Blue Underground // 1980 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // March 25th, 2011
Terror that's hotter than hell!
As a director, Dario Argento is a difficult guy to pin down. He's possessed of a prodigious visual imagination, he knows how to choose gifted collaborators, and he's been working in enough semi-marginal genres to have gained mastery over his domain. However, there are problems. With the exception of a few films, his narrative structures are too loose, his characters undeveloped, and his reliance on atmosphere and/or gore is excessive. His strongest films (like Suspiria and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage) are some of the strongest in Italian horror, while his weakest (The Card Player) belongs at the bottom of the pile. More significantly, he can be inconsistent within a single film, alternating scenes of visual bravado with poor attempts at character. Inferno fits squarely in that camp. It demonstrates Argento's flair for dramatic imagery, sudden gore, and dreamlike atmosphere. Inferno (Special Edition) by Blue Underground combines a strong transfer of the film with some new extras to provide context to this semi-sequel to the great Suspiria.
Rose (Irene Michaels, The Night Train Murders) is a young woman who discovers, thanks to a book found at a local antique shop, that she's living in a building that is also home to one of the mythical Three Mothers. Specifically Mater Tenebrarum, mother of darkness, lives in this NYC abode. Worried, Rose writes her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey, Dallas), a music student in Rome. He doesn't read the letter, but his classmate Sara (Eleonor Giorgi) does. She goes off on her own quest for the Three Mothers, but Mark is more worried when Rose disappears, heading off to the USA to find out his sister's fate. This will lead him down a path which can only lead to confrontation with the mother of darkness herself.
Inferno is good Argento, but not great Argento. Here are some reasons why the film works:
* It's not Suspiria (and doesn't try to be). Suspiria was an unexpected hit for Fox, who distributed the film. With very little help, the film succeeded fairly well in America, and it was a no-brainer that Fox would help finance the follow up, Inferno. Certainly the thematic element of the Three Mothers (to match the Fates and the Furies) is carried over. However, rather than try to match the epic intensity that earlier film generated with bold colors and dramatic involvement, Inferno turns things down for a slightly more subdued film. There are still some splashes of color here and there, along with a few bold camera moves, but Inferno feels dramatic where Suspiria was operatic.
* The special effects. Argento knows how to get the red stuff on screen, and he does so with impressive grace with Inferno. It's mostly in the form of decaying corpses this time out (as opposed to some of the more baroque murders in other films), but the kills -- when they come -- are fairly simple and effective. The non-gore effects are also pretty sweet. Argento brought on his hero Mario Bava to do some uncredited second unit work getting some trick shots and special effects moments.
* The atmosphere. Inferno was released in 1980, and with the exception of a few unfortunate sartorial choices (and, of course, Leigh McCloskey's horrible moustache), it feels like it could have taken place any time in the late twentieth century. Sure, there are modern skyscrapers, but there are also antiquarian booksellers and the streets of Rome. The film has a dreamlike vibe that sets it apart from other horror films from that era. I know "dreamlike" is a fairly tired phrase with respect to Argento's work, but the lack of character development, somewhat free narrative logic, and charged imagery really do the term justice.
* This DVD. Blue Underground has delivered with this Special Edition of the film. The anamorphic transfer does an excellent job with Argento's notoriously difficult films. With all the color effects and night time shooting, getting one of his films onto DVD can be a nightmare, but Inferno looks solid. Skin tones stay fairly accurate, detail is strong, blacks are deep without blocking up, and no compression artifacts mar the transfer. The audio tracks are abundant. There's a DTS-ES 6.1 track that moves the musical cues around a bit, as well as a more pedestrian Dolby 5.1 surround track and a stereo mix (all in English). In Italian we get the original mono mix. Extras include the previously available trailer, and a brief introduction by Argento before the film. The bulk of the extras are taken up, however, by interviews. We get sit-downs with Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, and Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava. All four interviewees have some insights to share about the film and its production.
Despite its strengths, Inferno still isn't Argento's best work. I'm willing to forgive the lack of engaging narrative and character development. The problem with Inferno is that it's the first Argento film I can recall actually being predictable. With his other films, even when I knew the general outlines, I was often surprised by a twist here or a jump there. Not so with Inferno. Maybe that's because I'm too used to Argento's style at this point, but it feels like he's reaching sometimes with this film. Also, I don't want to give too much away, but the ending to this film is seriously hokey. The otherwise top-notch effects fail and devolve into a laughable mess during the final meeting between Mark and the Mother of Darkness. It doesn't quite ruin the movie, but it does make it harder to remember fondly.
Kudos to Blue Underground for giving Inferno the Special Edition treatment. Although this release isn't the deluxe edition when compared to others, it includes enough supplements to earn the name. This is a new transfer, so fans of the film thinking about double dipping are going to have to decide how much they like the idea of improved video and those new supplements. Viewers who've seen some of Argento's other films, like Suspiria may want to give this one at least a rental for some of those wonderful Argento moments sprinkled throughout the film.
Though it could be a bit hotter in some places, Inferno is still not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated