The visual flamboyance which characterizes director Dario Argento's horror films has sometimes led to their being described as operatic, so it's no surprise to find him setting one of his patented slasher thrillers in that milieu.
The production here is Verdi's Macbeth, one that is said to be cursed, and indeed that description comes true for young Betty (Cristina Marsillach). She's the understudy to the opera's star, who is hit by a car and incapacitated after storming out of the theater following an argument with the
show's director, Marco (Ian Charleson), who is packing his production with live ravens, laser beams and other visual tricks. Before Betty even hears of the accident, she gets a mysterious phone call telling her that she is to make her starring debut. It's only the first of the many frightening
events that will befall her.
During her first performance, an usher is murdered when he discovers a concealed, mysterious spectator watching Betty. Later, the killer savagely butchers Betty's boyfriend, Stefan (William McNamara), and forces her to watch in a most horrifying way: before the attack, he grabs Betty, ties her up
and tapes needles under her eyes, forcing her to keep them open. She is questioned about the murders by Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini), who appears attracted to her, but the deaths continue. Julia (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni), the costume mistress, is murdered, and the killer also butchers
some of the ravens that attack him when he invades the costume room. Later, Betty is a horrified witness as her agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi), is shot through the eye as she looks through a peephole in Betty's apartment door.
Eventually, Marco comes up with a plan to catch the killer, who he believes will attend the next night's performance. He'll release the ravens into the theater, and the naturally vengeful birds will descend upon the one who killed some of their number. The scheme works, and the murderer is
revealed as Inspector Santini who, despite being mutilated by the ravens, manages to abduct Betty and spirit her to a basement room. There, he ties her to a chair, blindfolds her and reveals that he was her mother's lover, and that the two of them were involved in an intensely sadomasochistic
relationship; through forcing her to witness the murders, Santini had hoped to awaken the same urges in Betty. Then he apparently sets himself on fire before Betty is discovered and rescued. While staying in the country with Marco, however, Betty is confronted once again by the deranged Santini,
who had only set a dummy ablaze and has now just killed Marco. But before he can kill her, too, the police arrive and take him away.
One of the few so-called giallo films made by Argento following his barely-released TENEBRAE (aka UNSANE), TERROR AT THE OPERA is no less concerned with the relationship between artists and murderers. The director can be seen as represented here by both his killer (who stages horrific sights for
an audience of one--Betty, who literally can't take her eyes off them) and more explicitly by Marco, a horror filmmaker taking his first stab at opera. Like the character, Argento had attempted to stage a flamboyant version of a Verdi opera (Rigoletto), a venture that was derailed by problems far
more prosaic than a psychotic murderer preying on the principals. At various points through the film, Marco is observed debating the nature of film versus reality, most notably with Inspector Santini, who will later be exposed as the villain. (It may be an additional intended irony that Argento
has cast as his killer Urbano Barberini, one of the stars of OTELLO, the Franco Zefferelli filmization of yet another Verdi work.)
Beyond the aesthetics, Argento displays his usual passion for Grand Guignol violence and breathtaking camerawork. The bravura peephole murder, which begins with a cat-and-mouse game played by Mira with the unseen assailant and ends with the bullet that has killed her shattering the telephone on
which Betty is trying to call for help, is the most startlingly excessive example of the former, while the latter is best exemplified by the swooping raven's point-of- view shots during the climactic action. The hyped-up visuals and shocking gore, as usual, help distract from Argento's typically
sketchy plot and lack of credible characterizations.
Betty is an unusually passive heroine, reacting with a lot less shock than might be expected of a girl who's witnesed the violent deaths of people around her, and Santini's explanation of his motivations is not only psychologically fuzzy, but rendered unclear by poor dubbing of his confession
scene. Nevertheless, Argento's thrillers have always been more notable for creating stylish shocks at the expense of dramatic logic, and TERROR AT THE OPERA finds him in good form. (Violence.)
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- Released: 1987
- Rating: R
- Review: The visual flamboyance which characterizes director Dario Argento's horror films has sometimes led to their being described as operatic, so it's no surprise to find him setting one of his patented slasher thrillers in that milieu. The production here is… (more)