ALL THE COLOURS OF THE 80s: Part 1
‘Go back to horror films, forget Opera.’
The 1980s experienced perhaps the genre’s last great hurrah. In Italy, Giallo movies were losing popularity to other genres by the late 70s. Elsewhere, horror cinema was dominated by video nasties and the rampant slasher subgenre, as fans became used to more overt action, bigger set-pieces, self-referential humour and blood by the bucket. Giallo found itself out of style and out of favour, but its leading lights continued to enjoy success in horror, and used this success to make some very worthy entries into the Giallo canon. The directors that had become cornerstones of the form chose not to jump ship, but to adopt and adapt.
Dario Argento, certainly the highlight of the Italian movement and the director who saw the most success outside of his native Italy, would make a slew of fantastic, decadent gialli that still found a place amongst the killer dolls, burnt-face dream demons and hockey mask killers. The US slasher film was of course itself a bastard offspring of Giallo, and Argento knew how to make the conventions of his favoured genre satisfy the bloodlust of horror fans everywhere.
Opera is arguably Argento’s true masterpiece. While it plays with giallo and slasher conventions – most notably the imaginative kill set-pieces – Opera elevates itself in a number of ways: by playing up the mystery/whodunit element throughout; by its high-art setting; by the Freudian nature of the central character’s condition and the psychosexual obsession of its killer.
As documented by Antagony & Ecstasy (2009):
“It is customary to observe of Argento’s Suspiria that it is a horror movie and an art film in nearly equal measure; not so for Opera, which is pretty much an art film through and through, though it be an art film with an unusual number of bloody deaths.”
Writings on Opera are not sparse. Much has been made of the Freudian aspects of the movie, notably by Sevastakis (2002), Loncar (no date, a stunning essay and recommended reading) and Antagony & Ecstasy (2009). This essay acknowledges the prescience of these works, but treads a slightly different path – exploring the idea of point of view in horror movies, and how Argento’s Opera breaks the traditional film theory on point of view and the male gaze by establishing and manipulating a third perspective; that of the captive audience.
Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is a young ingénue at Milan’s La Scala, given the opportunity of a lifetime - leading lady for a production of Macbeth. She is hesitant about taking on the role, and not just because of the fabled bad luck of “The Scottish Play”. Betty’s concerns are rightly expressed as it turns out when all her colleagues and friends are killed one by one as she watches helplessly.
As with much of Argento’s oeuvre, vulnerable Betty is plagued by a half-remembered childhood incident involving parental figures and taboo sexual fantasies (something Argento had essentially invented and added into the coda of Giallo in his previous films). As a child, Betty witnessed the murder of a woman at the hands of an unknown killer. What stays with Betty is not the murder itself, but the reaction of Betty’s mother (also forced to watch the murder), who clearly enjoyed the event on a sexual level. This psychosexual damage haunts Betty, as signified by the image of a pulsating brain that serves as a trigger to Betty’s repressed memory and Freudian despair (Gonzalez, 2001). The psychosexual elements surround not only Betty but the killer who stalks and terrorizes her, whose own actions are motivated by sexual frustration, by physical desire and its unattainability (Sevastakis, 2002).
Not for the first time, fellow Italian auteur Michele Soavi lends a hand to Argento’s production. Argento was something of a mentor to Soavi, who is credited as Assistant Director / Second Unit Director here, as well as appearing in an uncredited role as Inspector Daniele Soave. What makes his appearance here of particular interest is that 1987 (the year of Opera’s release) also saw the release of Soavi’s own performance art slasher – Stage Fright. While Soavi’s first movie as director is a very different beast to Opera, it is at least notable that the two movies were being made at roughly the same time, so it is highly likely one influenced elements of the other. Only 3 years prior, Lucio Fulci’s own Murder Rock trod a similar path, serving us a neo-Giallo set in a Fame-style dance and performing arts studio.
‘Look, when you close your eyes, you tear them apart. So you are forced to watch everything.’
Much is made of the focus on eyeballs in Italian horror and gialli. Lucio Fulci made a name for himself creating some of the most disgusting, most ingenious eye-gouging gore sequences ever committed to film in Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and his Gates of Hell cycle (1980-81). Before that, Umberto Lenzi directed the on the nose (or should that be on the eye?) Eyeball (1975) in which a maniac killer in red cape and hood kills off American tourists on a tour bus by gouging out their eyeballs.
Argento himself has never shied away from ocular hijinks. A plot mechanism in his earlier giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) involved the removal of the eyeball of a recently deceased woman, subsequently placed in a bizarre scientific contraption in order to expose the last image seared on its retina. In Opera he delivers a sensory symphony designed to do so much more than titillate or disgust. Here, the eyes are so much more than the window to the soul…they are Argento’s direct link to us, the audience. A number of vision-based conceits and motifs are employed to break down the barrier between director and spectator and place us squarely in the palm of the horror maestro’s hand.
At each of Opera’s murder set-pieces, the killer restrains Betty and places needles below her eyes, forcing her to witness the bloody murders of her friends. In a significant diversion from the conventional mechanisms of Giallo and Slasher, the film’s female protagonist becomes neither victim nor hero, but a conduit or proxy to the audience. According to Gonzalez (2001) this “Eyeorama” was a notion Argento once intended for his audiences - to force our eyes open during the gory death sequences of his movies! Of course, this could never be realized (thankfully) but by using this idea within the movie, coupled with the killer’s POV sequences, Argento manages the next best thing.
Loncar (no date) suggests that the use of point of view is in the service of suspense, forcing us (the audience) to guess who is the one looking.
Clover (1992) suggests that point of view is employed in the notion of the male gaze, and the pursuit of identification – with the filmmaker’s intent to have male viewers identify either with the killer or the victim. This is a notion that has been considered by many, and argued that it makes both filmmaker and viewer complicit in misogyny, punishes what the patriarchy considers unacceptable behaviour in women and normalizes the perpetration of violence upon women by men.
In Opera, Argento successfully manipulates us by breaking the accepted POV ‘rules’, and uses point of view neither in the service of suspense nor in perpetuation of the male gaze. In switching from one perspective to another, and employing the “Eyeorama” device within the narrative, Argento seeks to wield a different kind of power over his audience.
In key scenes, Argento introduces us first to the killer’s POV, then shifts to that of an invisible third party – us. Unlike in the traditional, fixed camera shots, the continued handheld, shaky POV feel creates an unconscious link between us and Betty, again emphasizing that the audience is a forced voyeur of the torturous deaths.
During at least one of the kills, the killer’s own POV interweaves his reality and his flashbacks together. This representation of the killer’s own emotions appears to establish and heighten that accepted, unconscious link between audience and killer – but this method is employed only fleetingly, suggesting that Argento’s aim is to have us assume neither killer nor victim point of view, but purely to further ramp up our involvement in bloody voyeurism without asking for permission.
Loncar appears to confirm this, citing that
“The disgusted audience can’t handle the intensity of the horrific shots…Betty is the equivalent of the audience, both can’t escape the trap they’re in.”
Indeed, the needles before Betty’s eyes represent prison bars, as not only is Betty held captive by the killer, but so are we by Argento.
Certainly, there is a parallel to be drawn between the killer’s manipulation of Betty (the captive spectator throughout key moments) and Argento’s manipulation of the audience. The Killer tells Betty he can take her whenever he wants. But is he speaking to her, or does Argento address us through his creations? At times it becomes painfully apparent that Argento is toying with us – he spoils us with a beautiful movie, ever aware of his ability to take us back to the familiar territory of blood and gore at any point, knowing that our reaction will be all the more raw and visceral because of it. With one simple coup d'oeil, Argento has exposed our weakness, and is only too happy to exploit it.
This is an exploitation the audience can benefit from, of course. In showing us that Betty survives her repeated suffering, moving on from each trauma stronger, Argento may be drawing another parallel – that by sticking out the horror (rather than looking away) we too will grow stronger, and perhaps be able to look past the gruesome gore to fully appreciate the true beauty of his filmmaking.
Beauty is certainly not too strong a word for the experience of Argento’s high-art horror. Opera is blessed with incredible directorial flair and camerawork to match, as British cinematographer Ronnie Taylor uses his skills to realize Argento’s vision. There are several sumptuous sequences making up this feast for the eyes, not least around the spectacular kill scenes, where Taylor’s camera becomes a performer itself and manages several acrobatic feats:
Prior to seamstress Giulia’s death, where the shot pulls back from her at work, revealing her entire studio in one long continuous shot, sweeping past rolls of unravelled fabric and negotiating sewing machines and workstations - it revels in its own beauty, as decadent as the Opera itself.
A Grand Guignol sequence in the final act, where ravens wreak havoc on a live performance of Macbeth, diving, attacking and tearing eyes from sockets, is filmed to perfection. Argento and Taylor’s camera allows us to join the ravens high in the air, another frenetic point of view sequence as we become part of the dizzying aerial attack.
Of course, both of these experiences are bested by one very brief, but truly breath-taking sequence, a kill so exquisite that it truly does belong to high art: - Mira, Betty’s agent and In Loco Parentis, peers out at the killer through the spyhole in her apartment door. The killer raises his gun, the barrel staring back at the audience at point blank range as he fires, and a bullet fills our vision as it bursts through the spyhole, penetrating Mira’s eyeball and exiting via the back of her skull. This short, slow-motion sequence is hard to do justice on the page – when seen for the first time it leaves the viewer truly astonished. Entire cinema audiences are said to have burst into a spontaneous round of applause for this one exquisite moment.
It is these moments that again show Argento as master manipulator. The viewer can become almost lost in the visual masterpiece, at least until any respite is spoiled by the director, bringing us crashing back into familiar horror territory. No sooner can we begin to wax lyrical about the beauty of the camerawork in the seamstress’ studio than the seamstress is stabbed to death with her own scissors and sliced open from sternum to abdomen. No sooner do we gasp at the larger than life bullet hurtling in slow motion across the screen, than we are treated to the back of Mira’s head exploding. At no point is the viewer in charge of this experience - we are ensconced in the beauty of Opera only to allow the director to shock us that much more.
Opera is a one off – it first creates then explores a symbiotic relationship between high art and horror that has arguably never been matched. Not since Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood has a horror maestro’s camera produced something more akin to Godard than Giallo, and to do so in such a lofty cultural setting turns the disparate into easy bedfellows. More than this, Opera holds the audience captive and takes them on a journey of the director’s choosing. It turns the barrier of the silver screen into nothing more than the most slender of membranes, leaving you wondering whether Argento didn’t get his “Eyeorama” wish after all.
ON FRIDAY: It’s Fulci Friday! A look at two of Lucio Fulci’s 1980s gialli
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Antagony & Ecstasy (2009) Summer of blood: The Scottish Play
Clover, Carol J (1992) Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. 3rd Ed. London: British Film Institute
Gonzalez, Ed (2001) Opera.
Jones, Alan (2010) Terror at the Opera. Liner Notes Booklet available in Arrow DVD/Bluray release.
Loncar, Erik (no date) Dario Argento’s Opera Analysis
Mondo-digital (2015) Dario Argento Opera.
Mondozilla (2013) Opera aka Terror at the Opera https://horrorpedia.com/2013/09/10/opera-aka-terror-at-the-opera-1987-dario-argento/
Sevastakis, Michael (2002) A dangerous mind: Dario Argento’s Opera (1987)
Synnott, Paul (no date) Dario Argento’s Subversive ‘Opera’
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