“The only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people.”
It’s a fascinating observation, that we create our lives, our art, our culture, in accordance with the rules established by those who came before us. It’s also no surprise that such a comment comes from Dario Argento, one of horror cinema’s most literate scholars. History has always permeated his films, like the secrets and plot points hidden within historic paintings and sculptures in early films like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red. As Argento matured, though, you get a sense that he was taking the quote above to heart, refusing to simply just cultivate the cinema of his forebearers like Michelangelo Antonioni, Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava, and instead govern his own art with his own stylings. This empowering change in direction and creative renaissance for the director culminated into his iconic arthouse horror masterpiece Suspiria and its follow-up, Inferno. For those fleeting two films, Argento was on top of his form, concerned only about the art and how he was reinventing the way we see horror, cinema, and in a way, ourselves.
Suspiria was a sprawling success, the apex of his career critically and commercially, and the creativity continued during Inferno before Argento’s second in the Three Mothers trilogy would be lambasted by critics and altogether ignored by the public. The disappointment would be compounded by the fact that a major studio, 20th Century Fox, had put their backing in it, only to be confused, disappointed and ultimately indifferent to the final product. It’s because of this that Argento’s next film, the still masterful Tenebre, took a step away from the bold, colorful and fertile experimentation of Suspiria and Inferno and instead focused on his critics with a reflexive tale of a horror writer. It was because of Inferno, his most maligned of masterpieces, that Argento pulled back the reins on his creativity and instead started governing himself by those dead people, those critics and conventions of the old guard. While he kept up a high level of quality throughout the remainder of the eighties and showed fleeting brilliance in the nineties, his creativity never was the same after suffering the critical fire of Inferno. Finally on Blu-ray thanks to Blue Underground, let’s see just how bright Argento’s creativity still burns.
In Suspiria we were introduced to the lore of the Three Mothers, interpreted by Argento from Thomas de Quincey’s 1845 fever dream essay “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow”. Three witches who rule the world with tears, sighs and darkness. Mater Suspiriorum was the Mother of sorrow, or sighs, and the only to be featured in Suspiria. Inferno introduces us to the two other sisters, Mater Tenebrarum (always problematic since his next film, Tenebre, would have nothing to do with this mythology), the Mother of darkness and the main subject of this picture, and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of tears, who shows up briefly here but would go on to headline Argento’s last in the trilogy. The Three Mothers are hidden deep within historic sites in three of the major cities in the world, Freiburg, Germany (Suspiriorum), New York City (Tenebrarum) and Rome, Italy (Lachrymarum), possessing the tools of destruction, both of themselves and of humanity as a whole.
Inferno brings the sisters together by way of another pair of siblings, college students Rose (Irene Miracle, Night Train Murders, Midnight Express) and Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey, TV’s Dallas, Cameron’s Closet). Rose is studying in poetry in New York, while Mark is studying music in Rome. Rose writes to Mark after taking out an ancient book called “The Three Mothers”, where an architect, Varelli, describes their three locations. Rose suspects her own old apartment to be the site of Mater Tenebrarum, and discovers a hole in the basement to lead to a water-filled ballroom filled with artifacts. One is an old portrait labeled unsurprisingly “Mater Tenebrarum”, and the other is a bloated corpse, which sends her immediately out of the water and back to her dorm.
Shortly after, Mark receives Rose’s letter urging him to visit her, but when trying to read it in class (who does that?) he’s distracted by a
Mark is given brief aid by another tenant, Elise (Dario’s wife at the time and the muse that got him involved in this supernatural trilogy in the first place, Daria Nicolodi), who warns him these walls have ears and that somewhere inside is a deep seeded evil. Mark talks later to Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), the nearby antiques dealer (and man responsible for the quote spoken at the start of this review) who first gave the demonic book to Rose, but he’s unable to learn more. Desperately piecing together clues from Rose and Elise, Mark begins permeating the depths of the building in search of Rose. Instead he finds the fabled Mater Tenebrarum made flesh as the archaic structure lights up in flame. Will he escape the inferno, or has hell truly burned over?
Inferno is a lucid invasion of the senses, a masterful continuation and elaboration on his career-defining Suspiria. In many ways Argento ups the stakes, using more evocative, colored lighting, more effects and grand setpieces, and more of a grand scale of story. He tackles the tale of the remaining two mothers, and expands his canvas to address history as a whole. It possesses some of the most beautiful images ever in horror cinema, with an art department seemingly as deep as the deceiving New York building itself, a camera as free and roaming as sound itself (quite literally!), and violence as feral and horrific as anything Argento has ever committed to cinema. Yet, what keeps my mind lingering upon the film days, weeks and years after are not the pleasures devoted to the senses, but instead those of the mind.
What I always appreciate about Argento from this time was his intelligent way of imbuing stylish, modern visuals with a perceptive sense of story. First and foremost his films are visceral, yes, they were from day one and they continue to be today with Mother of Tears. But his earlier films also had subtle insights into culture, humanity and even philosophy. I’m reminded of his extroverted characterization of gays in his Animal trilogy at a time when such characters were closeted in entertainment; his science behind the complexity of sight and memory in Four Flies on Grey Velvet; the discussions of the subtleties of painting in Deep Red. In Inferno, we have the shopkeeper quote from above, and many more about the essence of sound and history, framed by the device of having his protagonists as studying university scholars.
On a purely plot-driven basis, the exchange between Mark and the old gentleman and the nurse in the elevator, where she misconstrues his field of study of musicology as “toxicology”, is a wonderfully subtle hint to the poison (in many senses of the word) that would impact Mark, the witch, the building and even humanity as a whole. The exchange works more pointedly, though, to illustrate Argento’s main focus on the study and nature of all things (the –ology suffix so oft repeated), or more concisely, the study of history itself. Argento quotes from literaries throughout in his dialogue, but it’s the way he’s able to make this study of history personified so vividly by his visuals that really sets him apart as a storyteller here.
Two of the most visually rich portions of the film, the opening ballroom scene with Rose and the walls have ears scene later with Mark and Elise, as perhaps cinema’s greatest metaphors for history itself. The first, where Rose slips into a vintage ballroom, literally into a sea of old knowledge, is one where history washes all around her, with old artifacts of the past floating by and enlightening she, the budding flower of knowledge. Rose’s tumble into the waterhole shares immediate similarity to the portal of enrichment and hallucinatory expression in Alice in Wonderland, where reality is truth, but the truth seems exaggerated. By engulfing the expansive and visually astounding setpiece in water, Argento perfectly illustrates the liquidity of history, how through books, schooling and social interaction, the theories, dictums and minds of the past can continue to resonate and permeate our culture today. Not since Andrei Tarkovsky have the elements been so conducive to explaining our existence. Making sure that his point that history is always around us is understood, Argento later quite literally has Mark’s friend surrounded, engulfed, by a wall of books in the library as she searches for The Three Mothers. History is liquid, and it is all around us.
Argento’s second visual showstopper is a brief sequence that follows Elise’s insight that the building of Mater Tenebrarum is listening to their every word. Much like how Argento put us in the POV of a man jumping to his death in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage by literally throwing a running camera out the window, Argento this time straps us into a dolly and has us oscillate up and down like a sound wave. Sound, like water, is never static, always moving and constantly connecting the surfaces found outside it. To show us how the modern and the ancient can be connected in the present by history, Argento has us travel literally as a sound wave through the storied structure of the building. We start in Roses’s room with bright, bold colors of modernity, and travel through the piping of the rustic interior (or figuratively, “structure”) to ultimately, at the conclusion of the film, an old, classical sub-space where the witch lives. This area that Mark stumbles upon at the end (sort of like how Rose does so the ballroom earlier in the film) shows us how even despite modern appearances, the building, and humanity, is still controlled by a history buried beneath the surface. Out of sight but never out of mind, as long as the powers of alchemy or academia continue to inform.
At the top of his game, as he was here, Argento was able to mask deep, cerebral themes within thrilling, accessible and expansive imagery. But he wasn’t alone. The unsung heroes of Inferno are the Bavas. Lamberto, the AD, would take over when Argento fell very ill during production, and would also direct the aforementioned ballroom scene that brought the whole film together. It’s no secret that the hands of the artist are quite literally all over Argento’s films, since he always dons the gloves of his killers on screen – so is it any surprise, then, that Lamberto Bava would be the one throwing the cats during one of the film’s most iconic death sequences?
The other maestro in the shadows was Il Maestro himself, Mario Bava. In a film rife with history, it’s fitting that one of Argento’s most influential forebearers also himself plays a major role in the film itself. Mario was responsible for the set design of those amazing subterranean expanses in the New York building, ones that again would help compare and contrast fantasy and the past with reality and the present. He was also responsible for the visual trickery in the film, of which there is much, especially during the truly horrifying conclusion. This film would be Bava’s last (the book closed, history stopped) and fate couldn’t have choreographed it any better, as the film ends on Bava’s final unforgettable creation – death personified. This is without question a Dario Argento film, but history definitely had a hand in its artistry, too.
Another collaborator Argento enlisted for Inferno was musician Keith Emerson. Argento had wanted a different, more “delicate” score for this compared to the work he’d been getting from Goblin in Deep Red and Suspiria. Many decry this as sacrelige, considering how esteemed Goblin’s soundtracks are, and how frequently they’d collaborate with Argento, but history (again!) shows us that Argento also made a major change of composition in going from Ennio Morricone’s music in the Animal trilogy to Goblin’s thereafter. While not as ubiquitous or recognizable as the tracks from Suspiria, Emerson’s work here, more operatic and resonant (fitting, given the echoey theaters, ballrooms and libraries the character inhabit), still provides off-key backing until the bombastic and iconic final theme.
It is said that when faced with illness or death artists create their most telling and essential work. Indeed Vincent van Gogh’s “Wheatfield of Crows”, the same field he’d fall to suicide, seems his most masterful use of the stroke in illustrating the passage (represented by a road) from life (the earthy field below) to the haunted eternity (a dark night sky). Looking at film, we see the great last work of Jean Vigo, L’Atalante, issue in surrealism via a literal and figurative voyage in the sea, where life seems to spread in the ether of the sea. More modern, we see Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull come during a time when he was recovering from a near fatal cocaine addiction. Argento only had hepatitis during Inferno, but it was a flirtation with death nonetheless, and one gets the sense that he made the film as if it could have been his last. He put all his creativity, his essence, his being, out on the table, and the result was one of horror’s most beautiful, expressive and important horror films. And the critics burned him at the stake.
If there’s one film that depends on visuals – okay, one film other than Suspiria, it’s Inferno. Anchor Bay did well with the film back in 2000 when it was released anamorphic, especially considering most of his other films, like Phenomena and Tenebre were not. Blue Underground re-released the film themselves in 2007, but that utilized the same old transfer. Here we are now in 2011, and eleven years later we finally get a new look at Inferno…and damn, this transfer is on fire! This transfer has a beautiful texture, recreating a very flattering filmic grain. It’s a film with some sandpaper-like fine grain, and it’s been preserved perfectly. The transfer is very sharp, a huge upgrade over the blurred and soft Anchor Bay DVD transfer. One thing the Anchor Bay disc was good at was color, and while this new Blu-ray isn’t a large amount more vibrant, there is a noticeable improvement in the color detail. On the old DVD, te deep colors would smear out any definition, resulting in blocky tones. In this remaster, you can see smoke in those puddles of blue or book spines in those red clusters. Take a look at the screen shot below to see what I’m talking about:
Inferno is a visually arresting movie, and thankfully Blue Underground have done no crime with this new visual transfer. It looks like film and it looks fabulous, what a feast for the eyes!
NConsidering how good the video was, when you read DTS 7.1 on the back of the box, you start to feel a little sensation downstairs. What’s heard upstairs, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but still, this eight speaker mix still has a full and satisfying sound. Keith Emerson’s bombastic, classical compositions do sound very good in the expanded soundspace, but the overall track lacks any sort of directionality. It’s more just an expanded mono track rather than anything possessing any sort of positional ambiance. If you prefer the film in Italian (and you probably shouldn’t, since the main actors all performed it in their native English) then all you get is a mono mix, which doesn’t quite cut it. Still, it’s tough to slog a thirty year old movie when it has DTS 7.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and 2.0 Surround tracks.
Always an under-appreciated film in Argento’s canon, Inferno, finally gets some extras worthy of its pedigree. Two new interviews are included in HD with the actors. The first, “Art & Alchemy” is with Leigh McCoskey, who is surprisingly articulate. As someone who always thought of him as the vapid prep he played on Dallas, I was impressed to learn that he is actually an accomplished painter. We get to see and hear from him about his art as well as the usual about how he came to be cast in Inferno, what he thought of Argento and a few of his on-set stories. It’s no surprise that he’s quite proud of the final film, and with good reason! This 15 minute piece is well produced, as usual, by Red Shirt Pictures.
“Reflections of Rose” sits down with actress Irene Miracle, and she too has an interesting career and history to reflect upon. Her tales from the set are of most appeal; as it goes she was so stressed with Dario’s methods during production that her hair started falling out and as a result her part was scaled back. She’s in love with the beauty of the finished film but is honest about her frustrations with her part and Argento’s lack of direction. It’s a very candid 13 minutes and another fine interview, presented in HD.
Rounding off the disc are extras ported over from the previous Anchor Bay DVD. The most substantial is an 8 minute interview with Argento and Lamberto Bava. Argento talks about the impetus of the film and how he was very conscious about not making the same kind of movie as Suspiria. He also talks about his collaboration with Mario Bava, at which point Lamberto chimes in too on his father and on a few of the notable things he oversaw on set. There’s also a pretty wild theatrical trailer that finds 20th Century Fox’s logo upon the end, a rarity to see a big studio behind an Argento flick. Finally, there’s also a short introduction for the film with Dario Argento, culled from the same old interview on the Anchor Bay release. Albeit brief, it does provide a nice context for the struggle Argento had with the picture.
Kudos must be given once more to Blue Underground for their menus – they’re really second to none and setup the film perfectly.
Nobody expected Dario Argento to be able to reach the creative heights he achieved in Suspiria with his follow-up, but Inferno damn near achieves it. Argento was ambitious as hell here, and even when he was hospitalizing himself trying to achieve perfection, he had the help of the Bava’s to bring to his film qualities that even he couldn’t achieve in his prime, like the show-stopping fiery finale or the underwater exploration sequence. It’s a visual and audible tour de force, and Blue Underground has done the film good with stunning, film-like video and true to the source audio in DTS 7.1. Add in some engaging new actor interviews (in HD) along with most of the old Anchor Bay supplements, and this is certainly the definitive presentation of the film. Inferno deserves the life of a phoenix; those who have previously written off the film owe it to themselves to give it another shot on Blu-ray. It came from a time when Dario Argento’s passion for the medium smoldered, and a time before he got burned.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Very true and a very good review. Inferno is sometimes forgotten but it is a very close second to Suspiria.
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