Many fans and critics of Italian auteur Dario Argento thought he’d lost it with Phenomena (1985) but were won-over afresh with his next film, Opera, and celebrated his return to form. Some actually consider Opera to be the last of Argento’s great movies and have bemoaned the decline of his career ever since. They have a point. His more recent output has been much less reliable. It must be said that he’s made some interesting films since the mid-1980s, but they tend to be either ‘cheesier’, more commercial, or ploddingly sombre thrillers.
Phenomena was a weird and wonderful outing that centred around a teenage somnambulist who can psychically communicate with insects, later befriends a wheelchair-bound etymologist who uses a chimp as a service animal, and is pivotal in catching a serial killer. Films this imaginative and atmospheric are few and far between, and examples directed with such prowess rarer still. Argento really let his fevered imagination run wild, resulting in his most original and bizarre film. He managed to meld together the two genres he had already mastered: the giallo thriller and the supernatural horror. For me, it was the climax of his career.
With Opera, Argento was back on more familiar ground with a tried-and-tested formula and for anyone with a grasp of Argento’s oeuvre it now seems a tad predictable. A few of his movies feature ‘maniacs’ who’ve suffered at the hands of a cruel woman or witnessed a traumatic childhood incident that scarred them for life. Without giving too much away, I don’t think it spoils anything to confirm that Opera has one or both of these things.
Although very different from each other, Phenomena and Opera stand out as his most personal films: Phenomena because it’s an unadulterated expression of his imagination and philosophically skewed view of humanity; Opera because it’s drawn from the director’s own life experience. Well, partly, at least.
In 1985, Argento had been hired to direct a production of Verdi’s Rigoletto at Teatro Sferisterio. He reinterpreted the characters to introduce themes of vampirism and plenty of perversions and brought in horror film make-up stalwart Sergio Stivaletti. The production company began getting a little hot under the collars when they saw his initial storyboards and designs but let him progress with costume and sets and into rehearsals. It wasn’t until the initial stages of production that the company got scared and decided his plans were too radical.
Argento was replaced, but opera had been in his blood ever since he was youngster accompanying his grandmother to the theatre. The abortive production had given him insight into the backstage machinations of the opera world and whet his appetite. A generous measure of sour grapes was added to his love for the art form and drove him to write a thriller set against this backdrop. Opera presents plenty of opportunities to caricature and lampoon the stereotypes he came across, and to further shock the sensibilities of those stuck-in-a-rut traditionalists who’d hired him for his innovative approach and then fired him for being, erm, too innovative!
The film opens with a fabulous close-up of a grand auditorium reflected in the eye of a raven and this introduces the key motif of the eye. It’s all about eyes and the act of looking. As Argento has said, “cinema is the eye”. The reflected auditorium may be empty, but the audience is present—not in the theatre but in the cinema. From the reflection we go to the point of view of the diva. As rehearsals break down, her temper rises and she throws her shoe at the bird before storming off stage in a tantrum. We get to see the stage director and the rest of the cast and crew through her eyes but, outside the theatre, she doesn’t see the car that knocks her down. Or was she pushed? Either way, she has taken the old theatre idiom ‘break a leg’ a bit too far!
With the diva out of the picture, her young understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) must now step into her shoes as Lady Macbeth. She’s worried by all the superstitions surrounding the role in the ‘cursed’ Shakespeare play and it takes the combined efforts of her agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi), and the director, Marco (Ian Charleson), to talk her round and calm her first-night nerves.
During her debut, we see through someone else’s eyes as the Steadicam tracks through the theatre corridors. There is red in every frame: the corridors are carpeted in red, the velvet curtains, fire extinguishers, and we get the feeling we are now definitely in Argento territory for he often foreshadows bloody death by saturating the screen with reds.
We watch Betty’s performance from the point of view of this mysterious character, and we hear a whispered voiceover proclaiming “you finally returned” before we then witness some sort of trauma through the blue-shifted eye of disjointed memory. A woman stumbles back from the lens in obvious distress whilst, confusingly there seems to be a second woman, bound as a captive audience. The confusing reverie is broken by a theatre usher attempting to eject the onlooker from the theatre box and the scene ends with death by coat-hook to the brainstem. At this point, it seems to be bearing out audience expectations that this would be a remake of The Phantom of the Opera. It isn’t, though he’d get around to that 10 years later!
Betty’s bravura performance is met by audience adulation and she even has her first fan knocking on her dressing room door. He turns out to be the handsome Police Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini) who’s on the scene to investigate the murder of the theatre usher. But her aftershow performance with her boyfriend is not as successful. When the young Stafano (William McNamara) leaves the bed to make a cup of tea, Betty’s grabbed by an intruder who, with practised efficiency, gags her and ties her to a pillar before taping a row of needles under her eyes to prevent her from closing them. She is then forced to witness the bloody slaying of her boyfriend.
Although I haven’t tested it, I have it on good authority that the technique wouldn’t work because the angle of the lower eyelid would incline the needles away from the upper eyelid and wouldn’t prevent them from closing. The idea remains symbolic and grew from Argento’s frustration—why bother with all that elaborate planning, make-up and special effects if the viewer will simply avert their eyes at the gory bits. There’s an ingenious shot here as Stefano is stabbed in the throat and we get a view through his open mouth as the knife blade glints behind his teeth. Ironically this shot was cut from most prints so the murder seems quite quick and clean instead of the drawn-out bloody version that Betty reacts to.
Jennifer Connelly (star of Phenomena) was originally considered for the part of Betty, but Argento was keen to avoid overt reference to his previous film because there were already some common themes. He also wanted an actress he had no previous professional relationship with, so they wouldn’t fall back on friendship in negotiating the difficult scenes he knew were coming. He wanted a newbie that he could be more believably cruel and dictatorial with…
It was a friend of Argento, the famous fashion designer Giorgio Armani, who suggested Spanish actress Christina Marsillach. She’d been acting since she was 13 and though now in her 20s, was still shaking off her reputation as a child star. Her looks were suitably striking and she had beautiful big dark eyes. It’s said that her genuinely ‘diva-like’ attitude didn’t endear her to the crew and her relationship with Argento was fraught from the start. She was perfect for the part!
The killer is in plain sight demanding to be watched, while he in turn watches and clearly gets off on Betty’s horrified responses. She’s presented in bondage as an immobilised, aesthetic object for our viewing pleasure. As with Michael Powell’s brave proto-giallo Peeping Tom (1960), there’s a gendered fascination with a woman’s reaction to seeing death. Sex and violence have become confused and inseparable. Stefano is just the first of a series of victims and Betty is forced to watch people she knows killed right before her eyes but is unable to intervene. She becomes a surrogate for the empathy the audience lacks. We can watch with impunity and at a very safe distance. For Betty the threat is immediate. As the perverse fetish of the killer escalates, she can only surmise that, eventually, it will be her turn to experience death instead of simply looking at it.
Betty’s responses are puzzlingly irrational. Understandably, she runs from the scene and phones the police but doesn’t give her name. She doesn’t find it the least suspicious when she runs into the stage director, Marco, seemingly by coincidence, right after the murder. But the story wouldn’t pan out if she acted like a normal person. Thankfully, it turns out that this isn’t simply the sort of narrative conceit that often crops up in gialli, but there’s an underlying reason for her unpredictable behaviour and descent into madness. Instead of following the police procedural thread, Opera is more focussed on her crumbling sanity. Truly a psychological thriller.
This was to be the final screen role for Ian Charleson, a respected British stage actor whose films had included two consecutive Oscar-winners, Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982). Argento had not initially cast the part to be a pastiche of his own real-life persona, but Charleson said that’s how he approached it. He took his cues for gestures and body language from observing his director on set. Argento admits that when he learnt of this, it made him very uncomfortable though he took the idea on board and changed the ending in order to capitalise on the concept.
Much of the film was shot at De Paolis in Rome—Argento’s favourite studio where many of Lucio Fulci’s films were shot and where the extensive sets for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) were still in situ at the time. Coincidentally, co-writer Franco Ferrini had contributed to the screenplay for Once Upon a Time in America and had already worked with Argento on Phenomena as well as co-writing the screenplays for Lamberto Bava’s two Demons films (1985-86). He would go on to co-write Argento’s seven subsequent movies with the exception, ironically, of Phantom of the Opera (1998).
Opera is less of a romantic fairytale and more preoccupied with crime and cruelty. It’s also a visual tour de force and the director has never been more assured. Argento has always been an innovator, previously using prisms, fibre optics, and medical lenses to get the camera into impossible places—such as inside a screaming mouth. He really impressed with the first notable use of the Louma Crane system in Tenebrae (1982) for a tracking shot that prowls around the outside of a house, voyeuristically moving from window to window, over the roofing slates, down the other side to observe the two women within, like a cat at a birdcage…
The ravens in Opera—which play an absolutely key role in the plot—were thought by many to be a homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Argento maintains they were a tip-of-the-hat to his favourite author, Edgar Allen Poe. But he really wanted to use the birds to give him an excuse to outdo his audacious crane shot in Tenebrae and to literally have a bird’s eye view. He used a new variation of the Louma crane, combined with an experimental ‘sky-cam’, now widely used in sports stadiums. For the memorable and visually stunning climax, the camera swoops and circles high above a terrified theatre audience, filmed at the Teatro Regio in Milan, doubling as the famous La Scala Opera House.
Earlier in 1987, Argento had directed a car advert that had the camera swirling around and through a moving Fiat Croma. He’d accepted the commission so he could develop and experiment with such techniques whilst being funded to do so! The cinematographer on the advert was Ronnie Taylor, a veteran of British cinema who had worked on The Innocents (1961), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), The Devils (1971), Theatre of Blood (1973), Barry Lyndon (1975), Star Wars (1977), and for his work with Billy Williams on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi he won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Technical discussions about Opera had already started whilst making the advert and it seemed natural for Taylor to become director of photography for the film.
Taylor was keen to give Opera varied visual tones using muted or restricted colour palettes. He shot the flashbacks with predominantly blue hues and used paler beiges and creams for the ’normal world’ between the vivid reds and baroque contrasts of the set-pieces to express the heightened emotional state of the characters as they experience delirious arousal or vivid fear. And those set-pieces rival, perhaps surpass anything in previous Argento movies—and that’s really saying something. The scene when Betty and Mira are trapped in a dark apartment and a fantastic series of choreographed events perfectly aligns a gun barrel, a security spy-hole in a door, an eye (of course) and a telephone, is nothing short of stunning.
A scene towards the end, set in the burning basement of the opera house, was in fact shot in an open-air backlot with no roof to the set. This was for obvious safety reasons and so heat would escape quickly and not actually smother the actors with smoke and fumes. Even so, Argento himself doubles for Cristina Marsillach in some of the close-ups and more dangerous shots. Fire and water are prominent elemental forces in nearly all Argento’s films and he has said: “I particularly love fire as the actors give their strongest reaction when they feel they are in danger.”
Two other key components in all of Argento’s thrillers are art and animals and it’s always one or the other that precipitates the villain’s demise. Here it’s the ravens. It has recently been found that ravens possess a comparative intelligence to any of the great apes, second only to humans (and I think that might be debatable!) They have a great capacity for empathy and a developed understanding of reciprocity. Tests have shown that they can remember a particular person who betrays their trust and will hold a grudge against that individual for more than a month. Don’t worry, that’ll make sense when you watch the film.
Argento added a denouement that was later removed from theatrical prints or at least severely curtailed, but in this restored version we can now appreciate its poignancy. In retrospect, it does make a huge difference to the reading of the film and helps make sense of Betty’s character—that’s if you’re in tune with Argento logic. Not wanting to give too much away here, suffice to say that it brings his unique world view to the fore and explicitly links the film with Phenomena. We even see Marco filming the sequence from the first-person perspective when Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) follows the sarcophagus flesh fly at the beginning of Phenomena. It’s clever, self-indulgent and beautiful.
The restored ending alone makes this version a must for any Argento aficionado. Depending which release you’ve seen before (there’ve been a few in different territories) this version contains only between two and six newly-restored minutes, but these change the overall tone. The experience is quite different and, for this reviewer, much more satisfying.
This new Blu-ray from Cult Films is not simply presenting an uncut theatrical print, but fantastically restores Dario Argento’s original vision using his personal archive print as a reference. This full ‘director’s cut’ had only been seen before when he’d brought it along to conventions and special screenings. I was lucky enough to see this version when Argento presented it at one of the legendary all-nighters at London’s Scala Cinema. It had impressed me at the time, but subsequent viewings on VHS and DVD have never lived up to my memory… and now I know why! It’s Argento at his most indulgent, and here that’s not a criticism any more than when a chocolate truffle is advertised as ‘indulgent’…
- ‘Aria of Fear’. A brand new 40-minute interview with director Dario Argento, revisiting his work from a fresh viewpoint. It’s excellent to hear it straight from the maestro’s mouth, and he tells some amusing tales that are best taken with a pinch of salt. Highly informative and entertaining, so long as you’re in tune with his ironic sense of humour and can unpick fact from fiction! (Not all those ravens were caught in the wild, though they may have had their own farmhouse…).
- ‘Opera Backstage’: 45-minutes of behind the scenes footage, without narration, edited together in 2017 by Giovanni Gebbia for presentation here. We get to see the multi-armed crane, suspended in place of the theatre’s great chandelier, and the swooping ‘sky-cam’ in action. There’re some lovely shots of a very happy Argento handling a raven and directing.
- Restoration featurette: an 8-minute side-by-side comparison from raw scan to regraded, restored and reframed final vision. This is really a must for any serious film studies student, it’s an education in how raw footage is cropped and colour-adjusted into the final version and then how that can be restored from original elements when prints have aged and faded.
- 1080p HD from 2k restoration.
Cast & Crew
director: Dario Argento.
writer: Dario Argento (story by Dario Argento & Franco Ferrini).
starring: Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Urbano Barberini, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni & William McNamara.