Opera: “Argento is no ordinary horror director and [this] no ordinary horror film”

Cult Films have quickly made a name for themselves in the home release market as Italian cinema specialists – but very much at the Fellini/De Sica end of that country’s output, which on the surface makes them a strange choice to reissue Dario Argento’s brutal horror Opera on Blu-Ray. Those who know Argento’s output will understand why they’ve done it. Those who don’t will get it from the opening scene.

Unable to secure Vanessa Redgrave for the role of temperamental diva Mara Cecova, Argento recasts the Dame with a Steadicam, shooting from an unorthodox back-of-head POV as she storms out of the opera house, trailed by apologetic, fawning co-workers. That’s Argento for you; a master stylist in the Visconti tradition who is also blissfully unencumbered by any notion of taste or conventionality.

As he notes in a lengthy, enjoyable interview on the disc’s extras, this is Argento’s most personal film, inspired by a disastrous attempt he made to stage Verdi’s Macbeth. It also includes enough gore for ten Toscas, including one of the most notorious scenes in Argento’s back catalogue as William McNamara’s Stefano is stabbed to death. He isn’t the one who’s suffering the most, though. That duty falls to his girlfriend Betty, who is forced to watch when the killer tapes a row of needles under her eyes.

It’s an astonishing moment. Argento is responsible for several of the most unique extreme close-ups in cinema history – this writer particularly cherishes the door unlocking in Inferno, which is shot as though the camera is inside the locking mechanism. None of them have had as visceral an impact as the curve of Betty’s eyeball, seemingly just millimetres away from the needles. I don’t know whether trick photography was used or whether Cristina Marsillach is the bravest actor in the world, but it’s the sort of scene you might need to pause and recover from.

Strangely, Betty doesn’t. After escaping she finds her director, Marco (played by the English actor Ian Charleson in his last role before his tragically premature death from AIDS) and begins complaining about Stefano trying to pressure her into sex. While doubtless unpleasant, it really doesn’t seem like the worst thing that’s happened to her that day. Betty’s affectlessness can make her a hard character to sympathise with, but it does give Opera a little of the dream-like feel of Argento’s more supernatural films.

Italian gialli often had a slightly hallucinatory feel, a quality too rarely duplicated in the American slashers they influenced. If the ending of Opera is a little closer to Friday the 13th than Tenebre, the rest of the film is a stylish, engaging mix of giallo and Gothic elements. It’s strange that Argento would later make a misbegotten adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, considering how much inspiration he takes from the novel here: the innocent Betty is Christine, the highly-strung Mara is Carlotta, and Argento naturally conjures up a very menacing masked phantom. It’s not quite Argento gold, but it’s a reminder of how much there is to enjoy in even his second-tier works.

Cult Films’s 2K transfer, from the director’s own print, is terrific, and does full justice to Argento’s lavish THX sound mix. There are only two special features but they’re both in-depth: the aforementioned 40-minute chat with Argento and a behind-the-scenes documentary of similar length. The former is particularly touching when Argento speaks of his respect for Charleson. Charleson’s first role was in Derek Jarman’s controversial Jubilee, which he had to disavow when Chariots of Fire made him a star. For many classically trained English actors, ending your career in an Italian horror movie might be a comedown, but for Charleson it was oddly fitting: another strange career detour for a man tragically forbidden to be himself. Besides, Argento is no ordinary horror director, and Opera, despite its flaws, is no ordinary horror film.

OPERA IS OUT 21ST JANUARY ON CULTFILMS

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