Giallo - The cruelty of the unamed killer

Dario Argento’s Opera (1987) – Brutally Captivating


The term “cadenza” refers to an improvised musical section of an opera designed to showcase the virtuosity of the performers. No better metaphor exists for Dario Argento’s Opera. Argento famously architects his films to push the limits of style and cinematography. He then conflates his beautiful exposition with brutality and depravity. If the audience averts their eyes they miss the spectacle. Argento tapes razor-sharp needles to the audience’s eyelids, forcing them to consume the savagery.

Opera - Stylized Italian horror from the mind of Dario Argento
Ravens in the opera house

The Art of the Giallo

I have avidly consumed Italian horror cinema throughout my life. Unwittingly, I was also receiving an education in a profound art form for which I had no name. These films all shared common characteristics that immediately becomes apparent. Faceless killers, relentlessly stalk and murder women. Undertones of sexual depravity ripple beneath the surface. Graphic murders, visceral and unforgiving, assault the senses. I didn’t know what to call them, but these films fascinated me.

It would be several years before I would hear the term that would bring it all together, giallo. In Italian, the word giallo means ‘yellow’. Seemingly a strange name for a film of this character, the label derives from the classic yellow binding of cheap Italian detective novels. Much like American pulp fiction and seedy detective magazines, the giallo embodies the unprincipled, corrupted and deviant. It is arguable that giallo films are better described as hyper-violent thrillers than horror. In the end, it really is a distinction without a difference.

Fans of the genre widely recognize Dario Argento as one the of the masters of the art. While Argento didn’t invent giallo, he propelled the archetype into the stylized Italian horror exploitation that exemplifies it.

Opera - The Majesty of Opera
The opera house and the majestic backdrop for murder

“Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and, instead of bleeding, he sings.”  (Robert Benchley)

The film begins with an injury to the soprano star of an opera production of Verdi’s Macbeth. This injury catapults the understudy into the spotlight. Betty, played by Cristina Marsillach, immediately garners high praise for her performances. Unwittingly, she also attracts the attention of a mysterious man intent on murder. Creeping around the balcony of the theater, the killer impales an usher’s head on a coat-hook. Soon, Betty finds herself at the whim of the murderer. The killings are not random. Something about Betty drives the killer to madness. Possibly something in her families dark past fuels his murderous rage.

Giallo - The cruelty of the unamed killer
Dario Argento and his iconic needles taped under Betty’s eyes

The Stylized Italian Horror of Dario Argento

Argento’s ability to immerse his narrative into torrent of stunning visuals defines his art. The cinematography of Dario Argento’s Opera continually bombards the senses with fantastic angles, awesome booms and dizzying truck shots. In another trademark, Argento employs splashes of colored light to create a surreal ambience that creates an immersive effect.

Cinematographer Ronny Taylor deftly executes Argento’s ambitious vision. A long and twisting dolly shot through Betty’s hallway, supercharges an otherwise bland transition. A mundane shot of Betty dumping a bottle down the drain ignites when taken from the sinks perspective. Wide frame shots of the diminutive soprano on a massive stage accentuate the majesty and and exposition of opera. Finally, massive wide-angle shots of the Swiss Alps provide a stunning contrast to the four walls of the opera house. Taylor executes these highly technical shots masterfully.

Opera - An arial shot of a madman shredding a costume
A fantastic aerial view of the killer assaulting the wardrobe

The power of music

As one would expect, large portions of the film feature opera music as the foundation. Not content with status quo, Argento jarringly cuts to heavy metal during several of the kill scenes. The whole thing comes together wonderfully during the slaying of Stefano. Betty writhes helplessly tied to a stone column. As Stefano approaches, the killer plunges a massive blade into Stefano’s, visibly into his blood filled mouth. Summoning the spirit Ronnie James Dio, Knights of the Night by Steele Grave rips from the speakers. As the music chugs, the killer relentlessly stabs Stefano as Betty stares helplessly through cold steel needles affixed to her eyelids.

If ever an entire movies mojo could be summarized in one scene, this is the scene. Knights of the Night is now on the playlist and the awesome Claudio Simonetti takes credit for another awesome soundtrack.

The brutality of stylized Italian Horror
Stefano gets murdered to the soothing sounds of Knights of the Night

Opera, as Ambitious as it is Arrogant

Dario Argento’s Opera is more than ambitious. Opera is arrogant. Like most giallo films, the plot follows an arc that could have easily been lifted out a of 1960’s detective periodical. At its core, Argento’s film is nothing more than a standard tale told many times before. It’s the brilliance that Argento builds atop this narrative that catapults Opera into the stratosphere. He dazzles the screen fantastic camera work, artful imagery and in-your-face style. Finally he concludes the story with extraordinary plot-twist. The word ‘inspired’ appropriately describes Opera. If nothing else, this film is inspired.

Dario Argento, a master among men

Something that stands about Dario Argento’s Opera is that while masterfully executing his cinematic artistry, this film still manages to be really fun. Its excessive exhibition has the power to draw laughter and cheers when everything on the screen suggests pain. Argento achieves a monumental feat in this. Two steps to the left and the movie becomes pretentious. Two steps to the right and it becomes misogynist torture porn. Dario Argento manages to navigate the narrow divide between these extremes to deliver a fantastic and entertaining film.

Dario Argento’s Opera exemplifies the stylized Italian horror that defines the genre. Accordingly, this film should occupy a permanent place in the catalogs of ravenous horror fans. Quite honestly, I am shocked that it took this long to finally witness this film. Clearly, it was worth the wait. Opera is a fantastic work of art, and it is as immersive and stunning as any horror film you will likely see.


Dario Argento's Opera (1987) - Brutally Captivating
opera needles under the eyes

Director: Dario Argento

Date Created: 1987-01-01 00:00

Editor's Rating:

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