Opera (1987)

Mara Cecova is a diva and the star of a whole new way of performing Verdi’s Macbeth. But when she’s hit by a car as she argues with the director in the middle of the street, her role goes to her understudy, Betty. Ironically, in his book Profondo Argento, director Dario Argento claimed that the person playing the role of Betty, Cristina Marsillach, was the most difficult actress he would ever work with.

Despite her initial worries, Betty becomes an instant success on her opening night. At the same time, a black-gloved killer sneaks into one of the boxes to watch before murdering a stagehand with a coathanger. Grab your barf bags and motion sickness pills, everyone, Argento is behind the camera!

Of all the powerful shocks in Opera, perhaps the one that means the most to the viewer is that we share Betty’s torture — she’s repeatedly gagged, tied up and forced to watch the killer at work again and again as he tapes needles under her eyes. If she blinks too long or shuts her eyes, they’ll be shredded. It’s like Fulci’s wettest dream ever. In the same way, we are nearly complicit with the crimes we are forced to watch, particularly because they get more and more artfully composed.

Throw in the fact that Betty believes that the hooded killer is the same person who murdered her mother, she follows the giallo path for a protagonist and confides in someone else rather than the police. Her reason? The killer may know who she is.

Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini, Demons) is on the case, because there are so many clues, like the fact that the producer’s pet ravens were found dead after the show. As for Betty, she runs from the police and calls her agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s former wife and the writer of Suspiria and star of Shock) for advice.

Betty’s costume gets cut to ribbons, so she asks the wardrobe girl for help. While she works on the dress, they find a gold bracelet that they can almost read. But here comes the killer and his needles again, forcing her to watch him kill one more time. The wardrobe girl accidentally swallows the bracelet, so of course, we watch as the murderer slices her throat open to get it back.

Betty runs back to her apartment where Santini is waiting. He promises to send a detective named Soavi to watch over her (yep, The Church director Michele Soavi), but she doesn’t trust the man and leaves her apartment. That’s when her agent answers the next knock on the door by looking through the peephole. What follows is the most grand kill in the entire film — which is saying something — as we follow the bullet POV-style out of the gun and directly through her eyeball. Again, Fulci is somewhere wringing his hands.

Nicolodi had just ended a long relationship with Argento and did not want to be in this film. However, the shocking and complicated murder of her character changed her mind, even if she had to deal with an explosive device being put on the back of her head to achieve the final shot.

Betty escapes the killer again and runs to the opera house, convinced there is a connection between the murderer and her long dead and totally abusive mother. The next night, as she performs, the producer unleashes what is left of his ravens in the hopes that they’ll find the killer. Oh, they do alright — tearing his eyeball out of his head — FULCI ARE YOU THERE, IT’S ME DARIO — and rewarding you, the viewer, with POV shots that threaten you with vertigo. I’m getting dizzy even typing this.

I don’t want to give away the killer or even the second ending where the killer isn’t really dead. I just want to talk about the sheer Argento-ness of the final scene, where Betty wanders in a field and releases a lizard, giving him his freedom. Argento claims that this ending was inspired by Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. Of interest, the director does NOT like the Michael Mann movie Manhunter. Me? Well, I love that movie. But I’d love to see Argento’s take. There’s was also a thought to another ending where Betty would fall in love with the killer.

Your enjoyment of this film really comes down to how much you like shocking amounts of bloodshed and Argento’s arty side. He based the film on his own failed staging of Macbeth, basing the role of the nervous producer on himself. And the idea of pins under the eyes? It comes from a joke about how Argento hated when people looked away during the death scenes in his films.

Believe it or not, Orion Pictures planned on releasing an R-rated version of this in the US called Terror at the Opera with eleven minutes of mayhem removed, as well as the Swiss Alps epilogue. Argento refused and Orion was losing money at a fast clip, so the movie only saw a limited video release. 

Opera is something else — filled with style and brutality. I loved it, but remember my warning as to how much you can handle. You can check it out on for free with an Amazon Prime membership.

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