Blue Underground // 1980 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // March 18th, 2011
Master of horror Dario Argento brings you terror that's hotter than hell!
Outside of his mentor Mario Bava, Dario Argento will forever be Italy's reigning king of horror. He practically defined the giallo murder mystery with Deep Red in 1975. His supernatural fairy tale Suspiria ranks as one of the creepiest films ever committed to (Technicolor) celluloid. Even as a producer, Argento has left his mark as the man largely responsible for helping bring to production the greatest zombie film of all time, Dawn of the Dead, for George Romero.
Yet not everything Argento touched has yielded horror gold. His recent foray into the genre he helped create, Giallo, turned out to be underwhelming exercise that bordered on parody in its ineptitude. His return to supernatural stomping grounds, The Third Mother, was an embarrassment so far removed from the director's trademark stylishness that it ended up a pointless gorefest. And the less said about his involvement in Showtime's Masters of Horror the better.
For fans, these sins are easily forgivable, given the strength of Argento's back catalogue. Not all of his older films are masterpieces, but I'll be damned if they aren't among some of the most interesting horror films ever made. Somewhere at the top of this list rests Inferno, the second entry in Argento's "Three Mothers Trilogy" in between Suspiria and The Third Mother. While it isn't as intense as the film that preceded it, Inferno represents Argento at the pique of his technical and experimental prowess. It is the director at his purest, an underrated gem deserving of Argento's voyage onto Blu-ray.
A young woman (Irene Miracle, Night Train Murders) researching the occult stumbles onto a book called The Three Mothers that suggests an ages-old witch might be residing in her apartment building. She investigates, yielding terrifying results for everyone residing there. At the same time, her brother (Leigh McCloskey, Dallas) falls into similar supernatural happenings during his stay in Rome. When he receives news of her trouble, he rushes to New York to come to her aid, only to come face to face with the witch herself.
If you go into Inferno expecting anything like Suspiria or The Third Mother, you're going to come away thoroughly unsatisfied. For many horror fans, Suspiria is like hearing The Beatles for the first time. It's Abbey Road and Revolver rolled up into one, an almost perfect melding of chilling sound and macabre visuals. Inferno is not this. While it boasts an interesting score by Keith Emerson and contains many of the finest set pieces of the director's career, it cannot match its predecessor in terms of dream-logic narrative or sustained intensity.
That's OK, because Inferno never tries to ape the success of Suspiria, but rather explore a different side of the mythology it shares. The narrative is scattershot, complete with shifting protagonists and a pronounced lack of defined characters. In this way, it is the director at his purest. Argento has never been particularly spellbinding when it comes to weaving a story. Deep Red, Suspiria, and Phenomena border on coherent, making for films palatable for casual audiences. Inferno throws it all to the wind, instead crafting a lucid dream of a movie that asks the audience to follow it into hell willingly, rather than be carried by archetypes.
In the special features of Inferno, actor Leigh McCloskey compares his role in the film less as a character, but more as a symbolic guide through Argento's macabre imagination. This is true of all the protagonists, each of which discovers a "key" to unlocking the secret doors of the Three Mothers, often at the price of their own mortality. We watch them research forbidden texts, explore hidden passages and submerged rooms -- a scene that ranks with some of the best underwater cinematography ever shot -- and interview several eccentric characters, but we never know them as anything more than vessels treading the troubling waters of Argento's obsessions.
What fantastically captivating trouble Inferno has in store. The fairy tale influence of Suspria remains intact -- Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty are among those referenced -- though with less an emphasis on witchcraft than one on alchemy and architecture. The mystery of evil figurehead Mater Tenenbrarum (The Mother of Shadows) comes together in a shocking twist ending in keeping with the finale of Suspiria, but she is not the film's focus.
Rather, the building housing Tenebrarum's dark and twisted malevolence is the true villain of the film. Unlike the characters that populate it, the building is dripping with personality, tailor-made to betray the viewer's sense of logic, orientation, and grip on reality. Argento's sense of detail and texture in every scene, aided by art design from Mario Bava himself, is evident in every frame of the film, believably conveying the malevolent complex is infecting the city surrounding it -- a trip through Argento's take on Central Park hammers the idea home nicely.
Throughout it all, Argento's focus remains on mood, not shocks. When the one exception when it does go for the jugular -- a SFX heavy reveal of the Mother's true form -- it nearly derails the mood of the piece in its cheeky fakery. The film moves at an almost lethargic pace in comparison to other Argento films, relishing the journey over the destination. To this end, it succeeds beautifully, but will likely test the patience of his fans in the process. Inferno is Argento at his most surrealist and self reflexive, resulting in a horror film that is not for those simply seeking fast-paced, gory thrills.
Blue Underground gives Inferno a regal technical treatment on Blu, boasting a damn solid transfer with vivid colors, strong black levels and a level of detail that makes the format perfect for Argento's texture heavy style. There's some grain and fuzziness sporadically, given the age of the stock the transfer sourced from, but the picture never suffers from rush job artifacting. A 7.1 DTS-HD track has a lot of oomph and detailed environmental effects that really bring out the creepy. A fairly booming musical track nearly outstays its welcome, but is effective nonetheless.
The extras are sparse, but substantial. Michael "Slipcase" Felsher, grand martial of horror DVD re-releases (see his work on The Monster Squad) provides two new featurettes (in 480i no less): Art and Alchemy interviews Leigh McCloskey and is easily the best extra on the release. The 15-minute piece is a very fun portrait of an actor turned experimental artist who is as interested in recanting anecdotes from the film's production as he is delving into Argento's themes and meanings. The follow-up, Reflections of Rose, interviews star Irene Miracle, who, while full of interesting production stories, seems ambivalent about the film itself. Her lack of enthusiasm brings the featurette down, but it is a solid effort overall. This release also ports over a standard-definition interview with Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava (Demons) that remains an interesting, if all-too-brief portrait of both men upon a second watch. A revealing, if defensive intro by Argento and a theatrical trailer round out the extras.
A film about a building isn't exactly going to clip along at a frenetic pace, but Inferno never bores in its explorations. The deaths are brutal and gory, the music is synth heavy, though never quite as catchy as Argento's Goblin collaborations, and the film's dialogue is delightfully zonked -- basically vintage Argento dialed up to point that it borders on experimental film. If that sounds like a good time to you, you'll derive a lot of pleasure from Inferno. It is one of the most confident and mature moments in the maestro's career commemorated in a damn fine Blu-ray package. Now, where's my copy of Deep Red?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated