Sunday, July 12, 2020

Opera (1987)

... aka: Dario Argento's Opera
... aka: Terror at the Opera

Directed by:
Dario Argento

There are a lot of differing opinions about this film and just what it meant for Argento's career. Many believe this is his last really good film and that it's all downhill from here. Others believe the film itself is substandard and was the beginning of the director's downward spiral. And then there are those super-fans who both love this film (I've even seen “masterpiece” volleyed around a bit) and continue to love many of Argento's later offerings. In my humble opinion, nothing Argento has made after this point would be quite as good, though that doesn't mean this is quite on par with some of his better earlier offerings either. Still, who wouldn't take something creative, well-made / produced, delightfully bonkers and boasting some of the most inventive camerawork of the entire decade over the vast majority of comparably unimaginative slasher flicks and endless sequels that dominated this decade? I know I sure would. Despite having a fair amount of issues with the narrative, this is still a good notch or two above the norm any way you slice it.

Things center around an operatic theater version of Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth that's being staged by famous blood n' guts horror film director Mark (Ian Charleson). Bitchy star diva Mara Czekova is accidentally (maybe) struck down by a car while storming out of the opera house due to the director's insistence on using real ravens and other such annoyances with the avant-garde production. Wide-eyed understudy Betty (cute Spanish model Cristina Marsillach), whose mother was also a famous singer, is then drafted to take her place. Knowing that the opera is rumored to be cursed and to bring back luck, Betty is apprehensive about taking on the lead Lady Macbeth role but relents due to optimistic pressure from her agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi), and the show's producer (Antonino Iuorio). Successfully overcoming her jitters, Betty's debut performance ends up being a smashing success. Unfortunately, a stage hand is murdered upstairs while the performance is underway and Betty appears to have somehow already managed to pique the interest of an obsessive fan / stalker. This man also may be somehow tied into her past.

The horrors continue for poor Betty whenever the psycho starts terrorizing her over the phone, sneaks into the theater to slash up her costume and a few of the ravens (who apparently have really good memories and a taste for vengeance!) and then forces her to take part in his vicious slayings. He accomplishes the latter by ambushing her, tying her up, gagging her and then taping a line of needles beneath her eyes so if she tries to close them she'll rip her eyelids apart; thus forcing her to witness each of his bloody crimes. After he dispatches Betty's would-be stage manager lover Stefano (William McNamara), she calls the police to report the murder but, curiously enough, hangs up the phone whenever they ask for her name. She does however confide in Mark (who also doesn't bother involving he cops) and confesses that it all seems to tie in with a recurring nightmare she's had since childhood, which centers around a man wearing a black hood, a distinctive-looking dagger, a dilapidated building, kinky sex, pulsating brain matter and murder-voyeurism. An investigation led by Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini) is soon underway.

During an excellent sequence, Betty again finds herself tied up and forced to watch as brassy wardrobe mistress Giulia (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni) is strangled, stabbed and then has her throat cut open to retrieve a piece of evidence she accidentally swallowed. This time Betty is confronted by Inspector Santini on the way back to her apartment and spills the beans. He tells her to lock her door and wait for his assistant, Daniele Soave (second unit director Michele Soavi in an uncredited cameo), to show up. Agent Mira stops by long enough for another great scene where she's shot through a peephole, with the bullet shown traveling through the hole, shattering glass, flying through Mira's head and then destroying the telephone behind her in slow motion.

Mark and animal trainer Maurizio (Maurizio Garrone) then devise a "genius" (i.e. utterly absurd!) plan to weed out the killer, with all of the red herrings and the actual killer all in attendance at another Macbeth performance. That results in a raven pecking out an eyeball, followed by a blazing fire that burns down part of the opera house. Then, in a very polarizing second climax, the film retreats to the Swiss Alps for a handful of admittedly amusing PHENOMENA (1985) in-jokes and another appearance by the psycho. How he managed to pull the wool over the investigator's eyes, fake his own death and escape the opera house is, for lack of a better word, dumb. But, hey, at least the scenery is great.

Aside from a handful of showstopper murder set pieces, smooth scene transitions (especially a shot disappearing into the darkness of an air vent and then emerging in an orchestra pit) and some fantastic camerawork (like a raven POV circling way above the audience and then swooping down upon them), this also boasts a soundtrack that has no qualms going from opera to ambient (Brian Eno and Roger Eno) to bursts of metal from obscure acts like the Italian band Gow (who use the alias "Steel Grave" in the credits) and the Swedish group Norden Light ("No Escape") during the more horrific moments. There are also contributions from Bill Wyman and Goblin's Claudio Simonetti. Viewers will either love this eclectic mix or be completely turned off by it but that's par for the course with Argento.

Despite doing some truly head-scratchingly-stupid things at times, the main character provides a somewhat interesting focal point. Betty is an aloof, tentative young woman sabotaged on both a personal and professional level by insecurities brought on by her traumatic past. She's a self-proclaimed "disaster in bed," recoils from touch, seems incapable of having a real romantic relationship and almost spoils her own chances at success by trying to back out of a star-making role. So, in a way, the core of this film is really about her character overcoming her past to reclaim her life. One of the final images at the finale is of her freeing a trapped lizard. The last line is "Go free."

Though Marsillach is serviceable in the lead here, Argento apparently hated working with her and originally wanted Phenomena star Jennifer Connelly to play this part instead. Vanessa Redgrave was also originally cast as the bitchy opera star but backed out at the last minute so her role was reduced to POV shots and a voice-over done by another actress. Antonella Vitale (THE CHURCH), who has a small role as Mark's model lover, was Argento's real-life girlfriend at the time. He also gave her the lead in his short-lived series Turno di notte before the two split up. Also appearing in small roles are Barbara Cupisti (STAGE FRIGHT) as the producer's assistant, Carola Stagnaro (TENEBRAE) as Betty's tarty neighbor, Peter Pitsch and Karl Zinny (both from DEMONS, along with Barberini) and real-life conductor / Hungarian opera director György Gyõriványi.

The director of photography was Ronnie Taylor, a Brit who'd won an Oscar just a few years earlier for shooting Gandhi (1982), which also featured the late Charleson (an acclaimed theater actor, though you'd never guess that here). Taylor went on to shoot Argento's rather crappy Phantom of the Opera re-do in 1998 and the giallo Sleepless in 2001.

With an 8 million dollar budget, Opera was Argento's most expensive film to date. Though it was fairly successful in Italy, release in other countries was delayed, sometimes by years. It wouldn't show up on VHS here in America until 1991 when Southgate released two separate videos: an R-rated cut and an unrated / uncut version. The former had 11 minutes removed. Naturally the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases from companies like Anchor Bay, Scorpion Releasing and Blue Underground have all been the uncut 107 minute version.


Friday, July 10, 2020

Beyond the Seventh Door (1987)

... aka: Beyond the 7th Door

Directed by:
B.D. (Bozidar D.) Benedikt

Boris (very thick-accented and frequently unintelligible Yugoslavian-born Lazar Rockwood) has just been released from prison for committing armed robbery. He meets up with his much younger ex-girlfriend Wendy (Bonnie Beck) at a cafe. She wants to put their relationship behind her and move on with her life. He wants to pull off one more robbery and make enough to hopefully put his criminal past behind him. Wendy happens to work as a maid for a wealth old man named Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in a castle. Late one night, Wendy slips her boss some sleeping pills and, after he's out, steals a key he always keeps around his neck and sneaks Boris into the castle. Their plans are to search the place to see if rumors of it containing a hidden treasure are true. Wendy has been observing her boss for awhile. Whenever he thinks no one's paying attention, he's been taking an elevator into the foundation of the castle. Wendy is convinced the treasure is hidden there. She's also convinced that a large red door that's always kept locked will lead to the same chamber. The key she stole opens it. After the two descend some stairs, they end up in a boiler room and enter through yet another door. The door closes behind them and locks. And then a voice comes over the intercom: "Welcome to my chambers of terror..."

Boris and Wendy have stumbled into a trap. The lords of the castle have been secretly guarding the family treasure for centuries now and aren't about to give it up so easily to a couple of lowly thieves. It must be earned. And they've created their "chambers" to make it virtually impossible to reach the treasure though, the voice adds, in the name of sportsmanship they'll be able to keep whatever they find. If they can find anything.... and if they're not killed trying.

Upon entering each chamber, the door behind them locks and the pre-recorded voice comes over the intercom again to provide hints to help them solve a particular puzzle. Once they do, they can move on to the next chamber. The first of these involves having to come up with the combination to a safe using the number of letters in certain words the voice gives to them. The next room is a word puzzle, which has letter tiles on the floor (along with some skull tiles) to spell out a word that, once revealed, activates a small elevator that takes them down to the next room. Stepping on the wrong tile can result in death; included being shot and triggering the walls to start closing in on them. After surviving those two chambers, the voice informs them that the clues will be stopping and they'll have to solve the rooms without his aid.

Other rooms include one where they must find a hidden exit in a (seemingly) completely concrete room before being impaled by spikes closing in from the ceiling and getting trapped in a sub level that quickly fills with water. During the latter scene, the female star is forced to rip the bottom half of her skimpy red maid outfit into strips to stuff into holes to keep water from gushing out and then parades around for the rest of the film wearing panties, garters and stockings. After surviving that, our leads put their past grievances aside and decide to take a break from the action for a little bit of lovemaking... in the same room where the corpse of a drowned elderly man (Ben Kerr) looks on. How romantic. The final hurdle involves a room with two options: access to the elevator so they can leave the dungeon unharmed or a suitcase containing one million dollars that comes with a warning.

The basic premise, which will instantly remind one of the later Canadian hit Cube (1997) minus the sci-fi trappings, is promising but this is just too cheap and too poorly made / written to ever convince. It certainly doesn't help matters that the "sets" are whatever basements and boiler rooms the filmmakers could find to film in but that wouldn't be such an issue had the death traps themselves not been so lazy and unimaginative. Pacing is also a major issue here. The film slows to a crawl at numerous junctures, which prevents this from generating tension or suspense. It also relies on its two stars to carry these slower scenes, only the dialogue isn't good and there is a major flaw in the casting...

All things considered, female lead Beck really isn't that bad (albeit whiny at times, thanks to the script). Unfortunately, the male star is perfectly dreadful! Though he has all the enthusiasm in the world, Rockwood's unfamiliarity with the English language means nonstop stilted line delivery on the off chance you can actually make out what he's saying. Combine that with his long hair, near-constant inappropriate facial reactions, random twitching and unattractive physical appearance and he instantly brings to mind Tommy Wiseau. While that may add a dash of unintended camp value to the works, it's not enough to turn this otherwise bland film into a Grade A piece of schlock as it is currently being marketed. The director, who also made the genre film Graveyard Story (1991), was also born in Yugoslavia, which probably explains this casting decision.

I never once saw this for rent at any video store I frequented in my youth, though there apparently was a VHS release through the company Cinevest. It couldn't have been very well distributed as this was an extremely difficult title to track down for decades. A 2017 remastered DVD release from Severin / Intervision finally remedied that. It comes with commentary and interviews from both the director and male star. It's also revealed this was shot on film, not video as previously reported. I ended up viewing the version currently streaming on Amazon Prime, which was obviously sourced from a VHS copy.

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