High and Low: Terror at the Opera as Art-Horror

A long, but interesting look at Terror at the Opera, or better known simply as Dario Argento's Opera. Fans of Argento should take a look, as I explore the film in the same way a critic would analyze Citizen Kane.
Moviegoers have always sought an alternative to the Hollywood film. The emergence of home video has further cemented a subculture of paracinema fans, allowing patrons to indulge in their interests for art films, horror, and pornography—all genres that are known to defy the common conventions of cinema. Joan Hawkins explores this counterculture in Cutting Edge by applying serious academic analysis to the texts of paracinema and by blurring the distinctions between high and low culture. In this essay, I will relate Hawkins’ notion of paracinema as reactionary works to Dario Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1987). His film will be of particular importance when considering it as a reaction against Hollywood’s representation of gender, sexuality, and the inviolability of the body. Simultaneously, Argento’s work provides for further complexity in regards to the role spectatorship plays in onscreen violence. The idea of viewing pleasure is assaulted in Opera, leading one to push Argento’s work beyond a mere reaction to the hegemonic characteristics of mainstream cinema and towards intelligent commentary on the internal sadism of both low and high culture consumers.

The essential feature of paracinema, as defined by Hawkins, is affect: “the ability of a film to thrill, frighten, gross out, arouse, or otherwise directly engage the spectator’s body” (Hawkins, 4). In such films there is an obsession with the body, whether it be a body overwhelmed by orgasm, a body horrified by uncontrollable fear, or a body struggling with emotional heartache. Films that utilize affect are roped into the low culture category, as movies that can’t coincide with level-headed, moral-thinking people. It is for the same reason mainstream audiences degrade paracinema that fans of low-brow films are drawn to them; the appeal lies in the “desire…to see something different’, something unlike contemporary Hollywood cinema” (Hawkins, 7). Hawkins outlines the competing interests in cinema as confrontational—the groups are “polarized into mainstream and ‘alternative’ or ‘fringe’ audiences” (Hawkins, 22). While one group is chastised by the dominant culture, the other is criticized in the text of paracinema. However, Hawkins demonstrates the malleability of high and low art, as they often sit side by side on the shelves of specialized video stores. Fans of schlock also prove to be fans of experimental or art films; and subscribers to paracinema display rather erudite means of deciphering the different texts. “Viewing/reading the films themselves—even the trashiest films—demands a set of sophisticated strategies that…are remarkably similar to the strategies employed by the cultural elite” (Hawkins, 15).

The films of Dario Argento, though initially considered “Spaghetti Splatter,” have evolved to convey rather progressive readings toward gender roles and sexuality. This change in reception may be a result of the poor quality of VHS tapes versus the remastered, reworked DVD titles to hit the shelves in recent years, as supposed by Raiford Guins in “Blood and Black Gloves on Shiny Discs: New Media, Old Tastes, and the Remediation of Italian Horror Films in the United States.” Argento is well-known for literally masking the gender of the killer until the end of the film; this is done through masks, gloves, nondescript clothing, and a raspy voice with an asexual pitch. Adam Knee interprets, “Argento’s films consistently foreground ambiguities of gender and sexuality and repeatedly suggest the instability of power relations” in “Gender, Genre, Argento” (Knee, 215).

Terror at the Opera is no different; it too provides an androgynous killer with gloves, a mask, and a neutral voice. In Opera, the threat is most closely associated with the sexual perversion of the sadomasochistic male. The film’s heroine, Betty, is repeatedly touched by the murderer and utilized as a source of arousal (i.e., her viewing of the murders is a mode of eroticism for the killer). The film’s conclusion ultimately reveals the identity of the killer to indeed be a male; in fact, it is Santini, the police inspector who expresses his enjoyment in watching Betty sing. However, further revelations complicate traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality, as Betty’s mother is discovered to be the instigator of past murders. Her mother encouraged Santini (her lover) to kill for her own sexual satisfaction, as she watched him slaughter beautiful women. Here, both gender roles and sexual gratification are investigated beyond the scope of the Hollywood norm. The power shifts not only between perpetrator and spectator but also between male and female. Santini refers to himself as a slave to Betty’s mother’s desires, so much so that he now seeks a new master via Betty. As Leon Hunt puts it, “Betty is educated into the role of the cold, cruel mother of the masochistic scenario” (Hunt, 334). Opera challenges the status quo’s conceptions of the male/female sexual relationship, making it a reactionary film arguing against the hegemony of social mores.

Argento offends the sanctity of the body in Opera, utilizing affect to highlight its appeal towards audiences of paracinema. A focus is placed on the concept of penetration, both sexual and lethal. Betty’s inability to perform in bed is contrasted with the killer’s able performance, as a lack of penetration in one scene is juxtaposed to the gruesome penetration of a knife through a man’s mouth via close-up. Knee articulates, “no sooner does the female performer fail to perform (be passive, penetrated female) for her boyfriend than she is made to view the killer’s performance (in that her eyes are forced open, penetrated,) which consists of the forcible penetration (graphically detailed, lest one miss the particular resonance) of her boyfriends body with a knifeblade” (Knee, 217). When reading this scene, the body can be read as an object deriving pleasure only through forcible penetration because the complacent female simply won’t satisfy without force. On the other hand, it can also be read as an opposition to the aforementioned reading—a reaction to the dominant alpha male of Hollywood films, such as the John Wayne figure that beats the sense back into women or uses violence to coerce the woman into sex. The bodies of Opera are exposed, ready to be converted into a bloody pulp for the realization of the psychopath’s fantasies, as well the audience’s pleasures.

“The Italian horror films as art-object can also double as a reactionary-object” (Guins, 29). While the normatizing images of gender, sexuality, and body are challenged by Argento’s Terror at the Opera, the film also displays an acute perception of spectatorship that lifts the film to the distinction of art-horror. Questions of horror spectatorship are important when considering the text of Opera, as the film’s complexity grows as one looks deep into Argento’s work. In “A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera,” Leon Hunt characterizes the film as one that is “devoted almost exclusively to issues of visibility, spectatorship, and horror” (Hunt, 333). The opening image of the film is the eye of a raven; it is a dwelling shot as well and one that returns later in the film. From the beginning of the movie, we are forced to reflect on our own gaze. Argento utilizes eyeball violence and themes of spectatorship to involve the audience in the onscreen horror. Betty’s eyes are forced open, risking injury from the needles taped beneath her eyelids. The bullet from a gun passes through the eye of Betty’s friend in a scene where “the weapon is made subservient to the film’s aesthetic organization around the injury-to-the-eye motifs” (Hunt, 330). Nearing the conclusion, the killer’s eye is removed by bloodthirsty, avenging ravens. Hawkins points out the concept of aesthetic distance; Opera seems to invade that respected space by not only projecting images that make us wince but by continually reminding us that we are indeed observers of something horrific. Argento violates the viewer; whether this is intended as a judgment of the human condition or as gore for the sake of gross-out is up for debate. Yet, the text raises inquiries into violence and media whether or not it was intended by the filmmaker.

Opera also points fingers towards the culturally elite upper class. The film mocks the wealthy patrons of operas, as they readily enjoy the violence onstage but gasp in horror at the sight of wild ravens soaring through the theatre. Italy is especially known for its bloody operas. Argento may be asking why his films are shunned for their explicit violence by the high art crowd while the intellectual snobs enjoy the gore of a more sophisticated outlet such as operas. “[H]igh culture—even when it engages the body in the same way that low genres do—supposedly evokes a different kind of spectatorial pleasure and response than the one evoked by low genres” (Hawkins, 6). High and low culture may not be so different, but somehow the aura of elitism sticks to certain categories of art. When Hawkins describes the reactions of the viewer of paracinema—“[t]he spectator cringes, becomes tense, screams, weeps, becomes aroused”—she is not necessarily arguing that these qualities don’t also suit high culture entertainment (Hawkins, 5). Rather, these characteristics are supposedly enjoyed in a more enlightened manner. Argento’s Opera surveys several methods of viewing pleasure—all still focus on the body in sexual, horrific, or melodramatic sensations.

Whether received as low or high art, Argento’s Opera provides for readings that deconstruct the generic conventions of Hollywood cinema. “[H]e establishes a framework within which mainstream assumptions may be thrown into doubt” (Knee, 224). By utilizing gender and sexuality in ways that redefine the power structure between male and female, Argento reworks cinema’s depiction of the relationship. Postulations involving sex are questioned, as the audience of Argento’s films have to treat both men and women as equally capable suspects and victims. Opera additionally attacks the sanctity of the body, demanding attention to the correlation between sexuality and violence. Most importantly, Argento causes us to reconsider “the relationship between the gaze of the woman in the text, the gaze of the spectator, and the violence committed against both” (Hunt, 325). Opera informs us that onscreen violence and sadism are factors that transcend high and low culture.

Works Cited

Guins, Raiford. “Blood and Black Gloved on Shiny Discs: New Media, Old Tastes, and the Remediation of Italian Horror Films in the US.” Horror International. Eds. Tony Williams and Steven Schneider. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Hawkins, Joan. “Sleaze-Mania, Euro-trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture,” Cutting Edge, pp. 3-32.
Hunt, Leon. “A (Sadistic) Night at the Opera: Notes on the Italian horror film.” The Horror Reader. Ken Gelder (Ed.) London: Routledge, 2000.
Knee, Adam. “Gender, Genre, Argento.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Barry Keith Grant (Ed.) Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 213-230.
Opera. Dir. Dario Argento. Perf. Cristina Marsillach. 1987. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2001.

1 comment:

  1. Wow... this is really in-depth. I'll bet you can't make a case for anything artistic going on in Dario Argento's "Phantom of the Opera", though. No one can pull that off.