Betty, a young up and coming opera singer, gets put in the lead role of Verdi's Macbeth after the leading lady storms out of rehearsal and gets hit by a car (breaking her leg). However, she believes that the opera is bad luck for all involved and is quickly proven right when people start dying, violently.
Directed by Dario Argento, the film was inspired by an incident in his past: after the success of his "Animal Trilogy", Argento was approached by one of Italy's top opera production company with an offer to direct an upcoming production of theirs. Unfortunately for Argento, when he asked about doing a modernized version of an existing opera for the company, the offer was rescinded as they were only interested in doing period pieces. Furthermore, the film's iconic needles taped over the eyes bit is inspired by conversations between Argento and a close friend over how viewers of Argento's films often closed their eyes during the gorey parts of his film. The friend suggested Argento come up with A William Castle-type gimmick that kept viewers from not watching the gore.
The film is considered by many to be Argento's last true masterpiece. Fittingly for the film's play within a play, the film itself is largely known for its behind the scenes troubles:
- One of the main male leads was in a car accident, forcing them to have to film everything but his scenes as they did not know if they had to recast him or not.
- Argento making the decision to hire an actual opera singer (to give credibility for the opera sequences) over an actress for the role of Betty, leading to him and the singer feuding during the entire production due to her inexperience as an actor.
- Argento's father dying during production, plunging him into a state of severe depression
- Boiling tension betweeen Argento and his ex-girlfriend/collaborator Daria Nicolodi. Having just broken up with Argento, Nicolodi reluctantly agreed to appear in the film as a favor to her ex only to freak out and accusing him of trying to kill her when she read the script and realized that her character would die in a sequence where the actress herself could potentially die.
- Massive infighting with Orion, the film's US distributor over their demand that Argento cut the film's final sequence (which was a bloody "Sound of Music" homage set on the actual hillside where Julie Andrews famously filmed the scene where she sang the musical's iconic theme song). Argento refused to cut the scene, resulting in Orion backing out of their agreement to release the film (retitled "Terror At the Opera") in theaters.
The film was ultimately released direct-to-video, with a very small production run. As such, for years it was widely believed by many that the film never saw the light of day in the United States as well as the urban legend that the English language version omitted the final sequence of the film. Anchor Bay released it onto DVD in 2002, to much fanfare and acclaim.
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Alma's mother beats her for helping Betty escape the murderer at one point.
- Animals Hate Him: The ravens are not happy with Santini when he kills some of their comrades and make him pay.
- Bittersweet Ending: A lot of the cast dies, but Santini is eventually caught. Betty is, however, left broken and not wanting anything to do with people after the whole trauma.
- Break the Cutie: Betty. Depending on how you interpret the ending, Betty may indeed have been broken.
- Chekhov's Gun: The ravens.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Marco tells Betty he masturbates before a shoot to relieve tension.
- Eye Scream: The iconic shot of Betty having needles taped under her eyelids. Also, the scene where Mira gets shot in the eye in slow-mo and the scene where Santini's eyes are pecked out by ravens.
- Forced to Watch: The entire point of the needles is so that Santini can force Betty to watch as he stabs Stefan to death quite brutally.
- Gainax Ending: Infamously.
- Gorn: Of course.
- Ironic Echo: There's a scene early on where Santini decapitates a few ravens for no apparent reason other than disliking them. Marco capitalizes on this and uses the now-angered ravens to pick him out as the killer later on.
- Kensington Gore: Averted, unlike many of Dario Argento's other works; the blood in this film is actually quite realistic.
- Kick the Dog: Santini kills a few ravens just because he's a mean bastard.
- Sex Equals Death: Played straight with Stephano but averted with Betty.
- Shout-Out: Santini's method of faking his death is one to Red Dragon, where Francis Dolarhyde does the same thing in very much the same way
- Too Dumb to Live: Guilia who knocks out the killer with an iron but ends up getting killed because she decided to taunt him about a bracelet.
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: After Santini appears to burn himself to death, allowing Betty to escape, and Marco leaves for the Swiss Alps with Betty a viewer may think the movie has ended. Unfortunately for Marco, there's ten minutes left of the film.