Jan 7, 2020

OPERA (1987)


From the very beginning of his career, filmmaker Dario Argento was on a roll. 1970’s giallo The Bird with Crystal Plumage, his debut, still remains one of the most celebrated films of his career. Subsequently, Deep Red, Suspiria, its semi-sequel Inferno, and Tenebrae would follow, each preserving Argento’s uncannily beautiful skill with the camera and his further exploration of the giallo sub-genre. Following Tenebrae, like many of our beloved horror directors, his work would begin to fall off. Next would come the befuddling Phenomena (starring a very young Jennifer Connelly) and then 1987’s Opera, the second film in the portion of Argento’s career that’s considered gray area — a quasi-limbo each of our celebrated horror directors eventually entered. 

Argento’s Suspiria, or Deep Red — these are commonly accepted as high points, even classics. And every horror director has them. John Carpenter’s Halloween or The Thing, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — all have achieved classic status because they deserve it. But each director would later make films that fell into that gray area where it’s not so much they are beloved because of the films, but because of the director who made them. Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and Romero’s Monkey Shines. None of these are patches on the directors’ earlier classics, but fans love them anyway because of who made them. Basically, call Halloween or The Thing silly in a fanboy’s presence and it’s war. Call Prince of Darkness silly and the response is, “Well…”

If you’ll forgive the long-winded opening, that sums up the enduring legacy of Dario Argento’s Opera. If the direct-to-video platform had been as prominent in the late ‘80s as it would eventually be in the late ‘90s, Opera would feel like it had gone direct to video, or even made for television (despite the violence). Even though it’s made by a proven director, large portions of it feel very workman and frenzied. Argento’s camerawork is still as beautiful and indulgent as ever, but it’s often ruined by the chaotic and unfocused scenes of…well, you name it. Intrigue? Investigation? Anything involving dialogue? Even the murder sequences, something Argento used to excel at, seem cornily rendered, as if he’s a director working outside of his comfort zone, even though up to that point he’d been murdering people on screen for 17 years. For long stretches in Opera, nothing will happen, and then within the span of just thirty seconds, so much will happen that you can feel your brain trying to process all the outlandish information bombarding it. Because of this, you can never just settle into the story and allow Opera’s sense of pacing to carry you along, because it doesn’t really have much of either. Not helping is that, like a lot of Italian productions of this era, Opera was filmed without on-set sound, so all the dialogue was later looped by either the actors themselves or different voice-over artists altogether. Many of Argento’s films and Italian productions in general were made the same way, but Opera bungles that as well. Much of the dialogue is rattled off with either too little emotion or way too much, which leaves the whole film feeling off kilter and strange.

Opera would be the last feature length film that Argento would make that falls into that lawless land of debate as to whether or not it’s worthy of attention. Everything that follows generally falls into the land of “for Argento completists only” where I dare not dwell. (Only the most ardent of Argento’s fanbase can make it through Dracula 3D.) If you’re an Argento fiend, then it's a given this is for you, but if you’re only a casual fan of the director, I definitely wouldn’t buy tickets to this Opera.

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