In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week, we take a look at Argento’s iconic 80s Giallo, one of the last great Argento films, Opera. Next fortnight, we’ll cover Ishtar.
Well, it had to happen eventually. Today we’re talking about horror maestro, Giallo pioneer, and general spooky mc spooker, Dario Argento.
Giallo plays a pretty big part in my life. I wrote my dissertation on Gialli, I’ve made many friends online through a shared appreciation of this little widgety genre, and this is the first column since my first for this site that focussed on Gialli, these films being what launched my now pretty widely scoped little column here. Now while Mario Bava is absolutely, unequivocally, the originator of this genre, it is Dario Argento who shot it to prominence, (we really must cover a Bava one of these days). It was with Argento’s debut, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, that Giallo became a really serious box office proposition. There were of course Gialli that came out the same year that were being developed probably concurrently that were certainly helped to prominence by The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Five Dolls for an August Moon and the like, but the fact that some directors like Sergio Martino were making multiple brilliant Gialli a year afterwards can’t be coincidental to the fact that The Bird With The Crystal Plumage took astronomical amounts of money. There’s famously the story of Argento trying to cast American character actor Karl Malden in his next movie, Cat O’ Nine Tails the next year, and eighteen months later, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage was still playing in Turin so Karl could just go watch it there to see what the director’s work was like.
Over the years Argento’s work moved further and further away from the classic Giallo rubric. He’d bring in more elements of comedy in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, historical drama on The Five Days, & a sensory assault that he would continue to hone as a cinematic style on Deep Red. It may not look it from the outside but Deep Red was very much a return to the familiar for Argento, after the financial failure of Four Flies on Grey Velvet & the decidedly non-horror, non-Giallo, The Five Days, Argento felt the need to make a straight Giallo. That being said his increasingly independent personality was irrepressible and Deep Red still to this day looks like absolutely nothing else, bar maybe the later and superior Argento Giallo Tenebrae. The fact that Argento was moving more and more into fantasia, into sensory overload, into rule breaking, is obvious here, and what comes next was obvious. It’s Suspiria, (his best film), it’s Inferno, it’s Phenomena, it’s to a degree Tenebrae. Even going so far as to produce zombie pictures like Demons & Dawn of the Dead. A four movie stretch of some of the most out there thrillers and horrors Argento had ever made, but also the decline was looking more and more inevitable, afterall, this was the peak, what could he possibly do next? He’d made, by this point, not only his best film but his best Giallo, what now? As it turns out, more.
Okay I think we’ve contextualised enough.
Opera shows Dario Argento in many ways at the peak of his powers. The way the bold one takes and swirling cameras and avante-garde editing meld together is maybe the slickest Argento has ever been. You can tell he has reached the pinnacle of something. Even on films like Suspiria that was Argento’s inner voice bursting out, now it feels like an explosion of energy has been concentrated into a directed beam of light. His use of slick moves and abstract lighting along with kaleidoscopic editing feel like they are more for a purpose here than they ever really have before.
Opera follows Cristina Marsillach as the prototypical Argento ingénue figure that would later be filled by his own daughter, Asia. Here, she plays Betty, the understudy in a production of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, (that Argento would later do a stage version of himself), who after an unfortunate incident with the original lead is forced to make her stage debut as Lady Macbeth herself, she is wonderful, then murders start happening. The murders here are unlike any that Argento has helmed before. Betty is strapped to whatever’s around, put in some sort of artistic framing, a glass cage for example, then has needles strapped to her eyes forcing her to watch murders in the hopes that it will corrupt her to the warped murder’s point of view that these murders are strangely erotic. Here we see Argento actually at his most superficially substantive, playing with meta elements in his work he’d begun playing with in Tenebrae. In Tenebrae, Argento was quite obviously pastiching the idea that he has in the public eye and amongst his detractors, playing with the person that his critics assume him to be without ever actually meeting him. This is turned up to max here and incorporates ideas of gaze and what gaze means and what we think it means, and how those things don’t necessarily line up as much as the public discourse assumes it does. He also takes pointed jabs at how people always assume the director, but, in a way to avoid spoilers, often the most evil people are those that always question and seek answers that aren’t there. There’s also the element that this is an opera production of Macbeth which incorporate both ideas of metatextuality and also gaze, about taking on personas that you perform to a crowd as an actor and person, that people are then invited to interpret by themselves, and how in ways that is very much like life. Argento also has very pointed jabs at what people assume movie directors are like when the original lead actress calls out the in-universe movie director on such things.
On an experiential level these set pieces are great and thrilling and exciting. There’s a gothic element that pervades this film, metatextuality again calling right back to Poe who Argento was so fascinated with, with the inclusion of the raven motif. This all culminates with a tense as anything home invasion sequence that puts his original apartment invasion in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage to shame and in terms of visual invention of murder and editing tops even Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
Now do I think this is Argento’s best film? No, I don’t. The signs of decline are here. Many think this is Argento’s last great film and while I disagree I completely get it. The ending makes absolutely no sense even for Argento. You can say what you like about Suspiria but in Gialli you really need the plot to make sense, and frankly, Suspiria does make more sense. He was falling more into the trope of just, the killer is mad without any real narrative purpose or mystery which is always less interesting than logical mystery and the dubbing is awful, even for Gialli. The horror market was moving further away from the narrative thrust of Gialli anyway and more towards the excesses of the slasher boom and for the first time in his career it felt like Argento was playing catch up to the zeitgeist instead of leading it. Also, the more polished he was getting, and the more cohesive his style, the less it felt like his work had that distinct Argento flavour. Is this the last Argento film that I love? Not at all. Is it the last Argento film that feels like only Argento could have made it? Absolutely.