A Night At the Opera, Giallo Style

A Night At the Opera, Giallo Style

There are a lot of reasons filmmakers have been spending 90 years bringing Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera to the big screen. There’s a complicated, disfigured villain that needs to be played by a veteran presence that can be seductive and sadistic. Spectacle is necessary because the opera house itself is a leading character, giving visual eyes a chance to create an arena of decadence. Plenty of choices to be made regarding levels of violence, plus the chance to snuggle up to a doe-eyed ingenue.

Is it any wonder that Dario Argento took two stabs at the source material? Though Opera, his 1987 effort, is generally categorized as a straight giallo, one can’t argue that it’s not an adaptation–however loose–of the story that has been told to great, terrible, and musical effect.

Like Phantom, the story begins inside an esteemed European opera house suffering through typical diva dilemmas. Tired of battling with stage crows and an experimental director, the leading (and never seen) soprano has stormed out of the latest production of Macbeth. Her replacement is Christin–er, Betty, a pretty young brunette with minor stage fright, mommy issues, and frigidity.

Her debut is a smash, although the random stagehand found dead probably wasn’t applauding for an encore. The mysterious death leads to the introduction of Inspector Santini, a policeman who draws the ire of Betty by daring to make her think he’s actually a fan. No matter, as she’s secretly dating the awkward stage manager…until, of course, a gloved villain breaks in on them, ties Betty to a pole and strategically pins her eyes open while he stabs the unlucky theater guy to death.

But Macbeth’s a hit! And maybe, cursed? Betty’s superstitions run wild, perhaps because, you know,  she’s just watched her boyfriend (and soon after, seamstress) brutally slaughtered in front of her bleeding eyes. Theater people are SO dramatic.

My relationship with giallos–and particularly Argento–is not great. I imagine we treat each other like an ex married couple who play nice enough for the kids but resort to our personal war of the roses when one of us crosses a line. For me, Opera’s weakest components stem from some of the giallo conventions, primarily in the mystery of the killer. It’s somewhat distracting to always be on guard with WHO he or she may be, especially when the only way to figure it out is to consider who’s still alive. It’s not as if the audience has any way to guess WHY he or she is committing these murders, making the reveal and explanation a typical deux ex machina trick. I’d rather just be allowed to watch the movie.

Because it’s good! Argento was clearly reveling in the opportunity to play in an opera house, and it’s positively beautiful. The actual Macbeth production is quite meta, with the film’s experimental director (who whaddya know, came from horror movies) an obvious but amusing stand-in for Argento himself. There are genuinely suspenseful scenes, particularly when Betty and Argento’s muse/ex-wife Daria Nicolodi must navigate between two maybe policeman. Argento even experiments wildly with point of view, opening from the eyes of a backwards walking diva and blurring Betty’s meetings with the murderer by the pins aimed at her eyelids.

Though I won’t spoil the ending, it’d be insane to not mention how, well, INSANE it is. The resolution is typical for giallo, but the coda–complete with a lizard, meadow, and declaration of lizard freedom–is simply bizarre. I haven’t quite decided if that makes or breaks the film, but it certainly does leave an impression.

Lessons Learned

According to legend, opera singers are incredibly horny

Never forget that ravens are quite the vindictive little beats

People who are always naked are, in the eyes of a ten year old, also disgusting

Always remember to wear plastic over your black leather gloves when planning to commit bloody murder. Those stains are just impossible.

Betty is not like her mother. NOTHING LIKE HER MOTHER!


Opera is probably not the best entry point into Argento’s canon, though it does avoid dragging like some of his more celebrated work (yes Tenebrae, I’m looking at you). Those with any interest in Phantom adaptations might find plenty of interest in how Argento plays with the tale, and when in doubt, crows swoop in to peck out a dude’s eyeballs.

You could say I recommend this film.


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