In 1977's Suspiria, director Dario Argento's first full-fledged supernatural horror thriller, a young ballet student encountered evil in a German dance academy. At the heart of the corruption was a single malevolent witch.

Argento's follow-up expands upon the mythology suggested by Suspiria. What if the witch had been only one of three sisters? What if her dwelling place had two counterparts--one in Rome and one in New York? Inferno opens as Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) deciphers the Latin text of "The Three Mothers"--the confession of Varelli, the architect who constructed the abodes of Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Whispers), Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Shadows) and Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears). Rose is convinced that her New York apartment building is indeed one of the three "terrible houses," and a terrifying discovery in the flooded basement of the structure confirms her worst fears. A letter from Rose to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, goes unread by its intended recipient: it is Mark's girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) who learns about the Three Mothers from this missive. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; Sara's attempt to access the Varelli volume in Rome leads to her grisly demise, while Mark is the only witness to the aftermath, unaware that his sister has just suffered a similar fate in New York. Mark flies to New York in search of his sister, bearing only the clue on the last surviving scrap of her letter: "The third key is under the soles of your shoes."

The remainder of Inferno introduces Mark to the inhabitants of the New York building and it surroundings. There's Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), the antique book dealer who sold Rose the Varelli book in the first place, stationed next door. There's a nurse (Alida Valli) caring for a mute, elderly, wheelchair-bound patient, and there's a troubled countess (Daria Nicolodi) secretly despised by her servants. As the film progresses, those who come too close to the secret of Mater Tenebrarum seal their own hideous fates, while Mark, who knows nothing, remains relatively safe. But Mark, determined to discover what happened to his sister, is closer to the elusive "third key" than he knows.

Inferno is a film of sparse plot and indelible imagery. How long have the Three Mothers lived? Where did they come from and what are their ultimate goals? Questions like these receive no answers here. It's simply enough to know that the Three Mothers do indeed exist and that they are evil. Argento, however, leaves little time for such ponderings. Scarcely ten minutes into the film, we're submerged in the flooded parlor of Mater Tenebrarum in one of the most famous setpieces of Italian horror: the combination of lighting, camerawork, design, decoration, and shock effects is indescribable in print but will not soon be forgotten by anyone who experiences it. The iconography of death and horror as dispensed by the Three Mothers is then gradually introduced: ripped cloth, broken glass, punctured flesh, and pulsating, unworldly blue, yellow or green light.

A crippled book dealer (Sacha Pitoeff) falls into runoff water from a sewer in Dario Argento's Inferno.
[click photo for larger version]

While Inferno quite naturally complements the look and style established in Suspiria, it's somewhat subdued by comparison, perhaps taking its cue from Argento's deliberately paced mystery/thriller Deep Red, with which it shares quite a bit (the protagonists share a passion for music, while their vocations are both amusingly misinterpreted by women they meet; Gabriele Lavia appears in both films as a character named "Carlo," and so on). But while Deep Red resembled a dream in its stylization, Inferno functions on the level of a nightmare in all respects. Disturbing, unexplained images, such as a brief shot of a young woman hanging herself, occasionally punctuate the on-screen action, while the characters find themselves unable to react appropriately to the situations they encounter. Sara, for instance, finds herself lost in a cavernous library. While seeking an exit, she steps through a doorway into a room in which a sinister, robed figure is stirring the boiling contents of a large, iron cauldron--one of several in the room! Similar "dream" behavior permeates the entire film.

Whereas Deep Red and Suspiria featured the loud, driving music of Goblin, Inferno showcases a score by Keith Emerson (of the rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer), whose contributions include electronic variations on classical music (particularly that of Verdi, whom Mark and Sara are studying) and a thunderous, rock-tempo hymn to the Three Mothers.

Inferno includes the final film work of Italian horror grandmaster Mario Bava. Though uncredited on the print, Bava affixed his stamp to the plentiful optical work on display. This was the only collaboration between Bava and Argento, and those familiar with their respective works will recognize this for a milestone. Lamberto Bava, son of Mario and a noted genre director in his own right (Demons), had served as assistant director to both his father and Argento in the past, and he does so again here. The younger Bava also joins Argento for reminiscences (about his father and the making of Inferno) in a supplementary feature on the DVD.

Anchor Bay's DVD provides a fine, uncut widescreen (1:85:1) rendition of the film in Dolby Digital Surround sound. While the casing suggests that this is the first time the film has been released "uncut and uncensored," it's not true: Key Video released the film intact on VHS some fifteen years ago. But Anchor Bay's presentation is nevertheless definitive. A theatrical trailer, a still gallery, and a biography section are included, as is a brief introduction by Argento himself.

One footnote: the sequence of events in Suspiria and Inferno naturally leads the viewer to anticipate a third installment, dealing with Mater Lachrymarum in Rome. While a strong hint is dropped that it is none other than she who makes two brief appearances in the Rome section of Inferno (in the guise of Anna Pieroni), Argento has not completed the trilogy, and in all likelihood, never will. Nevertheless, one attempt was apparently made to complete the trilogy for him! 1989's The Black Cat, directed by Luigi Cozzi (as Lewis Coates), while allegedly based on the Poe story, was in fact an oddity which concerned itself with filmmakers attempting to produce the story of the "Mother of Tears," while acknowledging both Dario Argento and his film Suspiria by name! Officially unreleased in the U.S. for over ten years, the film surfaced without warning on the Sci-Fi Channel on July 1st of this year (cut for TV, of course) in a remarkable coincidence, considering the recent release of Inferno on DVD.

Inferno is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment in a widescreen presentation (1.85:1) that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The DVD features an exclusive interview with director Dario Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava, a theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and talent bios.

Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Anchor Bay Entertainment Web site.