Think of the high pitched screech of metal across metal, the low guttural growl of a wild animal or the rapid plucking of violin strings again and again to illicit a sense of tension. Undoubtedly, one of the most important elements of any horror film is sound: both in music score and in effects.
Still, visceral imagery and the underlying text that a film is based upon can have an enormous affect on the mindset of a viewer.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, at the origin of the art form we call film, the black and white L’Inferno, released in 1911, silent and arresting, tested the relevance of this treatise. The result was an overwhelmingly popular and horrifying experience for all of those that viewed the film then, as well as those that view it today.
Based on Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, L’Inferno, directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe De Liguoro took over three years to make with a cast and crew of over one hundred and fifty people. Running at approximately seventy minutes in length, it was the first full-length Italian feature film ever made and an international success due chiefly to the source material which everyone, in every country, was familiar with.
Still, the special effects were the main draw with L’Inferno, showcasing something that theatregoers had never seen before: their imaginations become real in monsters, demons, woeful souls, headless sinners, fire and brimstone, and, of course, evil incarnate in the appearance of the Devil.
L’Inferno is at its weakest when depicting animals dressed up as monstrous beasts, and the use of the camera is from one perspective only in each scene: straight ahead and never moving. Still, film itself was new. Here were artists learning about the medium for the first time. The sets themselves, even in black and white, are something to behold. As if taken from a big-budget stage play, the various levels of hell (as well as the backstory settings of some of the damned characters) are all in full, malicious, grandeur. There are steaming rivers here and rocky gorges full of soot, caverns and precipitous ledges that give rise to a palpable sense of fear and dread. There is a sense of dryness and desolation and agony to hell, to be sure.
Flitting from scene to scene and canto to canto with a dream-like quality, the visual imagery owes much to the 18th century French artist, Gustave Dore, whose prints and engraving depicting The Divine Comedy were used as a graphic base for the film’s narrative by the three directors. Some of the imagery also harkens the Spanish painter Goya, specifically in one of the final, pivotal scenes wherein Dante encounters the Devil devouring man, a direct homage to the painting of Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823), a gruesome and horrific image on both canvas and celluloid.
As mentioned previously, L’Inferno was an international success, raking in more than $2 million in box office receipts in the United States alone. Today, the film still stands as both a historic treasure of where the medium originated, as well as a sort of art-house cinematic production of a famous and worthy piece of human poetry. A DVD of the restored production even includes a score by Tangerine Dream.
Still, the original silent version is something special. It proves that in-motion imagery, by itself, can evoke the most disturbing and distressing sense of horror, deep within our own consciousness. Whether you know the source material or not, there is terror to be had here.
L’Inferno is perfect film viewing for a quiet but unsettling gray October day.