Review Date: September 17, 2001
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release date: 9/11/2001
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
What does a horror movie director really do? One might almost call him a murderer of sorts, who tries to impress everyone with his crimes. Of course, no one is actually killed in a horror movie, but essentially the effect is the same. Those directors who can create the most terrifying feelings in us become our favorites. This rather bizarre relationship between the director and the filmgoing audience was explored in Dario Argento's 1987 film Opera, which some people consider to be the last "great" Argento film. While that may be debatable, what's unquestioned is that Opera has long deserved a high quality widescreen transfer, and Anchor Bay Entertainment has certainly delivered the goods again.
Marco (Ian Charleson) is a horror film director trying his hand in a new venue: Opera. He's staging Guiseppe Verdi's Macbeth in a nouveau production, complete with live ravens, fog machines, and laserbeams. The leading lady, the great Mara Cicova (hey, that's the way they refer to her in the film) is injured in a pedestrian accident and the young understudy Betty (Cristina Marsillach) must take on the lofty role.
Betty is exceptionally nervous about making her debut in an opera that is "cursed", as legend has it. Strangeness begins literally from opening night, when a stagehand is killed and a light fixture nearly lands on the audience. But the terror is only beginning. After the performance, Betty is attacked by a masked stranger who ties her up and places needles under her eyes so she cannot close them. She then is forced to watch the savage murder of her boyfriend.
People associated with the production fall victim to the maniacal killer, with Betty as the horrified witness every time. Marco and Betty devise a plan to unmask the killer during a live performance, but when they find the killer's identity and his motives, Betty also finds some rather dark skeletons in her family closet. Everything comes together in a spectacular climax complete with vengeful birds, a fiery confrontation, and… the Swiss Alps?
All of Dario Argento's films are autobiographical to some extent. He considers 1984's Phenomena to be his most personal, but I think Opera is the best example of how he sees himself as a filmmaker. Of course, there are the obvious parallels of himself and the character Marco, the director. Argento once considered directing an opera, and bringing his horror film touches to the stage. His ideas were overwhelmingly disapproved by opera purists, and many of these personal battles show up in Marco's character.
But I think the more telling representation is that of the killer (whose identity I will naturally keep silent). The motivation, as we find out later in the film, is that the killer wants Betty to fall in love with him, and his murders are like a love poem to her. Argento tries to provide a rationale for this insane behavior, by giving the killer a history with Betty's mother, who was into sadomasochism. However, the mother angle is really superfluous. What Argento is really emphasizing is the idea of murder to impress. That seems crazy at first, but when we look at the fans of the horror film, it begins to make a lot more sense. Horror film directors want us to see every film they're associated with. That's why movie promotions start off with something like "John Carpenter, the man who terrified you with Halloween, and shocked you with The Thing, now brings you…" When you hear a statement like that, it almost seems like they DON'T want you to see any future films by the director (after all, weren't you "terrified" and "shocked?"), but it's precisely those feelings that brings people back to the theater. Take this to its next logical (or illogical) step, and we get the concept that horrible murder can turn an indifferent observer into a loyal fan.
Want more proof that Betty represents us, the viewers? Let's look at the needles the killer forces under her eyes. The killer is telling Betty, "you must watch, you can't turn away." Precisely the same thing directors want. And the needles themselves seem a lot like the stereotypical horror fan that covers his eyes with his hands, but spreads his fingers apart just to get a glimpse. OK, I've NEVER actually seen anyone do that at a horror film, but again, it's a popular image of a movie viewer.
And while we discuss what happens to Betty's eyes, it deserves mentioning that all the violence in Opera is directed at peoples' eyes (Again, the way directors "assault" their viewers: through their eyes). Sure, we've seen pretty nasty "eye violence" before (Lucio Fulci loved it), but in Opera it's much more representative of the director/viewer relationship, and less an excessive exercise in physical pain. Someone stabbing you in the eye is obviously quite painful, but in this film, Argento is intending a more metaphorical assault.
And if you don't want to over-analyze this movie, it can be enjoyed on just a simple "crazed stalker" level. There's a long sequence midway through the film in Betty's apartment where she's trapped, unaware whether the killer is in her apartment or outside the door. It's a very tense scenario (also featuring one of the most brutal murders in Dario Argento's resume) that will have any viewer on the edge of his seat for nearly 30 minutes. The entire movie flows quite well (well, except for the controversial "Sound of Music" ending) with great atmosphere, and suspenseful settings. Opera can be enjoyed on several different levels - always the sign of a well-made movie.
Many people consider Opera to be Argento's last "great" film (though I believe 1996's The Stendhal Syndrome is one of Dario's all-time best). It's the first time since Suspiria, ten years prior, that he used the 2.35:1 scope ratio, and it's an amazing visual film. The opera scenes are panoramic (both the on-stage setting and the opera house itself) and gorgeous. Even though I think Argento has made some great films since Opera, I do believe it's the last time he's made a film so visually beautiful. I hope he can regain that touch as soon as possible.
Argento has also been known for using experimental and innovative musical scores, and Opera is no exception in that department either. The opera music juxtaposes with heavy metal, which is another example of how Argento has mixed the old and the new with the staged production of Macbeth. The heavy metal is still a little odd, and does tend to date the film (probably why Argento ceased the use of it), but it's another example of how carefully Argento balances the visual and audio aspects of the moviegoing experience. The only real negative about the sound is the poor English dubbing, but we can't have everything, can we?
I've been dying to see this in it's correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1, as it's never been released on home video in any format (VHS, Laserdisc) with a widescreen transfer. I was not disappointed. Now, Opera has a muted color scheme, and is not as sharp, colorful, or detailed as Suspiria or Inferno. This is due to the photographic process used, Super 35. But it's still a fantastically clean transfer, and the anamorphic enhancement sure doesn't hurt. I still think Deep Red is the best transfer Anchor Bay has done to date, but this isn't far off from that. Previous video transfers were murky and dull, and it's great to see this film finally released in the United States the way it was meant to be seen. The only question is, why did it take this long?
Opera was given a THX Dolby Digital 5.1 remaster of the sound (and also a DTS ES track as well), and while it's incredibly clean, it's not a very active track. Almost all sound is concentrated in the front three speakers. While I usually don't advocate putting in surround effects that did not exist to begin with, I don't think it would be sacrilegious to give the music effects a more enveloping sound. Perhaps a slight echo could have been used on the opera music to create a more realistic concert hall feel. However, I prefer the least amount of "cooking" on the original soundtrack, so while the engineers perhaps could have improved the audio, they chose to keep it as close to the original recording as possible, and I'll never argue with that.
: I have since had a chance to listen to this film in DTS, and it's radically different from the Dolby Digital 5.1 track. There is extreme (but not excessive) use of surrounds, especially the music inside the cavernous opera house. I don't know if a different mix was used for the DTS, but it does represent a substantial change from the Dolby Digital track, and without being overly "gimmicky." While I'm sure those with the capabilities usually select the DTS track when available anyway, here's one disc where it's highly recommended that the viewer choose DTS.
Anchor Bay has made the film itself the largest focus of this release, and that's the way it should be. Supplements are a bit sparse, so the fans that crave jam-packed special editions are going to be left wanting more. Other than the film is a music video, two trailers (European and American), and a 36-minute documentary. The documentary is quite good, with interviews with Argento, effects man Sergio Stivaletti, composer Claudio Simonetti, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, and cast members Urbano Barberini and Daria Nicolodi. (Cristina Marsillach apparently didn't participate, and Ian Charleson died in 1990). There are some interesting anecdotes, Argento gives some of the inspiration of the film, and there's several making-of segments. Most of the behind the scenes coverage was already seen in Luigi Cozzi's 1991 documentary Dario Argento - Master of Horror (how about giving that film a DVD release, Anchor Bay? Synapse? Anyone?), but since that's a pretty obscure foreign documentary, those scenes are getting their first big US exposure.
Those who buy the special limited edition also get the original soundtrack recording. I know several people collect movie soundtracks, so to them it's no question which version to buy. For those who only want the movie and the movie-related extras, the regular edition will suffice. My one beef about including the soundtrack (and this goes for Suspiria as well) is that there is no track listing. Next time, Anchor Bay?
The first Argento film I saw was Suspiria, and I have to be honest and admit it left me more than a little confused upon first viewing. I gave him a second chance with Opera (actually Terror at the Opera, the US video title), and then I finally saw what all the fuss was about. To this day, I recommend Opera as the best "starter" title for those unfamiliar with the Italian master of horror. It can be enjoyed as a simple horror film, yet it's also an example of how deep horror films can actually be in the hands of a competent director. It's quite possibly the most interesting exploration of the filmmaker/viewer relationship since Michael Powell's controversial 1960 film Peeping Tom. Argento is finally getting the recognition in the U.S. he's deserved for so long, and most of that is due to the fine work of Anchor Bay Entertainment. Opera isn't quite the amazing audio/visual treat that Suspiria and Deep Red are, but it's still an gorgeous film, and very well done DVD. This disc belongs in every horror fan's collection.
Movie - A
Image Quality - A-
Sound - B-
Supplements - B-
- Running Time - 1 hour 47 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital Surround EX
- DTS ES
- Dolby Surround 2.0
- "Conducting Dario Argento's Opera", a 36 minute documentary
- Theatrical Trailers
- Daemonia Music Video
- Dario Argento Bio
- CD Soundtrack (Limited Edition only)