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Terror At The Opera (1987)
Director: Dario Argento

review by Jim Steel

It's been close on two decades since I first saw this film. Back then I knew it simply as 'Opera', a title which seems to have more gravitas than this, the one that was used on its American release. I can remember being stunned by the quality of the direction and photography but bemused by the lackadaisical plotting. I think I was quite - um - refreshed at the time, but that stuck in my mind. I can also remember that the protagonist, Betty (Christina Marsillach) was wearing a coal-scuttle helmet on stage while she was playing the lead in Verdi's Macbeth. Arresting though that image is, it turns out to be a false memory. While the opera is set in a warlike early 20th century, she was, in fact, wearing a metallic hat that was a variation on the flapper style.

The reason that I mention this is because Betty is haunted by violent dreams of a masked man who tortures and murders women. Nightmare or suppressed memory..? This being an Argento film, it comes as no surprise when she discovers that they are memories of a childhood experience. But let's rewind it to the start and try to summarise it without wrecking the experience for the inexperienced.

The curtain goes up on a showboating camera shot as an Italian theatre is shown, reflected in the eye of a raven. The ravens are taking part in a dress rehearsal, much to the annoyance of the leading lady who throws a full-blown diva fit and storms out of the theatre in a POV tracking shot that would make Hitchcock blush. For this to make sense; she would have to be walking backwards - but then she walks under a car and is put out of action.

Macbeth is, of course, a famously cursed dramatic exercise, although many of the cast put the blame for the problems with this particular production at the feet of the director, Marco (an effective Ian Charleson in his last cinema role), who is a film director who has decided to turn his hand to opera. Since the opening performance is a few hours away, Marco decides to call up the understudy and press on with the production. The teenage Betty feels that she is too young for the part, but she is persuaded to go ahead anyway.

She is, of course, a triumph, but since her soprano voice is being dubbed by Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz that is hardly a surprise. Curiously, when she's made-up for the stage she resembles a young Geena Davis despite looking nothing like her offstage. The first of the murders is committed during the opening performance when an usher is killed in a box, although the company think that there has merely been an accident with a lighting rig and carries on until the arrival of the police afterwards. Initially, Betty mistakes Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini) for a fan, but she soon comes to realise the real reason for his presence backstage.

And the gory set-piece murders continue. This particular killer's USP involves tying Betty up, taping needles to her eyes so that she can't close them, and forcing her to witness the slaughter of her acquaintances. It must be noted that she comes through these ordeals with remarkable fortitude. Make no mistake; this is basically a slasher update of Leroux's creaky warhorse and, regardless of his dazzling technical skill, no-one is ever going to confuse Argento with Bergman in a darkened room. But if you can handle the splatter and the bizarre plotting you are in for a great piece of entertainment. As Marco says, "I think it's unwise to use movies as a guide for reality." Plenty of today's torture-porn merchants would benefit by paying more attention to what this director does.

One of the highlights is the battle between the killer and the dressmaker in the large wardrobe department of the theatre, and the tension is cranked up to unbelievable levels as Argento shows off his camerawork and set layout. Another incredible shot is quite literally that, as a bullet flies through a security peephole and into... well, have a guess. Fans of Argento will recognise many of his regular motifs. The animals are anthropomorphised and wilful, and there is a soundtrack would put Sergio Leone to shame (Argento worked with Leone on Once Upon A Time In The West). Verdi is here, of course, as is opera's gateway drug, Puccini, but unfortunately his regular rock group, Goblin, has been replaced by the inferior Steel Grave.

This release comes with some fairly disposable extras. There are some Argento trailers; a text biography and filmography that, judging from its cart-before-horse phrasing, has been translated into English by a non-native speaker; a photo gallery; a music video for the title theme that I guarantee you won't have seen on Top Of The Pops; and a section (why-oh-why?) that contains the top six gore scenes. All of them can safely be ignored. The only problem with the main feature is that it has been dubbed into English (and you can also view it with typo-ridden English subtitles), but once you get used to that - or get shocked out of noticing it - you will find yourself watching one of horror's finest directors at the height of his powers.

But wait. There are two discs in this set. The first contains the 'international' version, which is the one that I have reviewed above, and the second contains the American version. Nearly ten minutes have been cut from the American release, and it is not because of gore. Scenes have been moved around or deleted entirely, and some pretty clumsy editing has been used to retain some semblance of plot. It must be said that the editing has failed. Two murders appear to be being committed at the same time, which gives the appearance of a supernatural agency, and the ending has been clipped to leave an air of ambiguity that was absent with the original closure. It is a mess. And I recognise it, for it is the same version that I saw all those years ago. Argento has his flaws, but this edition seems almost like an exercise in professional assassination and there is no reason whatsoever for Arrow including it in the set. And there's still no coal-scuttle helmet.

Terror At The Opera

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