Widely considered to be the last great Dario Argento film, Opera (promoted in the US under the unwieldy Agatha Christie-esque title Terror at the Opera) is a sharp movie with a fast pace and some great new ideas from the aging director. Argento was invited to La Scala after Phenomena and asked to produce and mount a stage opera; he was happy to do so, but the project never went anywhere due to artistic differences. Instead, he channeled that idea into his 1987 film, which concerns a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by a transparent avatar of himself, with heavy influences from the plot structure and recurring images of The Phantom of the Opera. Continue reading “Opera (1987)”
I approached this movie with ambiguous feelings. Since beginning this journey, I’ve cited Phenomena as my favorite Dario Argento movie in several reviews, and as its time in the spotlight grew nearer, I felt some trepidation about whether or not it would live up to my memories. I hadn’t seen it in over five years, and I was concerned that my recollection of it as a pitch-perfect film would be ruined upon revisitation. As it turns out, it’s even more beautiful than I remember, and still holds its place as not only my favorite Argento, but as one of my favorite movies period, regardless of genre. There are some superficial similarities to Suspiria, given the setting and the protagonist, but Phenomena is undoubtedly its own movie, and a departure from Argento’s other movies in that it contains very few of his common elements. There are no attempts to recall and decipher a misunderstood or misremembered clue. None of the violence is sexualized. The main character and the detective investigating the series of crimes don’t meet until they both wind up in the killer’s dungeon in the final act. The main character is not an artist, and the resolution of the mystery, while unforeseeable, doesn’t feel like a cheat.
After nearly thirty years, Dario Argento returned to his “Three Mothers” trilogy, a sequence of films that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and all of which centered around one of three ancient witches: Mater Suspiriorum of Suspiria, the Mother of Sighs, also known as Helena Markos; Mater Tenebrarum of Inferno, the Mother of Darkness; and Mater Lachrymarum, the titular Mother of Tears (and the titular third mother, per the original Italian title of La Terza madre). From the release of 1980’s Inferno until the premiere of Tears in 2007, there was much debate as to whether the trilogy would ever be concluded, and hope that it could be done so satisfactorily dwindled with each passing year. I went into this film expecting very little; perhaps that’s why, by the time the end credits rolled, I was shocked to discover that I had enjoyed it so damn much. Or maybe it’s because I’m sentimental.
Ironically, the more Dario Argento I consume, the more novel I find his seemingly obsessive repetition of concepts and ideas to be. When I discussed Profondo Rosso, I talked about how it represented the apotheosis of his metaphorical color palette, a brand new story done up in the same “shades” as his other gialli but narratively perfected; Tenebrae (aka Tenebre, although this is less of a translation of the title as it is a miscommunication about promotional material from day one), released in 1982, is Argento’s first picture to be filmed in the eighties and is the definitive giallo of that decade, despite being less well known than his preceding films in that genre. Most importantly, however, this is the first time I’ve really felt that Argento had a thesis with his movie. His previous gialli ranged from good to bad, but one thing they all had in common was that they were first concerned with cinematography and mystery, with meaning and metaphor playing inconsequential roles in the overall structure. “Here’s a mystery, and it twists a lot! And everything is beautiful!” with occasional “Here’s a mystery, and there’s witches, because why not,” essentially. Here, however, Argento addresses criticism of his work and its themes as well as what he perceived to be a rise in random acts of violence in his contemporary world.
After the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.
I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.
Released in 1975, Profondo rosso (Deep Red) is considered by many to be not only Dario Argento’s greatest work, but also the highest example of the giallo form. Although I still think that Suspiria is probably a superior film, and Phenomena is my personal favorite, it’s not hard to see why Deep Red was the recipient of such wide international critical acclaim (including being the first of Argento’s films to garner an audience in Asia, especially Japan), or why that popularity is so enduring, even forty years later.