For what it's worth, Opera is the last great Argento thriller. It's a loud, beautiful, and bloody disasterpiece with a surprisingly logical, albeit tenuous, plot. And unlike most of Argento's films, Opera feels like a complete film, not just an assorted set of ghoulish images. That said, Opera is far from tame. Not only does it have buckets of blood and a slapdash of disembowelment, but it contains one of cinema's most disturbing torture pieces--a series of sharp pins which are taped directly under the eyelids of the young opera singer Betty (played by Cristina Marsillach).
Real quick, before jumping too deeply into Opera, I would like to say something rather obvious: Dario Argento cannot write. Yes, his scenarios are some of the greatest in horror film history, however his dialog never fails to be atrocious. Recently, I watched Inferno for the first time and was blown away by the craptastic quality of the screenplay. For such a (rightfully) celebrated film, Inferno showcases more wooden characters than a ventriloquist orgy and more forced lines than Comics Unleashed. Look, I'm no Hemingway (you read this blog, so you know), but even I could've written better. In one day, no less.
Now, back to Opera. The dialogue isn't as memorable, which means that it isn't all that bad. Also, unlike the whole Three Mothers gimmick, which is just incomprehensible, the plot of Opera makes sense. Building off of the belief that Shakespeare's Macbeth is a cursed play (read more about that here), Opera puts a lovely young girl (Betty) in the crosshairs of an unknown maniac who is rapidly working his way through the cast and crew. Think of it as The Phantom of the Opera, but with '80s metal, classical music, and sexy, soon-to-be-dead chicks. As with any good Italian horror film, the kill scenes are awesomely gruesome. In one instance, the killer, whose trenchcoat-and-black mask getup is reminiscent of Mario Bava's proto-Rorschach in 1964's Blood and Black Lace, uses a pair of dressmaker's shears in order to extract a piece of jewelry that has been swallowed by a murder victim. Viewers don't see much in this scene, but they hear a lot, which is worse.
In another instance, a young lover boy (played by William McNamara) is graphically butchered by a big knife while Betty, his one night lover, is tied to a pillar and forced to watch thanks to the eye pins. Opera is also open to non-human killers, especially ravens. Frankly, the ravens, who constantly chatter whenever they're on the screen, get annoying real quick. Then again, they provide one of the most unique reveals in horror history, as play director Marco (played by Ian Charleson) unleashes the black birds out into the audience because, apparently, ravens never forget and will attack any one who has harmed them in the past. Unfortunately for the killer, in a previous scene he knocked off a couple of ravens. Because of this, he loses an eye and a disguise all in one sitting.
Once the killer is unmasked, the plot gets a little strange. The odd images that are sprinkled throughout the film are revealed to be Betty's childhood memories. These are tortured memories too, for Betty's mother was a serial killer who liked a certain young man to kill and torture in front of her. This young man (played by Demons veteran Urbano Barberini) grows up to be the new Erik with a fixation for his former master's offspring. You see Opera is just a weird love triangle involving two murderers and a potential murderess. But, despite a faked swerve near a Swiss mountaintop, Betty refuses to fall under her mother's spell, and thus the curse of Lady Macbeth dies. Betty celebrates by freeing a trapped salamander, while Swiss authorities drag the one-eyed murderer away.
Opera is not only visually stunning, but it was the first Argento film to be awarded a THX audio certification. Like Inferno, Verdi is all over Opera, and the thunderous orchestration that dots this film turns an otherwise savage potboiler into a startlingly grand production. Opera is horror done in the high art style, and its themes of obsession, madness, and cruelty are not unlike the celebrated operas from Shakespeare's day. For an unofficial swan song, Argento couldn't have done better.
On the DVD extras, Argento admits that right before making Opera, he was actually interested in making his own stage opera, despite not having a particular fondness for the music. Who knows what held him back, but it's easy to see Marco as a stand-in for Argento. Like the giallo maestro, Marco is an artist with a bigger vision than just his popular culture roots. While Argento tried to make thriller and horror films respectable in his own weird way, Marco, a music video director by trade, takes a stab at classical opera. The Italian press eviscerates him, and like Argento, Marco exists in a sort of limbo--a purgatory of expectations and failed attempts. This rumination on the life of the artist distinguishes Opera from its predecessors, while at the same time it might shed some light on why Argento has stunk for so many years. Living up to your own body of work is hard enough, but when you aspire to something more and are constantly denied, it becomes almost impossible.