The Principles: Dario Argento (Director). Cristina Marsillach. Ian Charleson. Urbano Barberini. Daria Nicolodi
The Premise: When the demanding and pain-in-the-assy lead of a production of Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” gets randomly hit by a car, her young understudy, Betty (Marsillach) is asked to step in. She doesn’t want to at first as she believes that particular opera itself is cursed, but reluctantly agrees. Sure enough – the bodies start fallin’, in true Argento fashion.
Is It Good: Sorta? Not really, no. It’s not BAD – I was compelled enough to watch to the end without it feeling like a chore – but it’s not anything to write home about. Everything that’s not a murder scene just drags on and on and on, the dialogue is stiff and wooden, the delivery even moreso. The photography has its moments and the direction shows a real sense of traffic and flow when it needs to, but none of those things can overcome the obstacles put in place by our cast – well, our lead, mainly. She’s pretty, and you buy her as a young, fledgling opera singer, but you don’t buy her as anything else. Except terrified, because she’s GREAT at selling that. Her wide-eyed horror is pretty chilling on its own, but when you add the bonus of our killer’s taping needles to her cheeks (in such a position as to rip her eyelids to shreds should she want to close them) to force her to watch his little grisly song and dance, she is a perfect visual metaphor for pure, unfiltered terror. But again – she sucks at everything else. For example, after having witnessed the vicious (more on that later) murder of a dude she’s just slept with, she spends the next 10 minutes engaged in some sort of sexually tense cat-and-mouse back and forth with another dude. She even giggles a time or two. This would be fine if they were setting her character up to be some sort of unhinged psychopath, but nope – she just has no idea how to add nuance to a performance and carry an emotional through-line from scene to scene. I doubt Argento cared much, though. She was great at looking scared and he had other things on his mind (again, more on that later).
The support staff does their job well enough, but, more often than not their job is to either a) fawn all over our lead and tell her how amazing of a singer she is, b) show concern for her well-being, or c) die. Sometimes it’s all three – those characters are my favorite. Versatility!
And the big reveal at the end would have been kinda cool if our killer wasn’t a match for our lead in every way.
Is It Worth A Look: Sure! Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a cinematic travesty or anything. It’s a completely passable b-level slasher flick. Passable, that is, until people get murdered. THEN it’s a Dario Argento movie. When Betty’s little loverboy bites it (spoiler, I guess?), I cringed. Like that whole “pull your legs up on the couch with you and half-turn your face from the screen while you still stare intently and say ‘Gaaaaaaahhhhhhh’ the entire time” cringe. VICIOUS. And not only that, it’s a must-own for anybody looking to work in practical gore effects. It’s not over-the-top splatstick a la Evil Dead, and sometimes it’s even kind of restrained, but that only adds to it.
What takes away from it, however, is the fact that while the entire movie is scored by some really beautiful arias (“Sempre Libera” from “La Traviata” is fantastic, but that’s neither here nor there), when our killer goes to work we switch gears into some ‘80s hair-metal thrash nonsense. I still don’t understand that. This is the same guy who made horror artsy as hell with Suspiria, fer cryin’ out loud!
But, yeah – it’s worth a look. I’m glad I watched it, it’s not something I’ll likely ever revisit, but regardless, it earned the 90-or-so minutes I gave to it.
Random Anecdotes: Speaking of Suspiria, I was actually really excited to see this. I really loved the way Argento was able to mix a (then) disrespected and, for all intents and purposes, non-legitimate form of artistic expression with a globally legitimized art form like ballet to bring a lot of the inherent creepiness out of it. It was an amazingly poetic, artistic movie because of the juxtaposition of those two art forms and I expected Opera to be a sort of spiritual sequel (a la the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy) and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I don’t wanna be presumptuous and say that’s what he tried to do and failed – but that’s at least what I was expecting going in and it certainly didn’t live up. Whereas the ballet was a character all on its own in Suspiria, here the opera is merely a setting.
Cinematc Soulmates: Suspiria. The Red Shoes. Phantom(s) of the Opera/Paradise. And by “Cinematic Soulmates,” I mean “Movies You Should Probably Just Watch Instead”