MINIMAL PLOT SPOILERS
When I had the chance to have one DVD cover signed by Dario Argento Himself, at a screening of his then-latest, Mother Of Tears, the debate as to exactly which one should bear His Name didn't last very long. Crystal Plumage, because it was his first? Inferno, because it made the nasties list? Suspiria, because it crystallised his use of coloured lighting? Two Evil Eyes, because the cover already had George Romero's signature? Or Dawn Of The Dead, which he may have only produced but for me is one of the two or three greatest films ever made? In the event it came down to a choice between the two films I believe to be his finest: Tenebrae and Terror At The Opera.
Because I experienced Argento's films out of chronological order, one of the first I saw was Tenebrae, which was a thorough delight as I was unprepared for exactly what the man could do with a camera. I hadn't seen Deep Red, and I may not even have seen Suspiria at this point (and when I did it was on a heavily used rental VHS, cut, cropped to 4:3 and viewed on a television with mono sound - hardly ideal conditions). But by the time Terror At The Opera arrived I was at least partially aware of his abilities and talents, and with the expectations raised it still managed to exceed my wildest hopes. Ultimately it's probably his last complete masterpiece, and while there were good things still to come, including the generally enjoyable throwback Sleepless and the uncharacteristic lightness of Do You Like Hitchcock?, none of them reached the levels he achieves here. It's breathtaking.
Sometimes just known as just Opera, and emphatically not to be confused with his own Phantom Of The Opera some years later (which frankly is a mess: wild changes in tone, uncomfortable sex scenes and baffling comedy bits), it's a wonderful collision between video nasty and the highest of high culture. As with the Phantom story, Betty, a young soprano gets her big chance when the bitchy diva has an accident, but people keep dying around her at the hands of a masked maniac who forces Betty to watch his actions by taping needles under her eyes so she cannot look away. Could it be the opera's director, a horror film maker whose restaging of Verdi's Macbeth involves crashed aircraft, skull-like faces in the sky and flocks of ravens on the stage? Could it have something to do with the murder of Betty's mother?
In truth, the list of suspects isn't that long, and the motive and motivation are a bit on the weak side, but it hardly matters when Argento is having such fun with the elaborate camera trickery and odd imagery - long POV tracking shots, images of the killer's brain throbbing before every kill, and the now-classic raven's-eye-view of the opera house as the birds are let loose - and grisly moneyshots such as a knife through the chin visible through the screaming mouth of the victim, or the bullet through the spyhole, and the eye and the back of the skull of the person peering through it. Even once the maniac is unmasked, there are still a few more twists and jolts up Argento's sleeve as the action abruptly relocates to the Swiss Alps.
Maybe the film could do with a trim at the very end, with the "hello birds, hello trees" voiceover that doesn't seem to fit, along with shots of Betty running across the Alpine meadows as if about to burst into "The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Music". It's got a grab-bag soundtrack, alternating heavy metal, grand opera and Claudio Simonetti's own score, personally I'd have preferred just using the operatic selections. But that's really the pickiest of nitpicking. Terror At The Opera is my favourite Argento movie. I've seen the DVD four or five times now and it's still genuinely thrilling.
Next time I get a chance at his autograph it'll be the cover of Tenebrae. Sadly, I'll need to meet him quite a few times before I get round to having his more recent films signed - particularly the last few. Mother Of Tears was a too-belated conclusion to the trilogy that began with Suspiria and continued with Inferno, and the (black) magic simply wasn't there any more. And Giallo was, appallingly, literally laughable. Only I wasn't laughing. Maybe, maybe he can come back with his proposed version of Dracula, in 3D - if anyone can bring something new and exciting to that old warhorse, it's Dario Argento. I hope so; Giallo shouldn't be anyone's last film. Please recapture that magic. Please be as good as you were back in 1987. Please please please be as balls-to-the-wall wonderful as Terror At The Opera.