s with The Church, The Sect and Cemetery Man really closing the door with a definite and resounding clang. As far as Argento was concerned, he was not one to give up and like Fulci (until his death) carried on. I have a soft spot for films such as The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) due to the fact that he refused to attempt anything resembling commerciality and it retained the inventiveness and production values that we had come to expect from him but there’s no excusing complete failures such as The Card Player 2004 Giallo 2009 and Dracula 3D 2012 and with talk about new film The Sandman being in development for what seems like ages we wonder if he will ever be back on a screen in front of us.
Back to happier times though and Opera was a route that seems almost destined for the director to tackle after already turning the innocent art-form of ballet into an orgy of terror and brutality with his seminal Suspiria in 1977; the less said about the recent remake of that the better. Not only is Shakespeare’s Scottish play revered in any form it is also said to be cursed and productions of it often lead to all manner of strange and disastrous occurrences. When giving Argento free reins to interpret Verdi’s Opera of it you know it is all going to end in a right old bloody mess. Indeed before the opening night, the prima-donna star of the performance throws a wobbly due to the ravens integrated into the performance upstaging her and is promptly run over fleeing the venue. We never actually see her just follow her passage via the camera lens in typical Argento flair. It is left to her young understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) to take on the part and although nervous it is pointed out Lady Macbeth was played by singers as young as 17. Bolstered by encouragement from the play’s director Marco (the late great Chariots Of Fire / Ghandi actor Ian Charleson) would be boyfriend Stefano (William McNamara) and agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi) she nervously takes the stage and blows everyone away at the opening performance. Unfortunately there is a crazed black glove clad killer stalking her and during the show the first victim is slaughtered and definitely will not be the last.
The balaclava wearing killer takes further victims and does so by capturing Betty, tying her up and making her watch the slaughter by taping needles under her eyes so if she blinks she will rip her eyelids to pieces. Once he has done so the shaken girl is freed and set up for the next bought of slaughter which the police led by Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) seem incapable of solving. To say the killings are over the top and hideously inventive would be an understatement, I’m not going to spoil them for you but be prepared for wild excess. You may also have noticed the inclusion of muse and by now ex –wife of the director Daria Nicolodi in the cast, lets also just say that he really shows his love for her after recently separating here too. Visually and sound wise the quality here is excellent, the audio originally recorded in THX is loud and emphasises the operatic parts and the sinister caw of the ravens brilliantly. Continuing a trick developed in Lamberto Bava’s Demons 1985 and his own Phenomena the same year Argento makes good bedfellows of slaughter to 80’s speed metal and you get the full power of bands such as Steel Grave making songs such as Knights Of The Night sound like true mayhemic bangers. Visually overseen by the director the 2k restoration continues on from the success of Cult Films Suspiria release and looks fantastically vibrant. One scene that particularly brings this to life is that of costume designer Giulia’s (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) work room which really has the spectre of the great works of Mario Bava draped throughout; visually stunning.
Sure sub-plots, red herrings and all the other accoutrements of Argento’s trade may leave you gasping in disbelief at times here but the film certainly takes you on a wild ride which you can’t help but enjoy even if you are not a fan of opera itself. The inventiveness of Argento’s camera work, looming shots, trailing bird’s eye views and some staggering scenes following the killer through Betty’s flat and tracking them in the midst of a show as the majesty and splendour of The Parma Opera House are second to none and the visual flair of the director cannot be faulted. All these facets made me fall in love with the film in the first place. Reading about it in fanzine In The Flesh I had to see this film and thankfully The long lost Scala Cinema provided a premiere. One watch and I knew that censorship being what it was at the time would not allow the film a release in the UK in in an uncut format. It was not long before a bootleg copy was secured along with full size poster (still on my wall in much less fresh condition than when I purchased), t-shirt and Cinevox soundtrack. Orion films eventually released Opera on VHS in 1991 unsurprisingly cut by 47 seconds and it was not until 2002 when it could be seen fully on DVD via Arrow films. So it’s only taken 31 years to reach where we are today and see the film properly in all its gory stylish glory, something I naturally encourage you to do at the first possible opportunity.
After taking an intermission for a gin and orange or two it’s onto the extras. First up is a 45 minute making of featurette backstage b-roll footage. This concentrates on the complex work shooting in the opera house where the ravens are particularly fascinating to watch, setting up special effects, make up and gore gags and seeing el maestro Argento at work. Aria Of Fear is an interview with the director about the film and runs for 40 minutes. It’s packed with information including the genesis of how he got involved on what he describes as one of his favourite films and what drew him to a love and appreciation of opera itself. True to form he says that there were a lot of incidents during production and it was a very demanding film to make. Naturally it’s the working with animals side of things that I was interested to hear about and there are anecdotes of ravens disturbing future performances in the theatre as a few had escaped and made homes there and one particularly clever one was even talking saying things like “action” and “cut” on set. It wasn’t the animals that were difficult to work with however but 18 year old Marsillach. Hearing about all this put a bit of a different twist on my admiration for the film. Finally we get a short comparison section detailing the restoration process so you can see the work that has been put into this. Needless to say my Anchor Bay import DVD is going to be retired with full honours.
NB although early orders from Cult Films have been sent out general release of Opera is scheduled for the 21st January. Keep those eyes pinned back for then.