"Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors but by broken minds," Professor Frank Mandel ominously (and perceptively) warned Suzy Banyon in Suspiria, Dario Argento's 1977 supernatural horror classic and the film that is widely regarded as the prequel to Inferno. With this statement, Argento set the stage for a complete rejection of standard forms of logic and the familiar Hollywood structure of storytelling. Although all of his films at some point break these rules, none do this more than Inferno, a gothic horror movie that is closer to a dream of stream-of-conscious narrative than traditional cinematic storytelling.
Suspiria and Inferno are the first two parts of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy (the final part of which will begin filming in Autumn 2004), which deals with three ancient witches who each dwell in a different part of the world and cause all forms of madness, evil and inexplicable phenomena. Mater Suspiriorum dwells at the Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany, which was the setting for Suspiria. Mater Tenebrarum, "the youngest and cruelest of the three", lives in New York, which becomes the setting of Inferno. Whether the events in this film take place before or after those in Suspiria is unclear and essentially irrelevant; in fact, they do not even necessarily take place in the same reality or consciousness. By abandoning conventional narrative, Argento jetisons viewers into a world where nothing is required to make sense, with things often happening for no specific reason. These concepts were explored in Suspiria, but it is with Inferno that the inexplicable actually becomes the whole plot (if you can even call it that). The focus this time round is on alchemy rather than witchcraft, and in fact it is quite possible to watch this film without realizing that it has any connection at all to Suspiria. While the majority of Argento's films are open to multiple interpretations, Inferno completely defies the viewer to come up with any explanation for the on-screen events since, in effect, dreams neither lend themselves to nor require explanation.
Rose (Irene Miracle), a poet living in New York, becomes convinced that the house she lives in is inhabited by Mater Tenebrarum, and after a nasty incident where she finds herself in a mysterious room submerged in water, she hastily pens a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), who is studying musicology in Rome. Eventually, Mark arrives in New York, only to find that Rose has disappeared. Whilst there, he meets the various bizarre tenants living in the house, and plunges deep into a dark, terrifying and completely nonsensical nightmare.
The New York residence of Mater Tenebrarum.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of a coherent narrative is both the film's greatest asset and its own worst enemy. While it is possible to become so caught up in the film that you are willing to accept all its bizarre logic and inexplicable occurrences (this works best if you are tired or, I can only imagine, drunk), questioning its idiosyncrasies for even a single moment is enough to completely ruin the experience. Those conditioned to the Hollywood frame of storytelling, with little or no experience of more inventive art films, are going to have an incredibly hard time accepting Inferno for what it is. People have accused Inferno of bad writing, lack of planning, and countless other criticisms questioning Argento's ability as a filmmaker. I would counter this by asking these people if they really think that Argento could possibly have made a film like this if he was interested in telling a story within the generally "accepted" narrative framework. Bad writers don't create movies with a complete lack of coherence - they create movies that attempt to be coherent. Not once does Inferno try to be anything other than a completely inexplicable dream.
Many of Inferno's flaws could probably been forgiven if the film had decent protagonist to root for. Sadly, this is not the case. The man who turns out to be the protagonist is not introduced until nearly 20 minutes into the film, and he turns out to be a rather unlikeable, personality-deprived individual named Mark, who spends the entire film a number of steps behind both his adversaries and the audience. He spends most of the film lumbering about with a dazed look on his face, and seems incapable of affecting any of the situations he encounters. While one could argue that this adds to the feeling of helplessness against Mater Tenebrarum, it makes for frustrating viewing. In Suspiria, Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) worked as the lead because while she spent most of the film in a state of confusion, the audience was almost always on the same playing field as her, discovering things as she became aware of them and not before. In Inferno, far more interesting than Mark is his friend (or lover?) Sara, who has her own 20-minute mini-adventure in the first half of the movie. Played by the beautiful Eleonora Giorgi (who keeps her clothes on for once, alas!), she is an infinitely more vulnerable and sympathetic character than Mark, and I found myself wishing that she had remained the focus of the movie. She is also gifted with what was, for me, by far the most tense sequence in the entire movie, in which the power cuts out in her apartment in the middle of the night. It has been suggested by some that Argento is only really successful when he has a female hero to latch on to, but this theory blatantly ignores the fact that, until Suspiria, all his protagonists were men.
As with Suspiria, the real stars of Inferno are the cinematography and set designs. Giuseppe Bassan returns as production designer, but the director of photography this time round is Romano Albani rather than Luciano Tovoli. The difference in style is quite apparent, not least in the narrower aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (the first time Argento used this ratio). Everything feels much more claustrophobic, with a continual sense that something is lurking just out of frame. Furthermore, the colours are different. Although they are lush and vibrant, they lack the crispness and purity of those found in Suspiria. This is partly due to the fact that Inferno was shot on cheaper Eastman film rather than the expensive and outdated 3-strip Technicolor process Argento used in Suspiria, although I suspect that part of it is also due to the colours having faded on the print used for the transfer of this DVD.
An anxious Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) calls Mark.
Argento loves showing off his sets, and they are used to great effect here, with the buildings in the film becoming veritable labyrinths of corridors, underground tunnels and staircases, further implying a dream-like logic. We have probably all, at one point in our lives, had a dream in which we found ourselves trapped in a house whose very dimensions seemed to change, and Inferno captures this perfectly with sudden changes in perspective, location, and frequent use of bizarre sounds seeming to emanate from the very walls.
The music score this time round is by Keith Emerson, who creates a bizarre gothic soundtrack with frequent use of synthesizers and Gregorian chants. Moments are, in fact, very reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith's work on The Omen. Emerson even, at one point, throws in a jazzy version of Verdi's Nabucco, during a particularly atmospheric taxi ride through a thunderstorm. The music is more or less adequate and at times adds to the tension, but it frequently contradicts what is happening on-screen, and is certainly nothing when compared to Goblin's soundtrack for Suspiria. I must say that it sounds a lot better in isolation than it does when experienced as part of the film.
This movie is also famous for being the last film worked on by Mario Bava, the Italian horror master best known for films like Schock, Diabolik and Blood and Black Lace. It is a popular myth that he was responsible for the underwater sequence near the start of the film. In fact, Bava was not involved with that sequence: it was created by Lorenzo Battaglia, while Bava worked (uncredited) on a number of other scenes, including the burning house, the Central Park bridge shot and the mirror transformation during the climax. It is unclear where the myth originated from, but virtually every single reviewer seems to have taken it as fact, despite the fact that Argento himself has denied it several times.
Inferno never can or will be accepted by the masses. It is simply too different from what most people perceive as acceptable storytelling for it to gain recognition as the wonderfully inventive and unique film that it is. It is flawed, but its problems do not stem from the lack of coherence that many people are so quick to criticize. Rather, it is the poor casting and writing of the main character that prevent Inferno from being the classic it could have been. It is an incredibly mesmerizing film, but it remains one of Argento's most frustrating (yet most inventive) works.
Trivia: The taxi driver who takes Sara to the library in Rome is played by Fulvio Mingozzi, the same actor who portrayed Suzy's taxi driver at the beginning of Suspiria. Furthermore, Alida Valli (Miss Tanner in Suspiria) shows up again here, completely unrecognizable, as Carol, the caretaker.
Mark (Leigh McCloskey) practices his "baffled" look, which he will continue to use throughout the film.
This release of Inferno is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
The results are overall quite acceptable, although definitely below the standards Anchor Bay set with their reference quality transfers of Suspiria, Profondo Rosso and Opera. There is a continual softness to the image throughout, and although this might have been an artistic choice, I suspect that it is more likely that the image has been heavily filtered.
As previously stated, the colours are less vibrant than they were in Suspiria, but this is more likely to be an issue with the film stock rather than any slip-ups on Anchor Bay's behalf.
There are no hugely obtrusive compression artifacts, but due to the fact that the entire film has been crammed on to a single-layer disc, the image has a crushed look throughout. In particular, the vivid colour washes of pink, blue and red often exhibit smudging and softening around the edges.
Mark discovers the tunnels beneath the house.
A newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track and the original Dolby Digital 2.0 track with Surround encoding are provided. I listened to both quite extensively and eventually came to the conclusion that there was very little difference between them. Both have a reasonable amount of bass, and the surrounds are used to back up the music score. The dialogue is always easy to make out, if a little muffled.
Inferno was shot largely in English, but as with most of Argento's films, it was post-dubbed. By and large, the dubbing works quite well, with Mark, Rose and Sara all having voices that are reasonably suitable (in fact, Leigh McCloskey and Irene Miracle probably provided their own voices for the dub). It is a shame that an Italian language track was not included, particularly since, in the Italian version, the opening voice-over is narrated by Argento himself.
Once again, Anchor Bay have decided not to include subtitles. Not even Closed Captions are provided.
Sara gets all wet outside a Rome library.
The menu is easy to navigate, is quite nicely animated, and features music from the film. Not one of Anchor Bay's best efforts, but it fits the bill quite nicely.
Elise Stallone Van Alder (Daria Nicolodi) contemplates some funny goings-on.
The packaging is quite nice, up to the standards usually set by Anchor Bay. The front cover uses artwork similar to the theatrical poster, although it is not quite the same.
A four-page booklet is included, featuring chapter listings and a two-page interview with Leigh McCloskey. Annoyingly, the names of the chapters are heavily spoilerific, with three of them in fact listed as "[Name of person]'s Murder". Avoid looking at if you don't want to spoil the surprise.
What goes on in the basement?
When it comes to bonus material, this is definitely one of Anchor Bay's lesser releases.
Introduction by Dario Argento - This short 30-second introduction runs every time you play the DVD, in between the Anchor Bay logo and the film starting. Argento describes it as one of his "most sincere and purest films". Although a nice inclusion, it doesn't really tell us very much, and I am not a huge fan of introductions that play before a film starts.
Trailer - This has to be one of the most spoiler-filled trailers I have ever seen, with virtually every main character's death played out at close to their complete length. It runs for nearly three and a half minutes and is quite atmospheric, but you should definitely avoid it until you have seen the movie.
Talent bios - Biographies and filmographies are provided for director Dario Argento, producer Claudio Argento and actor Daria Nicolodi.
Still gallery - A collection of 14 black and white stills, mostly of scenes from the film.
Dario Argento interview - This short segment, which is presented in Italian with optional English subtitles, features Argento and Lamberto Bava, son of Mario Bava and assistant director of the film. Quite a bit of time is spent discussing the underwater sequence, and it is possible that this is why many people think it to be the work of Mario Bava. The featurette runs for slightly over eight minutes, and while I know that Inferno is not as much of a major title as Suspiria, it is a shame that the limited edition of Suspiria received such an extensive documentary and Inferno only gets this brief featurette.
The results of a night-time visit from the forces of darkness.
Inferno is quite possibly one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen, and anyone expecting a natural continuation of Suspiria will be sorely disappointed. This movie is unique in that it manages to be both enthralling and frustrating at the same time, but if you are open-minded enough to be able to accept what you see at face value, then it could be an enjoyable experience. The DVD presentation is reasonably good, but could probably have been improved had it not been crammed on to a single-layer DVD. Argento's "most sincere and purest film"? Given how bizarre the end result is, that it probably an accurate description.