Few directors are as adept at killing their films’ characters as the master of ornate gore, Dario Argento. From his feature debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in 1970, the Italian auteur has, by turns, delighted and horrified audiences with his richly imagined scenes of death and women in peril.
1980’s Inferno followed on from Suspiria, the surreal nightmare that cemented Argento’s reputation as a consummate horror director. Like Suspiria, Inferno is loosely based on the book Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas de Quincey, and was the second of Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy, which finally concluded in 2007 with The Mother Of Tears.
And like that earlier classic, Inferno sees Argento take his strange, highly individual style of horror one step further, with a stream-of-consciousness plot that acts more as a string of encounters and bloody set pieces than a coherent story.
Inferno opens with Rose (Irene Miracle) reading an old, forbidden book, The Three Mothers, which reveals that an architect called Varelli built a series of dwelling places for three demonic sisters, one of which could well be the very New York apartment in which she sits.
Following the book’s enigmatic clue “the key is in the basement”, Rose descends into the building’s bowels and, in a beautifully unsettling piece of dream logic, drops into a submerged room to retrieve a fallen bunch of keys. The last piece of work Mario Bava shot before his death in 1980, it’s a perfectly lit and shot moment.
Understandably disturbed by the rotting corpse she finds in the water, Rose contacts her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) in Rome, writing him an urgent letter about the building’s witch-ridden past and bittersweet smells.
After an apparently detachable sequence in which a woman is first terrorised by an alchemist in a library, and then stabbed to death in her apartment, Mark heads to New York to check up on his anxious sister.
From here, the plot becomes ever more strange, with Mark’s investigations into the New York building’s infestation of evil punctuated by a string of increasingly odd deaths. A woman is mewled and scratched to death by dozens of cats. A bookseller is nibbled into oblivion by a squealing army of rats, before a final coup de grace is delivered by a nearby hotdog seller.
Even by Argento’s standards, Inferno is an unusual, unique film. His movies are more commonly noted for their cinematography than their bravura acting, and true to form, much of Inferno‘s cast appears to be locked in some form of fugue state, and most characters are killed within a few minutes of their introduction, in any case.
Those unfamiliar with Argento’s horror may also be frustrated by the director’s insistence on establishing plot threads, only to have them savagely curtailed or left dangling unsatisfactorily by the film’s conclusion.
Nevertheless, Inferno is a beautifully shot movie from start to finish, and filled with all the long shadows, lurid colours and crimson blood that distinguished Suspiria. It’s a striking piece of cinema, if not quite as dizzyingly memorable as the director’s earlier masterpiece.
This is partly due to Inferno‘s glaring lack of three-dimensional characters, and the fragmented narrative that comes to life only in isolated, creepy scenes. Keith Emerson’s soundtrack is also something of an acquired taste, with Suspiria‘s deafening drones and death knell clangs replaced by a distracting brand of doodling prog rock.
Seen in the context of the director’s wilfully odd style, Inferno is a sterling entry in the director’s canon, desite its faults. Decades of increasingly vicious new horror may have taken the edge off the film’s once gruesome murders, but Argento’s baroque visual style remains undiminished.
This special, restored Arrow Films release of Inferno comes with a wealth of extra material crammed onto its two discs. One feature may be familiar to longstanding fans of horror, with Dario Argento: An Eye For Horror, an illuminating documentary narrated by Mark Kermode, originally airing on Channel 4 some ten years ago.
Elsewhere, there’s an interview with Daria Nicolodi, actress and ex-wife of Argento, who provides her own account of her creative involvement in the making of Inferno. There’s also an interview with director Luigi Cozzi, who talks about the making of his unofficial (and inferior) 1989 follow-up to Inferno, and a brief interview with Argento and assistant director, Lamberto Bava.
The star of this release is, of course, the Inferno feature itself, which appears completely uncut and restored to its former, dazzlingly colourful glory. For devotees of Argento’s unique filmmaking, it’s the definitive version to buy.
Inferno will be released on September 13 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.