After an unfortunate car accident makes a career casualty of opera star Mara Cecova, a young understudy named Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is pressed into service as the new lead by her director, Marc (Ian Charleson). Charleson is a horror movie pro who is trying to move upscale. Betty’s agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi), feels nothing but enthusiasm for her young star in the making and Betty’s debut turns into a smash success. However, an usher is murdered in one of the theater boxes during the performance and this seems to indicate that one of Betty’s new fans may have homicidal tendencies. Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini) investigates the mysterious goings on, while Betty’s celebratory but unsuccessful opening night meeting with the stage manager (McNamara) turns nasty when the killer arrives and performs gruesome acts while pinning Betty’s eyes open with taped needles. Terrified and confused, Betty falls into a disoriented state in which she acts as the pawn of a devious mind with violent ties to Betty’s past.
There is a lot of gore including a jaw-dropping slow motion bullet sequence that just cannot be adequately described in words. The film is beautiful, shocking, frustrating, and totally entertaining and is one of those films that becomes better with time.
Dario Argento’s “Opera” was inspired by his abortive attempts to direct an Opera (Verdi’s “Rigoletto”) and his long-standing interest with Leroux’s “Phantom of the Opera” but it is not an adaptation of that famed volume. Rather, the film simply takes the idea of a masked psychopath, obsessed with the understudy who has more talent than the Diva, who stalks the opera house. Argento adds sadomasochistic fantasies and the then current AIDS epidemic, and it is a deliriously over-wrought and thrillingly obsessive film that stays with the viewer for days afterwards.
The understudy is Betty (Cristina Marsillach), who takes over the lead role in a stage production of Verdi’s Macbeth that is being directed by Marco (Ian Charleson) – best known for his horror films – after the Diva, The Great Mara Cecova, is hit by a car. Her brilliant performance is hugely acclaimed, but also attracts the attentions of a sadistic hooded killer, so Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) is called in to investigate.
The visuals are amazing with the camera gliding constantly tracking, panning, or indulging. The film contains two of Argento’s strongest and most daring images. First we see Betty’s eyes wide open and she is forced to stare through an array of needles taped beneath her eyes, unable to close them without ripping her eyelids to shreds. The other key image is a close-up shot of the killer’s brain pumping with blood and as it pulses, the whole screen pulses with it, as if the image and the ideas behind it were so powerful almost rip through the very fabric of the film itself.
“Opera” is heavy sexualized nature but not in a literal sense. The film was made at the peak of the AIDS crisis, and Argento’s concern with this is paramount with the killer wearing protective sheaths over his black gloves. It’s a film almost entirely without love, at least in the conventional sense – Betty is unable to sleep with Stefan, in the closest the film gets to a loving relationship. The only way sexual feeling can be consummated here is through violence and the murders become a bizarre courtship between Betty and the killer, although for her it is more like rape. We, of course, wonder, why Betty doesn’t tell anyone exactly what happened. Likewise, countless rapes go unreported; Betty feels she has been violated, she can’t bear to think about it and desperately wants to forget.
“Opera” has a genuine love-it-or-hate-it ending (I love it) and some of the most disturbing moments Argento has yet filmed.