Inferno (1980)
By: Julian on August 10, 2009  | 
20th Century Fox (Italy), Region 2. PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) English Dolby Digital 2.1, Italian Dolby Digital 2.1, English and Italian subtitles. 102 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Dario Argento
Starring: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Gabrielle Lavia, Daria Nicolodi
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Country: Italy
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Dario Argento is without a doubt one of the greatest living horror directors, but most of you reading this review wouldn't need any reminding of that. Although, some of his most cataclysmic missteps have been with his non-giallo films, like the absolutely appalling Phenomena and some of his screenplays, including Demons and The Sect. Even the much-loved classic Suspiria has some glaring faults, despite being considered Argento working at his very peak.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up a copy of Inferno, Argento's follow-up to Suspiria and the second in the "Three Mothers" trilogy (the third film, Mother of Tears, was released twenty-seven years after this one). And "pleasantly surprised" would be an understatement; it's less atmospheric than Suspiria but far speedier and more engaging, in some ways the better film. Again, Argento doesn't seem altogether comfortable working with the supernatural themes, but it's one of the most solid entries in his present oeuvre.

The premise of Suspiria and Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is loosely based around Thomas de Quincey's 1845 essay collection Suspiria de Profundis, which describes three of "Our Ladies of Sorrow" – Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum and Mater Lachrymarum. Argento's Ladies of Sorrow are ancient witches that were sent to Freiburg, New York City and Rome to do their evil bidding. An Italian architect, Varelli, documented the witches' malevolence in his memoirs, a collection of books titled The Three Mothers. Varelli was commissioned by the witches to build their abodes in the three cities but he discovered their true intentions all too late.

Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) is a poet based in New York. She discovers one of the volumes and becomes convinced that her apartment block is actually the building Varelli designed, and is Mater Tenebrarum's home. She explores the basement and discovers a portrait of Mater Tenebrarum, and a corpse in advanced stages of decomposition. Rose decides to enlist the help of her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome. Mark reads the letter during a lecture but leaves it behind; a friend of his (Eleonora Giorgi) picks it up and does some research, uncovering a copy of The Three Mothers in the library. Without warning, she is attacked by a monstrously deformed man and returns home panicked. Before she can inform Mark of the attack on her, she and a neighbour are brutally murdered.

Mark flies from Rome to investigate but, while in transit, Rose is also killed. He asks around at the apartment block but to no avail and Countess Elise (Argento's muse, co-writer and girlfriend Daria Nicolodi), a contact of Rose's, reveals that she has been missing for a couple of days. Mark speaks to a few more of the apartment's residents, including Professor Arnold and his nurse, but this yields nothing and he is left to investigate on his own as Mater Tenebrarum begins to kill off any potential leads.

Visually, Argento is pretty restrained here. The camerawork is hardly as dazzling as what it was in Suspiria although there are some sequences that prove Argento to be the greatest stylist in Italian horror since Bava – the first murder sequence is just superb. Romano Albani did the camerawork, and he later worked with Argento on Phenomena. Then he worked on Troll. Seamless transition.

More on Bava: father and son both worked on Inferno with Argento, Mario doing some visual effects work (including creating Rose's apartment building) and second-unit, and Lamberto on the assistant director's chair. Mario Bava actually shot some of the film when Argento was stricken with hepatitis during the shoot, and it was Bava's final cinematic contribution before his death two months after the film's Italian release.

Inferno is certainly a less atmospheric film than Suspiria – the ambience of the latter was just tremendous but that had a lot to do with the setting, a hidden-away dance school in Freiburg. That potential is lost in the concrete jungle of New York, so the flashy camerawork that complemented the Euro-atmosphere of Suspiria so well was probably unnecessary here, perhaps explaining Albani and Argento's more understated approach. The screenplay, written by Argento and Nicolodi, establishes a lot of background to the Three Mothers and Varelli. But the script moves faster than Suspiria's, leading into the action and relying on this backstory, instead of atmosphere, to keep the audience's attention. In this respect, Inferno has aged better than what Suspiria has – where the impact of the latter's flamboyance has eroded over time, Inferno's fairytale-like narrative remains gripping almost thirty years on. Nicolodi is not credited for her work on the script, saying she didn't want a repeat of the battles she fought getting her name on Suspiria's screenplay. She has suggested, though, that the basis for Inferno was her own work.

Inferno wasn't particularly well received, both critically and commercially, struggling to recoup its $3,000,000 budget (roughly three times what Suspiria was made for). There are some pretty laughable scenes – case in point when one of the characters is mauled almost to death by a mob of irate rats, while bellowing "the mice are attacking!" – but Dario isn't known for his finesse, and its pretty par for the course in an Argento film for there to be some serious suspensions of belief and a requirement to dismiss bad acting. But I think in some ways, Inferno is certainly as good, if not better than Suspiria, enabled by one of Argento and Nicolodi's most exceptional screenwriting collaborations and a higher budget.
The picture is presented in the OAR, 1.85:1, with 16:9 enhancement. It's very good, with colours showing up bright and sharp.
Two audio tracks in Dolby Digital 2.0 – Italian and English. Both are fine. Oddly, the music isn't done by Argento's usual mob, Goblin – Keith Emerson takes composing duties over, with Inferno his debut picture. It's an unusual sounding score, and pretty out of place but I guess no more inappropriate than some of Simonetti's quirkier contributions to Argento's films – and certainly no more inappropriate than any music in Phenomena.
Extra Features
A theatrical trailer. Poor, but the Blue Underground disc only has about 10 minutes of interview footage with Argento and Lamberto Bava, and a 4-page booklet with an interview of McCloskey. In any case, pretty bad DVD treatment of a quality movie.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
For me, this holds steadily against Suspiria as Dario's most well crafted supernatural horror film. A star from "The Movie" section of the rating below can be docked if Argento's excess (attacking rats, attacking cats) grates on you but it's not as bad as, say, a razor-wielding monkey. It might not be a typical film for the director – the camerawork isn't quite as flashy, we're given a new composer and the beginnings of the director's Americanisation – but it's well worth your time.

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