Terror at the Opera (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson brothers experience Terror at the Opera, as they go compare...
Arrow continue to be good to genre fans with a sense of taste and distinction, and we arrive at a pretty corking package with their two-disc edition of Dario Argento’s 1987 movie Opera.
Macbeth has always brought bad luck on those associated with it, and a production of it taking place in Rome is about to find out that the curse surrounding the Bard’s celebrated play is agonisingly real. Thrust into the central role after an accident befalls their Prima Donna, the innocent Betty sees murder and mayhem all round her, as a deranged fan guides her career from the shadows, but is there more to the new diva than she lets slip?
We won’t go too much into the nature of the plot, as many reading will be more than familiar with it, and those who haven’t watched it will have it spoiled for them, and we’ll be damned if we want to shout ‘surprise’ before the unwary has even walked through the door and flipped the light on. Let’s just whet your appetite by saying that it’s a heady brew which could have been concocted in the cauldron of the Three Witches itself: perversion, murder, vengeful ravens, bondage and maternal sin. With Argento at the helm, it’s terror at a perfect pitch.
There is no question that memorable films are born through adversity, with the struggles that befall the artist driving them on to create something which will be both remembered and appreciated. Francis Ford Coppola went through Hell to produce Apocalypse Now, George Lucas practically gave himself an ulcer as cast and crew turned against him whilst filming Star Wars. Joel Schumacher described one of his Batman movies as ‘the most fun [he’s] ever had at work’. Star Wars Episode I was a breeze for Lucas. In this respect, it is no surprise that Opera is one of Argento’s most personal and successful projects. His father, Salvatore, died not long into production, and this plagued Dario throughout the filming, bringing him at even greater loggerheads with star Christina Marsillach, with screaming matches between the two tempestuous artists erupting as a result.
Many would attribute the bad luck to the very fact that the movie revolves around the staging of Macbeth, known as a magnet for accidents and generally jinxing those associated with it. ‘The Scottish Play’ here comes courtesy of Verdi, but with a car accident nearly killing one of the leads, financing problems and the famous walking out of Vanessa Redgrave over money, but whatever combination of elements were responsible, Opera remains one of the best and—curiously—under-appreciated work from Argento. We have heard various opinions from either Dario fans or general enthusiasts of the genre as to why they are rather cool on the movie, ranging from ‘…too unfocussed…’ through ‘…there are too many characters…’ right down to the depressing quote that: ‘…it’s all about opera…’. Jesus. In any case, Opera is a movie which is one to be rediscovered, and its many pleasures unlocked by virtue of the passing of time.
There is no question that the sequence which gets the most uncomfortable reaction has to be the murder of Giulia, the wardrobe mistress. When she discovers a crucial piece of evidence which reveals the killer, said psychopath tries to take it back, but doesn’t realise that our lady with the thread is a fighter, and knocks him out with an iron. Physically unmasking her attacker, he springs and finishes her off. OK, so we expected her not to last long after discovering his identity, but the crucial jewellery slips from her dying grasp and into her mouth. The assassin probes her mouth with a large pair of scissors, the metal clacking against her teeth as he goes, but is unable to retrieve it. In desperation, it uses the blades to cut into the base of her neck, ultimately regaining the damning evidence. Dental horror is nothing new for Argento (see Profondo Rosso for the ultimate example), but the cutting into the throat produces a squirm in an audience every time, and is one of the most vivid murders in Dario’s body of work.
After reading the above description, you might be inclined to believe some of the words which have been expended over the years concerning Opera being the ultimate expression of the misogyny which many accuse Argento of. Instances of Betty being tied and forced to witness horrific events are many, and even watching violent images before her eyes without the impediment (or excuse) of being tied up. Having had numerous dalliances with the S&M scene, there have been a few times where imagery from Opera has been seen on clothing worn by enthusiasts, some probably not even knowing where the images are from. It can’t be denied that the women of Opera are bound so easily, hardly putting up a struggle to create a beautiful picture of torment. With the case of Betty, it is probably through a subconscious desire to be bound, stemming from the almost repressed memories of her mother experiencing pleasure in the same manner. OK, let’s not go on about a certain sequence with a nude actress planned to be filmed in the rain, but many of these accusations of misogyny are from Daily Mail types with nothing better to culture an ulcer about.
Due to the cumulative weight of all the exotic trappings and elements woven into its fabric, there are many who don’t immediately identify Opera as being of the Giallo genre. The name of the movie alone and much of the time spent on stage performing the titular musical styling makes you forget that the story centres on a madman bumping off those working in the theatre. The psychosexual back-story further clouds the purity of the Giallo, but in the case of Opera, it just adds a richness and depth to the overall film. It is this which puts Opera near the top of Argento’s cinematic achievements, with only Suspiria, Profondo Rosso and Inferno eclipsing his 1987 opus.
The black-gloved killer is the staple of the genre, with Argento the man who really brought it to the fore all those decades ago, but with Opera, the fetishist element running through it extends right down to this important element. The gloves here are almost of a PVC material, stretching and reflecting any light which dare stray upon them, and you can almost hear certain sections of an audience bringing themselves to a frothy conclusion at the sight of these masochistic mittens. The knife wielded by the killer is also unlike any other in Dario’s movies, and is a blade as if god himself had forged it after creating the heavens and the Earth, when wondering what to do with his day off. The visual impact of the weapon is one which has any prey begging to be impaled up to its gorgeous hilt. The sadomasochistic theme running throughout Opera leaves no surprise as to why the hands and weapon of the killer are so exquisitely rendered.
Like the gloves, certain other elements reverberate around the genre, used by all manner of directors, and one of the strongest here is an insane killer dedicating a murder to someone. New York Ripper saw ‘The Duck’ slaughtering the prostitute mistress of the detective chasing him, but as deranged as that was, Opera manages to top it. Betty is bound by her ‘fan’, and forces her to watch as her boyfriend—practically still wiping things off after a bout of bedroom callisthenics—is stabbed to death with the mother of all knives. He pitifully flays about trying to defend himself, his flesh gouged open as the killer peers through the fresh wounds. Of course, we haven’t even mentioned that Betty’s eyes have been forced open with a row of needles taped under them, where just a mere blink or flinch will rip her eyes asunder.
It’s not giving anything away to mention that the finale sees Betty blindfolded and tied to a chair as the room she is in is burning down around her. This in itself is another fetish staple, admittedly taking the concept of sensory deprivation and thrill-play to their ultimate conclusion. The killer unusual for Argento in that he wears a hood, rather than just keeping a low profile, with only Four Flies on Grey Velvet being the other instance, but the use of a hood in sadomasochistic play is another staple. OK, we keep banging on about it, but it is central to the story.
Speaking of conclusions, the final scene takes place in Switzerland, an area Argento fans will instantly recognise as that seen in Phenomena. This is all very nice, but it’s a real mind-scrambler when you realise that a certain character is decked out in almost the same clothes as Jennifer Connelly wore in Dario’s previous movie. We won’t say any more—for those who haven’t seen it—but we really don’t have a problem with the conclusion in the way many others have. The character is simply excommunicating herself from human society, which you can understand given the circumstances and misery she has endured. The coda seems to be a final spurt of the fantasy elements Argento revelled in from Suspiria through to Phenomena, and we can’t deny him a last dalliance with the genre which served him so well.
In spite of the fact that Christina Marsillach is right up there with Tony Musante on Argento’s list of actors he’d happily strangle, she really is the star of the show here. Her performance is nothing short of captivating, being able to completely convince that she is a meek, nervous understudy, terrified of the lead role dropped into her lap. Her torment both at the hands of her deranged fan and the demons of her past give her the drive to survive, at no time coming across as a typical ‘tough chick’, the route so easily taken. Her diva-like attitude to Argento clearly translated to the finished film, as she takes centre stage of both screen and the theatre with complete conviction. An excellent performance.
No way in Hell can we go singing the praises of Opera without mention of DP Ronnie Taylor‘s wonderful cinematography. His work in Phenomena seems restrained by comparison, and is a highlight of the film as a whole. The camera glides and creeps so smoothly as to suggest that the British Mr Taylor is some kind of part-man, part-camera cyborg. The Louma crane work in Tenebre was impressive enough, but the dazzling camerawork here is more organically worked into the script, and it’s only watching a decent, widescreen copy of Opera which allows you to fully appreciate the incredible raven’s-eye view as it flaps its way around the opera house with vengeance on its mind.
The 80s were a strange time for Argento, as the soundtracks to some of his movies were almost mix-tapes of the emotions flashing through his head. The likes of Andy Sex Gang and Iron Maiden contrast sharply with the dreamy tones of Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor, and to some, it jarred them enough to take them out of the movie. We agree with this to some degree, with the most unforgivable example being Donald Pleasance’s body being taken away to a shoehorned track from Motorhead, but trait had been tamed by the time Opera was mixed, although the ravens’ descent to the stains of heavy metal teeters on the edge of diminishing the effect. Otherwise, Claudio Simonetti’s score is another excellent addition to his discography, either making the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention like parade-ground squaddies or sending you into a trancelike state with the smoothest of rhythms.
Part of having partners in your life is having to sit through their movies, and with one of us having a fiancée who loves the Saw movies (and refuses to see the steep decline after the first one) it annoyed that one of the crowd-pleasing killings in Saw II is blatantly pinched from the celebrated murder of Daria Nicolodi in Opera. She hasn’t seen an Argento movie yet, but is sniffing around my copy of The Card Player—which has a certain similarities to Saw. I’ll educate her yet—or I’ll have the bloody ring back…
Although the packaging titles it as ‘ Terror at the Opera’, the main feature is correctly presented as ‘ Opera’. The shorter, US edit retains the longer moniker as marketed by Orion Pictures. In any case, you might have gathered that we are enthusiasts for Argento’s labour of tears, but with something as cherished as fine Gialli, the quality of the presentation will make or break this two-disc set. Let’s take a look and see if the curse of Macbeth is finally broken.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 image is pretty damn nice, and—to be perfectly honest—is extremely similar to the Anchor Bay release from a good few years ago. The colours are strong, and will satisfy anyone who has plunked down their money for Dario’s mistreated masterpiece. The image on the US edit is similarly impressive, with the colour pallet a little pinker at some points.
The sound is where things get a little weird. The international version comes with a choice of three tracks, these being 5.1 English, 2.0 English and 2.0 Italian—with optional English subtitles! Having heard the three together, we have to say that the Dolby Digital 5.1 effort ranks bottom of the pile, coming across as hollow, crushed and lacking vitality. The 2.0 English option is the top choice, as it has some nice punch to it, with the all important music faithfully rendered—the only problem is that it is the ‘Cannes’ dub. See below. Coming in only a rung or two down is the Italian 2.0 soundtrack, which isn’t quite as impressive, but a treat to get to see the movie in Italian and with subtitles.
You want an extra? Well, how about this? The ‘US Edit’ of the movie, complete with the infamous ‘Cannes dub’, which quickly led to some hasty changes, mainly giving the police inspector an American accent in place of the original British one. We have to say that the decision to give him a US accent was the right one, as it just doesn’t work as originally voiced. Clocking in at a scant 91 minutes, this is the copy released in too many countries around the world as ’Terror at the Opera’, leaving out great chunks of the film purely just to market as a more traditional thriller. Hell, it even omits the ‘back to nature’ coda! In any case, the 2.35:1 anamorphic image is very nice, and the 2.0 audio better than this travesty of an edit deserves. Arrow is to be commended for being thorough. Nostalgia seems to be the hallmark of this two-disc package, and in case you are wondering what the Hell we are talking about, keep reading.
Gore Moments: Once again riding the wave of warm, 80s nostalgia, this is awfully reminiscent of the times when us fans of horror movies could only get uncut version from dealers, where you would pick titles from a list and buy two copies on a blank VHS tape via the post. Often, these traders would try to entice you into buying certain movies by putting brief clips after your choice of bootlegs, and would you believe that the first sequence on the Gore Moments is exactly the same snippet as the piece one of our suppliers used for his copy of Opera! There are six moments for you to choose from, and is similar to the ‘jump to a nightmare’ feature on the Elm Street discs. An unexpectedly nice addition to the set.
Photo Gallery: There presented as a rolling set of pictures, there are some snaps which were new to us, and that one is prop-shot of the infamous pair of scissors casually laying around is proof that the Arrow guys wanted to be as thorough as possible. As before, this triggered a massive wave of nostalgia, as a number of them were used in the late 80s/early 90s in UK fanzines and magazines like Samhain, of which we were avid readers.
International Trailer: This makes for a much better advertisement, presenting Opera with more of the gravitas it deserves after the routine American one. Put together in just the right way, it’ll want you to stick the movie on shortly after watching it. There are few bigger compliments for a trailer than that.
American Trailer: ‘You are invited to an evening to terror…’. Yes, make it look like a bargain bucket, direct-to-video release, why don’t you? Crappy Orion practices for you, but it brings another dose of nostalgia to see it again. It’s no wonder they went out of business not long after they picked the movie up.
Dario Argento Trailer Gallery: the coming attractions to eighteen of Dario’s movies are presented here, and there will be at least a couple most will not have seen before, like The Five Days of Milan or the captionless Four Flies on Grey Velvet preview.
Dario Argento’s Filmography and Biography: Now, we’ve written a couple of these for DVDs before, and from that, we have to say that it’s very important to ensure it’s current. This ends with I Can’t Sleep(!) and omits The Card Player, Do You Like Hitchcock? and The Third Mother.
Daemonia Music Video: Claudio Simonetti re-records the theme to Opera, accompanied by rather nice footage from the recording studio and stage performances. The track has always been a favourite of ours, and this inclusion is most welcome.
Exclusive Collector’s Booklet: Written by Argento acolyte/devotee Alan Jones, it’s packed with both fascinating and personal information about Opera, with something to surprise just about everyone. We heard Alan tell the tale of the nude scene in the rain at a lecture in at the University of Kent seventeen years ago, and it’s a pity he couldn’t have pinned that particular telling of it onto paper! Informative and a pleasure to read.
Poster: Like Rick Melton’s new artwork on the cover? It’s your lucky day, as a reproduction of it unfolds from the box ready to stick up on your wall.
Reversible Sleeve: You can choose between the traditional Opera artwork or the aforementioned painting by Rick Melton.
Pop quiz? How do you turn Opera into Two Evil Eyes? Well, if—like us—you own the incredibly hard-to-find UK Virgin rental tape, turn the cover upside-down to see a truly menacing pair of peepers!
This isn’t the first time Opera has been on DVD over here, but this is certainly the most comprehensive package yet. The two discs are a repository of differing versions, bolstered by some nice extras and—most importantly—a very nice, natural transfer. Arrow are giving you the chance to see Argento’s overlooked masterpiece how you want, and they are to be commended for bringing it to an audience ready to rediscover it.
Review by Wilson Bros
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 22nd March 2010
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Enlgish, Dolby Digital 2.0 Italian
Extras: US edit, Trailers, Biography, Music Video, Booklet, Trailer Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Christina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, Daria Nicolodi
Length: 102 minutes
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