Originally published November 2, 2015
As one of the greatest horror directors of all time (alongside Mario Bava, John Carpenter, George A. Romero and Wes Craven), with twenty-three movies under his belt, DARIO ARGENTO decided to spice things up by going the extra ‘creative’ mile and film a horror picture about the Opera. This movie was made in the year 1987, and it seems, judging by what his hardcore fans say, to be the last great effort the director made in creating a horror masterpiece. Argento is a well established Giallo director, which means, his movies are a combination of crime, suspense and horror. Opera did very well at the box office and it prompted the director ‘with an eye for horror’ to make a second movie about the opera, named THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, eleven years later.
This OPERA deals with Betty, a very young opera singer and her deadly way to stardom. A mysterious black-gloved killer tries everything to sabotage the Macbeth opera so that Betty is humiliated and exposed to the killer’s perverse conditions. The killer’s identity can be traced back to Betty’s nightmares involving horrifying flashbacks from the past, revealing her mother’s brutal desires and a man who would do anything to satisfy her.
She is the main character and throughout the movie, she suffers a lot. Her character’s been broken several times, but she obviously can take it, ‘cause every time she experiences a trauma she moves on. Survival is the name of the game, or she can join Jack Nicholson in ‘One flew over the Coocoo’s nest’.
Her painful existence begins when she was a little girl and witnessed a murder of an unknown woman by the hands of a masked perpetrator. And that’s not the toughest part. Her mother was tied up whilst the murder happened and on her face was an expression of gratification and lust, not one of angst and despair. Her mother bathed in enjoyment during the bloody spectacle. Little BETTY knew what was happening, which led her to suppress this memory, resulting in her closing up to the world and losing the ability to relax.
At the beginning of the movie she’s seventeen years old and a passionate opera protégé, but until a car accident to the main voice of the Macbeth opera, she didn’t have the chance to sing in front of an audience. Before she was picked as the main star, a mysterious voice on the phone told her that she got the part. Right then she was actually traumatised, thinking she was too young for such a big role. The producers convinced her to take on the part and from the premiere onward, the killing started.
Every time someone’s being murdered she knows it’s her fault.
‘Why did I sing that role? I shouldn’t have!’
Instead of going to the police or to panic after a murder, she tries to cover it up and keep it a secret. Knowing it’s her fault, she doesn’t want to be punished at the beginning of her career. Her stamina is high, even after the most traumatic events.
At the end of this thrilling and murderous ride, she is relaxed and started a fresh and open life with the director in the Alps Mountains. Until the ‘dead’ killer shows up for one last time. Betty wants to survive yet again and tells the killer everything he wants to hear. She convincingly lied, the police got him in custody and she goes on rambling about how she loves flowers and butterflies. It seems like she’s out of her mind at that point, leaving her without anyone by her side and without a clear future ahead.
THE KILLER AS A VICTIM
When we first meet ALAN SANTINI, the shy, good-looking policeman, we think of him as a good guy in this movie, because everyone else has a dark side to them. He seems sincere and is the calm counterpart to the director of the Opera. But let’s think a little about his character.
After realising that he’s the killer some things from his past became awfully clear. He was in love with Betty’s mother and tried to satisfy her in every way possible. It is evident that there was a big age difference and he had to earn her affection.
The way he said this looks like he didn’t want the ‘cruelty and blood’. He wanted her, and she wanted something different. She needed the adrenalin rush, which he was more than willing to provide it.
‘Are you afraid? I am. I am afraid of pain.’
She manipulated him. In an outburst of anger, when the mother demanded more victims, he broke down and strangled her.
‘And you know what? I enjoyed killing her.’
His guilt ate him up until he found out that the daughter of his lost love had taken on the steps of her mother. She wants to become an opera singer, just like her mother. This means there is a new opportunity waiting for him to succeed where he once failed. His pattern is pretty obvious. He arranged for Betty to get the main part in the Opera and tries to persuade her to feel pleasure for coldblooded murder.
‘You finally returned.’
‘All I wanted was your love! But people don’t understand.’
That’s why he fell under the spell and was caught off guard when Betty tells him at the end of the movie:
‘I am like my mother! I realise it now! I wanted you to win, to kill him. I’m exactly like her. Come, we must get away.’
He is an abused and tortured individual, who has a very weak character. He was used by Betty’s mother for her sexual, deviant fantasies and he never got to have his needs satisfied, which rendered him impotent. Because of that, he equates his inner urges with the hope that Betty is the one who will love him.
(Alan Santini = Ala Santi = Wing of the Saints)
ARGENTO’S EFFECTIVE AND VERY CREATIVE LAYERS
Argento is a very creative person, besides directing this feature, he also wrote it. By deconstructing the layers you eventually see how much effort he put into a single movie.
1. The Opera inside the movie is Macbeth, a famous play by William Shakespeare. This is the story:
‘Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and tells the story of a brave Scottish general named Macbeth who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia, and he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler as he is forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of arrogance, madness, and death (Wikipedia)’
Many ASPECTS of the original Macbeth are echoed in OPERA.
- Macbeth kills because his wife demands it, just like Alan kills because of Betty’s mother.
- Macbeth is then wracked by guilt and paranoia and is forced to commit even more murders, just like Alan.
- The same faith that befalls Macbeth and his wife got also its hands on Alan and Betty’s mother.
2. Argento chose carefully the NAMES of the characters, especially the victims connected to the theatre.
- There is Stephano, Betty’s young lover, with whom she ends up after the premiere of Macbeth. A character named Stephano appeared also in one of Shakespeare’s plays (The Tempest) and there his character is a drunken butler. It’s safe to assume that the moment Stephano in Argento’s version asks Betty, what kind of tea she wants to drink, to loosen her up, is a parody of the Stephano in ‘The Tempest’.
- The next victim is the costume designer Julia, reminiscence of Romeo and Julia. Argento’s Julia is feisty and furious. She fights fearless to the death and swallows the evidence the killer wants. Shakespeare’s Julia is also a woman who fights for her believes and swallows something; in this case, it was poison.
- The director of the Macbeth opera is Marco and he resembles Marc Anthony from the Shakespearian play ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. Just as Betty controls Marco because he wants to help her and is fascinated by her appearance so did Marc Anthony helplessly fall in love with Cleopatra.
- The last victim is Mira. Also from the play, ‘The Tempest’, is a character Miranda. In Argento’s Opera, she is a grown woman, while in the play she is a fifteen-year-old girl. The connection lies in Mira’s out of character behaviour before her death. She is a serious manager, very effective, direct and she’s Betty’s friend. In the scene leading to her death her stamina shifts and because of her fear she behaves like a little girl. She acts out of character.
3. Many REFERENCES to ‘The Phantom of the Opera’:
- The main singer in ‘Phantom’ is enabled to perform through the intervention of the masked mysterious figure. In this case, a chandelier falls on the star of the show, and Christine takes over her place. In Argento’s Opera the first main singer of the Opera is stopped to perform because the masked killer sabotaged her. Betty got the part instead and on her premiere, a set of lights came loose and falls on the audience.
- The ‘Phantom’ forces Christine to love him, and when she refuses he locks her up in the basement of the opera. In Argento’s version, the same happens but it’s a bit more radical. The killer forces Betty, and when she refuses he puts her in a glass cage with little needles under the eyes, so she can’t close them without hurting herself.
- In Gaston Leroux’s version the Phantom hides behind a mask because he has a disfigured face. This doesn’t apply to Argento’s version until the end of the movie when crows pick out Alan’s left eye. When he catches Betty and ties her up, his lines are a direct reference to the ‘Phantom’. ‘How can you love me? A monster!’
- The Phantom demands of Christine, not to look in his direction, because of his hideous face. Alan demands the same thing, but he makes sure she can’t look at him by covering her eyes with a cloth.
- Just like Alan didn’t have the privilege to have a sexual relationship with Betty’s mother, nor did the Phantom confess to Christine that he never received a kiss.
4. The MUSIC is intentionally the opposite of the mood the scene is in. It highlights the chaotic emotion Betty is feeling after she sees these horrible visuals the killer forces her to endure. Argento chose Brian Eno’s heavy-metal music during scenes that should be very dramatic and sad. That creative decision is the right choice because the horror escaped outside the embedded film frame and resonated directly with the audience.
Also, the lyrics in these heavy-metal pieces are reflecting the events on the screen:
- The killer explains to Betty while stroking her belly ‘It’s not true you’re not ready, you are, on heat!’ The lyrics supporting that scene is: ‘BURNING IN THE NIGHT’
- The lyrics during one of the murders: ‘THERE IS NO ESCAPE’
THE CONNECTIONS OUTSIDE THE MOVIE
Most fans know and enjoy Dario’s references to Alfred Hitchcock’s films. OPERA also has a variety of pretty obvious connections to the movies of the ‘Master of Suspense’.
The black-gloved killer stabs Stephano, Betty’s lover, with a knife. The first blow he takes is in the neck through the mouth, and then the killer throws him on the ground to have a fast-cut sequence of multiple stabs on the torso like the legendary shower scene from PSYCHO.
The biggest effect in the Opera is reserved for a swarm of crows that fly on the stage during Betty’s performance. Later on, these birds have a bigger scene when they attack the killer. These black birds act like the crows in Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS. They attack the main actress on the head, they pull out people’s eyes, and they control the people in the building.
In VERTIGO it’s Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) that fakes her death with a dummy, which she throws off the roof, while in OPERA it’s Alan that throws a dummy in the flames and thereby faking his death.
Besides using Hitchcock as an all present guide, Argento uses himself as a reflective entity within the movie. Macbeth’s director, Marco, is a horror movie director that wants to try his luck with directing an opera. Almost like a parody, are the sentences addressed towards the director, because they are real-life quotations.
‘Go back to horror films, forget Opera.’
‘I’ve seen a lot of your movies, yes, you’re a real expert on this field.’
‘I think it’s unwise to use movies as a guide for reality.’
‘It’s the curse of the manifestation of Macbeth.’
‘I always jerk off before I shoot a scene.’
Just like Marco is trying to find a creative way to expose the killer, so is Argento trying to find an outstanding way to tell the story of OPERA through mysterious dialogues and incredible visuals. All the problems that Marco faces on the way seem to reflect the problems that Argento had to deal with in the making of this movie.
SYMBOLS AND METAPHORS
As challenging as figuring out the multiple layers of the story, so is the spotting of the symbols a real task. His pictures are filled with sexual symbolism and his very expressionistic way of presenting the movie gives the film a unique signature. With his ‘eye for horror,’ every scene gets a special texture. One of the reoccurring symbols throughout the movie is the EYE.
The EYE or the GAZE of the characters point of view is in the service of suspense because the audience can’t always guess who is the one looking. And that’s the point. Argento tries to manipulate the spectator by breaking the rules established at the beginning of the movie. When the camera moves from one point to another without a clear GAZE from a character, it’s suggested that this point of view belongs to the menace, a.k.a. the killer. Instead of keeping this canon, he shifts the point of view from the killer onto an ‘invisible’ narrator. The camera just observes the scene, so that the audience can find out more information about Betty. But this is not the case here, ‘cause the tension rises, whenever the camera takes on the voyeuristic ‘steady-cam’ feel.
The EYE has a form of a circle. This metaphor is connected to the cycle that happens with Alan. He loved the wrong woman and lost everything. Years later he experiences the same thing and that also was a mistake. And it’s suggested that if there’s another opportunity for him, he would do the same thing all over again. His ‘death drive’ forces him to act without rational thinking.
Argento’s obsession with expressionistic elements inside his movies tells us a lot about his goal; to create an equivalent for paintings. His canvas is the film frame. Along the lines of expressionism, he uses a lot of bright colours, typically suggesting a special mood in an extremely stylized manner. In OPERA the colour taking over the atmosphere is a bright red. Red is mostly associated with blood, fire, danger and love. All of these characteristics appear in the movie.
Blood is, of course, mostly on victims.
Fire is in the grand finale when Alan catches Betty in the back room.
Danger appears in Betty’s flat right before something happens.
And love is apparent throughout the movie as a central theme and as a motif for the killer’s actions.
Four scenes stand out as very unusual in the pace of the movie. Two of them are very surreal, because they combine many, unrelated shots, as it appears. But a closer look reveals them as very informative and very useful. Because they are so unusual, the audience has a hard time figuring out what they mean. The intention of Argento was to create a poetic scene as opposed to the usual flashback.
‘Images proceed from one to another not by way of advancing the linear narrative but by the sorts of associative connections that one might find in lyrical poetry. (Kinoeye)’
Argento: ‘It could be described as a poetic film in the ‘Pasolinian’ sense of the word whereby every camera movement corresponds to a psychological interpretation.’
‘With these seven rapid shots Argento has composed a phenomenal montage. The killer’s heat is translated visually so that through the cameras intervention the frame throbs (Kinoeye)’
That means that emotions took over the frame of the film. Just like the scene in ALPHAVILLE (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965). Lemmy Caution won the battle against the A. I. – Alpha 60, and by destroying the machine, the film frame turns into a negative, suggesting the machine is not only inside the movie but also outside it. It might be in the projector inside our reality.
These associative images represent the point-of-view of the killer. His flashbacks and fantasies are melted together. It happenedas seen, but not as glorified and aesthetically pleasing as it is presented. That is therepresentation of the killer’s emotions during that event. What had happened was, the killer went down thestairs where he kept the victim. The handing over of the phallic knife by awoman represents Betty’s mother forcing Alan to kill for her. Shelikes to watch him kill the victim while she’s tied up. So the scene shows aman tying up the woman’s hands. In ecstasy, her hands scream with pleasure whenthe killer stabs the victim with the knife.
The metaphor behind the needles in front of Betty’s eyes leads all the way to the guilt and the curse of Macbeth. She sees her world through prison bars. By accepting her life as cursed and that she can’t escape from the circumstances that happen to her, she feels trapped, lonely, claustrophobic and always on the edge. Trying to relax through motivational tapes didn’t help her at all. As long as she battles the suppressed memories, she can’t be free. The killer’s motivation behind putting these needles on Betty’s face turns out to be his egoistical experiment to force Betty to enjoy the violence he’s producing.
‘Look, when you close your eyes, you tear them apart. So you are forced to watch everything.’
The disgusted audience can’t handle the intensity of the horrific shots, ‘cause Argento forces the filmgoer to see everything through ‘macro-shots’. In this stage, Betty is the equivalent of the audience that can’t escape the trap they’re in.
As a GIALLO representative, Argento uses the usual set of elements bound to that genre film. The eye, black gloves, steady-cam shots that show the room and the shelves, point of view shots, the mirror, macro-shots and flashbacks from the childhood of the main character are crucial to the success of this kind of motion picture.
THE RED HERRINGS
Alfred Hitchcock called them McGuffin’s. Things inside the movie that deliberately draw attention, but never deal with the story. Plot-wise it’s a dead end. In OPERA there are several gimmicks that lead to nowhere.
- The lingering shots on the digital clock. The hour seems to be significant but it doesn’t have an explanation or a connection that is relevant.
- The necklace Julia swallowed. The engravings were difficult to read, but in the end, they really don’t matter for the story. It was just a way to show a significant death scene.
- The little girl Alma and her mother. Besides helping Betty escape from her flat while the killer is inside, the girl didn’t bring anything to the result of the story.
- A conversation about ‘making love’ she had with the director. Throughout the film she doesn’t have intercourse. It was a pointless conversation.
- The sentence of the director: ‘I know we had some trouble but it has nothing to do with Macbeth, the only bad luck is for you, it brought you fame.’ It looks like Marco and Betty had a quarrel, but aside of this sentence it’s never referred to it again. Betty and the director even end up together at the end of the movie.
THE WEIRD ENDING
Most fans hated the additional ending after the grand finale in the Opera, but Argento was stubborn and wanted to keep the ending at all cost. Why? What’s so significant about the ending? One last brutal kill? Or that Betty got crazy?
The whole sequence felt out of place and goes against the rhythm of the whole movie. It is a very bright ending, the complete opposite of the atmosphere of the film, which is basically pitch dark. While there are several reasons why the movie works without this ending, there is one specific detail why it should be included. It is common in horror movies that the ‘FINAL GIRL’ has to kill the ‘MONSTER’ by the end of the movie. This Final girl should fulfil some requirements; like being sexually inactive or at best, a virgin.
Betty meets these ‘requirements’, but she hadn’t had the chance to get the killer. In the burning back room of the Opera, the evil guy committed a fake suicide, so it wasn’t her doing that stopped him. In Switzerland, she got a second chance. To follow the traditional outcome in a horror motion picture, this ending is supposed to happen, so the balance of the movie universe can be restored.