Opera (1987)

     directed by Dario Argento

          starring Urbano Barberini, Cristina Marsillach and Ian

            Charleson

I've mentioned before that I absolutely do not enjoy horror movies. I don't like my pants being scared off; I like my pants firmly covering my ladylike derriere. I understand that people get a cathartic thrill out of horror, but I don't. I'm high-strung enough already. I don't need to be reminded of all the horrible things that could (probably won't, can't because it's impossible, etc.) occur. So having to watch a film by Dario Argento, an extremely well-regarded impresario of Italian horror, was both exciting (hey, an Argento film! I bet there's a lot of symbolism and play on the subconscious!) and miserable (oh god oh god oh god STOP MAKING THAT CUTTING SOUND). Argento liked the Phantom story so much that he actually made two films for it; this one, in 1987, and Phantom of the Opera a decade later in 1998.

 

As in most horror interpretations of the story, we're going to lose out on the redemption at the end, but this film has a lot going for it nevertheless.

 

The first interesting thing to note here is that Argento has chosen to use Verdi's Macbeth as the opera around which much of the action revolves, rather than Gounod's Faust. Aside from the fact that the modern setting allows for later operas to be used (Verdi was composing in the late nineteenth century and rising in popularity, but he still wasn't widely acclaimed in France), the change reflects the change in central themes that is evident between Leroux's novel and this film. Where the ideas of damnation, redemption, and heavenly intercession were paramount in Gounod's opera and also in Leroux's novel, Macbeth's central message is one of the disastrous effects of ambition and the damning effects of using violence as a means to an end - that is, once violence has been used, it can only escalate. Additionally, Macbeth is a potpurri of gender issues, the most major of which being the Shakespearean idea that aggression and violence are purely masculine and are unnatural in women. These ideas are vastly more applicable to Argento's film; in addition, the widespread superstition that Macbeth is a cursed play, one which always visits disaster and tragedy on its performers during the course of its run, is one that allows Argento free rein to suggest supernatural components to his otherwise concrete storyline.

 

Our opening shots are of a raven's shifting eyeball, which watches the rehearsal below it and reflects the opera house eerily as it constantly oscillates and twitches back and forth. This is the beginning of Argento's ocular fetish in this film; there are eyeballs everywhere, and this is pretty much the most innocuous one. There's obviously a rehearsal going on behind the raven, but the dialogue and singing are all background to the raven, who not only occupies the front, focused part of the frame but is also cawing incessantly, often in perfect time with the singer as though attempting a duet. The effect is that the raven is not only an equal participant in events, but that it may be more important than the actual people in the opera house, which will be made evident later.

 

Signora Albertini, the long-suffering Lady Macbeth who is attempting to rehearse, finally pitches a divariffic fit over the ravens and stalks off, claiming that they dislike her and are disrupting her performance. It turns out that there is a revolutionary new director, Marco, who is using not one but a whole flock of ravens in this production of the opera, much to her intense disapproval. Argento uses Marco, who is a successful former horror film director now exclusively working with operas, to poke fun both at himself for his tendency to take artistic chances and make unorthodox decisions, and at his detractors, whom he suggests have a hidebound mentality and a fear of pushing the envelope. Albertini, who is clearly our Carlotta character (Italianized again, though since Argento is himself Italian, as is most of his cast, this can probably be forgiven in this case), is tragically struck by an automobile on her way out of the theater, and the resulting injuries require her understudy, Betty, to perform as Lady Macbeth. Argento intentionally never allows us to see Albertini's face at any point in the film, letting us know that not only is she peripheral to his plot here, but that she might as well literally not even exist - possibly a wee bit of satire aimed at Leroux and his tendency to forget about side characters that weren't involved directly in all the action on his novel.

 

Betty is our Christine character, and Argento infuses her with a very welcome sense of complexity and relevancy that is often absent in the character; I found it refreshing to note that Christine, who was the character who achieved the most growth and strength of spirit in Leroux's novel but who is generally depicted as spineless or none too bright in many modern interpretations, is here given a plausible explanation for her actions and is even examined in a reasonable light when it comes to the aftermath and the consequences of events on her psyche. The Phantom figure (never referred to as such in this film, though he is frequently dubbed "the maniac", which is appropriate enough) informs her via phone call (an appropriate modern substitute for leaving notes around) that she will be singing Lady Macbeth, letting us know, in case we were not familiar with the Phantom story, that he intentionally removed Albertini from the equation in order to give Betty her shot at stardom. The teacher-student dynamic is removed in this film, however; this Phantom figure has no prior contact with Betty that she knows of, so she is mystified by the strange voice on her phone until she becomes too busy panicking over her imminent debut to worry about him.

 

As Christine was in Leroux's novel, Betty is somewhat distressed over this sudden turn of events and is afraid she won't be able to measure up. I agreed with her, somewhat; when she said that she was too young for the role and that her voice wasn't mature enough, I shouted, "YES. Why did they hire you as understudy?" at the television. She looks to be in her early twenties at the oldest, and Verdi demands terrifying things of his sopranos. Then again, Christine was supposedly in her early twenties in Leroux's novel, so if we're going to give her the benefit of the doubt, we'd better extend it to Betty, too (even though Betty doesn't have the help of a ghostly tutor, and Verdi generally demands much more exhausting vocal gymnastics than Gounod or Mozart do). While her agent and various other people crowd around her in her apartment, a stray camera pan shows us that someone is watching through the extremely large vent above her bed, and we're already thrust into the icky uh-oh feeling that permeates the beginning of every good horror film.

 

This was filmed at the Teatro Regio, the opera house of Parma, Italy, and the place is absolutely stunning. Argento makes sure to give us plenty of shots of the gorgeous house and impressive stage, which setup really helps the grandeur of the place sink into the viewer's subconscious and enhance the theatricality of the events unfolding and the sense that the people involved are somewhat small and helpless. We see a bit of the inaugural performance of Macbeth, which is absolutely gorgeous. For one thing, they dub in the talented Norwegian singer Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz as Lady Macbeth, which is an excellent choice; take note, filmmakers. If you're going to include opera singing, which you sort of have to in this story, make it good. Make it stunning. It makes it so much easier to believe in Betty as a star and in the Phantom's resulting obsession with her. For another thing, the staging of this opera is beautiful, and I seriously wanted to see the whole thing. The dark, moody sets (particularly the huge black marble staircase in the castle), the fanciful costuming, the elaborate wind and fog effects, and the lushly creative ways the chorus was worked in and out were awesome, and the ravens all over the stage really did enhance the feeling of the piece to a new level. Argento can mock himself all he wants, but if he ever directed an opera, I would haul my ass across the Atlantic to see it in a heartbeat.

 

We get dragged around in a series of confusing camera shots; instead of showing us shapes moving around or anything that might give us a shot at a premature clue, Argento allows the audience to see things from the perspective of the Phantom figure himself, leading to a very eerie feeling of discomfort as we (and he) climb the stairs, sneak backstage, look at various unsuspecting people who are just trying to do their jobs and have no idea we're about a foot away from them, and finally sneak into an unattended box, thus giving us the actual view from Box 5 as though we were sharing it with him. It's unsettling, especially in the preciseness of the Phantom's movements and the obviously fixated way we are forced, with him, to dwell on various parts of Betty's anatomy as she sings her aria. His only line, "You've finally returned," is tantalizing as it allows us to wonder what he means, and is accompanied by a short flashback to an unfamiliar woman begging for her life, all of which sets the mystery of the film in motion; said mystery is twofold, because not only are we spending a lot of time in this film trying to figure out who the Phantom actually is, we're also constantly teased with hints of some kind of past horror that must be related but which we have no ability to interpret.

 

We also see the first murder of the film, when an unfortunate usher enters the box and attempts to throw the Phantom out, and is killed by having a coatrack stabbed through the back of his neck and into his spine. It was extremely squirm-inducing, but I now look back on it in a fond, rosy-glassed fog of, "Oh, that wasn't that bad, comparatively." The Phantom character is far more concerned with the blood that is now rendering his opera glasses useless than with the inconvenience of having to kill someone, which lets us know handily that he has a serious lack of empathy. He also knocks a light fixture off in the course of killing this guy, which smashes in the aisle and momentarily interrupts the performance, but which everyone puts down to the curse of misfortune that Macbeth brings with it.

 

Betty manages to suck it up and, despite first-night jitters, everyone staring at her, and lighting falling from the sky, manages to finish her aria with a credible bang just like a professional. In fact, near the end of the aria, one of the huge ravens decides to alight on her shoulder as though claiming her, and the fact that she keeps her composure and ignores it says more than anything else that she is more worthy and passionate in her craft than the absent Albertini, who allowed the behavior of the stage birds to derail her. In the same way that Leroux's Carlotta was moved aside not for being less than talented, but for being difficult and soulless about her performance, so Albertini is moved aside for the passionate young Betty. We do see a shot of the unfortunate Albertini, face still out of the frame, watching the triumphant performance on live television and cursing up a storm, but as before she is presented as peripheral and will not return later in the film.

 

A nice-looking young gentleman turns up after the performance at Betty's dressing room to introduce himself as an admirer and give her a single rose, a convention that first started in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film and has since become a staple of Phantom adaptations. Interestingly, the rose here is pink rather than the usual red; in the language of the flowers, red roses signify romantic love, while pink ones signify attraction and fondness but not outright infatuation. The softened sentiment is about as vanilla as the gentleman himself, who introduces himself as Inspector Santini and brings to mind Raoul from the 1943 Lubin/Rains production, who was also a police officer. He seems to be our Raoul character, but Argento has a great time misdirecting us all over the place in that respect, and this guy is only the first in a parade of Raoul-like dudes.

 

Another flashback sequence ensues as we return to the Phantom figure later that night, this time giving us a lot of background shots of a long, run-down hallway and a lot of stairs, giving us the impression that wherever this is taking place is underground in some way and reminding the Phantom-savvy viewer of the tunnels beneath the opera house in Leroux's novel. Another woman is killed via stabbing, and at least one other woman is involved as we see him tying her up (again, from his point of view, so no luck figuring out who he is or what he looks like yet).

 

In the present, he sneaks backstage to vandalize Betty's costume in a very precise manner, slashing it apart at strategic areas, presumably in order to visualize either violence against Betty herself (which seems unlikely, given his obsession with her) or in anticipation of what she would look like wearing it without those strategic areas. He uses the same triangle-bladed knife that was used to murder the woman in the flashback, in case we had doubts that he was one and the same. The cage full of ravens is also present, and they do not appreciate his presence; their beady little eyes, prominent again, seem to be mirrors of his as both see everything in their environments. When the ravens escape their cage, however, he kills several of them, so there seems to be little kinship with the birds (incidentally, the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film also used ravens as a symbolic device, and may have inspired Argento to do the same).

 

In contrast to Leroux's angelically pure Christine, Betty is obviously sexually active, shown in the next scene just after making love to the stage manager, a friend of hers named Stefano with whom dialogue suggests she has a pre-existing relationship. Again, Stefano appears to be the Raoul character; he is youthful, innocent-seeming, attractive, and clearly smitten with Betty both before and after her sudden professional triumph. Ironically, the post-sex scene attempts to highlight Betty's innocence rather than tarnishing it; she is shown apologizing to Stefano, admitting that she is a "disaster in bed" with no real experience or technique worth mentioning, and later bouncing in childlike glee and changing her mind over what kind of tea he should prepare for her.

 

The idyllic scene is interrupted by a subtle heartbeat sound which increases in volume as the suspense mounts, very reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe's The Telltale Heart; this device will be used several times over the course of the film, and is always associated with imminent violence from the Phantom figure or with Betty remembering some detail from her traumatic past. This is the first violent, overt "horror" scene in the film, and it's not for the faint of heart (i.e., me): he ties Betty up quickly and expertly, which hearkens back to the earlier flashback showing that this isn't the first time he's done something like this. He also gags her and ties her upright to the column next to the bed, and trots out one of the most powerful visual elements of the entire film (and another example of Argento's love of doing scary things to peoples' eyes); he tapes two rows of needles to her cheeks, just below her eyes, so that she will be unable to close her eyes without tearing her own eyelids apart. It's a powerful symbolic choice, aside from its later relevancy to the plot: Betty is forced to see and be cognizant of the horrible things going on in front of her (and, more awfully, being done on her behalf), just as Leroux's Christine desperately attempts to cling to her naivete and denial but is ultimately unable to ignore the evidence that her "Angel" is a terrifying presence and a danger to everyone around her.

 

When the unfortunate Stefano returns and attempts to free his girlfriend, he is brutally murdered in front of her (seriously, brutal is not an overstatement; the initial attack involves him being stabbed through the throat so hard that the knife can be seen in the back of his mouth when he screams). The scene is awfully realistic, especially as the Phantom figure - wearing a mask, but not a traditional one, more a solid black cloth swathed around his entire head and leaving no clues as to his appearance or identity - continues to stab and mutilate the body long after Stefano has shuffled off his mortal coil. Before untying Betty, he gropes her on the way out (but, curiously, only allows himself the one feel despite the fact that she is totally at his mercy and he obviously wants her, a self-denial that begs to be explained later on in the film) and whispers in her ear, "You're not frigid at all - you're a bitch in heat." Then he cuts the ropes and leaves her to extricate herself while he makes his getaway, leaving her relatively unscathed. It should be noted that no matter how horrifically violent he becomes over the course of the movie, he never, ever hurts Betty, being far too infatuated with her.

 

The musical score of the movie, which has been all Callas and Verdi and evocative strings and subtle undercurrents, explodes and goes crazy here. In search of a violent contrast with the smooth classical music that permeates most of the film, Argento suddenly brings in chugging, shouting heavy metal (which he will do every time the threat of the Phantom looms large from here onward). I'm of two minds about this; while it's definitely jarring for the viewer and certainly gets across an aural violence to parallel what's going on onscreen, it also seems foreign in context with the rest of the film, and dates the movie in an unappealing way. I would have preferred that Argento had followed his previous mold for the film and had stuck with the more classical sound, maybe with Wagner or a similar source of dark, heavy music. It would have heightened the terror of the scene for me more effectively than the metal, which disoriented me and pulled me out of things; but then again, I certainly can't say that Argento didn't succeed in communicating that the scene was something that ripped the characters out of their normal lives in the most terrible manner.

 

Betty frees herself and staggers out into the rain in her nightgown; this scene seems to be a dealbreaker for many viewers, and indeed I did initially find Betty's apparent nonchalance after the horrific violence she had just witnessed to be somewhat confusing. Her lack of hysterics and calm voice when she calls the police to report the murder are out of place, and her refusal to give the police her name strange at first. However, Betty's behavior is consistent with extreme shock and dissociation, and while the simplistic hysterical screaming and weeping would have been understandable to an audience, the blank reaction is both more appropriate for the strong version of Christine that Betty is presented as and indicative of the possible trauma in her past, which we are still getting only inklings of through flashbacks and disconnected images. In the end, I found it was one of the strongest revelations of her character, in the strength of her spirit and in the depth of her mental disturbance. She runs to Marco, the horror-film director of the opera, and Raoul #3 (will he stick this time?) enters the picture (reminding me, again, of the 1983 film, in which the Raoul character Michael was the opera's director). He asks her if her distress is the result of love troubles, and in a line that reminds me forcefully of Leroux's independent little Swede, she snaps, "Whenever a woman has a problem, men always assume it's love!"

 

Marco convinces her to confide what happened in him, and in the course of doing so she reveals that her distress is all the more surreal to her because she used to have recurring dreams, in her childhood, in which the same masked man would appear. In a masterful stroke, Argento allows "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly to play under the entire scene (sung by the lovely Mirella Freni, another example of gorgeous opera used to stunning effect in this film); the juxtaposition of Betty's horrible sense of deja vu with Butterfly's wistful longing for her lover's return is not as strange as it may seem, since their combined effect is to make a powerful comment on the inescapable effects of memories on one's life.

 

I was charitable about the great coincidence that had Marco driving down the same street that Betty was conveniently staggering about in; it was a stretch, but I figure every plot is entitled to one coincidence, since they do happen occasionally in real life. However, when Marco offers to stay with Betty and she says, "No, no, go on home, I'll lock the door," I was less than convinced. Seriously? A maniac just kidnapped and manhandled you, and forced you to watch as he brutally murdered your boyfriend, and you don't want someone to stay with you? I can only assume that she's having difficulty dealing with a man in such close proximity to her in her trauma, or that she's reached such a level of dissociation that she's truly viewing the incident as some kind of awful dream. After Marco leaves, "Un bel di" swells to a gorgeous crescendo as Betty finds the needles still in her pocket, and the final impression of the scene is one of the torment of never being able to really forget, which encouraged me not to get too bent out of shape over Betty's resistance to safety measures.

 

Like Leroux's Christine, Betty is tortured by guilt and a feeling that much of the horror is her own fault; while some of this is most likely subconscious (and will make more sense later when Betty's backstory and mysterious memories are fully unearthed), much of it is a response to her having accepted the role in Macbeth. She states that she should never have accepted a role in a show known to be cursed, but the distress goes deeper than that; on a subconscious level, she believes that she has caused the death of Stefano and her own harassment through intentionally elevating herself to public notice as a star. The struggle is very similar to Christine's mental struggle when it comes to her own performances.

 

As an aside, I love it when Argento pokes fun at himself in the next morning's newspaper reviews of the operas, particularly when Marco is mockingly quoted the line, "Advice to the director: go back to horror films, forget opera!" Many of Argento's fans concur, I hear, but this film, at least, is very strong in my opinion.

 

When the costumers and animal handlers are examining the wreckage backstage, including the raven corpses and Betty's slashed costume, the bird trainer (amusingly named Maurizio, which is the name of the actual bird handler for the film) makes a very interesting statement: "Ravens are very vindictive; they remember for years and years." The intriguing nature of ravens aside, the parallel between the Phantom character and the birds is once again clear; rather than being the master of ravens, as the birds clearly don't like him, he is himself similar to a raven (all-seeing, vindictive, and pitiless). The cast and crew continue to theorize that the Macbeth curse is at fault, and mutinous mutterings about Marco's avant-garde directing continue to abound ("He thinks Verdi was a twit and Shakespeare an asshole!"). Without many potential confidantes, Betty puts in a call to her agent, Mira; unfortunately, I am frustrated with Betty again here when she refuses to call the police in to deal with what happened. I could understand wanting to avoid being associated with the mess in order to safeguard her newborn career, but when even your agent is telling you that you need to call the police ASAP, it's time to stop arguing.

 

Betty's extremely peeved costumer, Giulia, spends some time alone in the costuming room to repair the destroyed costume; she is alone, which seems odd to me in the middle of a major production, but the profusion of nearby lethal objects (the boxcutter she's using to saw metal bits off the costume, the large pair of shears on a nearby table, the ubiquitous sewing needles) clues us in that serious nastiness is on the way. There are tall glass boxes with starkly lit mannequins around the room as well, and their blank faces are particularly terrifying and corpse-like in light of Stefano's recent murder. Betty arrives to ask about her costume at the same time that Giulia discovers a small gold bracelet that had gotten caught in it, presumably dropped by the Phantom vandal; she examines it under a microscope and discerns that there's a date on it, possibly an anniversary or something, but while she's busy doing that in the next room the same ominous heartbeat begins, and in the middle of a serious wave of deja vu and vertigo wherein she is stricken with flashbacks of blood and a creepy image of a flexing brain, Betty is once again accosted and tied up by the Phantom, who tapes the same needles beneath her eyes and props her up in the central mannequin display case. The camera juts in and out with each heartbeat, giving us the eerie feeling that the world is flexing in time with Betty's panicked heart.

 

The Phantom figure, once again swathed in featureless black mask, assaults Giulia upon her return, but he seems much more fixated on regaining the bracelet from her than on hurting her, at least initially. The bracelet's significance is never explicitly stated, but further clues will at a later point in the film suggest its origin pretty clearly. Like Betty (and, notably, unlike Stefano), Giulia isn't taking this lying down and attempts to escape the man; when he knocks her down, she throws the bracelet to get him off her and actually attacks him in turn with an iron, knocking him out for a moment. Unfortunately, her curiosity gets the better of her, and when she unmasks him he becomes aware enough to choke her to death (incidentally, Argento makes sure the audience never sees his face, and neither does Betty as Giulia's body obscures him until he gets the mask back on). In the most awful, squirm-inducing sequence of the film for me, Giulia drops the bracelet as she fights for her life and accidentally swallows it, prompting the Phantom figure to dig around in her open mouth with the knife looking for it, and finally to cut her throat open with the sewing shears in order to retrieve it (while we don't actually see the throat being cut open, the sounds are extremely realistic and made me wail with horror). The Phantom figure taunts Betty briefly again, telling her that "I could take you any time I want to" before freeing her and taking off, leaving her once again traumatized and damaged (and beginning to evince signs of eye trauma from being forced to keep them open for so long).

 

Giulia's behavior is that of a very strong female character, far from the screaming, fleeing victim bunny that is so prevalent in horror films. Like Betty, she is a strong female character who fights for her life and health and refuses to give way to fear, even in the face of extreme danger and terror. Both characters resemble the "manly woman" that is referenced so strongly in Macbeth, lending the film an added layer of power struggle between the extremely aggressive and masculine Phantom character and the very feminine, but anything but passive women of the film, none of whom are weak at all. Again, I am reminded of Leroux's Christine, who despite her fear and naivete still had the strength to tell both Erik and Raoul off, plan her own escape, plot to thwart Erik's motives, sacrifice herself for the good of others, and even attempt to kill herself via extremely painful means rather than submit to the Phantom's demands.

 

This time, Betty wises up and runs to the police station, where she tells Inspector Santini (why, hello, Raoul #1! Lovely to see you again, confusing the issue!) what has happened. He rushes off to look for the perpetrator, but not before locking her in her apartment and making her swear not to let anyone in except for Officer Soave, whom he'll be sending up to take care of her in a few minutes. Before he leaves, Betty finally breaks down and tells him that she didn't tell the police the first time because they would have detained her and questioned her and used her in their investigation, and she just wanted to forget that the horrible night had ever happened, which is a pretty common response in victims surviving a violent crime (though, of course, now that it isn't an isolated incident she's finally figured out she's being targeted specifically and has called for law enforcement). While barricading her in her apartment with a police protector is mostly a good idea, it also prompted me to glare a lot and say things like, "Why does everyone keep insisting on leaving this poor girl ALONE all the time?"

 

In an attempt to calm herself (and not inconsequentially, this is another example of Betty's intentional post-traumatic dissociation from the violent events surrounding her), Betty puts some eyedrops in her eyes to alleviate the burning from having had to keep them open for so long, and puts on a relaxation/opera tape to go lie down and recuperate a bit. As she's doing this, Soave shows up at the door, and after he identifies himself she lets him in - but since she has eyedrops in her eyes, she can't actually see him right now. At first I was annoyed with Argento because this was less than subtle and I had come to expect better from him (gee, I wonder who that gentleman she just let into her room could be?), but he rectified things a few minutes later, so apparently I need to just keep my damn mouth shut. The aria on the tape for much of this scene is "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma, sung by the luinous Maria Callas, another choice with some symbolic punch to it.

 

When Betty's agent and best friend, Mira, arrives, the suspense amps up for the characters as they realize that Mira passed an Officer Soave downstairs, meaning that one of the two Soaves must be the maniac Phantom figure in disguise. Poor Betty didn't get a look at the one in her living room and he seems to have disappeared, so being sensible ladies they lock themselves in the kitchen, and Mira continues Argento's trend of strong female characters by seizing a butcher knife and grimly intending to defend them both to the death with it. The camerawork is steady here, but Argento chooses to employ flashing lights in several colors, suggesting emergency lights and imparting an added sense of panic and things being out of control to the proceedings.

 

When the "officer" (is he? isn't he?) in the living room steps out for a moment, one of the tensest (which is saying an awful damn lot, in this movie) scenes of the film occurs as Betty desperately tries to find a phone while Mira confronts the unknown man in the hallway through the peephole on the door. Argento's love affair with ocular trauma continues, as shot after shot of Mira's vulnerable, panicked and shifting eye at the peephole give the audience more and more cause to fear for her despite the man outside's identification and seeming earnestness. In a piece of truly gorgeous cinematography, the man (now, clearly, the Phantom) shoots Mira through the peephole; time slows and we watch the bullet glide gracefully through the tiny tunnel between the gun and Mira's eye, and if it's unlikely that the bullet would go so cleanly through only the peephole, we can't help but forgive the poetic license in light of the beautiful way it sets up the shot.

 

This is the first death that Betty isn't restrained during, and she proves her mettle as a determined character in the face of adversity once again; she screams at him as he talks to her calmly from the other side of the door, calling him names and threatening him for hurting her friends. She follows that up with a pretty darn ingenious plan under pressure; while he's busy breaking down the door, she runs to her bedroom, turns up the opera tape to full volume, and then throws one of her pillows off the balcony (scattering feathers everywhere, which of course reminds us of the ravens). She drags the sheets over there as well, in order to make it look as though she made her escape out the window, and then hides behind some curtains on the other side of the room with Mira's butcher knife. Betty's use of the knife here is a turning point in her character; rather than passively enduring torment, she is now actively on the path toward defending herself, apparently intending to kill the Phantom in revenge for her friends' deaths. In this she varies vastly from Leroux's gentle Christine, and it is here in the film that the plot really begins to diverge from its source material.

 

I was on board with Betty's plan (which was honestly probably way better than anything I would have come up with in a similarly traumatic situation) until she started having flashbacks again, making her stumble about and incapacitating her with the weight of her mysterious memories. Again, the images and sounds we have come to associate with Betty's strange memories - the flexing brain, the crying of a child, the ubiquitous heartbeat in the air - are present again, and the camera has begun to pitch and turn at odd acute angles in order to visually mirror the mental turmoil of the heroine. To make matters worse, she stumbles over (the real) Soave's body as she's trying to find her half-blind way out of the room, making it clear that there's no help coming to the rescue. The Phantom figure, never gone for long, is thwarted in his attempt to recapture her when she shoots at him repeatedly with Soave's discarded gun; the intentional ambiguity of the shots is intended to let us wonder whether or not she hit him (certainly, he isn't as quick about pursuing her as he usually is), and it reminded me of Raoul's shooting of Erik in Leroux's novel, which was similarly ambiguous in outcome and subsequently totally forgotten (possibly another subtle instance of Argento poking fun at our illustrious French author).

 

Now, in a completely surreal turn of events, a little girl pops out of the vent above Betty's bed and exhorts her to hurry up and escape with her. The camera contributes to the surreality of the situation by continuing its seasick rolling and heaving, almost turning to complete right angles by the time Betty is trying to climb into the vent. Despite a long-winded interpretive note I wrote about manifestations of Betty's mental distress and childhood memories, this turned out to be a real, actual little girl; apparently she's the watcher-in-the-vents, not the Phantom, and likes to hide in the old air conditioning system (a slimy, dark series of connected tunnels with openings into every apartment in the building, all of which says more than a passing hello to the vast labyrinth system of Erik's opera house) when her parents are fighting. She's something of a shoddy plot device, since once she's finished rescuing Betty she's immediately forgotten and has no real characterization, but her presence (particularly her somewhat curious diffidence to the situation and the fight she has with her clearly abusive mother as she's leaving) serves as a reminder of Betty's own childhood, and suggests more strongly than ever that something in her past may be connected to the horrible events of the present. (If you're like me, don't worry; my fervid, miserable prayers were answered and no one bloodily killed the six-year-old girl. She lived!)

 

The crunching rock/metal music returns here as Betty flees through the crowds, sending the audience a signal that she is not out of danger yet and reminding us that, since she still has no idea what this man looks like, any person in the crowd might be him (effectively rendering all faces as masks, which was one of the basic ideas of Leroux's work). More of the same uncomfortable flashbacks, particularly of the same blonde woman tied up, continue to plague her until she stumbles into the opera house and Marco's arms, returning us to Raoul #3 (man, this multiple Raoul thing reminds me a lot of the 1943 film, don't you think?). I don't think much of her brilliant plan to spend the night in the opera house because it's "safer", but then again she's had a hard week. The most important part of this scene is the prolonged flashback she has when she finally goes to sleep, in which her childhood self (about six or seven years old) witnesses the black-masked Phantom horribly murdering a woman while her mother watches. Holy child issues, Batman.

 

The first of the film's two climaxes (it satisfies more than once!) comes, as is fairly common with Phantom films, during a performance of Macbeth. Marco, being the clever devil he is (and taking a leaf from Michael's book in the 1983 film), has a cunning plan to capture the Phantom, who will surely attend the performance since Betty is singing in it. What little we get to see of the performance is, again, stunning, and I found myself wishing again that we had gotten to see the whole thing; its vision is gorgeous. Since Argento's Phantom character here (still don't know who he is! This movie has gone a long time without giving that up, hasn't it?) isn't likely to kidnap Betty right off the stage, the plan is accordingly different than usual, but extremely poetic and simplistic (and somewhat unrealistic, but it fits with the ethos of the film so well): during Betty's duet with Macbeth, when they're sure that the Phantom must have shown up for the performance by now, the bird handler crashes his cage through the drop and onto the stage (gorgeously shot, making this barely-noticed side character seem like a powerful, avenging bird of prey in his own right) and sets the ravens free.

 

Since Argento carefully introduced us to the idea of ravens as vengeful, intelligent creatures earlier in the film, it's not surprise but a delicious sort of awe that grips the audience as the birds dart back and forth in the crowded theater and finally strike unerringly for the Phantom, who had tormented and killed them backstage earlier in the film. Again, this scene may owe much to the 1983 film; in that one, as well, ravens tore the villain apart as a sort of revenge from beyond the grave from Elena, the dead soprano whose career and life he ruined. Never one to break his own themes, Argento makes sure we get a lovely shot of a raven trying to choke down one of the Phantom's eyes, despite the fact that the organ is too big and it keeps getting stuck in the bird's craw.

 

After that incredible scene, you might think that the crisis is finally over (I certainly did), but you would be wrong. The murderer escapes the birds (though minus an eye and quite a lot of blood, now giving him the traditional deformity; intriguingly, this is the only adaptation I've seen thus far in which the Phantom acquires his deformity during the events covered in Leroux's novel) and manages to corner Betty in the chaos backstage. His identity is finally revealed as Raoul #1, Inspector Santini; while I had predicted this when he first appeared onscreen way back when (my notes say, "My, doesn't he look like a nice, clean-cut young man. Must be a murderer"), Argento is no slouch when it comes to plotting his films in order to keep the suspense, and I had mostly forgotten to suspect him until this point.

 

He cheerfully fills in the blanks for both Betty and us as he ties her up, feels her up, and generally makes a nuisance of himself (he also blindfolds her, once again rendering her blind). As we have mostly gathered from Betty's bits-and-pieces flashbacks, Santini had a sadomasochistic relationship with Betty's mother; she found the torture of and cruelty to others arousing, and forced him to torture and kill other women for her before she would allow him to have sex with her. Santini's obsession with Betty, who apparently resembles her mother more than a little bit (I didn't see it, but I wasn't really looking for it in the chaotic memory flash parts of the film), is therefore easily explained; he is convinced that she is, if not actually her mother reincarnated, certainly virtually the same, and he has transferred his obsession accordingly. My only real beef with this version of the Phantom is that he appears to be much too young to have been Betty's mother's lover a decade or two ago.

 

There are a few interesting ideas to be had here; for one thing, Santini's blindfolding of Betty is a break from pattern for him, since he has consistently forced her to keep her eyes open and witness all of his actions. His behavior now is much more consistent with a classical Phantom pattern in that, now that he's facially disfigured, he no longer wants Betty to be able to see him. Or, more subtle yet, he may just not want her to see his face revealed without the context of bloodshed; having delusionally associated reward, love and pleasure with hurting others for so long, he may even be harboring a fear that she will be revolted by him when he is simply behaving normally. The other idea that I find it enjoyable to contemplate (despite the fact that it's somewhat more off-the-wall) is that Betty's beautiful blonde mother, Santini's original love to whom he was slavishly devoted and for whom he was willing to kill at the drop of a hat, might be our Christine, and Betty only her hapless daughter (there is, surprisingly, no indication or ambiguity anywhere concerning the possibility that Santini might be Betty's father; the idea isn't even acknowledged, but the circumstances made me wonder nevertheless). She'd be a dark, opposite version of Leroux's Christine, certainly, but in the vision of this film, who knows? It's an interesting idea, especially since the idea of Christine's offspring, particularly daughters, interacting with the Phantom is a fairly popular and enduring one in later Phantom literature.

 

It's also worth noting that the makeup job on Santini's wounds is a visual echo, the raven claw marks down his cheek from his missing eye almost identical to the needles he had forced Betty to wear earlier in the film. He's also the third film Phantom to lose an eye, following the 1962 Fisher/Lom film and the 1974 de Palma/Finley movie.

 

Santini, possibly finally realizing that he will not be able to turn Betty into her mother, plans to kill himself by dousing the opera house in gasoline and lighting it on fire, an obvious correlation to Erik's grand plan to blow up the opera house if Christine refused to be his wife. His sudden vulnerability is very characteristic of the original Erik as well, especially when he gives Betty his gun and says imploringly, "I'm afraid - will you help me? I'm not afraid of death. I'm afraid of pain." He is denied his redemption, of course, as are almost all film Phantoms (particularly the horror ones), and he presumably dies while she makes her escape (again, displaying ingenuity and verve befitting a spunky Christine). Like Christine, it is Betty who rescues herself, not anyone else, although she does so here with violence rather than compassion.

 

Then, the fake-out second ending, which begins with Betty and Marco (#3, triumphing over the others to claim the title of Heroic Raoul of the Film) far away from Paris, preparing for a production of Verdi's La Traviata. Betty is happier than we've ever seen her, enjoying the serene countryside and Marco's company, relieved beyond measure that her terrifying stalker is, at last, gone. Unfortunately, Marco catches a police report on television saying that the body found in the fire was not Santini's, just before stumbling over the murdered corpse of their maid, and any audience anything like me said, "Oh, NO," really loudly and tried not to cry. Like any gentleman concerned for his lady friend when there is a maniac murderer stalking her in the house, he sticks his head out the window, hollers that the guy isn't dead and for her to run, and like a good girl she takes off running through the fields in her pretty blue dress, all of which seems very out of place with the scary rock music once again blaring and the serenity we had just a moment before.

 

In a truly heroic move, Marco comes out of left field (having apparently sprinted across a lot of fields in record time) and tackles Santini just before he can catch Betty. Unfortunately, Marco is only a mild-mannered film and theater director and Santini is a crazed, murderous madman, and Marco is stabbed to death after a short struggle, the poignancy of which tragedy is all the more heightened by his selfless aid to Betty and the happiness that had seemed to be in store for them. Betty, ever surprising, grabs Santini and utters that wince-creating line so familiar to perusers of over-romanticized Phantom literature: "I realize it now - I wanted you to win. I wanted you to kill him." And while we're still staring at the screen in shock, she exhorts him to run away with her before someone finds the body and catches them. Before I even got up the impetus to write a note about it, however, she proved to be just as canny as before and bashed him over the head with a rock the second his back was turned, and goes on beating him until the authorities arrive and apprehend him. Well done, Betty.

 

Interestingly, as Santini is being dragged off, he insists to the end that he "didn't commit any crime", with a fervor and conviction that lead the viewer to believe that he truly means what he's saying. As far as he's concerned, his killings were all justified; Stefano was an obstacle to his love, Betty, while Giulia and Marco both actually attacked him and Mira threatened him with a knife and refused to let him near the object of his affection (and, of course, every one of them was done in Betty's name in order to prove his love to her, and need no further justification as far as he is concerned). Much like the Phantom of Leroux's novel, Santini sees all his killings as justified, and that tiny note of pathos is enough to elevate him from garden-variety slasher/stalker bad guy to a complex and even pitiable villain.

 

Betty is bizarrely happy and carefree the second Santini is taken out of her sight, her dissociative illness having finally been pushed to its limit and become a permanent state of mind. She delights in nature and shuns humanity, recognizing it only as a source of trauma; like Leroux's Erik, she cannot bear the horror of society and the monsters that it creates through cruelty and indifference, and even as the Phantom is dragged off, she is quite obviously never going to be able to rejoin normal society again. The ostracization from humanity that Santini typified (justified or otherwise) is a self-perpetuating illness, leaving Betty just as unable to function at the end of the film.

 

I couldn't quite give this film the A it wanted; while it featured dazzling opera, complex and psychologically relevant characters, a love of metaphor and symbolism and a good grasp on the original story, it ultimately failed to hit all the required notes, specifically those of redemption and selflessness that are required of a truly insightful interpretation of the story. It's an impressive film and a very compelling horror, and for that it merits a look from anybody (except whimpering babies like me).

 

More than any previous version, this one captures the terror of an unknown, obsessive stalker the most viscerally and closely, which shouldn't be a surprise from Argento. In fact, despite its flaws, I would almost say that this film should be required viewing for any nascent fan of the Phantom story; there is no real question, after watching it, that being stalked and killed for is even the slightest bit flattering, romantic, or excusable, and removing that bit of over-romanticized confusion might make the characters' behavior and choices much more comprehensible to many.

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers

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