After being unexpectedly promoted from understudy to take the leading role of Lady Macbeth in Verdi's famous operatic adaptation of Shakespeare, ingenue Betty attracts the attention of a maniac who likes to tie her to poles, stick needles under her eyelids to prevent her from blinking, and murder her friends and colleagues. Could the murderer be linked to Betty's sadistic-and dead-mother? Given that she regularly appears in obtuse flashbacks, of course they are! Seemingly reluctant to place too much trust in the investigating police inspector, she seeks solace in her matronly agent and pervy opera director, both of whom prove to be of little help. Until, that is, El Directore comes up with an ingenius/ridiculous plan to identify the killer, which somehow works. That's the end of it, except it isn't, as no-one seems to be able to actually apprehend the killer, who reappears for two slasheriffic attempts on Betty's life.
If early Argento is pulpy, detective fiction-inspired fun, this film is a different sort of pulp: shapeless, formless goo, but-unlike fruity pulp-it's still rather tasty. It's full on, balls-to-the-wall Argento from start to finish, with the style completely overwhelming the narrative, which is little more than a succession of loosely-formed ideas. He's generally incapable of-or, more likely, disinterested in-filming a straightforward dialogue scene, preferring instead a plethora of oblique angles and swooping camera moves. The camera is in almost continual motion, evoking the flight of the ravens which proves such a vital, if preposterous, plot point. The ravens provide a continuity of sorts from the animal excesses of Phenomena, with the traditional CUs of the killer's eyeball replaced with shots of the birds' eyes, with their disconcerting sideways blinking.
The tracking dreamscapey shots from Phenomena are also in evidence here; indeed the film sometimes plays as if directed by a child who's just been given his first steadicam for Christmas. The camera ducks and dives through the Freudian corridors of memory for the frequent flashback scenes, which strangely seem like the most relaxed moments of the film, probably because of the low key, eerie soundscape, which is in stark contrast to the bombastic opera and rock which is liberally drenching* the rest of the film.
The film is constructed around three set pieces, the first two featuring the aforementioned 'needles under the eyes' trick, and the third being an apartment-set game of cat-and-mouse. The needle scenes, which occasionally creak from a technical standpoint (understandably so-it's unrealistic to expect Argento to be able to use real needles under real eyes, however much he may love tormenting beautiful women), are nevertheless memorably off-kilter, and in some ways represent an early stab at torture porn (my own film The Farm, which is some ways is a peripheral member of that disreputable subgenre, contains a scene that uses a similar central conceit [and which I wrote and filmed before I'd seen Opera, so shut up]), with Betty tortured by being forced to stand and watch people being more literally tortured right in front of her. (Her being an avatar for the audience has been much remarked upon, not least by Argento, so I won't get into it here.)
The lengthy apartment sequence comes close to being Argento's crowning glory as a director. The conception is brilliant, the execution frequently as impressive, as the simple set up plays out in a claustrophobic space bathed in Bava-esque lighting. The dialogue, however, can be a little on the nose, particularly when Betty and Daria Nicolodi's character are talking, which punctures the tension somewhat, and the inclusion of the angry mother is a bridge too far in terms of realism. Obviously, the sequence as a whole is never going to be confused with a Rosselini neo-realist film, but there has to be at least a toe grounding it in reality in order for us to buy it as a genuinely dangerous situation for Betty, and the sequence's last couple of minutes see the film float off into the metaphorical clouds.
Speaking of last couple of minutes floating off into metaphorical clouds (liquid-smooth segue there), the ending of Opera has been much discussed-and much criticised-over the years. As with all of the film, it's not perfect, with the epilogue never quite seeming to be really happening in any meaningful sense-instead, it seems like someone's dream (as does the film as a whole really). The second return of the killer (after he's already popped up in Betty's changing room post-opera) owes something to the slasher movie craze and the 'undefeatable boogeyman' personified by Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. Betty's descent into madness has come in for much ridicule, but in some ways it's actually a more realistic ending than that of the majority of gialli, which posit a return to normalcy which completely ignores the carnage which has been wrought across the preceding film. After all, if someone hacked and slashed their way through your family and friends, would you be able to walk off into the sunset once they've been dispatched? Having said that, the rapidity of Betty's descent-one minute making rational plans to trick the killer and buy her some time until the police's arrival, the next crawling around chatting to lizards-is a bit ridiculous. But, again, are we expecting Rome Open City Part 11?**
This dreamlike maelstrom of ideas and style clearly did have personal resonance for Argento, being inspired as it was by his own experiences directing an adaptation of Verdi's Macbeth. The backstage chaos is staged as only someone with direct experience could depict it-indeed, it's probably the only properly realistic aspect of the film. Ian Charleson's charactor is clearly an avatar (that word again) for Argento himself, as he struggles to deal with diva-like behaviour from his cast, an obvious attraction for his young leading lady, and the critics who approach his work with sharpened knives. Speaking of knives (this is turning into Segue City), the one favoured by the killer is incredibly impressive-looking on screen, with a deep metallic gleam catching the light and showcasing the threatening design.*** Charleson also refers to his proclivity for having a wank before filming a scene-whether or not this is true of Argento, I'd argue that the film as a whole could be viewed as him having one big wank.
Finally, I'll briefly touch on something with which I myself wrestled when writing my own giallo, The Three Sisters-the mask of a masked killer. Specifically, does the killer wear the mask every time they're doing killer-related activities? They certainly wear it whenever they're going to appear on screen-that's just common sense, as it prevents us, the audience from knowing who done it too soon in the film. However, the scheme cooked up by Argento/Charleson to uncover the identity of the killer wouldn't work here unless he engaged in one specific activity sans mask (similarly, a sequence in my film required the killer to be recognised leaving a murder scene by a passer-by, something I achieved through a POV sequence of the mask being removed before exiting the building. I did also include flashback shots at the climax which suggested that the mask wasn't donned for all of the murders-conveniently, only for those which were depicted in full on screen).
One caveat to this is that there is a chance that ravens can recognise someone be their scent or shape, rather than their facial features (or Argento might take his lead from Phenomena and argue that they're slightly telepathic or something), but I think we're meant to take it at face value here, and allow that the killer didn't don their mask for one crucial activity. Given that as far as the characters know the killer has always been, the 'ingenious scheme' is highly flawed, albeit it succeeds against the better odds. Kind of-and stay with me here-like the film itself!
PS I'd recommend switching to Italian for the post-killer-reveal scenes (if not for the film as a whole), as the English mix is muddy in the extreme. The killer, who was re-dubbed after poor notices in the film's festival screenings, is extremely low in the mix, often drowned out by Christina Marsillach's yelps and sobs.
*Speaking of drenching, what's Betty doing out in a rainstorm?! Surely that can't be good for the ol' vocal chords!
**The crazed voiceover is somewhat trailed earlier in the film with a one-off piece of narration from Betty. Indeed, sporadic narration is something of an Argento trademark, with Suspiria, Tenebrae and Phenomena all featuring early narrators who burn brightly and then fail to reappear.
***The only time it doesn't look that threatening is when the killer pulls it from Betty's boyfriend's mouth, at which point it seems to be missing the top half of the blade. However, given how silly the bf is-moaning about how their relationship has changed because of Betty's newfound fame literally minutes after she's stepped off-stage-the fact that the lack of a cutting edge doesn't seem to hinder the killer's exertions can only come as a relief.