***WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS***
The strong association between horror and schlock neglects the fact that many of the most aesthetically sophisticated films belong to the genre. In many ways, horror films confound distinctions between so-called high and low art. Case in point: the work written and directed by Dario Argento during the 1970s and 1980s. His films simultaneously threaten the viewer and please the eye, with the 1987 film Opera serving as a prime example. The lush mise en scene and complex cinematography skillfully drawn in the viewer, while the music, plot, and characters replicate generic conventions.
The film revolves around a lavish production of Verdi’s Macbeth at an old Roman opera house, a setting that immediately draws upon a form of “high” art. After the freak injury of the leading soprano, the young stand-in, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big chance to play the lead role. Unfortunately, the superstitions about Macbeth productions being cursed proves true, as a masked killer repeatedly terrorizes Betty. The tormentor ties her up and tapes needles to her eyelids eyes, forcing her to witness the brutal executions of her companions. Ultimately, Betty and her director successfully capture the killer, who targeted her because her mother similarly tortured the killer when he was a child.
While the suspenseful plot engaged me somewhat, the stylistic qualities of the film completely overshadowed the story. Right from the beginning, cinematographer Ronnie Taylor deploys interesting techniques, such as the opening scene’s first person tracking shots from the perspective of the frustrated diva. Another effective first person shot occurs when Betty’s agent peers through a peep-hole, suspecting that the killer may be outside her door; the camera reveals her perspective as she peers through the fishbowl lens with the killer pointing a gun directly at the camera. The shocking sequence ends with a shot of the bullet exiting the agent’s head. This is only one of many artfully staged kills in a film full of them.
Not only does Argento move the camera beautifully, but he also puts gorgeous sets and costumes in front of it. The grand opera house provides a terrific space for much of the film’s action, with the over-the-top staging of Macbeth further enhancing the ambiance: the director uses dozens of free-flying crows, dramatic backlighting, and imposing sets. It’s an opera I’d pay to see on its own, and it functions metaphorically as a meeting of “high” art (the opera) with “low” art, as the opera’s director is a filmmaker. Putting the director’s filmmaker status aside, Macbeth functions perfectly confounds “high” and “low” art distinctions, since it could be described as horror story, in spite of its lauded status today.
Along those same lines, the music also plays an important roll in alternating between “high” and “low” arts. The opera takes up much of the soundtrack, with dramatic performances of songs such as “Lady Macbeth”:
The rest of the soundtrack, however, contains the music of Goblin member Claudio Simonetti. Simonetti’s compositions tend to be highly synthesized, and during intense moments, belong to the heavy metal genre. Simonetti’s pieces sharply contrast Verdi’s arias, as do Brian Eno‘s contributions to the soundtrack. It’s this constant friction between styles that makes Operaso interesting.
Many of Argento’s other films play on these distinctions of taste, but none quite so obviously as Opera. Like many of the best modern horror films, it suggests the genre to be far more complex than the label “schlock” connotes–though let’s face it, schlock can be pretty complicated when you get right down to it.