29 June 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE SCOTTISH PLAY

The golden age of the gialli was not all that long; it can be conveniently be bracketed by two Dario Argento films, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970 and Deep Red in 1975. Though examples would occasionally creep out after then - Argento himself has never truly abandoned the giallo style, up to and including his 2009 film titled Giallo - their prominence in the Italian horror industry would be swallowed up by the reign of cannibal movies in the late 1970s, and even more so by the explosion of zombie pictures that began at the dawn of the '80s.

For this reason, we're skipping ahead from last week's 1972 picture all the way to 1987, with the last truly great movie on the giallo model, Argento's Opera - though even taking into account the developments that went on in our 15 year absence, there's quite a lot separating the director's final masterpiece from the main line of '70s gialli. It's partially because Opera, like many '80s gialli, was being made in counterpoint to those other violent mysteries so popular in the decade, the American slasher films - while some Italian filmmakers were content, or even eager, to ape Friday the 13th and its bastard stepchildren in every detail, the good ones, like Argento, tried to change things up rather a lot. It is customary to observe of Argento's Suspiria that it is a horror movie and an art film in nearly equal measure; not so for Opera, which is pretty much an art film through and through, though it be an art film with an unusual number of bloody deaths.

In Opera, the director gave himself over almost completely to the habit that had marked most of his films, especially in the 12 preceding years of his career: the whole movie seems to be nothing more than a delivery system for extraordinary images. For the slasher imitators of the gialli, that's another way of saying "extremely imaginative murder scenes buried in a horrible, slackly-directed narrative", but that's not exactly what Argento is up to in this film. Sure, he films the violent sequences in the most bravura way he can imagine (indeed, one of the most bravura scenes of violence in all the history of cinema is in this movie), but he films everything the same way.

For example, the opening scene: we're on the stage of an Italian opera house (it was filmed in Parma), where a horror film director named Marco (Ian Charleson) is directing a very outrageous production of Verdi's Macbeth, involving a hodgpodge of crazy costumes, over-the-top lighting effects, and real-life ravens. It's this final detail that has especially angered the leading soprano, Mara Czekova, who storms out into the street and promptly gets hit by a car. Straightforward enough, but the way it's put together!... The first image we see is the eye of one of the ravens, reflecting the opera house, not that we can recognise it at first. Almost all of the action of the scene is presented from Mara's point-of view, in a series of fast tracking shots which dart across the stage, jabbing the director and other people in the face, interrupted only by shots of the ravens watching impassively, croaking along with the music (we never do see Mara, in the event, only her leg in a cast in a scene somewhat further on). It's a crazy, wonderful sequence, with the ravens (whose presence at first makes no sense to us whatsoever) providing creepy atmosphere and the saucy choice to have one character spend her entire time in the movie behind the camera lens demonstrating that the name of the game will be stylistic gamesmanship, just for the raw joy of it.

It's not like we really give two shits about the plot anyway, which is already by the end of the first scene little but a redress of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (a novel which Argento redundantly filmed in 1998), in which a talented young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is given the chance to become a superstar with the company's diva out of commission. Meanwhile, Betty is being watched by a shadowy figure lurking around the opera house, who kills anyone who gets in his way - and there the novel and the movie fully part ways, given how many characters the shadowy assassin knocks off over the course of the movie, basically everyone that Betty has any kind of contact with whatsoever. She blames the "Macbeth curse" (as did Argento himself, when a great deal of bad luck and tragedy all started afflicting him and the crew during production), but it's got a lot more to do with good old fashioned human psychosis.

As a mystery, Opera is mostly valueless: not because it is easy to guess the murderer, but because it's all but impossible, given that he is pretty arbitrarily revealed only after most of the other named characters are dead. The explanation for his killings is agreeably dumbfounding, involving psychosexual obsession like so many gialli before it - though oddly, none of the ones I've looked at this summer - and while it makes sense in the most literal meaning, that at the end of the movie it is made clear why he does the things he does, it does not make sense in the more broad meaning, that it can be reconciled with actual human behavior or the way the world works.

As a collection of violent dreamscapes, though Opera is one of Argento's most memorable films - and if there's one lesson I hope everyone takes away from Giallo Month at this blog, it's that the reason you watch an Italian horror film, it's for the surreal, dreamlike imagery. The film contains what might well be the most startling and iconic image in all the director's work, as the killer tapes pins underneath Betty's eyes, so that she cannot look away while he sets about butchering people in front of her. It makes no sense on a practical level, of course, made all the more ridiculous by the fact that Marsillach clearly blinks while the pins are on her face without piercing her eyeballs. But this isn't a torture porn, where we're supposed to be terrified or aroused by the sense of impending physical mutilation - it's the movie version of waking up, sweating, from a nightmare, and you can't really remember what it was but there were oh God these pins! And accordingly, the film is shot through with a poetic anti-realism, never once suggesting that you're seeing something that is or could be or has been factual or even representational. The precursors to Opera aren't Psycho and its kin, nor hardly even The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: this film, like Suspiria or Phenomena, traces its ancestry back the disturbing abstractions of Buñuel and Dalí and Un chien andalou.

It is not a flawless film, not that Argento ever made a "flawless" film: the ending scene, especially the final shot, is ridiculous, opening with what looks for all the world like a parody of The Sound of Music and ending with the last survivor, happy to be alive and showing it by hugging grass and flowers. The music in the film is a damn far sight from the great work Argento did with Goblin in the 1970s, heavily referencing out-of-place American metal bands that don't fit well with the action, and fit even worse with the many operatic arias found all about. And if "the music isn't that good" seems like a nitpick, music is one of the key colors in Argento's crayon box - his best movies are all as good as they are in part because of how well he uses the score. I might go so far as to say that it's the soundtrack and that alone that keeps Opera from the very top tier of Argento films; for while it's a great work, certainly, it's not at the level of his best '70s film, to an equal certainty.

But it is nevertheless a memorable and iconic film, the kind that sticks with you for hours and weeks and months after you see it, haunting your sleep. It is the last truly brilliant visionary work in horror, certainly in Western horror, I'd argue; the end not just of the giallo style, and of Italy's reputation for making good, non-tawdry horror, and of Argento's standing as a brilliant filmmaker - though that's quite a few things to all come to an end at one time. Opera was the last film of a mindset only intermittently seen in American and European film any longer, that horror could be great cinema, that adults can enjoy nightmare imagery just the same as kids and teens. There have been good horror movies since 1987, of course, but the grand experiment in terror and violence as art ended here. At least it ended with a surreal, hypnotic bang.

Body Count: Seven people and three ravens, none of which are real, living animals butchered onscreen, happily. There's also a dream sequence killing or three, but it's rather hard to tell what happens, by design.

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