Well, folks, I was impressed with how Arrow handled the transfer of their Blu-ray, but this is better again. Not by a great deal, mind you, but I think that Blue Underground's disc has the edge over its British counterpart.
Coming to Blu-ray via AVC, this 1.85:1 image is a dream collage of colour, shadow and feverish lighting that I feel certain replicates Dario Argento's original vision almost as purely as he intended it. Newly restored from the original negative, just as Arrow's disc was, the film looks amazing, perfectly embodying that Disney-gone-bad aesthetic that the director became so enamoured with. Both versions, UK and US, were clearly taken from the same source – watch for the little dots of dirt and debris that crop in the same exact same places on either transfer. But whilst my comments for the first Blu-ray release can pretty much stand for this one as well, it has now become quite apparent that my initial assertion that Arrow had not used DNR … was wrong. There is more grain in the US transfer. This is immediately clear in the opening sequence in which Rose reads from Varelli's book. There is greater texture and a more exacting resolution of the grain. Making this all the more revealing are a couple of shots during this introduction that are considerably grainier again. Although this is still the case on Arrow's disc, when you compare the two you can now see how the image has, indeed, been scrubbed to slightly reduce the effect. This can also be seen at other junctures in the film, meaning that Arrow's image has a smoother appearance on the whole, whilst Blue Underground's can be vaguely coarser and more textured. And, to some people, myself included, more film-like.
Damage to the print is negligible, beyond the odd little speck. The image is soft, as you can plainly see in the close-ups of faces. But there is also an extraordinary level of detail. In fact, with the exception of Leigh McCloskey, whose visual rendition is almost like the embodiment of his performance – blank – there is actually a very pleasing amount of texture bestowed upon the rest of the cast. Fine lines and hairs are definitely on show, making you realise that the soft pinkish hue that engulfs most of the skin-tones is actually much more associated with the makeup scheme, the lighting and the photography. You only have to look at that opening shots of Rose reading about the Three Mothers to see how much more fine detail and visual information there is to be seen on the jacket of the tome, and upon the pages themselves. Look at the little scars on her hand and her arm, as well. And the level of detail that comes through even when she submerges herself in the dirt-filled, gauze-like water of the sunken room is greater than before. The rats, the cats, the wounds, the bloods, the walls, the doors, the windows – everything has a greater visual precision and quality. The wider shots of the library shelves, and the wonderfully unsettling appearance of the alchemist at work down in the lower level, all bubbling pots and cauldrons, yield much more apparent depth, detail and delineation.
Romano Albani's simply beautiful framing and photography surely could not look any better unless you saw this print on the big screen. Delicate, gliding and utterly sublime, the transfer handles everything that Dario and Albani throw at it with smoothness, stability and an amazing level of depth integrity and three-dimensionality with regards to structures and sets. The establishing shot of the lecture hall in Rome is soft and blurred, but then it always has been, but the next shot reveals great detail catered-for in the large and well-populated room. The disc handles fast motion without any smearing, dragging or artefacts … something that is keenly observed when the invisible phantom flies around the same lecture-room a little later on.
Of course, as you would hope for, the colour reproduction is magnificent. There doesn't appear to have been any unnatural boosting given to Argento's already warped lighting scheme – I mean, let's face it, the whole spectrum on offer with his Christmas Tree-lit extravaganza is “unnatural” anyway. The transfer merely cleans it up and provides it with a banding-free presentation with suitably deep saturation and striking contrast. The primaries are lush, the midnight blues simply ravishing. The gore is overtly theatrical, as was his vogue in those days, and so its shade looks typically “off”. This is not an earthy looking movie at any point. Even the doomed cat-drowning exercise in Central Park, in which we end up wallowing in muddy water, is sprinkled with reflected moonlight and eerily dispersed shadows, making it almost pretty and decorative to look at. Check out the blood-smeared rat darting through the dark shallows like a crimson missile. Flames are bold and bright, and blacks, as you can no doubt guess, are generally thick and mood-capturing. Occasionally they might not be as deep as at other times, and they can appear to brandish some noise but, in general, they are terrific. There has been no detail lost within them, either.
Sometimes, the grain field can increase substantially in some isolated shots – there is certainly a dread-filled moment or two on the stairs when the shadows become a little fuzzier than normal – but this shouldn't pose as any distraction. Edge enhancement is not a problem, and DNR, as we have discovered, is definitely not an issue, either. Arrow have dropped the ball a lot recently, as I have reported upon, but I was very impressed with their transfer of Inferno. Blue Underground actually deliver a finer, and more faithful image, although it is only the purists who are really going to notice the improvement. With this in mind, I don't think that the picture score can actually warrant going from the 8 that Arrow received to a 9 out of 10. So, folks, whilst the official score card will look the same as for Arrow's release, video-wise, as far as we are concerned, Blue Underground's release earns itself an unofficial 8.5 out of 10.
I'm very happy to report that Inferno looks wonderful in hi-def. A big thumbs-up from me!
Blue Underground grants us with several optional audio tracks for us to savour with Inferno. We have English Dolby Surround and Italian mono, but the track that I stuck with, and happily recommend, was the English DTS-HD MA 7.1, which enlarges, ever so slightly, upon Arrow's 5.1 variant. This lossless incarnation is substantially more aggressive than the other options, and delivers some effective jolts, reassuring dynamics and the kind of wraparound viewer immersion that won’t wow those attuned to far more modern sound-mixes, but will certainly please established fans with its greater depth, range and steerage. Once again, the comments I made regarding Arrow's sound mix can largely be applied here with Blue Undergound's, with only one or two instances when the US disc offered anything even remotely different. The 7.1 configuration doesn't really improve spatiality and depth all that much, to be honest, and I cannot be certain if I genuinely heard anything that I could say, hand on heart, made this version sound appreciably better or worse than the 5.1.
But if you want the perfect demonstration of what this track does so well, then listen no further than the sunken room sequence, which sounds amazing, with full surround usage of bubbles and sploshing effects reaching around you, effortlessly and smoothly and, moreover, offering a tremendously vibrant, vivid and reassuringly heightened aural environment. There is, of course, some deliberate distortion effected in this sequence, due to the underwater element, but this is still a terrific example of what is now a vintage sound design gaining a detailed and fresh reinvigoration. Surround usage elsewhere is mostly quite subtle. We get some whispered voices - “Sara!” being taunted in the library, for example, and some cat hisses, say (the new 7.1 mix does seem to make a couple of these screeches sound a touch sharper and more abrupt) – but there are no unnecessary or unwanted intrusions being launched from over your shoulder. Score and ambience are picked from the rear for much of the time, aiding room-envelopment of the film's unique and raised atmosphere of unreality. It may not be wildly overt, but the presence is welcome.
Keith Emerson's score is a mighty wallop to the system, though. There is clarity to the piano refrain, power to the guitars, percussion and the organ used in the big end title “Inferno” number, and depth to the overall orchestration at large. Incidentally, I did notice a little instance when this particular signature cue (the first time we hear it properly, as Mark goes off investigating and little mice get all gobbled-up) when the music sort of bounces a touch awkwardly from front to back … but this is the only complaint I have. Plus, I found this more noticeable on the UK disc, and slightly smoother here. Stingers are well in abundance and there is a wide stereo image across the front. Where the music is brought in from a “source” - the classical pieces being heard in Mark's lecture theatre, and when Sara puts an LP on the turntable – the audio is big, forced and a little bit brittle to the ear. Now this is surely down to the mixing of the elements in the original soundtrack. It doesn't at all bad, you understand, but there is a noticeable difference in the size and timbre of the presentation that naturally reflects the positioning of the on-screen speakers. The flickering power-surge that lures Sara's Good Samaritan down the hall to the fusebox combines moments of silence with sudden roaring chunks of Verdi. Now these do sound suddenly bright, blaring and huge when compared to the air-sucking silence in-between , but they also sound convincingly restrained at the same time. There is also a simply fantastic female choral cue that wafts magically through the mix when Rose finds herself up in the attic of the apartment building.
Effects and impacts are enhanced in the usual Italian style of the genre. Knives thunk! very heavily into flesh. Glass shatters with nerve-jangling detail and precision. Window-shutters and doors clatter with heavy-handed but well-steered discord. Dripping water emanates effectively from somewhere within the soundfield. The rumbling of the basement as it is supernaturally demolished is thick, agitating and deeply dislocated (the affair happens off-screen). A couple of sudden flame-bursts sound great, and the undulating rush of air down the ductwork passages and pipes behind the walls is very well executed – perhaps even sounding a little bit better directed here in the 7.1 set-up. Plus we have the rumble of thunder passing overhead. The overall wall of sound works excellently with the visuals and dialogue doesn't suffer as a result. I don't need to go into the peculiarities of Italian dubbing, do I? Disjointed, alien-sounding voices that don't fit the mouths of the respective speakers is a given in this genre, but there is no problem at all with how the speech is presented by this mix.
I thought the 5.1 mix from Arrow was great, folks, and this 7.1 variation is just as ennervating and detailed. Argento's films need great audio tracks that are faithful, violent and in-yer-face, but they must also be able to lilt and linger with haunting finesse when called for. And this track most certainly fits the bill.
Well, Blue Underground doesn't kit Inferno out with anywhere near the quantity or the quality of Arrow's extra features, I'm afraid.
Argento introduces the film, and then we get an interview with the cult filmmaker, along with contributions from his assistant director, Lamberto Bava. There's nothing here that fans wouldn't already know, though some nice trivia is dished-out.
In Art & Alchemy, which is something new, we get to meet star Leigh McCloskey as he reminisces about his time dabbling with Argento's occult. Looking surprisingly like Eric Roberts, McCloskey is personable and frank and good-humoured about his experiences. He tells us what he had appeared in before Argento came calling and how he approached such a minimal character as Mark, even down to suffering for his on-set attention to detail when he had to re-do his lines in post-production. More fascinating, however, is the actor's passion for art - really wacky art, at that - and how his world-view altered after the events of 9/11. The interview takes place in his luxurious apartment, which is completely painted with his lavish imagery. It is great to see the piece that he crafted whilst working with Argento, inspired by the story and the prevailing mood of weirdness.
In Reflections Of Rose, it is actress Irene Miracle's turn to spin some memoirs of her truncated time spent combating the demons of Argento's Inferno. Much of the tales she regales us with have been heard before on Arrow's release, but there is some good stuff here anyway. Of particular interest is the manner in which her bout with a terrible virus just before shooting began convinced Argento that she was actually dying ... and forced him to dramatically rewrite the film and jettison her character as potentially the heroine of the piece. Miracle also likes to talk about how she got into the business and namedrops a few people whose status lent her a helping hand.
To round out this meagre package, we get the film's theatrical trailer.
For fans of the film, Arrow's earlier release is perhaps still the most desirable. Both editions contains the full uncut version of the movie, and both also boast very fine transfers. I would certainly give the edge to Blue Underground when it comes to the image quality - but the margin is very small, I believe, and the improvements made possibly negligable to some people. But the absence of DNR on the US disc is definitely a feather in its cap, and comparisons between the two seem to indicate that Arrow's does, in fact, have some smoothing noise reduction going on. On the audio side of things, Blue Underground's 7.1 mix doesn't significantly improve upon Arrow's 5.1 variant, but I did find it slightly more involving and possibly better designed.
The lack of extras on the US release could be the clincher, however. What Blue Underground supply is very nice - it is certainly great to see what Leigh McCloskey has been up to since he made the film - but the few items on offer here are nothing compared to what Arrow was able to supply us with.
No, I don't think that Inferno is as good as Suspiria – but then few horror films are. It only reaches a similar level of breathtaking mystery and spellbinding awe once, and it is pretty much a downhill jog from then on. But then it is the beauty and the mood of the film that count, and as a visual and aural companion-piece to Suspiria, Inferno fits like the killer's trademark black glove. Viewed back-to-back in an infernal double-bill, the shortcomings of the second instalment are actually very easy to overlook, as the non-stop sensory assault radiantly washes such trifles away. Argento had a lot to prove after he unleashed these important shockers but, to date, he has no delivered.
This edition of Inferno may not have the all-round value for money of Arrow's, but it still offers an excellent, and very possibly superior AV transfer that eclipses almost all that have come before it, and I can only recommend it whole (dark)heartedly for fans who want to savour it in a more film-like quality.
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