Sunday 13 January 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #3 - Opera aka Terror at the Opera (Italy 1987: Dir Dario Argento)

"It's the opera. Macbeth brings bad luck!"

Dario Argento's much maligned and misunderstood Opera had a very inauspicious beginning, to put it mildly. The movie was a total failure at the box office in Italy on first release, mainly because the distributors cut a lot of the violence from the original film, hoping to appeal to a wider and younger audience - the very audience who would have been more likely to see the thing in the first place if it had retained the gore! So the gamble didn't pay off and people stayed away in droves: when it was exhibited at Cannes in 1988 the film continued in its ignominy, with the traditionally tough festival audience deriding the hideous dubbing that distracted from the story.

The film was subsequently released as Terror at the Opera (the version which I first saw at London's Scala cinema at their Horror and Cult Film preview Festival in 1990, and which had even more cuts added to the original - unreinstated - ones, including the removal of some narrative scenes which made it occasionally rather incomprehensible). Orion, the distributors, clearly did not know what to do with it, and as a result never effectively promoted the movie.

Career wise Opera came at an odd time in Dario Argento's career, sandwiched between his 1985 movie Phenomena and a bizarre TV show called 'Giallo', cancelled after one season, which sounds like an Italian version of the 1970s UK TV series 'Whodunnit', in which a panel watch short films about murders (directed by Argento and Lamberto Bava, among others) and have to guess who did it - now that I'd like to see.

On a personal note I have a particular fondness for this film, as my review of the festival in which Terror at the Opera was screened was my first published piece of writing (in John Gullidge's superb magazine 'Samhain') so it feels that I've come full circle in finally getting to see the movie, as Argento, originally intended, via the new CultFilms release, complete with original title.

Cristina Marsillach as Betty, destined to see everything in Opera
For those who have not seen the film, its plot is simple, and probably the least remarkable thing about it.

An Italian opera company is mounting a lavish version of Verdi's 'Macbeth;' but when the star diva is run over by a car outside the theatre (a role originally to be played by Vanessa Redgrave, who walked before filming could begin, necessitating Argento to use a series of PoV shots to avoid actually showing the singer), pretty understudy Betty (a game Cristina Marsillach) is asked to step into the lead. But Betty is being stalked by a be-gloved mysterious killer, who seems very keen for her to see him at work, via a rather sadistic device of a row of needles taped under her eyes, forcing her to keep them open. First he knifes her boyfriend to death in front of her, then takes out the company's wardrobe mistress. What is the strange connection between Betty and the killer, and can suave police inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) solve the case before the murderer strikes again?

Opera is less interesting for what goes on in the film than how it's depicted. Argento's love of Hitchcock is clearly to the fore, both literally (the production uses real ravens which at one point go on a very The Birds style pecking spree) and metaphorically. Opera is a movie about watching, whether it's the audience viewing the opera, Betty being forced to view the killer at work, or the camera gently gliding around observing the cast. Some rather clumsy scenes hint at the psychological denouement of the film (including a rather poor model of a throbbing brain) but overall Opera looks sumptuous and stately - there are distinct Peter Greenaway touches here - and yes the dubbing is much better. The transfer is glorious, and the film has never looked better. It's by no means Argento's finest work, but this version does restore some cohesiveness to the storytelling, even if the heavy metal elements soundtrack do sound a little dated.

CultFilms releases Opera on Dual-Format Blu-ray & DVD and VOD 21 January 2019. Extras include:

Aria of Fear : A brand new candid interview with director Dario Argento
Opera Backstage : A detailed, period documentary showing Argento making Opera (40 minutes)
Restoration featurette on the process from raw to scan to the re-graded, restored final vision


  1. Terrific stuff David. I revisited the film in 2016, and was more lukewarm about it than previous screenings. Having said that, the Blu-Ray is very tempting, for the improved transfer (I have the 2003 Arrow disc) and the 44min Opera Backstage footage. I'm sure most Argento fans would consider Phenomena the lesser work but for me that film looks better and better with each passing year. Lovely to hear a mention for Samhain. Which issue was your review in, I still have a few issues left in my attic.

  2. Thanks Wes. To be honest I probably wouldn't have sought this one out but for getting a review copy - as I get older I find Argento increasingly guilty of style over substance - but it's a pretty audacious piece and the crow wrangler certainly had their work cut out for them. Can't remember the 'Samhain' issue - it's one with Chucky on the cover - early 1990.