Dario Argento, as I’ve said many times before, is a part of my Filmmaker Holy Trinity which is rounded out by George Romero and Wes Craven. My personal reverence for this trifecta of brilliant minds cannot be overstated. Not only did they shape my love for the horror genre but together they helped define my cinematic palette – however scattershot it may be. So, with every modern re-release of their work, I get excited by the opportunity to dive back into a film with fresh eyes. My hope is always of recapturing the magic of a first time viewing. Recently, all the accolades and hooplah regarding Argento has been piled onto the 40th-anniversary release of the Maestro’s Suspiria, and rightfully so. Synapse spent years perfecting what will, without doubt, be the ultimate release of what many consider to be Argento’s masterpiece.
Suspiria is beautifully photographed in an array of candy-coated nightmarish visuals and backed by a relentless score from longtime Argento collaborators, Goblin. The threadbare plot is constantly at risk of collapsing into an illogical mess as one scene after the next throws up the middle finger to the idea of narrative construct. As lauded as it is for all of its cinematic rule breaking, Argento himself isn’t that keen on the film as a whole. He much prefers the loosely connected follow-up, Inferno. In fact, of all the classic Gialli from the director’s career, he considers Opera to be his strongest film. For some, that may be a bit of a head-scratcher. But upon further examination, it’s not hard to see why. Thanks to Scorpion Releasing (who has a series of amazing Italian releases lined up over the next few months), we all get the chance to revisit this tale of emotional divas, shrieking ravens, twisted notions of love, and some of the finest murder set-pieces ever photographed.
While plot is never of the utmost importance with a Giallo picture, Opera manages to keep things running straightforwardly with a fairly basic setup. After a freak car accident, the great Mara Cecova is unable to take the stage on opening night of Verdi’s Macbeth. The production is the brainchild of horror film director Marco, who hopes to flex his creative muscles with the supposed “cursed” play. Without any time to waste, Cecova’s understudy, Betty, is thrown into the spotlight and begins winning raves for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Naturally, there is a black-gloved psycho haunting the opera house with an eye for Betty. Her very own phantom has a penchant for forcing her to watch as they rip her friends to shreds.
The killer literally tapes Betty’s eyes wide open with a strip of needles that threaten to rip her eyelids apart if she dares to blink. This visual gag is a fun nod to the actual act of watching horror films, something Argento seems interested in toying with during the film’s run-time. While this is no Giallo version of Scream, there are enough meta winks to the audience that make this one of the most “fun” films of The Mastro’s career. A late in the game homage to Phenomena is a surefire delight for fans. Unlike that film, with its wild third act revelations, Opera’s central whodunnit if painfully obvious and an attempted twist can be spotted all the way from the back of the house.
Despite the rollercoaster ride theatrics, the pacing is slightly off. Considering Betty is very much aware of the danger she’s in early on, it becomes frustrating that the young ingenue is far from proactive in terms of moving the plot forward. She sort of stumbles from one murder to the next. Oh, but what wonderful murders they are. The body count isn’t terribly high, yet each set-piece is orchestrated with such precision and style that it’s hard to imagine any Giallo or slasher fan not feeling satisfied. From close-ups inside a victim’s mouth as a blade juts up from their jaw, a cringe-inducing moment of improvised surgery, and one of the hands down most operatic (pun fully intended) deaths to ever be captured on screen – the effects work from Renato Agostini is top notch all around. All of this grand guignol goodness is boosted by a wide array of musical cues from Claudio Simonetti, Bill Wyman, opera numbers, and even heavy metal for good measure.
Much like the eclectic soundtrack, Argento is playing with every single toy in his sandbox. That sense of youthful glee behind the camera is contagious for the viewer. It’s easy to look past the obvious mystery at the heart of the tale and the illogical decisions of the characters and just go along for the ride. Argento wants to show you something, something beautiful and repulsive all at once. Working with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Ronnie Taylor, Argento stages his biggest film with sweeping, swirling camera moves that throw the viewer from the perspective of the never seen Cecova, to the eyes of the killer, and even the swooping attack of a flock of ravens. This is the glossiest and most sumptuous slasher flick that has perhaps ever been put to film. On top of all that, Opera remains narratively sound…relatively speaking. For Argento, this must have been a huge success in terms of the scope he was able to achieve. For viewers, it’s an entertaining blend of stylish Giallo and 80’s slasher that gives a peek at what could have been had the Italian genre industry not collapsed into a slew of no budget, bottom of the barrel productions.
Scorpion Releasing has done a fine job with the presentation on this disc. We’ve been gifted a new 2k scan with “over 45 hours of extensive color correction done in the states.” The image is crisp and natural, never feeling too contrasty. While the color scheme isn’t the most out there for an Argento flick, several key sequences bathed in the glow of colored lights are truly gorgeous to behold. Sometimes there’s fear of updating an older film with such a detailed restoration, fear that the “seams” may begin to show. Luckily, that’s not the case here. The effects work holds up and for the most part, it’d be easy to mistake this for a modern release – if not for some choice fashions throughout. There are a couple of moments where stability seems to be an issue, most notably during some of the long tracking shots. It’s possible those issues were inherent with the filming itself. Though, I don’t remember noticing it on previous viewings.
The sound options are a crisp 2.0 and a brand new 5.1 DTS-HD master. I highly recommend the 5.1 if you’ve got the setup. The rear speakers play home to much of the “life” within the theatre (audience murmuring, footsteps, background crew) as well as the screech of the ravens. The surround sound also shines during the various performance scenes, helping place the viewer square in the middle of the opera house as Betty belts it out on stage.
In terms of special features, the disc comes up pretty light. What we do get is well worth your time, however. There’s a 21-minute interview with Argento where he discusses various aspects of the production from how he considers the role of Marco to be an “anti-biography” to difficulties working with the lead actress. Most importantly, Argento explains how the fear of AIDS at the time played a great deal in the subtext of the film. The other interview on the disc is with American actor William McNamara whose role may have been minor but manages to dish plenty of fun behind the scenes tidbits including a story about how Vanessa Redgrave was initially cast in the role of Mara Cecova. Beyond that, we get a few trailers. One, in particular, is a truly bizarre Italian teaser that appears to go out of its way to try and not sell the film.
Overall, this a strong disc for an entry in Argento’s career that deserves more attention from Italian genre fans. Even for those who aren’t crazy about Gialli might get a kick out of the more straightforward narrative and slasher style conventions. If you’re in it for the film alone, this is the best Opera has ever looked on home video. If you’re interested in more special features than what is provided here, fear not! Scorpion Releasing has a jam-packed, Deluxe three disc set coming sometime later this year. I actually wasn’t aware of that when I ordered my copy, and I can tell you right now…I’ll likely be double dipping.