Blue Underground, purveyors of fine cult cinema, has released its latest Blu-ray this week and, true to their roots, it’s a little-seen Dario Argento film called Inferno. It tells the story of a young girl living in New York City who comes by a book entitled "The Three Mothers". Promptly after she begins riffling through the pages of this book, she goes missing. Her brother, who happens to be studying in Rome at the time, gets wind of his sister’s disappearance and, finding little assistance from the police, sets out to investigate. But as his amateur sleuthing causes him to cross paths with the other tenants of his sister’s building, he realizes that all of them seem to have something they are hiding. How are the strange denizens of this NYC apartment building connected to young Rose’s disappearance? Who are The Three Mothers and how are they connected to strange occurrences all over the world?
Even within the already strange catalogue of Argento’s films, Inferno is a bizarre cinematic experiment and a tough one to describe. I would wholeheartedly recommend this film to both hardcore horror fans and Argento novices alike, but neither of those recommendations would be predicated on the story of Inferno. The overall plot is exceptionally meandering; wandering through room after room with seemingly no clue how to get from one important story element to the next or even what qualifies as an important story element. In any other film, by any other director, this would amount to a painfully tedious, totally inept piece of filmmaking.
But the magic of Dario Argento, what makes me such a stalwart fan, is how visually arresting his films are and how that can surpass any perceived fault. Many people have honed in on Argento’s use of color in a way that is so vibrant and wild that it gives his films a dream-like quality. Inferno takes this trope to the absolute limit and fully engrosses the audience in the hazy, otherworldly threat of this house by making every room a canvas of chromatic insanity. Inferno may be the best possible choice for an Argento Blu-ray as he really lets his passion for color run rampant. The primary colors of red, yellow, and blue are so unchained and integral to every scene that they almost seem sentient, existing as their own carbon-based life forms on screen.
Inferno also employs mind-bending striking angles and visual effects that augment Argento’s cinematographic showmanship and lend themselves well to high-def. The scene of the false wall with the toppling body, the mirror trick near the end and the woman with the cat in the classroom all should be lauded as highly as the opening death of Suspiria in regard to Argento’s genius. The film uses the weirdness of color and the juxtaposition of light and angles to explore the ancient connection between architecture, alchemy and those who would use it to unlock the secrets of death. In any other film, this might venture into the pretentious. But Argento manages to supply a host of spectacular death scenes that are as beautiful as they are savage to satiate even the most jaded of horror fans. Interesting side note, fellow member of the holy triumvirate Mario Bava supplied all the film’s effects.
The treatment Blue Underground gives the film is so painstakingly pristine that it allows for an optimal visual appreciation. Blue Underground exists because founder, and cult film director, William Lustig so loved Italian horror films that he opted to purchase the rights to them over seeing them languish in distribution limbo or get shoddy releases. This commitment is evident from the first frame of Inferno. Not so long ago I purchased a UK Blu-ray of Suspiria expecting the same austere transfer and attention to visual optimization. What I got was painfully bright, oversaturated color and overblown contrast that was incredibly disappointing. Blue Underground’s Inferno release makes up for this in spades and allows a glimmer of hope to percolate within me that maybe Blue Underground will get the chance to release their own version of Suspiria.
The other reason to seek out and view Inferno has to do with the fascinating, albeit unlikely context that it lends to some of Argento’s other works. The story of The Three Mothers not only drives the supernatural elements of Inferno, but also seeks to unify both Suspiria and the subsequent Mother of Tears into the same contextual universe. Due to the interweaving of mythos, and seeing as Inferno came after Suspiria, this effectively makes Inferno both a sequel and the second chapter of an elaborate trilogy that would not be completed for nearly 30 years. Inferno actually enriches and enhances the story of the Mother of Sighs (aka Suspiria) while setting up the pieces for Mother of Tears that would go unexplored for decades.
On top of all this are another fantastic score and a cadre of enlightening special features delving deeper into the minds of the artists behind the film. If you haven’t seen any Argento…I’d start with Suspiria. If you haven’t seen any Argento on Blu-ray, get your hands on a copy of Inferno right now!
Take Me Home Tonight opens in theaters this week. The film takes place in the year 1988 and has already generated more interest in Eddie Money than anyone's had since the late 80s. I was recently a guest on the Golden Briefcase podcast over at First Showing and we discussed our favorite films from that glorious year. Were I given the technology to travel back in time, hopefully in a DeLorean, the first thing I would do would be to head to 1988 and feast my eyes on the first runs of some of its cinematic fare. Woefully, I was four years old in 1988 and therefore ill-equipped to appreciate what have since become some of my favorite films. Below is a list of the titles I would seek out. Are they the best of 1988? Not necessarily, but most assuredly the ones I would most want to see with a virgin crowd.
The 80s demonstrated such proficiency within the horror genre that a majority of the remakes we get now are from that incredible decade. Not only that, but the horror remakes produced within the 80s run circles around the current remake machine of Hollywood. Drawing from the well of 50s sci-fi horror, films like The Thing and The Fly became instant classics. Though maybe not as highly regarded, The Blob is a fantastic piece of filmmaking that utilizes incredible special effects to make audiences deathly afraid of a wad of gelatin. I'd call that a win.
You know those people who profess that Die Hard is the greatest action movie of all time? Those people are only saying that because it is accurate. Die Hard established the mold for not only the new, more vulnerable action hero, but also for the go-to action movie structure: terrorists take over unlikely target X and must be thwarted by put-upon, regular Joe hero y. Before Under Siege was “Die Hard on a boat" and Passenger 57 was “Die Hard on a plane," there was just Die Hard. I can only imagine seeing it with unsuspecting audience z.
Beetlejuice is a great film in its own right, but it is also unique among Tim Burton's cannon. Tim Burton has become well known as a director who thrives on adapting other source material. Beetlejuice is one of the few original properties that he has ever tackled and I would love to see it on the big screen. I would also love to hear people debating in the lobby after the film whether this guy should be allowed to make the Batman movie.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
I'm sure audiences were blown away by Who Framed Roger Rabbit's seamless integration of animation into a live-action film, and that in and of itself is a major enticement. But the fact that Disney and Warner Brothers characters were allowed to coexist in one feature is the major reason I would want to observe audience reaction to the initial theatrical run of the film. It'd be fun to hear the kids going crazy for their favorite characters but the heavy film noir influence would allow for a more mature appreciation of the movie as well.
John Carpenter is one of my very favorite directors and there are a number of his films that I would want to see on the big screen with a naive audience. I've actually seen They Live on the big screen, but to see with a group of people expecting a familiar John Carpenter film and instead getting a wildly absurd sci-fi movie about aliens and magic sunglasses staring professional wrestler “Rowdy" Roddy Piper? Sign me up!
As a massive fan of nearly the entire Halloween franchise, I would leap at the chance to be in the theater with a group of like-minded fans to experience the anticipated return of Michael Myers after his seven-year absence. Also, Halloween 4 is a criminally underrated film. Sure it is a slasher sequel and suffers from a few of the familiar problems there contained, but it also perfectly blends the slick conventions of 80s horror with the classically-established mythos of cinema's greatest boogeyman.
One of the best retellings of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, nothing would have put me in the holiday spirit more than being able to see this film for the first time in 35mm. Bill Murray, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Bobcat Goldthwait, John Forsythe, and Karen Allen all larger-than-life on the big screen sounds like the perfect Christmas gift to me.
William Lustig is one of my favorite exploitation filmmakers and it pains me that he doesn’t make movies anymore. His films always seem to elevate exploitation to new heights with his flair for cinematography and extracting stellar performances from his cast; this one including Bruce Campbell and Tom Atkins. I’ve seen almost all of his movies in 35mm as it is, but Maniac Cop, my favorite of his, still eludes me. I would seriously jeopardize the fabric of space and time to travel back and see the first run of a William Lustig movie; especially Maniac Cop.
My favorite aspect of being an online film journalist -- or blogger, if you’re a fan of brevity -- is the opportunities it offers to meet my heroes. When those heroes bear names few people have heard of, it’s all the more rewarding. Absent is the narcissistic desire for future name-dropping, and in its place grows the realization of a true movie-geek dream. That being said, William Lustig is a name every fan of exploitation and horror should know. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest things about Lustig is that his films are of such a high caliber that they resonate even with those who harbor no passion for grindhouse cinema. I recently interviewed Mr. Lustig for Cinematical in conjunction with his visit to Austin to host screenings of three of his films at the Alamo Drafthouse -- each screening being immortalized with its very own limited edition Mondo Tees poster.
Here’s the interview that inspired me to provide this crash course in Lustigology.
Much like Martin Scorsese, William Lustig is a filmmaker whose identity is inextricably linked to New York City. His films explore the authentic grittiness of the big city as well as some absurdly magnificent supernatural elements. He never skimps on the genre-based shocks and thrills, but his films are sharper, more ambitious, and far more competent than the vast majority of the cult films of his era. Here are a few Lustig essentials with which you should acquaint yourself…
In what should have been a conventional serial-killer flick, Maniac is a masterpiece of low-budget artistry. Lustig gets an awe-inspiring, career-defining performance out of lead actor Joe Spinell, whose psychotic murderer Frank Zito is truly the stuff of nightmares. The entire story is told from Zito’s perspective, which lends a dark introspection to Maniac and dares you to sympathize with this monster. The cinematography is far more refined than one would expect from an exploitation film, and even the grisly horror effects are beautifully executed -- a credit to the master of practical horror, Tom Savini. Lustig’s all-consuming love for horror shines through the grime and allows Maniac to stand out among its contemporaries.
Here, again, Lustig takes what should be painfully standard exploitation fare and hones it into something remarkable. This time it’s a revenge film about a blue-collar factory worker whose wife and son are attacked by a gangster. When that gangster manages to cheat the system and get released, the grieving father turns to his coworkers -- who moonlight as, what else, vigilantes -- for help. Once again, the performances and the photography really elevate the material. Your heart goes out to Robert Forster as he exhausts every legal recourse at his disposal and ends up having to venture into a bloodstained moral gray area to find justice. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is superb as the toughest member of this self-appointed law enforcement squad, and the fact that they ride around in a big black van gives the movie a sadistic A-Team vibe.
Maniac Cop (1988)
Of the three films covered here, Maniac Cop is by far the most absurd. It’s about an NYPD super cop who gets too close to uncovering political corruption and is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While in prison, he is murdered by the criminals he helped put there. But he returns from the grave to get his vengeance on the police force, politicians and anyone found guilty…of being in his way. Maniac Cop is 50 lbs of fun in a 20 lb bag. It’s one of the only times a slasher film and an action film find glorious communion in a single movie as the film features just as much amazing stunt work as it does brutal slayings. Maniac Cop is also a who’s who of cult icons: Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins, Robert Z’Dar, Richard Roundtree and William Smith. I dare you not to enjoy it.
William Lustig has proven himself a hero to movie geeks not only as a director but also as a distributor. His company, Blue Underground, has released stunning transfers of some of the greatest cult and horror films of all time. Sergio Corbucci’s off-the-wall Western, Django, Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, and Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage are just a few of the films given a pristine high-def treatment by Blue Underground -- in addition to Lustig’s own Maniac and Vigilante. Later this year, the company will also give us Blu-rays of Fulci’s Zombie and House by the Cemetery. Like most of us, Lustig is a movie geek, one who not only made movies especially for us but also founded an entire distribution company because he got so tired of spending too much to import Japanese Laserdiscs that he opted to license the films himself. My hat’s off to you, sir.