INFERNO (1980) (Blu-ray)
Director: Dario Argento
Blue Underground

In the early 1970s, young filmmaker Dario Argento was greatly responsible for the rejuvenation of the giallo genre in Italy, giving him the title of the “Italian Hitchcock”. Later in the decade, Argento would embark on his signature film, 1977’s SUSPIRIA, a masterful work that allowed him to dabble in the supernatural as part of his already impressive roster of intense horrors. A sort of follow-up to SUSPIRIA (and the second in a trilogy which concluded with 2007’s THE MOTHER OF TEARS), INFERNO is another career-defining, flashy showcase from the maestro involving alchemy, demonic witches and the inevitable appearance of Death.

In New York City, young female poet Rose (Irene Miracle) is renting an apartment in a very old, gothic Manhattan building. The rather unusual looking structure was designed by an alchemist, and when Rose does some research into its origins, she purchases a book entitled The Three Mothers, written by the architect, from an eccentric antique dealer (Sacha Pitoeff) who has a shop next door. The book reveals that two buildings were built in Rome and Germany, and that all three were constructed in honor of the Mothers of Whispers, Darkness and Tears – a trio of evil, unnatural beings who are supposed to rule the Earth. Rose sends her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey, JUST ONE OF THE GUYS) – a music student studying in Rome – a letter, coaxing him to come to New York to come and visit her. When Mark arrives, he discovers his sister has gone missing without a clue, and staying in her apartment opens up a Pandora’s Box of unspeakable nightmares.

Visually arresting in every sense of the word, INFERNO is one of Argento’s most ambitious efforts, and a must-see for all horror aficionados. Shot in location in New York, and largely in a studio in Rome, the film boasts Argento’s flair for remarkable art deco and otherworldly set designs, multi-color lighting sets up, stirring camera movements, and the expected amount of ultra violence, which as gory as the film gets in spots, tends to come off as art. With such gruesome highlights as a helpless man being chomped on by sewer rats during an eclipse, a woman’s neck being sliced up by a sharp windowpane glass, a fleshy waterlogged corpse making contact with the bear feet of Rose during her underground swimming excursion, a kitchen knife piercing through a man’s neck, and a victim set on fire only to fall of few stories to a crashing death, the special effects are the old-fashioned, organic kind and 30 years on, still make an impression. Mario Bava, one of the founding fathers of Italian horror, worked on the special effects (uncredited) shortly before his death, and it’s fitting since Argento’s endeavor bridges two different past and present styles of gothic filmmaking.

Although there is a plot somewhere in Argento’s script, he’s more preoccupied with testing the limits of sight and sound, and for the most part, the performances are uninteresting (though not really any fault of the international actors, as the film was shot without the benefit of sync sound, and you can bet many of them were confused by the storyline). In the approach of style over substance (which Argento gets away with here), many characters are introduced during the course of the film, some of them just fodder for an untimely death, and the cast includes beauties Eleonora Giorgi and Ania Pieroni (THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), Daria Nicolodi (Dario’s then love interest and the mother of two of his children), Gabriele Lavia (who had a much more instrumental role in DEEP RED), Veronica Lazar (THE BEYOND) and reminding us of SUSPIRIA, veteran actress Alida Valli (though her recognizable husky voice has been re-looped here). Changing over from the group Goblin (who scored his previous two films), Argento turned to British prog rock legend Keith Emerson to compose the film’s score, and needless to say, the soundtrack has become a favorite among fans. Emerson compliments the wild visual aspect with a loud audio accompaniment, mixing pulsating keyboards, grand classical orchestrations and haunting operatic chants, all to create a remarkably diverse assemblage of sounds.

If ever a modern horror film was worthy of the blu-ray format, it’s INFERNO, and its release here is a feast for the appreciative moviegoer’s eyes. Newly transferred in High Definition from the original uncut and uncensored negative, the film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with spectacular 1080p resolution and the disc is 50GB dual layered. Black levels are deep, colors excel, and detail is outstanding, with fleshtones looking extremely natural. Audio options come in English 7.1 DTS-HD English, English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX, English Dolby Surround and an Italian mono track, with all mixes coming through clear and sounding terrific. Subtitle options include English SDH, French and Spanish.

Extras include two newly produced HD featurettes (courtesy of Red Shirt Pictures). “Art and Alchemy” (15 minutes), is an interview with star Leigh McCloskey, shot at his fully self-painted art studio. McCloskey discusses his early days of acting in episodic television and TV movies, to landing the role in the Argento film (which he states was originally slated for James Woods!). He thinks of the director as a “visionary” and concludes the interview showing a fascinating drawing he did, based on the events in INFERNO. “Reflections of Rose” (13 minutes) has actress Irene Miracle (who like McCloskey, hailed from America) discussing her getting into Italian cinema (through a chance meeting with Michelangelo Antonioni), making NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, to her unusual introduction to Argento and what it was that made him fret about her during the shoot. Argento does a brief introduction for the film, and he’s also on an 8-minute featurette which also includes assistant director Lamberto Bava (who reveals some his father’s specific contributions to the film), both discussing the film in their native Italian, with English subtitles. Both these extras were originally found on Anchor Bay’s 2000 new DVD releases. The original 20th Century-Fox trailer rounds out the bonus material of another excellent blu-ray release from Blue Underground (with plenty more Argento to come in 2011). (George R. Reis)