Inferno: Special Edition (US - BD)
Gabe spends time with Argento's gorgeous and weird Suspiria follow-up..
A few years ago there was a great story in the local Minnesota newspaper (I forget which one) about a quirky mom and pop video store that everyone knew and loved. The story started with a description of the Key Video VHS release of Dario Argento’s Inferno. The rather bland cover art was masked by a note stating that customers should boycott the rental because it featured the torture and murder of cats. The store owner said a renter had taped the note to the box, and that he had left it on because he figured it was a fair warning, even though he’d never seen the movie himself. I find this story endearing because it speaks to the power of film, and Argento’s slight of hand. Despite their being very little compelling characterization or narrative, Inferno had a strong enough effect on this particular viewer that he or she was convinced the filmmakers actually killed a sack of cats in the interest of horror movie greatness. In reality, the scene I’m assuming this objective party is referring to plays out like this: a curmudgeony cripple who has been complaining about cats ravaging his bookstore throughout the movie, catches a destructive feline (he carries the cat by the scruff, which probably wasn’t comfortable for the creature), and dumps it in a bag of other cats, which he proceeds to walk to Central Park to drown in a lake. We do see him put the cat into the catbag, but the knotting and lifting of the bag takes place after a cut, and during the drowning scene (which follows a sizable invisible time lapse) the only ‘proof’ we have of there being cats in the sack is a series of growling and hissing sound effects that become muffled as the sack goes under water. I’m also pretty sure it would be harder to collect and drown a bag of cats than it would be to just pretend to do it.
Readers might notice I haven’t included a plot synopsis with this review. This is because I have no idea how to sum up this movie without just describing the film as a whole (ie: this happens, then this happens, etcetera). Inferno is sort of the ne plus ultra of nonsense Italian horror movies. It’s more nonsensical than any other Dario Argento film, even Suspiria, and is only challenged by Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and The Beyond for the ‘Plot is For the Weak’ crown. Fulci used to refer to his nearly plotless series of gruesome set pieces as ‘Pure Cinema’ (I’m sure regular readers are sick of me referring to this by now), and even cited Inferno as a perfect example (which is telling since he didn’t have much nice to say about Argento otherwise). This practice only really works for horror stories, as building fear in an audience often depends more on collective experience and memories than thematic elements or storylines. Though several films approach the concept (later Gialli and Slasher films are occasionally almost just a series of murder set pieces, but usually there’s a reasonably built storyline to glue them together with), only a handful of early ‘80s releases really fit the mould. Inferno’s thematic prequel, Suspiria kind of fits the notion, but Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi keep a solid narrative basis for their bizarre horror happenings. Even the director’s strangest movie, Phenomena, actually features a reasonably compelling mystery foundation.
Like City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Mario Bava’s Lucy and the Devil, Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man, and any number of Takashi Miike, David Lynch and David Cronenberg films, Inferno runs on dream logic, which is to say it isn’t particularly logical at all. In a dream, one tends to float from instance to instance, and the experience usually makes sense until the dreamer wakes up and realizes he doesn’t know how he got to the pink and purple soundstage version of Central Park in the first place, or why there was an alchemist with huge finger nails boiling gold in the basement of a gothic library. Watching Inferno for the first time is a similar experience. Unless you have particular aversion to turning off your disbelief (in which case, what the hell are you doing watching an Italian horror movie in the first place?) it’s easy to just go with Argento’s flow, and simply accept things for what they are. The second the film finishes it’s just as natural to question every ridiculous thing you just saw. There’s an idea of plot, but no real story thrust, or even a distinct lead character from scene to scene, and though there is a visual and thematic climax, no questions are really answered, nor threads neatly tied. The supporting characters are presented all in broad strokes, and the closest we get to a genuine lead is a bland, confused cipher for the audience, with almost no personality of his own. I personally assume, knowing what I know about Argento’s process, that this is all part of the plan, and at the very least I am perfectly willing to argue that these narrative ‘shortcomings’ perfectly ape the feel and logic of a nightmare. The approach will always alienate some viewers, but those prepared for the experience might be surprised.
As stated, Inferno is the thematic sequel and direct follow up to Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria. Both films are loosely based on Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, which features an essay entitled Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow. Here, De Quincey tells the story of Mater Lachrymarum, The Mother of Tears, Mater Suspiriorum, The Mother of Sighs, and Mater Tenebrarum, The Mother of Darkness. Suspiria plants the idea of Mater Suspiriorum as the leader of a powerful coven of witches, but Inferno cast Mater Tenebrarum in a more abstract light (spoiler: she may be Death personified, though it’s hard to believe Death personified could be killed by falling debris…). Inferno is more interested in alchemy than witchcraft, a less universally understood concept, which just leads to more oddity from the nearly nonexistent storyline. Argento would explore the relationship between alchemists and architecture again when he’d co-write and produce Michele Soavi’s The Church several years later. Regardless of differences, the two films feature mirrored themes, and imply a sort of shared universe, where the events of one movie effect another. This theme was eventually continued when Argento told Mater Lachrymarum’s story 27 years later in the form of his worst movie, Mother of Tears, though his protégé Luigi Cozzi had his own meta-textual take on the third story with The Black Cat (1989), a film only notable for the fact that it’s even worse than Mother of Tears (see for yourself, it’s on the Netflix Instant Watch queue).
But Inferno wasn’t just the follow up to the surprisingly popular Suspiria, it was also the last film master director Mario Bava would ever work on. Mario Bava is credited by most as the real Godfather of Italian horror and fantasy cinema, and his films had a huge influence on Argento, Fulci, Soavi, Roger Corman, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Sean Cunningham and Hideo Nakata. The director’s strongest assists were his backgrounds in cinematography and special effects, both of which Argento needed him for in the case of Inferno. Bava’s work on the film has been a constant source of disagreement between fans, experts, and even the cast and crew of the film, but it seems to have been firmly established that the Maestro created some of the film’s more impressive miniatures (including the burning building seen just before the credits roll), and that he conceived of the mirror effects that define the film’s climax. A true group effort, thanks to Argento’s poor health at the time (how the man is still alive blows my mind considering all the sickness he’s had to contend with in his life) the assistant director cast also included Blue Underground president, and director of Maniac Bill Lustig, Gianlorenzo Battaglia, and Bava’s son Lamberto.
Curiously the three most fervently positive readings of Inferno have all come from British writers, which may suggest something incredible about the film’s resonance with a UK audience, but I’m not sure what it is. Alan Jones’ opinion on the subject is always in question considering his undying affection for all things Argento (and we love him for it, of course), but genre expert Kim Newman calls Inferno the director’s best film in ‘Nightmare Movies’. I’ve personally never held the film in the same regard as Suspiria, Deep Red or Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but Newman’s words have made me readily revisit the film at least a dozen times. The other British writers that praised the hell out of the thing were our own Wilson Brothers, whose review of the Arrow Blu-ray release can be read here. I also see that UK movie mag Total Film named Inferno number 35 of the 50 best horror films of all time. Perhaps it is the fact that the film was one of only two Argento films (the other one being Tenebre) to be banned during the Video Nasties craze, but something clearly makes the film connect with fans from the region.
There are some flat-out pedestrian bits throughout the film that even mega-fans can’t help but giggle at, though nothing stands out as downright painful as the tarantula sequence in Fulci’s The Beyond. I’m specifically thinking of a scene where Daria Nicolodi is pelted by cats, that are meant to be attacking her, but are clearly being tossed by stagehands from the left and right of the camera. Rather than tearing Nicolodi’s flesh from her bones, the cats immediately spring away from the actress in utter terror. Argento also pays homage to himself on several occasions, a habit he never really managed to overcome through his career, though some critics have referred to these moments as a more acceptable case of obsessively trying to get an image or idea out of his system. The most striking of these redos is a stunning replay of his ‘dark room lit by a single doorway’ gag from Bird with the Crystal Plumage, delegated to pretty much the same place it appears in that film. The previously discussed cat drowning scene also appears to be in reference to the feline eating starving artist in BwtCP, who bags and traps the cats around his villa. More pertinent to Inferno are the replays of some of Suspiria’s sequences, most noticeable being a new version of the wacky cab ride Suzy Bannion took through German streets. For the record, Argento remembered to echo similar scenes when he completed his Three Mothers Trilogy with Mother of Tears, but it was a pretty pale shadow, and I continue to recommend people don’t watch that particular film.
Inferno was, for whatever reason, the second hardest Argento flick to find on VHS in AZ. Only one store carried the Key Video release, and it was almost always checked out, so when this new fangled internet thing came around I was excited to purchase a copy from something called ‘ebay’. Despite not being widescreen, this video release always looked pretty good, but this didn’t stop me from being first in line when Anchor Bay finally released the film on DVD (despite box art claims, the VHS release was always uncut and uncensored, so this wasn’t really part of the draw). Several years later Blue Underground re-released the same DVD, and the same perfectly capable SD transfer under their banner. These discs looked good, but there was always room for improvement. Unaware that Blue Underground had Inferno on their upcoming docket, I ordered the Arrow UK release about a week before the studio’s release announcement. I’m an obsessive enough Argento collector to not be too broken up about the extra expenditure, and the gaff has given me the chance to directly compare the two releases. The Arrow release looks pretty great, good enough to imply that there wasn’t a lot of room for improvement. On the whole, this Blue Underground version, which is remastered from an original, uncut negative, holds the advantage, but not so extreme an advantage that UK readers should necessarily feel the need to own a second Blu-ray copy.
I’m working through most of my comparison from the film’s opening up to the end of the famed underwater sequence. The first and most obvious difference between the two versions is the slight increase in sharpness on the pen script as it’s scribbled onto the page. The whole film is shot using relatively soft focus, so needle sharp details aren’t an ultra important piece of this puzzle, but in these major close-ups there are differences to be discovered. More detail can also be seen in the underwater shots, which have always been murky enough to bury some of the more intricate props and set pieces. Because of the lack of sharp focus throughout, the much more important factor here is colour. The colour quality is pretty similar between the two discs, though the increased sharpness of the Blue Underground release leads to some tighter edges, and more expressive highlights. Argento and cinematographer Romano Albani set pink and blue as the ‘theme’ colours for the bulk of the film, though green and yellow make a pretty fair showing as well. The pink here is slightly redder than the Arrow release, which tends to lean towards orange. The climatic fire sequence is also more impressive on this disc, featuring harsher contrast between the bright flames and deep surrounding blacks. These scenes are pretty blown out on the original DVD releases. There is a haze of grain over the entire film, but nothing compared to previous releases, which mixed with the lower resolution always made more a somewhat chunky looking experience. There are some minor edge haloes peppered throughout both transfers, but nothing debilitating to the overall image quality.
In terms of DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks the Blue Underground and Arrow releases are close to identical, despite the BU’s disc’s 7.1 advantage. The surround remix matches the original Anchor Bay Dolby Digital release pretty closely, though the extra two channels add a bit more depth (even on my 5.1 set up). The lack of compression is pretty obvious when compared to the DVD release. Besides improved volume levels, there are minor details that go missing on the traditional DD tracks. The best sequence for surround sound possibilities is once again the underwater scene, where the eerie sound of popping bubbles can be heard floating throughout the channels. Neither track really takes full advantage of the possibility, but do offer some neat directional effects during the following sequence when wind bursts through a widow and whisks around the classroom. All the dialogue was recorded in post, as was the practice in Italy at the time, so performances are often flattened, lips don’t match up to words, and volume levels are inconsistent, but overall clarity is perfectly fine.
Keith Emmerson’s prog rock soundtrack doesn’t ever equate Goblin’s near perfect Deep Red and Suspiria scores, or even Morricone’s genre defining Bird with the Crystal Plumage fusion jazz, but Argento uses traditional classical cues in impressive ways he hasn’t managed before or since (as the Wilson Bros bemoaned in their review of the Arrow release, Argento would use disco for Tenebre, and metal for Phenomena following this release). My favourite instance is one where a skipping series of power outages disturbs the rhythm of Verdi’s "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate". This creates possibly the most intense pre-murder atmosphere in the entire Argento catalogue. The music works very well for the surround sound format, and is sonically more aggressive than most era horror output. Emmerson’s coolest contribution, and the 5.1 track’s loudest moment is a prog-rock version of "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate", set to a different time signature during the cab riding scene.
The Arrow release pretty clearly wins the extra features battle, but there are a few new bits on this disc. ‘Art and Alchemy’ (15:00, HD) is an interview with lead actor Leigh McCloskey, who covers his early acting career, his thoughts on Argento, his work in Inferno, Inferno’s effect on his fine art career (and shows us his art, which includes his entire house), and the film’s cult fan base. ‘Reflections of Rose’ (13:30, HD) is an interview with actress Irene Miracle, the actress at the beginning of the film that swims in the underground room. She discusses her pre-acting career as a dance teacher, meeting Michelangelo Antonioni, working on Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders and Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, and Argento’s frustrating direction, reaction to her minor health problems (he assumed she was dying), and his constant violent fighting with Daria Nicolodi. Extras are completed with an interview with Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava (8:20, SD), which has been available since the original Anchor Bay DVD release, and the original trailer. Interestingly Argento states that Irene Miracle was hired because she was a synchronized swimmer, but Miracle herself doesn’t mention this, leading me to believe that the story is just more of the director’s patented bullshit. Also included is a trailer, and an Argento bio.
The long and the short of it is this – fans that own a Blu-ray player need to update their DVD copies, but the differences between this and the Arrow Blu-ray release are so close in image and sound quality that I don’t see any need for those of us not suffering debilitating obsessive compulsive disorder not to just stick with the Arrow release. Of course, those of us in the US that bought the Arrow release are already OCD enough to have ordered the disc from overseas, so I can’t imagine we won’t buy both versions. The Arrow release has better (somewhat overrated) extras, and Blue Underground head honcho Bill Lustig, who actually filmed second unit for Argento in New York, doesn’t offer a commentary or interview for his release, but frankly I found both releases thin in terms of supplements. Now join me in my Suspiria/ Inferno Blu-ray double feature, which culminates in pretending Mother of Tears was never made.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th March 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX English, Dolby Surround English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish and Italian
Extras: Art and Alchemy, Reflections of Rose, Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava Interviews, Trailer, Argento Bio
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Leigh McCloskey, Daria Nicolodi, Irene Miracle
Genre: Fantasy and Horror
Length: 106 minutes
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