Studio: Scorpion Releasing (via Doppelganger Releasing/Music Box films)
Release date: January 23rd 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
During his prime, Dario Argento made films that don’t feel like they’re of this planet. Rather, they seem to hail from some netherworld whose chief export is waking nightmares—you don’t watch these Argento pictures so much as they electrify your synapses with a nightmarish cacophony of sex, sleaze, and violence. Like any bad dream, they create the sensation of drowning: you find yourself almost suffocating beneath the feverish non-logic and unrelenting savagery to the point where you simply have to surrender to them. Such is certainly the case with Opera, a film widely (and rightfully) considered to be the maestro’s last great work; taken in that context—and particularly when you consider his work for the past 30 years—it’s easy to see it as Argento emptying the tank, so to speak: if Phenomena was the crescendo to his golden era, then Opera is his stab at a frenzied coda that gave him the last word on the 80s slasher movement.
Of course, such a movement owed at least some of its existence to Argento, who helped to turn slash-and-stalk into a cottage industry with a string of gialli films that solidified a formula that had mostly become stale in America by this point. You can almost sense Argento’s disdain for this in Opera, a film that practically feels experimental in its reduction of said formula to its base parts. It’s almost as if he surveyed the decade’s carnage and vowed to deliver the sex and violence audiences craved, even if it involved unmooring them completely from a traditional plot.
Argento’s commitment to disorientation and nonsense is evident immediately, as his camera opens on a frantic scene that finds the camera jittering around, obliquely capturing an opera diva’s meltdown during rehearsal. From her point of view, we watch as she storms out of the theater in a confounding scene that features dismayed crew members and a flock of ravens looking on in bewilderment before the poor lady is smashed by a car. Before viewers can even process what the hell’s just happened, they’re whisked away to the apartment bedroom of Betty (Christina Marsillach), the understudy on the production who now finds herself in a starring role as Lady Macbeth. Her hesitation about taking over the role in an opera version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play is quickly forgotten when she proves to be a huge, overnight success. Rave reviews fundamentally change her life but also raise her profile: soon enough, her fears about partaking in a cursed production prove true when a psychopath emerges hellbent on killing everyone around her as Betty is forced to watch helplessly.
As its title suggests, Opera is charged with an over-the-top, theatrical flair that infuses this murder mystery with a dazzling sense of style. Critics often lobbed the “style over substance” barb in Argento’s direction, and this feels like the director practically flinging it back. “So what?” you can almost hear him ask during every pan, tilt, and zoom that maniacally captures the film’s lurid proceedings. In an interview accompanying the film, Argento claims to have had a love affair with the camera throughout his career, and it never felt more torrid than it does here, as every sequence is an opportunity to enthrall and repulse with equal measure. Arguably, that’s been one of the guiding forces throughout Argento’s career, as few have been able to render stark violence and sleaze with such extraordinary beauty.
Opera is a magnum opus in this respect especially. You sense that Argento measured up his slasher competition and set forth to obliterate it with the deranged death sequences here. By this point, this genre had all but devolved into an exercise inviting the audience to marvel at how awfully on-screen victims could be dispatched, so Argento embraces and indulges the notion fully. This is how you end up with incredible gore sequences and inventive shots of blades stabbing right through a victims’ face, a coat-hook penetrating a skull, and scissors tearing through flesh, all captured in horrifying, ghastly close-ups that practically force the audience to confront the nastiness before them. It’s an approach that leads to Argento staging one particularly jolting coup de grace that finds a bullet exiting a chamber in slow motion before it blasts through someone’s head. Neither Argento himself nor the slasher genre is general were rarely quite as repulsive, gratuitous, and artful as they are in these incredible moments of enthralling violence.
For Argento, such violence was both transgressive and transformative, and Opera practically literalizes this notion with a killer who’s obsessed with the very idea of witnessing bloodshed. In fact, the film’s most indelible image features Betty tied up, with small razors affixed over her eyes, capable of shredding them if she so much as blinks. While Opera doesn’t feature the overt metafictional implications of Tenebrae, it’s interesting to see Argento once again preoccupied with the act of indulging and watching violence. One could easily imagine the killer to be a surrogate for a director, who has similarly held an admittedly less captive audience over the years and subjected them to endless streams of death and dismemberment. It’s not enough for this psychopath to cause mayhem—he wants others to watch, too, which might say a lot about Argento himself.
Certainly, the director seems most preoccupied with sweeping the audience up in a maelstrom of violence in lieu of crafting a signature giallo plot. Intricacy and murder mystery intrigue are secondary concerns, as the script barely feigns at clues or red herrings: there is instead a breathless desire to rush to the next murder sequence, with seemingly little mind paid to uncovering the killer’s identity. Most characters exist as mincemeat, though some—like frequent Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi—prove to be memorably eccentric nonetheless. Marsillach is a captivating lead, too, as raven-haired ingénues were to Argento what blond bombshells were to Hitchcock: starlets who must endure the full brunt of the directors’ bizarre preoccupations, yielding characters that are equal parts plucky, vulnerable, and, above all, alluring. Even when she’s tasked with absolute nonsense—like the bizarre reaction her character has to seeing her boyfriend (William McNamara) slaughtered—Marsillach remains a solid anchor amidst the blood-soaked chaos.
Or she’s the closest thing, at least; eventually, Opera becomes so unhinged that it’s consumed with its own nonsense. Calling it a police procedural is being generous since Argento pulls a wild resolution out of his hat that no one in their right mind would identify as a sensible approach to uncovering a maniac’s identity. But who cares when it eventually leads to someone’s eyeball dangling from the mouth of a raven that’s been let loose during a hellacious climax? Besides, you don’t go to an Argento film to be in your right mind. You go to lose it in the madness of a fevered brain that’s disinterested in simply walking through the motions, even when it’s indulging the formula. Slashers practically demand the clichéd moment when the “dead” killer is revealed to be very much alive, and Argento obliges with an elaborate, over-the-top riff on this theme.
To the end, Opera is no mere descent into madness: it’s a delirious spiral into a cinematic fugue state that refuses to relent at any point. When the credits begin to roll, you find yourself in the same state you were at the beginning: dazed, dazzled, and completely unable to avert your eyes from the carnage.
Despite its reputation as Argento’s last great film, Opera has been strangely elusive on Blu-ray, at least until now since Scorpion Releasing has prepped not one, but two separate editions. The first—which is being widely distributed by Doppelganger Films—is the sort of economical offering of the two, as it only features the English soundtrack (in both DTS-MA 5.1 and mono options), trailers, and a couple of interviews. One is a 20-minute sit-down with Argento himself, who discusses his career in general before explaining how Opera came to fruition (remarkably, it involves a Fiat commercial he filmed in Australia). McNamara appears in the other interview, which becomes a 10-minute grab-bag of various recollections from filming Opera: he notes his disappointment in being dubbed, not to mention the fact that he wasn’t always paid on time (which became a source of tension when he had an opportunity to film another movie Stateside). It’s mostly a fond reminiscence, though, as he was complimented by Quentin Tarantino, who counts Opera among his favorite movies. Not bad.
While the edition Scorpion is set to release later this year will boast multiple cuts of the film, the Italian language track, and more extras, this is a terrific disc nonetheless. Most importantly, it boasts a painstakingly restored, extensively color-corrected 2K transfer that restores the film to dazzling, vivid glory. Longtime fans will be happy to finally trade out their worn-out DVD copies, no matter which edition they eventually spring for. Even better, Opera is among the first of several high-profile Italian-horror releases set for this year, including The Sect (!), The Church, and more Argento titles. Just when you thought the cult home video market didn't have much more to offer, 2018 looks to be another banner year.
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