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Dario Argento's Opera (1987) HORROR
A dangerous mind
Dario Argento's Opera (1987)

In this detailed formal and stylistic analysis, Michael Sevastakis makes evident Argento's neo-Expressionist sensibilities and shows how the director's use of the camera at times approaches a "visual equivalent of Poe's elegantly wrought prose."

Murder, music and Macbeth

La Scala in Milan is nominally the mise-en-scène of the action in Opera (aka Terror at the Opera, 1987), but as is characteristic of a Dario Argento film, this locale is ramified and extended beyond the scope of the opera's proscenium arch. Each new setting becomes a theatrical space upon which the events of the giallo are enacted. In fact, the characters' larger-than-life offstage activities involving murder and fetishistic transgressions make their real lives as sensational as the Macbeth opera with which they are associated.[1]

The opera's director, Marco (Ian Charleson), a horror film auteur who has turned his hand to the stage, is a surrogate for Argento himself, orchestrating the means by which the identity of the murderer is revealed while self-reflexively mocking the investigative methods of Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini): "I think it's unwise to use movies as a guide for reality."

The film's aesthetic converges on several matrices, including the manipulation of plot, camerawork and editing and the exploitation of space and sound, which together serve as a template for Argento's unique style. Opera is redolent with references from past gialli such as L'uccelo dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970) while foreshadowing his most recent one, Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000).

Sex and psyche

To say that Argento's plots contain explicit violence is to state the obvious, but Opera links this violence to surreal images and aberrant behavior in the antagonist's past sexual history. Such a linkage is not unprecedented in horror cinema but Argento gives it a fresh spin in his gialli.

Dario Argento's Opera (1987)To emphasise the psychosexual transferals between physical desire and its unattainability, phallic objects are ubiquitously placed within oneiric or dreamlike settings via the use of knives, guns, bullets and other instruments of penetration. A number of Argento's films immediately come to mind here: the alcoholic young homosexual, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a red herring in Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1972) who has witnessed his father's murder; the author, Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa), in Tenebre (Unsane, 1982), humiliated by a woman in his youth; and Anna Manni (Asia Argento), the police officer in La Sindrome di Stendhal (The Stendhal Syndrome, 1996), afflicted with an illness stemming from a childhood visit to an Etruscan museum that seems to have caused her homicidal split personality.

In each of these cases, half-remembered childhood incidents, dreams and sexual fantasies come to the fore in adulthood with terrifying consequences. In Opera, the killer lovingly glides his knife along the televised image of Betty (Christina Marsillach), the young opera star of Verdi's Macbeth, as though he were touching her body with his phallus, equating sexual pleasure with pain.

The voyeuristic fixation that compels the killer to commit murder and gaze at Betty on television while "fondling" her with his knife is a recurrent trope or metaphor connected with desire and its lack of sexual fulfillment that has its origin in Inspector Santini's past. Toward the film's conclusion, once he has bound the hands of the young opera star as he did her mother years earlier, he confesses to this relationship: "She was too greedy. She wanted more blood, more cruelty and she wouldn't let me touch her."

This "blood and cruelty" is made apparent earlier in the film via an insert shot of a spiral staircase being descended as a steadicam glides through empty and derelict rooms, creating a fantasy-like effect as a young woman is murdered in bed while another woman's (presumably Betty's mother's) hands are bound. The present is thereby conflated with the past, the need to kill with the need to be seen killing, the need to supplant sexual penetration with the need to inflict pain, all of which intimate the killer's abnormal sexual drives and possible impotence.

Opera's plot device—the process of detection as revealing not one apparent suspect but a second, more transgressive accomplice (here Betty's mother)—foregrounds Argento's cinematic exploration of displaced female aggression, replicated in Lacanian psychoanalysis via an infantile collapse of Santini's identity, mastery and sense of self.[2] His enthrallment to his mistresses' sexual appetites conflates the relationship between lover and beloved with that of mother and child. But the lover/mother here becomes a vagina dentata and depravity the prerequisite for entry into this orifice.

Dario Argento's Opera (1987)The inspector, once he has captured Betty, confesses to his sadomasochistic relationship with the older woman: "She taught me a cruel little game of killing and torturing. Only then could I be her slave." Santini requires this new bonding to recoup his selfhood after the death of Betty's mother at his hands. The words he uses are expressive, for they signal the odd obsessional relationship that he has come to avow: "She taught me...a game [and]...only then could I be her slave." The former sentence speaks to the child in Santini, the latter to the sexually mature adult's infatuation with a woman who is both mistress and dominatrix. Betty is his nexus to the past, enabling him to resume his perversions in the present. He whispers to her: "Just like your mother."

This doubling of suspects, the inspector and, by extension, Betty's mother, is analogous to the doubling of narrative endings, for Argento effectively creates two of them. The first (spurious) conclusion occurs at the opera house with the presumptive death of the inspector at Betty's hands. The second (genuine) ending occurs with Santini's capture in the Alps as Betty, in a maternal manner, half coaxes and half conducts him by the hand from the scene of his recent murder of Marco.

The former police inspector has transferred his dependency to the younger woman, allowing himself once more to become spellbound. Where Santini earlier had told her, "I enjoyed killing [your mother]," it is Betty who now seems to relish smashing a rock over his head several times when he is not looking, effectively avenging her mother's death while defiantly repudiating her relationship to that woman: "It's not true, I am not like my mother. Nothing like her. Nothing at all." In fact, the whole experience has pushed Betty over the edge, as the film's coda attests.

Lost in space

Opera's equation of pleasure and pain is made patently clear in a series of four major flashbacks or "subjective inserts"[3] paralleling those of Peter Neal in Tenebre (a film whose Italian title, Sotto gli occhi dell'assassino / Under the Eyes of the Assassin, accentuates the voyeurism) which take on the aspect of a film-within-the-film.

Dario Argento's Opera (1987)The unknown killer's synecdochial image, consisting only of gloved hands or a black mask, becomes an objective correlate for his own fractured and recurrent sadomasochistic fantasies enacted years before with Betty's mother. This is to say that these fantasy sequences are so spatially and temporally disruptive to the main flow of the narrative that at first they appear to be displaced- real images within the narrative but seemingly out of context rather than subjective inserts coming from the viewpoint of a particular character. Their logic is ultimately more connotative than denotative because their relationship with the main action is filmed so as to have an implied rather than a literal meaning.

Firstly, there is no coding or transition device used to indicate that Santini's memories are indeed literal flashbacks at all. They initially suggest a simultaneity of action as alternating syntagmas (which are simply narrative cross-cutting stratagems) involving a spatial disengagement from the main action but still tangentially connected with it. And secondly, in keeping with Argento's plots, no indication is given from whose perspective the audience is sharing the flashbacks, thereby preventing us from correlating them with the main action.

In short, the 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. Indeed, Argento has stated of Opera that "It could be described as a poetic film in the 'Pasolinian' sense of the word whereby every camera movement corresponds to a psychological interpretation."[4]


According to Freud, the staircase is itself a symbol of sexual intercourse,[5] and Santini's recurrent memory of walking down the spiral staircase to the woman in bed parallels his phantom-like prowling around the opera house's stairs to observe Betty through theatre glasses, continuing the motif of voyeurism. It is Betty who supplants her mother in the killer's mind as he ties her up and places pins under her eyes so that she must also watch-as her eager mother had done years earlier-the murders of the young stage manager and wardrobe mistress.

One surrealistic sequence in the opera's costume-design room is orchestrated through a succession of subjective and non-diegetic inserts. The sequence begins with a zoom in to a close-up of a black masked face which continues into an extreme close-up past the eye to the bridge of the nose followed by a cut to a blank screen. The next shot has the camera zooming in to an extreme close-up of an indiscernible part of the body- even the pores are visible. It is perhaps the temple on the side of the masked individual's face, now seemingly uncovered, as it begins to throb. Again this is followed by a shot of a blank white screen.

Dario Argento's Opera (1987)The next shot is a close-up of blood rushing through arteries followed by a third brief insert of a blank screen. This in turn is succeeded by an extreme close-up of a human brain contracting and expanding with the sound of a loudly pulsating heart, after which the camera frames Betty in a medium-close shot, back to the camera, looking at a life-sized female mannequin in a traditional Japanese kimono placed within a glass enclosed cabinet. The film frame itself starts to pulsate as the heartbeat on the soundtrack increases. The camera then zooms in to a close-up of Betty still looking at the mannequin.

With these seven rapid shots Argento has composed a phenomenal montage. The cadenced sound of the killer's heart is translated visually so that through the camera's kinesthetic intervention the frame literally throbs, thereby suggesting an optical rendering of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." Within the diegesis, the subjective sound of the cadenced heartbeat emerges from an internal space within the killer to become a tangible source of tension expressionistically rendered through the palpitating frame of the film and into the story space. The shot's purpose, then, is to convey the force of the intruder's raw emotions and sexuality as they materialise into a visible form. The sequence is a logical outcome of what Argento considers his most important cinematic influence: German Expressionism and the work of Lang and Murnau, which made a profound impression on him even as a child.[6]

Catching a killer through a camera

Argento's films boast of an expressive and mobile camera that is restless in its exploration of space. Whether it be a steadicam or a handheld camera, two time-honoured strategies are frequently employed by the director with regard to its movement and placement. The first is an ambiguous rendering of the camera's point of view. This strategy is used in Opera almost schizophrenically in order to destroy the illusory viewpoint Hollywood films are at pains to establish: a logical and therefore credible visual reference point.

Shot and countershot are not played out in Opera according to classical filmmaking practices. As the camera tracks about the opera house or through Betty's apartment, or when it shoots from her air conditioning duct high in the ceiling, the focaliser-the one who sees-is not revealed; or if s/he is revealed, in the classic tradition of the giallo his/her face is obscured. Again and again the audience is deliberately put off guard, made uncertain as to whether or not there is an actual agent present who sees what the viewer is being shown. The result is an incessant shift back and forth between an objective, external, impersonal narrator who is not a part of the diegesis, and an agent with or through whom the audience observes the scene in question.

Argento makes use of close-ups which in conventional films reveal something significant to the audience, but which here disclose nothing. Hands caress Betty's body, stab her young lover Stefano (William McNamara) through the throat, probe the mouth of the seamstress with scissors, shoot a bullet through the eye of Mira (Daria Nicolodi), Betty's agent and friend, but leave the audience clueless as to the killer's identity. In short, the close-ups in Opera mystify and startle, but they do not clarify. The two standard devices employed in classical cinema to elucidate situations in the narrative-the shot-counter-shot and the close-up-are here rendered impotent, thereby forcing the audience to use other senses that are likewise subverted by the director.

The tone of the killer's voice, for instance, is distorted so that the privileged position accorded to human discourse over other sounds on the film's track loses its status as the preeminent means of character identification. Even more amazingly, it becomes as misleading as the employment of the film's background music. In one scene, the distraught Betty (after the appalling death of the stage manager) walks in a traumatised state through the city streets in the rain. This walk is accompanied by a tranquil score for harpsichord and alto female voice played contrapuntally, creating a purposefully bizarre disjunction between the instrumentation and the emotional state of the woman.

Ars gratia artis

Argento's regular foregrounding of stylistic techniques whose narrative function is minimal is present in Opera in a delirious set-piece at an opera performance the night the ravens are let out of their cages to catch the killer. As intricate as the tracking shot in and out of the apartment complex in Tenebre, the camera movement in Opera approximates the movement of the birds as they circle the house looking for the individual who killed several of their number.

The vertiginous camera encircling the audience reminds one of Poe's counterbalanced pendulum oscillations toward its victim in "The Pit and the Pendulum," and here again the director is content to stop the narration just long enough so that the viewer can enjoy the aesthetics of the camera's seeming free-fall into space, detached from its normal mount until the first bird begins to peck Santini's eye out as he fires blindly into the assembled crowd.

When Betty returns home with Marco after Stefano's murder, Argento, not satisfied with the conventional establishing shot, cranes his camera up in an apparently uninterrupted take of the entire façade of her building to the window where her apartment is situated. Likewise, when Betty has discovered the killer in her apartment after Mira's murder, the Dutch angles created by the camera destabilise the space she is in and become an expressionistic correlative to her distraught mind. When she realizes that the officer meant to protect her has also been dispatched by the stalker, the camera slowly spirals out from Betty over the policeman's body in another vertiginous crane to the ceiling, leaving her looking small and vulnerable and the audience dizzy with fearful anticipation.

Poe might be proud

Dario Argento's utilisation of the camera in Opera at times reaches a visual equivalent of Poe's elegantly wrought prose style. The director has always felt "a great affinity with Poe," saying " I understand his pain."[7] His notorious declaration, "I like women, especially beautiful ones...being murdered...," has been coupled with Poe's infamous dictum, "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."[8] Argento treats the death of his female (as well as male) victims in the most ingenious and "poetical" ways possible, blending the sensuous rhythms of Poe with the voluptuous repetitiveness of De Sade.

Michael Sevastakis

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Also of interest
About the author

Michael Sevastakis is a professor in the College of Mount St. Vincent's Communication Department in Riverdale, New York and has written numerous articles on contemporary American and European film and on film pedagogy. His book Songs of Love and Death (Greenwood Press, 1993), deals with the classical American horror film of the 1930s.

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1. Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds (New York: Citadel Press, 1994), 210. return to text

2. Xavier Mendik, "Detection and Transgression: The Investigative Drive of the Giallo," in Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book One, ed Andy Black (London: Creation Books, 1996), 35. return to text

3. Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics (New York: Routledge, 1992), 40. return to text

4. Luca M Palmerini and Gaetano Mistretta, Spaghetti Nightmares (Fantasma Books, 1996), 16. return to text

5. Sigmund Freud, On Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: W W Norton, 1952), 109. return to text

6. Maitland McDonagh's interview with Argento, p 243 is a reprint of her article "The Evil Eye of Dario Argento," Gorezone, 14 July 1990. return to text

7. McDonagh's interview with Argento, 248. return to text

8. W Schoell, Stay out of the Shower: 25 Years of Shocker Films Beginning with Psycho (1985), 56. Both quotes in Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies (Harmony Books, 1988), 105. return to text

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