The back door to Hell
This semi-sequel to Dario Argento’s international hit Suspiria is one of his strangest, most nightmarish features. And, says Argento, one of his most difficult. He had all the enthusiasm he needed to tell the tale of the second Mother, but the pieces of the puzzle fell into place in an odd crazy-quilt pattern of mystery, dread and violence that seemed to have a mind of its own.
Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), a poet in New York, finds a book written by the architect Varelli – the man who designed the building she lives in. The book, entitled The Three Mothers, is about a trio of witch sisters, each of whom hired Varelli to build a great house – one in Germany, one in Italy, and the third in America. Each house marked a doorway to Hell, and would be guarded closely by one of the witches. The book uses veiled clues to tell where to find the keys to each doorway, and how to reveal the face of the Mother guarding it.
Rose sends a letter to her brother Mark about it before trying to find out if the book is telling the truth. She sneaks into the cellar in search of the key, but finds a strange flooded room with a corpse in it. Fleeing, she hears voices saying she’s seen too much, and decides to lay low instead of calling the police.
Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome, receives the letter, but is distracted by the stare of a strange, beautiful girl (Ania Pieroni) and leaves it behind before he can read it. His girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) retrieves it, but is stabbed to death by an intruder before she can tell him about it. He phones Rose to fill her in on what has happened, but they’re cut off by interference on the long distance line.
Hearing an intruder in the house, Rose tries to hide in the cellar of the building, where – amid breaking glass – the killer catches up with her (a scene that most people always remember from the film).
Mark comes to New York, but finds his sister missing. He meets Rose’s friend Elise Stallone Van Alder (Daria Nicolodi) from upstairs, who tells him more about the building and knows how to talk through the walls (a trick echoed in Argento’s Opera). The pair investigate together, drawing ever closer to the secret of the Mother of Darkness, who still dwells within the building – though Argento doesn’t reveal her identity until the end.
Separated, Mark takes ill and collapses as if poisoned. Elise searches for him, but is attacked by cats (a scary scene ruined by a clearly seen hand throwing a cat at her – pause at around 67:11 to see it).
Mark recovers, apparently due to the “heart medicine” administered by a nurse (Veronica Lazar) who tends an old man in the building. Mark questions Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), who owns the antique shop next door where Rose bought the book, but learns little. Kazanian makes himself a target for the Dark Mother when he starts killing the many cats that live around the house. He gets eaten by rats in Central Park – during a lunar eclipse! – and the ice cream man on the scene is no help at all.
Like many Argento films, half the appeal is in the fact that you never know what’s coming next, so I won’t reveal any more. Rest assured that there are plenty of eye-gouging shocks and creeping terrors before Mark discovers the key to Inferno.
Suspiria was Argento’s greatest success, both critically and financially. Released relatively intact, it brought Argento whatever fame he has in America. Argento’s films have had a history of ill treatment plaguing them, both in theatrical release and on video, but Inferno was dealt with particularly harshly. Despite its status as a sequel to a hit, 20th Century Fox shelved it, only giving it a brief video release in 1985 – the pan & scan cropped picture rendering the already zigzagging story even more incomprehensible.
The videotape version had few cuts, but listed an 89-minute running time on the box anyway, leading to rumors that there were two editions released. It’s been a while since I looked at the tape, but I’d swear there’s a lot here I didn’t see before. Due to the inattention of its distributors, the film has been hard to find but much sought after by a growing legion of fans.
Now those fans own DVD labels, and neglected genre films like this one are finally getting their due.
The themes to the film are sharp edges and water, carefully painted in Argento’s Technicolor red and blue palette. The DVD transfer looks soft in places, probably due to Argento’s technique of oversaturating certain colors, which are wonderfully vibrant. The soundtrack is almost as loud as Suspiria, alternating roars and whispers, but all are reproduced with great clarity – so warn your neighbors and crank up the volume. Unfortunately, there are no subtitle options to help out at lower decibel levels. The electronic Keith Emerson soundtrack takes a back seat to sinister classical themes, including Argento’s beloved Verdi operas.
Subtitles are available for the disc’s main extra: an onscreen interview with Argento. The man is a great, underrated director, a decent writer, and a visionary genius, but sometimes he comes off as the world’s oldest Goth teen. The liner notes contain a recent interview with perennial soap star McCloskey, who gives his view of the production.