Terror at the Opera (1987)

a.k.a Opera

Dario Argento's typically awesome visuals bring overwhelming atmosphere to an eccentric giallo plot. Arrow Films UK R2 release.

The Film

Dario Argento is one of the big names in Euro-cult-cinema and his love of the distinctly Italian giallo genre, from his debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) to genre high-point Profondo Rosso (1975), lead him to revist the genre long after it had died out in the popular mind. Terror at the Opera marks the mid-point between the end of the original giallo period and the beginning of the new-giallo era personified by such entries as Argento's own Il Cartaio (2004) and Occhi di cristallo (2004).

Terror at the Opera opens appropriately enough with a rehersal for an elborate production of Verdi's Opera Macbeth, being produced by horror movie director Marco (Ian Charleson). However, the diva in the lead role is less than happy with the flock of ravens on-set, and storms off; in her hurry, being struck down by a car outside the theatre. The producers rapidly call on understudy Betty to fill the role, her debut operatic leading performance. As the performance begins, Betty is being watched by an unseen observer wearing ominous black gloves - later she celebrates her sucess in bed with her boyfriend, a stagehand on the show; but as he leaves to make tea, she is attacked by the masked figure who ties her to a column and tapes pins under her eyes forcing her to watch as he brutally kills the boy upon his return. The police are put on the case, but the killer strikes repeatedly, and Betty is forced to work out his intentions...

Terror at the Opera boasts a number of inspirations. The operatic setting derives from Argento's attempt, in 1985, to stage a heavily modified version of Verdi's Rigoletto, which was cancelled by the theatre, concerned over popular backlash against such heavily altered operas. Throughout the background sequences in this Opera, we see an oddball mix of costumed characters, while Lady Macbeth performs onstage with a pistol in hand - never fully explained; these sequences tease of Argento's desire to create a radical new operatic interpretation. It is surely no co-incidence that opera director Marco is scripted as being a horror-movie director and it is mentioned that he has previously directed Rigoletto to critical distain. The distinctive pins-under-the-eyes featuring prominently in this film come about from Argento's personal mantra that it is what you do see that scares or shocks you most and his desire to find a way to force a person to watch everything unfolding in front of them. According to Argento himself, the use of ravens as key players in the plot was an excuse to use some highly elaborate camera-work for the birds-eye sequences, but their use also harks back to several of the classic giallo films, where people with disabilities (the blindman in Argento's Cat O'Nine Tails (1971) or the mute girl in Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)) have knowledge about the crimes, but not been able to act upon it. The ravens have seen the killer, and Argento's continual visual emphasis is on their eyes, but are unable to communicate their knowledge to anyone else making them the ultimate handicapped witness.

With all this going on, the plot is clever enough to remain different to many of the classic giallo films; the main character is not a witness to a crime, or an investigator, but has seemingly been targetted at random - we are given faint clues as to why, although these only become clear on a second viewing. As a giallo-mystery, there are only a couple of potential killers, although viewers might be surprised by the revelation - the script seems to forget it is a mystery picture most of the time, instead becoming a horror picture. For a film close to two hours, the plot flows very quickly and the film seems little more than 90 minutes. However, as fans of Argento and giallo films will probably expect, the storyline has a number of holes in it - the sequence with the mix-up in the apartment; as Betty is unable to workout which is the real police-officer only works because the real officer seems to disappear from the scene on a number of occasions and not do his job. The ending to the film seems almost tacked on and has very little relation to what has gone before - the dark operatic atmosphere is completely lost. 

Working with a very impressive budget Argento was able to bring his warped vision to life. Shooting inside the massive Teatro Regio Opera house in Parma (Italy), the film boasts one of the most elaborate boom shots ever used in a film, as the camera assumes a raven's eye perspective and flies around the hall. The usual Steadicam shots are out in force again, although Argento manages to avoid them becoming gratuitous. The decent budget means that the gory effects are very strong and look, and sound disturbingly realistic. The music is a strange mix - the Opera scenes are self-explanitory, and Betty listens to various operatic themes in her apartment; several of the flashback scenes are accompanied by a Brian Eno soft-rock score that adds to their dream-like elements while a number of the action scenes are set to a generic modern rock score that serves only to give the film a very American feel and does the movie no favours.

There are no big euro-cult names in Terror at the Opera; Argento's frequent performer Daria Nicolodi is the closest, and gets a small role as Betty's manager. Cristina Marsillach in the lead role apparently fell out with the director very quickly, but manages to give a satisfactory performance as Betty, and convinces in the important Opera sequences, she does look very similar to Dario's daughter Asia Argento and one wonders if this was motivation behind the casting, Asia still being too young at this time for such a major role. The rest of the cast perform well.

In all, Terror at the Opera is a very interesting film. Viewed as a giallo mystery it doesn't work too well, but as a horror film it is a strong entry with some exciting stalking moments, just don't expect it to all make sense. Argento brings his typically over-the-top direction and blood to this film, and his operatic grand-guignol work fits well with the theme of the piece. Recommended to Argento fans, giallo fans may find this a disappointment but euro-horror fans should enjoy. Generally, recommended with reservations, to all.

In Brief

Is this Phantom of the Opera?
No, Argento directed a take on Phantom of the Opera in 1997. This film is merely set around the backstage of and operatic performance, and its lead performer.
Anyone famous in it? Daria Nicolodi - star of several of Argento's pieces (Deep Red, Tenebre, Inferno) has a small role.
Directed by anyone interesting? Dario Argento - famous Euro-cult director, of classics from Suspiria (1977) to Deep Red (1975). Typically associated with very elaborate directoral styles, sometimes at the expense of plot.
Any violence? Some amazingly gory death scenes, filmed in a very stylish manner.
Any sex? A couple of very brief scenes.
Is it scary? Some tense giallo stalking scenes
Who is it for?
Of definite interest to Argento and euro-horror fans, boasts inspired direction that all film fans should check out.
Good soundtrack? Lots of Verdi Operatic music coupled with a light rock score from Brian Eno and heavy rock from ex-Goblin member Claudio Simonetti.


Visuals Original Aspect Ratio  - 2.35:1 anamorphic wide-screen. Colour.
The image is fine with little analogue damage, and no digital traces.
Audio English and Italian language original dubs - Dolby stereo.
English track has more hiss than the Italian track. The Italian track has some slight audio drop out in a couple of scenes, mostly in the sequences with spinning cameras - the stereo separation sounding a little too forced.
Note - English track provided here is the original dub track, different to the re-recorded version used on the US disc, and generally considered inferior.
Note - Opera is in Italian in both versions.
Subtitles English. Player generated. They are small and can be hard to make out on small screens.
Note - the text used is a transposition of the English language dub track. Hence watching the Italian dub, with this subtitle track does lead to some slight inconsistencies, although does not cause many problems.
Note - vocals in the Opera sequences are not translated.
Extras The disc includes:
  • Brief text biography of Dario Argento
  • Manual scrolling gallery of 15 stills from the film.
      Packing Standard Amaray case.
      Region Region 2 (UK and Europe) - PAL
      Other regions? Region 1 Anchor Bay US release. Includes extensive extra features, 6.1EX surround sound, limited edition also includes soundtrack CD. Does not include Italian language track.
      Inferior Italian and Korean releases.
      Cuts? The film is believed to be fully uncut.
      The film is from the Italian print, so titles and credits are in Italian except the English title.



      Return to main menu.

      All text in this review written by Timothy Young - 30th July 2005 - updated 22 March 2006 and 25th October 2006.

      Text from this review not to be used without authorization.

      Please contact: