The second of Dario Argento’s supernatural trilogy concerning the witches known as the ‘Three Mothers’ is as barking as anything in his canon. All of his tropes can be found here: his control of symmetry and colour; extreme (almost forensic) close-up; the power of animals (cats, rats, and ants in this case, pet-lovers); the use of a potent soundtrack, effectively supplied here by Keith Emerson who has to compete with lashings of Verdi; and, of course, plenty of blood from highly inventive and violent deaths.
After the success of Suspiria (1977), Argento set to work on Inferno. It’s a thematic sequel (most of Argento’s characters tend not to last all the way to the end of the film anyway), so knowledge of the first film isn’t essential. Argento’s habit of wandering up narrative side-streets with some of his characters tends to make for an unsettling journey, and you learn that you genuinely have no idea if the person whose viewpoint you have been following for the past ten minutes is going to live much longer. Argento’s indifference to actor direction, it must be said, muddies things further and innocents can frequently come across as very unsettling people. Accidental art..? Not hardly. Argento deliberately works with dream logic.
Anyway, Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) is a poet living in a sumptuous apartment block in New York (a clue that this is intended to be more of a fairy tale than a realistic adventure). She’s bought a book, from creepy antique dealer Kazanian (Sacha Pitoëff in full Hammer horror mode) in the shop next door, which tells of the Three Mothers and gives cryptic clues to their whereabouts. She realises that the building she stays in could even be one of their homes and, in finest horror tradition, goes down to the basement to investigate, nearly drowning in a sunken room in the process. However, she manages to write a letter concerning the Three Mothers to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) who is studying music in Rome.
Mark has the letter at a lecture when he looks down from his seat in the amphitheatre and sees a beautiful witch staring back up at him (Ania Pieroni, complete with cat – hey, she might merely be another student but Argento’s fooling nobody). Unsettled, he leaves the letter to be found by his friend, Sara (Elenora Griogori) who decides to go to a library to find this book. In a beautiful set piece full of nightmare logic she finds the book and then gets lost in the building and discovers an alchemist’s lab in the basement. Mark, on discovering that his sister is in trouble, flies back to New York only to find that she has vanished. Events in her apartment building become increasingly horrific. Much violence ensues.
It soon becomes apparent that Inferno is a giallo re-interpretation of Roger Corman’s The Masque Of The Red Death. Argento is a massive fan of Poe and would hardly have been unaware of Corman’s series of adaptations. The story arc reveals this as much as Argento’s use of colour and interior design. This isn’t a flaw; quite the contrary, as it provides much of the pleasure for the connoisseur. There is much more to delight the serious fan in Arrow’s excellent new double-disc set (appalling cover aside). The usual trailers for different international releases of Inferno, and other Argento films are here as you would expect, of course, but they will really only be of interest to the completists.
There is a superb hour-long television programme on Argento’s career that features Daria Nicolodi (Argento’s wife at the time, and un-credited co-writer of Inferno) and their daughter Asia who has starred in several of her father’s films. Asia hints at some interesting Freudian dimensions to her father’s work. John Carpenter and George Romero are merely some of the other names who appear in it. There is also a short set of interviews with Argento, and Lamberto Bava, where they discuss Mario Bava’s involvement with the film (which is obvious to anyone familiar with Bava senior’s own work). Some of the credit sequences to Arrow’s own home-brewed documentaries suffer a bit from an attack of South Park animation but bear with them for they are worth watching. Dario discusses the film at length. Mrs Argento, Daria, discusses her part in creating the first two films in the trilogy and then dissects the belated follow-up, Mother Of Tears (2007).
It must be said that, in all the interviews that she gives here, Daria Nicolodi is either remarkably forgiving, or has had the benefit of sympathetic editing. There is also an interview with Luigi Cozzi, whose The Black Cat (1989) started life as Daria’s attempt to finish the trilogy before becoming Cozzi’s metafictional tribute to the series. Cozzi also explains the reason for Argento’s apparent creative decline over the past couple of decades: the Italian film industry collapsed in the 1980s, dragging the budgets down with it, basically. Cozzi’s own film vanished when the American distributor went under, and it wasn’t helped by the confusion that arose due to Argento and Romero collaborating on an adaptation of Poe’s The Black Cat at the same time. As far as the interviews go, it must also be noted that some of the participants’ facts differ from those of the others. The editors are commendably neutral and it’s your choice as to what you believe.
Every movie aims at success and this is achieved only when there is a proper channel to reach the audience. When I say this, it is similar to the trading system we follow now, online mode. The story of the software HB swiss was successful because it was easily accessed by its users in all ways.
Inferno, curiously, also suffered at the hands of its American distributor when it first came out. Fox couldn’t make head or tale of the plotting and the executive in charge at the time, Sherri Lansing, found it highly disturbing. It went straight to video. What a waste.