Every year I set about attending a twenty-four hour horror film festival in Philadelphia hosted by the good folks at Exhumed Films which is accompanied by the requisite brain rotting and mind melting expected of such an event. Before the filmstrip running behind my eyes could melt or break, the programmers showed off a print of Dario Argento's Inferno with majestically vibrant coloring and only the slightest suggestion of wear. While it is a nightmare inducing fever dream of visual story telling, most instances where I've seen this movie have suffered from less attentive transfers, pinked film prints (an effect of 35mm media being poorly tended), or beat up VHS dubs. From the very outset this viewing experience was different, allowing a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors to play my emotional harpsichord like John Carpenter pounds the synth.
It's a safe bet that most readers have seen Suspiria, the first of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy; it was a box office success in America for Fox and has left Texas Chainsaw sized hooks in horror fans everywhere. Inferno is the financially unsuccessful follow up to Suspiria. Where the first film centered on Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sighs), this one anchors its evil to Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness). The third film, The Mother of Tears, centers on Mater Lachrymarum and came out in 2007. A bevy of deconstructive articles could be written on each of these films, but today I'd like to focus on a intriguing five minute sequence which newly enraptured my visual cortex by way of this pristine film print.
Very early in Inferno, a young poet named Rose discovers the secret of the three mothers. She learns of them in a book by the architect who designed the New York City building which she lives in (as well as the dwellings for the other two mothers). After reading the illuminating bits to the audience, and hastily writing a letter to her brother in Rome, Rose accesses a side entrance to the building's basement in a determined effort to discover more. It's this sequence, straightforwardly termed "the watery ballroom scene", and the surrounding framework which we're going to focus on today.
Even prior to descending, the environment's animosity is made clear through Argento's vibrant pallet of reds and purples. Most filmmakers would content themselves with a progression of visible-shadowed-darkness but, as is his visual signature, Argento heavily relies on a mix of color and early German expressionist shadow work- I'm always reminded of 1920's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when watching his films. Turning on the landing into what must now be a sub basement, Rose begins exploring the wrecked remnants of structural integrity. Seriously, the way beams have collapsed punching holes in the cement flooring would give a dozen heart attacks to safety inspectors (don't get me started on Radon). From a drain pipe's run off we're to know that rain water has been making the voyage down here for some time (having eroded a permanent channel into the concrete).
And all of that water has collected into a striking beautiful azure pool comprised of the most unearthly alluring blue imaginable. That our heroine of the the opening deigns to get a closer look then, I cannot fault her for. That she clips her keys to a broach on the waist of her shirt and thus drops them into the pool, that I will slap my forehead for. It's a necessary stupidity which leads to a fascinating journey. While the lithely graceful Rose lowers herself into the manhole analogous opening, the 80's Italian camera work lingering with voyeuristic nonchalance on her now transparent white garments. After this tantalizing moment it becomes clear that this submerged environment is not simply some sub-sub basement adorned as a concrete casing with pipes to match. This was an opulent ballroom resplendent with crenelated ceilings, exquisite woodworking, and expensive chandeliers. There's also a large painting of Mater Tenebrarum and typical interior doors leading elsewhere on the level. But before Rose can discover more, desiccated corpses happen along to frighten her into flight mode. She flees the mysterious ballroom and that is the last we learn of it.
This is not the last I would think of it though. What was the purpose of this subterranean ballroom? What manner of functions where hosted here that it couldn't have been installed on the main floor? What horrible event triggered its abandonment? What else is located on the same level? Are their more levels below? The implications fascinate me. Here is one five minute scene built in such a was as to ask lingering questions, yet which never addresses them again. This is a such a wonderful seed of imagination, the likes of which safe Hollywood films would never leave unaddressed for contemporary conventional audiences.
Below I've linked the scene for your convenience and I'd love to get your take in the comments. If all this talk has you interested in picking up a copy of Inferno, go all out and get a Blu-Ray (this is visual story telling tour de force). There are two releases in that realm worth your time; one from Blue Underground and the other from Arrow. Both companies pull out all the stops when it comes to treating genre fans right, so you really can't go wrong with either. Until next time don't go exploring subterranean water pools, no matter how beautiful they appear.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.