Italian horror maestro Dario Argento kicked off his “Three Mothers” trilogy with his most renowned film, 1977’s Suspiria, a striking departure from the gothic darkness and shadows that had been the predominant palate for the genre since Val Lewton’s heyday. Argento’s use of bold primary colors didn’t relieve the terror, but rather made it uniquely vivid and alive with menace, like an especially piercing dream. It took him another 30 years to complete the trilogy with the disappointing camp of Mother Of Tears, but Suspiria was a substantial hit for Argento, and allowed him to make the second entry, Inferno, three years later with a generous budget and minimal studio interference. Not surprisingly, Inferno follows Suspiria in stride, extending its gorgeous, hyper-stylized look and expanding on a mythology that’s byzantine and clumsily articulated. As usual with Argento, the film works best when the restless camera and the aggressive music cues do all the talking.
Though Suspiria had its share of exposition, including an entire movie-stopping scene where an academic blathers on at length about witchcraft on a university commons, Inferno gives even more of itself over to sorting through the “Three Mothers” story. In a nutshell: The “Three Mothers” are sister-witches who first started spreading terror throughout Europe in the 11th century. In the late 19th century, they commissioned an Italian architect to construct three different residences around the world—one in Rome, one in Germany’s Black Forest, one in New York City—and from each place, darkness and evil spread like radiation. Inferno opens in New York City, where a poet (Irene Miracle) happens across the architect’s memoir and becomes convinced that she’s currently living in one of those three buildings. After discovering a corpse in a water pool in the basement, she writes a letter to her brother (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, relaying her concerns and urging him to come. But by then, shadowy figures are following both siblings and the number of deadly events is starting to metastasize.
Inferno comes with the usual Argento caveats, only more so: The writing is clumsy, with information packed crudely into the dialogue, and his attention to the performances is inversely proportional to his attention to style. Yet his “New York” has an eerie, deserted, otherworldly quality—much as Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut would later—and some of the individual setpieces are spectacularly vibrant. (The new Blu-ray edition makes the colors pop.) From a ghostly sequence where Miracle plunges into the lost world within the basement pool to a murder scene set to the booming sound of a Verdi opera, Inferno spends enough time in Argento-land to forgive its awkward longueurs.
Key features: A new introduction and brief interview with Argento, and longer interviews with actors Miracle and McCloskey, the latter of whom relays the trivia that his role was originally offered to James Woods.