Born in the paranoid delirium of a hepatitis fever-dream, Dario Argento’s astonishing 1980 movie “Inferno” stands alone in the Italian director’s filmography, a uniquely avant-garde expression of the supernatural horror film, the like of which the Maestro has not replicated or even attempted to replicate at any point in his career since – even after his resumption of overt supernatural themes in 2007’s “Mother of Tears”. For although nominally simply the middle instalment of a trilogy of fantasy horror features centred around the myth of ‘The Three Mothes’ -- a motif originally adapted by Argento and his then-lover Daria Nicolodi from Thomas De Quincy’s literary work, Confessions of an Opium Eater, as part of his 1977 classic “Suspiria” – in truth, “Inferno” is a one-off: the tortured origination of the ideas behind the film, along with an eighteen week shoot plagued with tension and recurring bouts of the same hepatitis infection which kick-started its inception, eventually produced a work that remains simultaneously the director’s most visually ravishing and his most artistically challenging cinematic exposition of operatic terror and twilight nightmares; a film which plugs into the subconscious with little regard for the niceties of logic, filled with symbolism and wild flights of the imagination while maintaining the gorgeous painterly façade of its classic predecessor.
“Inferno” is a movie that often divides fans. Although intimately connected with fan-favourite and widely acknowledged classic of horror cinema, “Suspiria”, “Inferno” strikes out on a very different path to the first instalment in what became the Three Mothers mythos. Unquestionably a ground-breaking and influential landmark in the genre, “Suspiria” nevertheless followed a fairly linear and recognisable plot structure, with a sympathetic protagonist on a quest to reveal the coven of witches that control events behind the scenes of a prestigious ballet school in the heart of the Black Forest in Freiburg, Germany. “Inferno” on the other hand introduces a number of figures, each in their own way caught up in strange unfathomable schemes unfolding on two continents, seemingly connected only by an intangible thread of supernatural intrigue represented by the all-seeing moon and its influence, and certain recurring symbolic leitmotifs. While “Suspiria” screams onto the screen and grabs the attention with one of the greatest virtuoso set-pieces of all time, “Inferno” has an almost stately pace and events proceed with a hazy, dream-like quality; indeed it is over half-an-hour into the film before the first death even occurs! The film has consequently developed a justified reputation for being ‘difficult’ and hard to get to grips with. But like many good things, this initial difficulty simply means that it can be a little while before its true genius becomes apparent; it takes a few repeat viewings, but “Inferno” soon lodges itself in the mind, initially wowing on a purely aesthetic level with the exquisite beauty of its cinematography, its vibrant, rich palette of colour and amazing sets; but then because of the subtle web of associations and symbolic imagery that builds up significance with each return and only enhances the uncanny atmosphere of supernatural dread and paranoia suffusing the film’s strange, surrealistic but child-like narrative. Like few other films in the genre, “Inferno” invokes a world made up of equal parts magic and menace.
The film started life when Argento found himself stranded in a snowbound Hotel St. Moritz overlooking Central Park in New York, while waiting for George Romero to complete work on “Dawn of the Dead” (which he was producer and script consultant on). Alone and suffering from hepatitis, he wrote letters home and imagined this being his only means of communication with his loved-ones. All this, including the Central Park location found its way into the screenplay, but Argento allegedly struggled to come up with the sequel to “Suspiria” his American distributors were demanding, and Daria Nicolodi claims she had to step in to help out once again, despite still smarting over a falling-out between herself and Argento which had occurred over the extent of her involvement in the original inception of “Suspiria”. Unlike “Suspiria”, Nicolodi doesn’t get a writing credit at all for “Inferno”. It is unclear precisely what her involvement with it is, but it is generally assumed that most of the occult symbolism and alchemical philosophy which makes up the backbone of the screenplay comes from her. Daria Nicolodi was an uncompromisingly bohemian character and the occult turn of Dario’s cinema (which beforehand had been restricted to the thriller end of the horror genre) is undoubtedly due to her influence on him. “Inferno” is full of potent ideas about the power of forbidden knowledge, the allure of esoteric philosophies and ancient secrets encoded in the architecture of old buildings, the symbolic significance of natural elements linked with occult powers, astrology and mysticism: all the baggage a bohemian, anti-establishment artiste like Nicolodi would have been drawn to in the late-sixties and throughout the seventies when the Three Mothers idea was taking shape. Argento’s true genius was to take all this and, in both “Suspiria” and “Inferno”, to combine it with the purity and simplicity and wonder of a fairy-tale. In “Suspiria” it was Snow White, in “Inferno” Hansel and Gretel becomes the template on which the story is initially modelled. Once again, the characters, ciphers though they are, behaving almost like children, have precious little development, but it doesn’t matter because it is the dark undercurrents suggested by the Gothic underpinnings of the fairy-tale template and all the esoteric trappings with which it is embroidered, that lend the film its bewitching power. The film is completely non-specific about the so-called secret knowledge and the nature of the occult powers of the Three Mothers, thus it floats free of any particular associations, referencing alchemy in only a very general, sketchy way. Daria Nicolodi calls it ‘secular magic’ in an interview (included as an extra on this disc) and contrasts it with “Mother of Tears” which unwisely resorts to conventional religious trappings, incorporating priests and all the associations and paraphernalia of the Catholic Church, thus destroying the other-worldly, dream-like nature of the legend.
The film moves in a shadowy paranoid realm of mysterious unseen supernatural influences, strange voices whispering in the dark and murderous figures whose faces are never glimpsed. The Three Mothers legend is developed in a book by the architect Varelli who once built the homes of three powerful witches who jealously guard their secrets from an unsuspecting world. By writing the book, Varelli has broken the vow of silence he took, and now whom-ever comes across this esoteric work, places their life in mortal danger. The first house was the Tanz Akademie seen in “Suspiria” and “Inferno” starts when poet Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) discovers that the New York apartment block she is staying in is the second home, that of mater Tenebrarum – the mother of darkness! From here, the film unspools in a fractured series of interconnected set-pieces showcasing some of the director’s most wild, suspenseful and visually attractive imagery. The cinematography of Romano Albani is as lush and beautiful as that of “Suspiria”, replete with intoxicating splashes of blues, reds, oranges and pinks. But its particular mix of colours is, if anything, even more affecting for being slightly more subtle than the psychedelic neon splendour of Luciano Tovoli’s exceptional work on the previous film. The décor and alluring sets of Giuseppe Bassan are even more evocative of old-world continental style than the art director’s sterling work on “Suspiria”: the twilight crumbling basement of the New York hotel and the bizarre underwater ballroom that – quite irrationally -- forms its foundations; the art deco trappings of the hotel’s reception area; or the musty, dust-enshrouded shelves of the vast library in Rome where the beautiful Eleonora Giorgi also encounter’s Varelli’s lethel text, and herself becomes the target for the dark forces at work within its hidden back corridors – all contribute to the on-screen Neo Gothic feel of the finished work. The film also benefits from the involvement of the legendary Mario Bava, whose son Lamberto was Argento’s assistant director on the film. Bava didn’t do as much work as was once believed and certainly didn’t direct any of the film while Argento was sick, but his vast studio backdrops and homemade miniatures, created to present the illusion of a New York night-time skyline in the De Paolis studio in Rome, are largely responsible for the film’s unique atmosphere. For they are somehow both convincing to the eye but also painterly and artificial all at the same time, conjuring a feeling of a strange, colourful New York suffused with irrational forces, and also present inside the exquisitely crafted interior sets bathed in the same occult glow.
Perhaps the biggest contributor in terms of marking the film out as a separate, tonally unique piece of work to anything Argento had made previously is the lush music score by Keith Emerson. In complete contrast to the other-worldly full-on assault of the Goblin soundtrack to “Suspiria”, Emerson came up with a largely piano-based music that is for the most part uncommonly gentle, almost romantic sounding – nothing like most horror movie scores and certainly nothing like Goblin’s work. With delicate piano arpeggios, grandiose fanfares, and building to a magnificent driving coral centrepiece complete with ninety-piece orchestra, the music is warm, lush and melodic. Argento also incorporates the work of Giuseppe Verdi, in particular the chorus from his 1842 opera Nabucco, Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate, which has since come to be seen as something of a national anthem of liberation in Italy. In Argento’s menacing world of witchcraft and dark alchemy though, it becomes the stately background to the choreography of violent death, to which Eleonora Giorgi’s character Sara and Gabriele Lavia’s ill-fated Carlo eventually meet their bloody end in Sara’s immaculately trendy apartment. Emerson even provides a rock opera version of the Verdi chorus played on the synthesiser in five-four-time as the musical backdrop to Argento’s most up-front quote from “Suspiria”: a replay of the stormy taxi ride -- this time taken by Sara rather than Suzy Bannion, but still with grim-faced Fulvio Mingozzi in the drivers’ seat.
This orchestrated musical landscape written to accompany, as Keith Emerson puts it, ‘rain-drenched Roman victims, being slaughtered’, proceeds to the editing rhythms of Argento’s long-time collaborator Franco Fraticelli, who worked on every Argento film up until “Two Evil Eyes”. “Inferno” has one of the director’s most sophisticated and inscrutable visual languages and Fraticelli’s work is exemplary in making connections between apparently insignificant details. There are constant cutaways to the phases of the moon (one of Mario Bava’s most successful effects), a feeling of malevolence from images of lizards eating butterflies or a cat eating a mouse, the black gloved hands cutting out paper figures or a brief flash-cut of someone being hanged beneath a skylight, all contributing to the feeling that there is a wider picture which the apparently illogical plot is only one small aspect of. The film is drenched in Jungian water symbolism: most of the murders take place in or near running water and there is the same mix of water and fire imagery at the climax of the film to that which appeared at the climax of “Suspiria”. The story moves forward with the improbable casual juxtapositions of a dream: Rose sends a letter to her musicology student brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) telling him of her discoveries in New York; the letter is picked up by Mark’s friend Sara, who finds a copy of The Three Mothers in Rome’s central library and is pursued to her destruction by supernatural forces from then on. Mark travels to New York to find his sister and stays in her room in the same apartment building. From here he comes into contact with a host of strange characters: the sickly Countess Elise Delon Van Adler (Daria Nicolodi) and her untrustworthy valet; the greedy and childish hotel caretaker, Carol (Alida Valli); the wheelchair-bound ‘Professor Arnold’ (Feodor Chaliapin) and his smiling nurse (Veronica Lazar); and the elderly cat-plagued antiques dealer next-door, Mr Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff). These characters appear in episodes that barely connect in any coherent fashion, to form a plot which hinges on coincidence and suggestion. Sickness plays a big role, perhaps inspired by Argento’s own recurring illness: the Countess Elise takes unspecified medication by way of intravenous injections and Mark becomes unaccountably sick while investigating the apartment, leading Carol and the nurse to administer ‘heart medicine’, whatever that might mean! Although fans of the film soon learn to take all the many contrivances and its inherent illogicality in their stride, there is one crucial misstep in the final seconds of the film which does spoil a carefully built climax, when Mark confronts the Mother of Darkness herself. I’ve never known anyone who has a good word to say about the effect in question, which is a shame because it spoils the otherwise magnificent shattered mirror effect from Mario Bava which precedes it. I need not go into any more detail; needless to say, you will know what I’m talking about when you see it!
This is the first time “Inferno” has been released in the UK on DVD or Blu-ray, the only previous version available being the FOX VHS which was cut by the BBFC for animal cruelty. This 2-disc Blu-ray release comes fully uncut with the cat- eating-the-mouse sequence fully restored. My first impressions of the high definition transfer were extremely favourable: the opening sequence alone, of Rose reading the Three Mothers volume, revealed a much richer, detailed and sharper image; a satisfying feeling that obscuring veils are being lifted, and of the film being revealed in all its true glory for the first time continues for much of the time; the colour-drenched sequences now pop off the screen, and most of the time this really does compare with the high definition transfer of “Suspiria” at its best, making the two films feel like true partners on equal terms at last. When comparing this disc with the old transfer available on Anchor Bay’s older DVD release though, I noticed that the print is slightly darker and, very occasionally, this does result in detail actually being slightly obscured – this is noticeable for instance in the sequence when Rose phones Mark, and we see her with the ‘New York, The Same Night in April’ caption running underneath. The corners of the screen are so dark you cannot see the same level of detail on the right-hand side of the screen as you can on the older DVD transfer! All in all though, it is a huge improvement, the film coming to life in a way it never has before, and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending this Blu-ray version to every fan of the film. A 5.1 DTS English audio track (available only with the Blu-ray version) is provided and is effectively powerful. It’s joined by a slightly weaker Dolby stereo English track and – another cause for celebration – the mono audio Italian track with its own English subtitles!
‘Dario’s Inferno’ is a 15 minute featurette in which Dario Argento talks about ‘a film he holds dear’. It was only after he had finished “Suspiria” that the idea to make a trilogy came to him; while the first film had been conceived from the start as a children’s fairy-tale, but took on more adult elements, “Inferno” was formulated as an adult fairy-tale. Argento talks about the difficult casting, his terrible experience with FOX and its then-president Sherry Langsing, who didn’t like the film or the fact that none of its riddles and mysteries were resolved at the end. ‘That’s the way I do things!’ Argento claims to have told her. The director also talks about why it took so long to make the third film in the trilogy.
‘Acting in Hot Water – Daria Nicolodi remembers Inferno’ features an interesting 17 minute interview with the actress and co-creator of the Three Mothers mythos. She talks about how much she enjoyed playing Countess Elise – a much weaker character than the type she usually played -- and she talks about the filming of her ‘attacked by cats’ death scene in the movie. Mario Bava is discussed at great length, the actress claiming to have a greater love for him than she ever did for Dario. The interview wraps up with Daria’s views on “ Mother of Tears” and how she doesn’t consider the trilogy done with, because her idea for the last instalment has yet to be filmed!
‘The Other Mother: Luigi Cozzi on ‘The Black Cat’’ is an amusing interview with Cozzi in which he relates how this misbegotten gem of trash cinema came about. Originally it was to have been Daria Nicolodi’s final instalment in the Three Mothers trilogy, based on a seventy page treatment she gave Cozzi which was apparently set again in New York and featured ‘tramps and vagabonds’ and with a ‘Lovecraftian’ feel to it. Feeling bad about taking over subject matter which should have been Dario’s, Cozzi instead wrote a film which was intended to be a tribute to Argento’s cinema rather than Nicolodi’s story, in which a group of film-makers attempt to make the third part of the trilogy. After his distributors demanded an Edgar Allan Poe-themed movie, Cozzi was forced to re-name the film “The Black Cat” … just as Dario released his own version of the tale as part of “Two Evil Eyes”! Only grainy VHS material seems to remain, but it’s not too difficult to discern that the finished article is hardly a masterpiece! Daria and Argento come in at the end to add their tactful comments on the debacle, Dario claiming never to have seen it.
‘Inferno Q&A’ is half-an-hour of video footage filmed just before a screening of a 35mm print at LA’s Beverly Cinema in 2009, with Video Watchdog author Tim Lucas introducing star Irene Miracle and composer Keith Emerson who talk with humour and fondness about their experience of working on the film. Irene tells how, at the time, it was just a job she took for money, but that over the years she has come to reassess and even love the film, even though she never actually experienced being directed by Dario himself; apparently he was ill in hospital the whole time she was working on the movie and all of her scenes, including the underwater ballroom sequence, were shot by cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia from notes by Argento supplied from his sick bed. She also mentions that she was suffering from alopecia brought on by an infection, at the time, and that she had to wear a wig because her real hair was falling out! Emerson is droll and amusing, thinking nothing of embarrassing Irene by telling how often he re-watched the sequence where she comes out of the water in the submerged ballroom, while he was composing the score, because of its wet T-shirt qualities! Perhaps the most interesting revelation is that Irene Miracle says she remembers that her role was originally to have been much larger, but after Dario discovered her illness she was written out early!
The disc comes with a short introduction by Daria Nicolodi which plays automatically at the start of the film, and there is an easter egg in which Dario Argento, speaking in English (he’s in subtitled Italian for the main interview) talks about why the film is called Inferno, Keith Emerson’s score, and his thoughts on working with the great Mario Bava.
On the second disc of standard DVD extras, the 2000 documentary “An Eye for Horror” is the main feature, a nicely filmed overview of the director’s career narrated by Mark Kermode and with contributions from a wide body of actors, fellow film-makers and commentators including William Lustig, John Carpenter, Alan Jones, Maitland McDonagh, Keith Emerson, Jessica Harper, Michael Brandon and Asia Argento among others. This is a really fond tribute as far as it goes, but it is of course very out of date now and only goes up to the filming of 2001’s “Sleepless”. It does however feature lots of fascinating behind the scenes footage from that film (which isn’t named) and you can even see Alan Jones studying the Maestro at work in the background.
Dario’s filmed introduction for the old Anchor Bay DVD is included here along with the featurette originally presented with that release, in which Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava talk about filming and working with Mario Bava and how Bava created the effects for the film. A Dario Argento trailer reel and two theatrical trailers round off a worthy release of one of Dario Argento’s greatest cinematic achievements.
Arrow Films package this two-disc set with four post cards, a booklet with new writing by Alan Jones, a double-sided poster and a choice of four cover images (including, thankfully, the original ‘skull’ theatrical poster).
“Inferno” is a film unlike any other in its director’s illustrious body of work. Its excellence only increases with repeated viewings. If you have yet to experience it, you are in for a treat, although it might take you a little while longer than usual to appreciate that fact. This is currently the best way to experience what is a unique, profoundly uncompromising artistic supernatural terror picture and I warmly recommend it to all Argento fans.