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Inferno Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 13, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    Inferno Review

    Arrow Video and Cult-labs unveiled Inferno, Dario Argento's 1980 follow-up to the smash-hit occult super-chiller Suspiria (BD reviewed separately), last year. And now we can take a look at how Blue Underground have responded with their own hi-def release of the restored and uncensored edition of the film. Like the UK disc, this US edition is region-free. Of note is the fact that, unlike Arrow's version, this one does not begin with the Fox logo and fanfare. What follows is a slightly expanded version of the movie-review I wrote back in 2010.

    “There are mysterious parts in that book, but the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people.”

    Well, let me just start by stating, once again, that Suspiria is one of my all-time favourite horror movies, and that the prospect of a continuation of this dark and fabulous mythology of witchcraft and sorcery is something that still gets me excited. But, as most fans will agree, the cult filmmaker has never been able to regain that same hypnotic, soul-twisting atmosphere of pure dread, warped rapture and profoundly nightmarish ambience since. Although later psycho-thrillers such as Tenebrae and Opera are terrific examples of what made Argento such a formidable and influential director, his supernatural forays post-Suspiria have been considerably less intense, nor anywhere near as nasty, or as technically beautiful as their notorious forebear. Phenomena, whichever version of it you see, is largely disappointing, although I found some merit in it recently when I reviewed Arrow's flawed BD release. Phantom Of The Opera is just plain awful. And even if his track record of the last two decades had led us to the inarguable conclusion that Dario had lost his mojo for the macabre, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer wretchedness and dark dream shattering of his Three Mothers Trilogy, with the utterly abysmal Mother Of Tears. So, it is a tremendous and bravura pleasure, then, that we can now return to a time when this most sensation-exciting of directors was still able to create a cinematic collision of the beautiful and the sinister with the flamboyant, spellbinding and often delirious Inferno.

    Once again, this story, the second to tackle the tale of the Three Mothers, was down to his then-freshly-estranged wife, writer and actress Dario Nicolodi. Whilst Suspiria had been totally intended as a grim (as opposed to Grimm) fairytale for children – the cast was meant to have been made up of much younger girls than the late-teens we see at the hellish Dance Academy in which they are butchered – Inferno seems intentionally designed as a much more adult story. But, even with this being the case, the film revolves around hapless individuals poking their noses into dark secrets and letting their preying eyes discover esoteric and alchemic schemes in a very similar fashion to young children in folk tales investigating the spooky woods and the type of attics and cellars that grownups would most assuredly have advised them not to enter. Young poetess Rose Elliot (the divine Irene Miracle) learns that the Manhattan apartment building in which she resides was designed by the very architect-to-the-demons, himself, the noted and mysterious Varelli, and that, alongside the Tanz Dance Academy in Frieburg (Suspiria) and another baroque abode in Rome (Mother Of Tears), it is the home of one of the infamous Three Mothers – the youngest and cruellest witch of the three … the Mother Of Darkness. Naturally anxious about this discovery, she writes to her brother, Mark (the sadly bland Leigh McCloskey), who is away studying music in Rome. But before he can arrive to aid her in her somewhat unorthodox quest to unearth the coven within the walls, she meets with disaster … and Mark is then left to piece the evil puzzle together and to seek out and confront the black witch for himself.

    That is the plot. Like its illustrious forebear, the narrative matters little in the wildly ethereal and gruesomely picturesque events that follow. Argento and Nicolodi have their chess pieces wrapped up in bloody silk and move them in random circles of spectral doom, ignoring logic and exploring, instead, a similar realm of hallucinatory, dreamlike excess to the gore-drenched odyssey that poor Suzy Banyon experienced in that Black Forest school of 1976. Despite a bigger budget and the setting of New York City (only a fraction of the film was actually lensed in the Big Apple, though), Inferno does not feel like an expansion of the tale, at all. Instead, Argento seems to make this saga more claustrophobic, tighter, and with only about the same number of protagonists. But, from a technical standpoint, Inferno more than matches Suspiria. The throbbing, kaleidoscopic palette is all-dominant. The interiors of the apartment building, especially its foyer, resemble the dazzling décor of the one that witnessed the opening murders in Suspiria. Eerily familiar cabbies drive young girls through savage rainstorms, just as they did for the arriving Jessica Harper in the previous film. Pounding and seemingly incongruous music assails the ears and, once again, clues and threats are overhead by the vulnerable as they hide themselves away in blistering day-glo shadows. Just as inexplicable and mostly arbitrary events plagued Suzy Banyon the first time around, an air of utter unpredictability looms over the amazing sets and locations that Argento has dreamt up. Characters are introduced and slaughtered fairly quickly. We aren't permitted to latch onto anyone for too long, and even when we do we form no emotional connection at all. They are simply figurines that we see Argento toying with in an elaborate game of death. A building becomes a veritable Rubik's Cube of passageways, tunnels, rooms and hatches – almost a living entity of intricate geometric veins and capillaries – and the unfortunates who find themselves trapped within it become like lab-rats in a maze. As with Suspiria, the plot runs counter to convention … and even if people literally fall over themselves to go on doomed forays into dark and dangerous places, the very beauty of these death-traps makes them understandably alluring. Just look at the web-encrusted artefacts and stuffed reptiles that fill the flourescent shadows of one attic-cum-abbatoir.

    “To them, you are nothing but dust!

    Although the bodycount is higher than that in Suspiria, the killings are not as effective. The film is not necessarily gorier, and the shocks are nowhere near as devastating. Arguably, of course, Argento set the bar so high for himself with the opening double-murder of Suspiria, which just overshadows everything his demented mind had created before or since, that anything else seems like a pale imitation. Well, this isn't strictly accurate. The arm-severing and axe murder in Tenebrae is truly staggering. Having your teeth bashed out on every available hard surface in Deep Red and a blade then rammed through the back of your neck is a gleefully nasty exit strategy too! But with Inferno, there is a straining for effect that makes the killings, once they arrive, feel ultimately something of a let-down. It is build-up, build-up, build-up and a climax that is, to be honest, slightly disappointing each time. But be this as it may, there remain some choice stabbings and immolations, a squirm-inducing rat-attack, a crazy death-by-windowpane, strangulation via voice-box cord, a dodgy ambush by feral cats and the lingering image of a man with his gouged-out eyeballs resting messily on his cheeks. Lots of his own familiar tropes are played-out. Once again, we have a handicapped individual falling prey to the nasty witches and their powers, with animals being the catalyst for their downfall – just as with the blind pianist getting his throat torn out by his guide-dog in Suspiria. Women will come unstuck with windows once more - surely a deep-rooted theme with the filmmaker. And that gialli favourite device of the unseen knife-wielding killer striking from all sides of the frame gets a workout too. Inferno, then, is very much the quintessential Argento film. Set in an obfuscating world of inverted physics, unhinged motivations and intoxicating colour, the film is powered by that obscure rage that funnels through most of his work. And it goes without saying that the story, what little of it there is, makes no sense.

    But it is atmosphere that Dario is most concerned with. And there has been no-one working in the occult genre who has been so insidiously convincing about his depiction of necromancy as the Italian Maestro of the Macabre. Where the classical purveyors of the genre, going back to the days of Universal and RKO, would merrily use mist and fog, moors and ramshackle old castles, Argento would use rain and neon-bright blankets of primary-coloured light, city streets and resplendent art-deco apartments. He makes the rain feel like some demonic force. Glimpses of alchemists at work beside bubbling cauldrons and the sight of taloned hands protruding from sleeves and robes make similar moments in Roman Polanski's naff The Ninth Gate look positively anaemic. The hushed and unintelligible whispering from a beautiful sorceress' mouth as she enchants Mark in the middle of a crowded music lecture room recall the mesmerising powers of the warlock, Karswell, in the classic Night Of The Demon – the fact that we never quite grasp what it is that she is really doing only adding to the wonderful frisson of the occult. Visual mood and an all-pervasive sense of something malevolent lurking all the way around us are the two cornerstones that Argento excels at constructing.

    The film is like an explosion in a rainbow-factory. Even more than Suspiria, the garish colour scheme here reminds me of the overdose of primary hues that Mario Bava infused his barnstorming psycho-chiller Blood And Black Lace with. Argento crafts an image that looks a though it has been filmed through a stained-glass lens. Not even Joel Schumacher at his most neon-infatuated would dare to paint the screen so vividly. Pick up any of Mike Mignola's incredible Hellboy graphic novels and you'll see the very same primary and shadow engulfed style. It is luscious and primal.

    “I built the houses for the Three Mothers. Houses that became their eyes and ears.”

    It was a long-held belief that the great Mario Bava, whom Argento and Nicolodi had recruited to help with some uncredited visual effects on the film, actually directed the incredible sunken room sequence with Irene Miracle. But this is not true. Dario and his assistant director, Lamberto Bava (Mario's son), both handled the scene, with the great Bava being responsible for creating some of the nocturnal New York vista shots – matte-painted storeys added on to buildings and, most notably, the big full moon that looks down upon some of the events – and the big Satanic mirror-shock at the end. Sadly this was the last film that the man who had invented the look and style of Italian Horror – The Mask Of Satan, Black Sabbath, Blood And Black Lace etc – would ever work on and he died shortly after the release of Inferno. But let's take a look at this scene anyway. Surely the splendidly eerie sequence in which the young poetess played by Miracle foolishly ventures down into a dilapidated basement curiously lit by what looks like veiled neon, finds a watery hole in the floor and, after accidentally dropping her keys down into it, decides to take a very unwise dip in an attempt to rescue them from their tantalising perch just out of her reach, is the most memorable of the entire film. It is during this set-piece that Inferno finds its feet (or its sea-legs, if you prefer) and makes the sort of magical-cum-dread-filled impact that Suspiria had coursing through its celluloid veins from start to finish. When Rose takes the plunge, reducing her blouse to a very pleasing see-through consistency (and reminding us just why Argento sought her out after seeing her attributes in Midnight Express in the process), she enters another world in which the decadence of a bygone era swirls about her in the submerged parlour of a sumptuous château. Opulent object d'art, rich furnishings and, most marvellously of all, the gilded Latin names of the Three Mothers on the wall all float by us like haunting premonitions. This is like Dario encapsulating the entire theme of Visconti's lavishly mounted and epic class melodrama The Leopard into one stunning five-minute sequence. As our heroine goes ever deeper into this waterlogged time-capsule, wonderfully descending downwards from the ceiling, we see finery captured in the flood like the artefacts preserved in the Titanic – the moment one of surreal beauty, but shot through with the sort of ominous trepidation that only Argento, at his height, could muster.

    Brilliantly, he cuts to a shot of a door opening and closing in the sunken decadence … and his decomposing denouement to the scene is a jaw-dropping moment of gruesomely inspired lunacy. Her subsequent stalking through a limbo void of upper floors in her accursed apartment block – cobwebbed and full of windows that open suddenly – is another stand-out. DOP Romano Albani's astonishing camera prowls after her like a panther, gliding along halls and corridors and staircases with such agility that you would swear it had wings.

    But the film does not go on like this.

    Apart from the fluffy-haired McCloskey who, like a lot of male protagonists in an Argento film (so I guess we really shouldn't be blaming the actor at all), is ineffectual and delivers a soporific performance, barring a nice little look of genuine distaste as a moggie chows down on a real mouse (aye, that infamous scene is still fully intact in this presentation), the rest of the cast are really quite good. Miracle is perfect as the Gretal to McCloskey's Hansel, although an alarming amount of her scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. Argento had promised her the leading part and there are a couple of interesting reasons as to why this did not come about, namely the fact that he mistakenly believed that she had contracted some terminal illness and was about to drop dead on-set! One notable lost moment being when her character was supposed to find the body of the bookseller in Central Park, which means that the film must have been considerably reworked, and in short order too. Sacha Pitoeff, who plays the antique bookseller, Kazanian, is tremendously creepy. Despite hobbling around on crutches and with his legs somehow determined to get away from him during one horrendous, eclipse-shadowed scene, he makes for quite a formidable presence with his severe cat-hating tendencies and clear comprehension of the dark arts that are ever-swirling around the locale. Alida Valli crops ups, as well, cementing the connection between this film and Suspiria. The once-starlet who had appeared in Orson Wells' The Third Man, and played the harsh and cold-hearted dance tutor in the previous tale of the Three Mothers, materialises here as a mildly sinister concierge who may know a lot more than she is letting on. Eleonora Giorgi, who plays the severely unlucky student-friend of Mark's, does that typically daft thing of getting embroiled in someone-else's problems … and paying the ultimate price. She is clearly a reworking of the girl who flees the school at the start of Suspiria and retreats to the dubious safety of a friend's apartment in town. Drenched by a ferocious downpour and evidently being stalked for having sort of put two and two together in one of those enormous leaps of Argento-ised logic, she becomes our second damsel in distress as well as another potential heroine. But Dario has no such love of formula, of course. Giorgi is great in the role, however brief it turns out to be, and she even allows us to meet the great Gabriele Lavia, from Deep Red, again. Lavia gets a wonderfully kooky and typically doomed role as a good samaritan who ends up doing an impersonation of a shish-kebab. Nicolodi, who had always dreamt of portraying the Suzy Banyon character in the earlier film, now plays Elise Van Adler, Rose's friend, who also resides in the mysterious apartment building. Of aristocratic stock, Van Adler informs Mark of the strange way in which voices and sounds are carried around the various floors and rooms via little holes and pipes in the walls. Cleverly, her rather starched butler appears somewhat less than trustworthy with his guarded expressions and remarks, and even Van Adler seems to be hiding something but, once again, Dario is playing with our expectations. With the narrative evidently being swapped-about on-the-hoof, it is possible that Nicolodi actually once had a more prevailing character. However, as it transpires, Van Adler is drawn into the warped events and then swiftly despatched before she can add any further clues or evidence, the film refusing to give away too many secrets.

    “I, too, have begun to feel very nervous and uneasy lately. It's as though I were constantly being watched. At times I even feel a presence … as though someone was in the room with me.”

    And this helps to provide a key to the enormous success of these supernatural outings for Argento. He deals in black magic and sorcery, yet he rarely shows us anything of the dark arts, themselves. He denies us any explanations. Even though he actually shows us bubbling cauldrons, witches and their cats hexing the hapless, black robed killers with feral yellow eyes – surely a referential holdover to Suspiria's hairy-armed killer – and powerful books of esoteric spells, he uses these images only as part of a clearly much larger pantheon of devilry. Like the way that Spielberg conveyed the impression of the colossal carnage of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan by having things taking place out-of-shot or at the very edge of the frame, Argento gives teases us with these fleeting glimpses of the genuinely supernatural, forcing us to accept that these things happen just off the radar. Or just around the corner. But close to us. Always close. With a revelation or two from the character of the wheelchair-bound Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin), Inferno comes the closest to giving us some genuine contextual history for the story. His nurse, too, played by The Beyond's Veronica Lazar, who looks a whole lot more glamorous here, may have something up her sleeve … but we won't talk about that right now, eh?

    “Rats are eating me!!!!”

    Dario didn't head towards his regular Prog-rock demigods, Goblin, for the score to Inferno. This time he approached Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame, and for his first and certainly grandest film score the British rocker fashioned a suitably gothic and overblown melange of contemporary style with lush, heightened symphonics, dark choral work and classical mutations of form. It is an astounding score. Wisely, he is not trying to emulate the all-out musical barrage of Goblin's rhythmic, trance-inducing assault from Suspiria or their dynamic murder-sprees of Profundo Rosso (Deep Red). Instead, he ruminates on the classics – Verdi especially – and fabricates a powerful fusion of the romantic and the diabolical. However, just like Suspiria, he creates a rousing and furious main title theme that boasts his infernal choir belting-out the names of the Three Mothers in some insanely catchy chorus-mantra that is a soaring anthem of diabolism.

    “I am not … the Master. I am … the slave ...”

    By now, everyone knew that Argento was the premier exponent of set-piece mayhem. He concocted mini-sagas of such spectacular slaughter that Hitchcock's celebrated shower-killing in Psycho seemed purely off-the-cuff and dispensed with in the blink of an eye. Inferno is naturally another stylish exercise in profound shock tactics. The conscious desire to outdo himself for effect is all too tangible this time out, however, and the terror-factor is never as acute as delivered in Suspiria or Deep Red. It can also be argued that the film merely follows the same set-up and finale as its ancestor. But this is still a wonderful continuation of the ongoing saga. Argento, once again, bombards the senses with wild visuals that capture the mood and the atmosphere of death, debauchery and witchcraft with devilish intelligence and intuition. The lack of character development and empathy doesn't halt the flow of unease and simmering, palm-sweating trepidation that we feel. Baroque and visually operatic, Inferno seeks to sear the mind with potent imagery. It is successful enough at this to make it an essential addition to any horror-aficionado's collection but, unlike its predecessor, it is does not quite make the grade as a genuine piece of artistic genre-crossover. The persistant argument of style over substance will always apply to his supernatural thrillers ... but when you have style such as this, it is hard to complain.

    Argento would bludgeon his way back into the giallo territory that made his name with the outstanding Tenebrae but, besides Opera, which came a few years later, he has not come within a hundred miles of the talent that we know he must still have burning somewhere inside him … somewhere deep. And red.

    But for now we can happily remind ourselves of a time when he reigned supreme at combining rapturous beauty with grotesque horror … and, rest assured, you can still feel the heat from Inferno.