Inferno Review

The Film

This article is intended to replace the one I wrote back in 2003 for the US DVD release by Anchor Bay.

This review contains spoilers. I apologise in advance for its length.

"I do not know what price I shall have to pay by breaking what we alchemists call 'Silentium'. The life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them. I, Varelli, and architect living in London, met the Three Mothers and designed and built for them three dwelling places: one in Rome, one in New York, and the third in Freiburg, Germany. I failed to discover until too late that from those three locations the Three Mothers rule the world with sorrow, tears and darkness..."

Following the unexpected international success of Suspiria in 1977, it is unsurprising that investors and fans alike placed pressure on Dario Argento to deliver more of the same. In the months that followed Suspiria's release, he was involved with George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead in his capacity as co-writer ("script consultant" in the final credits crawl) and editing supervisor for the Italian release, but, while holed up in a New York hotel during the winter of 1977 suffering from a recurring bout of hepatitis, he was bitten by the supernatural bug again and began plotting out a loose sequel to Suspiria, maintaining the same dreamlike atmosphere but radically shifting the thematic material, while at the same time abandoning the characters introduced in the earlier film. The result, Inferno, his (to date) only production with a major Hollywood studio, 20th Century Fox, was by all accounts a nightmare to produce from start to finish, and was subsequently treated rottenly by the distributor (presumably because it turned out to be so far off the beaten track that they had no idea how to market it), but remains one of the director's greatest works: a beautiful, mesmerising experience that outdoes its predecessor in the insanity stakes.

The plot, this time, splits the action between two cities, beginning with the discovery by Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle), a poet living in New York, of an aged tome which tells the story of three powerful witches, the Three Mothers - Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Lacrimarum and Mater Tenebrarum - and the vice-like grip of evil and suffering in which they hold the world. Rose, becoming suspicious that the ancient building in which she lives is in fact that New York residence of Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, goes snooping and subsequently disappears, but not before penning a letter to her brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a musicology student in Rome. This letter falls into the hands of fellow student Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), whose own investigations lead to her meeting a sticky end, leaving Mark to head to New York to investigate the disappearance of his sister and learn the truth of the legend of her home.

Whereas Suspiria's narrative was fashioned in the form of a classic children's fairytale, Inferno heads in a somewhat different direction, adopting the tone and narrative structure of a nightmare. This confusing, at times almost frustratingly nonsensical atmosphere seems to have been very much a by-product of Argento's emotional and physical state at the time the story was devised, although, as with Suspiria, there remains no small degree of controversy regarding just how much of the script he was responsible for. As with the previous film, Daria Nicolodi contributed to the writing process, although on this occasion she received no screen credit. A similar fate befell Dardano Sacchetti's script contributions, although, by his own admission, none of the material that he and Argento put together during their brief and tempestuous collaboration actually made it on to the screen.

In any event, there is something wonderfully spontaneous about the fractured series of events that unravels on the screen. More than any other piece of filmmaking, barring David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (and perhaps the Season 4 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Restless), Inferno captures what it feels like to be experiencing a dream and, perhaps more importantly, knowing that it is a dream but being unable to wake from it. Far more so than Suspiria, Inferno exploits the various buildings in which it is set (primarily the apartment block in New York, but with additional trips to a library and apartment in Rome also figuring heavily), giving them physically impossible labyrinthine passageways and cellars that should ring a bell with anyone who has ever experienced a dream in which they have become lost in surroundings that should be familiar to them. A friend of mine once described viewing the film as similar to being lost in a building with windows to the outside world but no sign of the exit.

If Suspiria drew its influences from classic fairytale literature, Inferno's cues are considerably more adult than nature. When devising Suspiria's screenplay, Daria Nicolodi claims to have been heavily influenced by Thomas De Quincey's opium-induced essay Suspiria De Profundis, in particular the section entitled Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, which describes De Quincey's supposed encounters with the Three Mothers. It is not until Inferno, however, that the connection is made explicit, actually giving the witches the same names as the Mothers described by De Quincey. The result is that the two films, for all their similarities, seem to inhabit completely different worlds, with Inferno occupying a more opaque dimension. Suspiria, for all its fantasy, had its own internal set of rules; in Inferno, logic does not apply.

Visually as well as thematically, Inferno is noticeably detached from its predecessor. While the red and blue gel lighting returns, it is largely more muted - resulting, perhaps, from the fact that Argento was unable to use the three-strip Technicolor printing method on this film, since the last remaining machine had been dismantled. Additionally, while much of the film is studio-bound, there is slightly more location work than in Suspiria, which presumably resulted in limited opportunities for Argento and cinematographer Romano Albani to indulge in candy-coloured lighting techniques. While Albani's photography is less grand in its scope than Luciano Tovoli's work in Suspiria, partly as a result of the narrower aspect ratio of 1.85:1, it has a striking look all of its own, one which frequently makes stunning use of the geographical space of the various rooms and corridors of Mater Tenebrarum's abode. Keith Emerson's score, meanwhile, is diametrically opposed to Goblin's work on the earlier film, but, like the photography, has its own style that takes some getting used to but eventually shines through as a brilliant piece of work. When I first saw the film, the music irritated me intensely; now, I love it and consider it to be one of the very best scores Argento ever had to work with.

While there is nothing in Inferno that matches Suspiria's opening double murder in terms of ostentatious set-pieces, it does include many wonderfully inspired moments, with the scenes leading up to Rose and Elise's (Daria Nicolodi) demises constituting two absolutely brilliant pieces of suspense direction, while Sara's investigation in Rome serves as a thoroughly involving mini-adventure in its own right. The most celebrated sequence, however, and rightfully so, is an extended sequence in which Rose, having dropped her keys into a puddle in the basement of her apartment block, decides to go for a swim and inexplicably finds herself in a series of massive underwater rooms, the contents of which hint at a once-grand dwelling place in the late stages of decay. This sequence, handled by Lorenzo Battaglia, is often and incorrectly credited to Mario Bava, who served in an effects capacity on this, the final theatrical production on which he worked. Among his contributions are the exterior shots of the New York apartment block (according to Tim Lucas, much of the skyline was actually constructed out of milk cartons), various matte paintings of the full moon, and the controversial shot of Death bursting through a mirror during the film's climax.

It's a shame, therefore, given the film's technical prowess, that, while Irene Miracle and Eleonora Giorgi, who take up the bulk of the screen time of the film's first half, are excellent, conveying just the right amount of vulnerability and intrepidness, Leigh McCloskey, who emerges as the true protagonist, turns in a fundamentally wooden performance. Part of this is due to the fact that the script calls for a dim-witted protagonist who does nothing but react to the events that unfold in front of him - Rose and Sara both know too much and are punished accordingly, while Mark is completely clueless and, it can be assumed, survives thanks to his ignorance - but one has to wonder how the film would have turned out had Argento been able to go with his original choice of James Woods for the role. McCloskey is, I suspect, simply not a very good actor, and his attempts to play bemused merely come across as disinterest. It is this factor more than anything else that, in my mind, makes Suspiria the better film.

The appeal of Inferno is not easy to explain. The style itself is the substance, and as many people, if not more, will hate it as those who love it. However, many of the greatest films ever made will never have anything approaching universal appeal, and many of its supporters consider it to be one of the most profound viewing experiences they have ever had. (I once read an account by a filmgoer who attended a cinema screening of the film and, once he had left the theatre, felt that his entire perception of reality had been permanently altered.) Whatever faults it might have, it represents pure filmmaking in the truest sense, and is one of cinema's crowning achievements.

DVD Presentation

The October 2007 release of this Italian DVD of Inferno is a pretty major event, because it marks not only the first time the film had been released on DVD in its native country, but also because it means that the US Anchor Bay release is no longer the only official DVD release of the film in the world (an unauthorised German version, a bootleg of the Anchor Bay DVD, has also been doing the rounds for some time). The lack of variety has meant that there has been little sense of perspective on Anchor Bay's release - i.e. how good it actually is, how accurate a representation of the film it is - until now.

The Italian release is by the original theatrical distributor, 20th Century Fox, who treated the film absolutely shabbily at the time of its original release, and, until now, didn't seem to want to know about it. This new release, which includes menus in both English and Italian, begins with the traditional Fox logo and fanfare (seeing this at the start of a Dario Argento film is a truly surreal experience, like two distant worlds colliding), but other than that, both versions are identical in terms of film content, with both featuring English credits and location type.

This is where the similarities end, however. Two completely different masters have been used, demonstrating massive differences in terms of brightness and colour palette. Broadly speaking, the Italian release is lighter throughout, improving the shadow detail considerably. The blacks aren't truly solid, though, suggesting that some artificial brightening may have been applied. It's also clear that the Anchor Bay release is noticeably cropped, with a considerable amount of additional information visible on the left and right of the frame in most shots, as well as a smaller amount at the top and bottom. The difference becomes less pronounced at around the film's half-way mark, however, with the increased visual information generally only being significant on the left hand side of the frame.

In terms of detail, the Fox release appears to show more than that of the Anchor Bay, although some of the perceived sharpness is the result of edge enhancement. It's not the most severe I've ever seen, but it does add a degree of "digitalness" to the image that we could have done without. The compression is definitely much improved on the Fox DVD, utilising a significantly higher bit rate on a dual layer disc (the Anchor Bay disc is a single layer affair). This leads to better presentation of the film grain, as well as helping to make the details stand out better in darker areas. Overall, I think the Fox transfer has the better technical presentation, but the edge enhancement lets the side down.

Moving on to the colour palette, and this is where things get tricky. It certainly doesn't take a genius to see that the two are very different colour-wise, and I'm at a loss to decide which one is the more accurate. Comparing it with my PAL UK LaserDisc (from Encore) certainly doesn't do much to shed light on the subject, as the colours on that release are all over the place thanks to the analogue technology. For the most part, the Anchor Bay transfer is considerably more saturated, with colours that at times verge on the extreme. Inferno, like its predecessor, Suspiria, was always intended to have moments of dazzling primary colour, but some of the examples posted here make me slightly suspicious that Anchor Bay indulged in a bit of colour pumping. Is this a similar case to the Halloween debacle, where the lab timing has been ignored for the Fox release, or is Anchor Bay guilty of jacking up the colours for their version? Anyone want to contact Dario Argento or Romano Albani to get their input on the matter? I suspect that's the only surefire way of settling this controversy!

In a purely aesthetic sense, I can't decide which of the two I prefer. This is such a visually-driven film, using composition, lighting and colour to evoke mood, and as such, I suspect that the experience will change quite substantially depending on which version you watch. I do know, however, that I'm not keen on the oddly flat lighting on Eleonora Giorgi's face on the Fox DVD in Example 3 (the Anchor Bay transfer is much more aesthetically pleasing in this shot - see below). In the end, I'm not going to call it either way. Have a look at the screen captures below and take your pick.

Example 1:

Above: Anchor Bay

Above: 20th Century Fox

Example 2:

Above: Anchor Bay

Above: 20th Century Fox

Example 3:

Above: Anchor Bay

Above: 20th Century Fox

Example 4:

Above: Anchor Bay

Above: 20th Century Fox

Example 5:

Above: Anchor Bay

Above: 20th Century Fox

For audio, the Anchor Bay release provides a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the English language version, plus a 2.0 surround mix in the same language. The latter is, however, not derived from the film's original stereo theatrical mix, but is instead a downmix of the 5.1 remix. The Fox DVD, meanwhile, provides the original English stereo mix, along with the original Italian mono mix, and optional subtitles in both languages, the English subtitle track serving as a translation of the Italian dialogue rather than a transcription of the English. In terms of clarity, the Italian mono track fares the worst, coming across as somewhat muffled, although it is listenable enough. The two mixes on the Anchor Bay DVD fare the best in a technical sense, demonstrating a decent level of clarity, although, given that both tracks are remixes, they cannot really be considered to be representative of Argento's original intentions. The English stereo track on the Italian DVD, by contrast, initially sounds a lot harsher and more strained, with some noticeable crackling during the first few seconds. The clarity definitely improves as the film progresses, with things improving leaps and bounds after the opening credits, and the differences soon become quite negligible, although the Anchor Bay remixes continue to have the slight edge in terms of overall fidelity. Purists, however, may prefer this slightly weaker quality stereo track to the remixes offered by Anchor Bay.

Please also note that the Anchor Bay release contains no subtitles.


In terms of extras, the Anchor Bay release is definitely the winner, boasting a trailer, gallery, talent bios and an interview featurette, whereas the Italian release features only the trailer (in poorer quality, and with burned-in Spanish subtitles).


Unlike the Definitive Edition of Suspiria which I reviewed earlier today, the differences between this iteration of Inferno and the earlier Anchor Bay release are not a clear-cut case of something being "wrong". Rather, they constitute a decidedly different-looking version of the same film, but one that is probably equally accurate to Argento's vision. While dedicated fans will undoubtedly wish to pick up both DVDs, those only looking for one to add to their library are advised that both editions have their own strengths and weaknesses. The choice is up to the viewer.

10 out of 10
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out of 10

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