Today's classic from horror cinema's dawning days is an Italian film from 1911, based on the literary masterpiece The Inferno by Dante Allegheri. If you've taken any literature classes, or just love dark fantasy tales, you probably have at least some knowledge of this segment of long-form poem The Divine Comedy penned by Dante in the early 14th Century, whose narrator is given a guided tour of the nine levels (or circles) of Hell. As a morality tale, or just a straight-up scary story, It's perfect horror movie material; director Giuseppe de Liguoro and his creative partners knew that, and crafted the first feature film adaptation, which went on to shock and horrify audiences around the world.
The film's plot, like the story, is simple: the main character is Dante himself (Salvatore Papa), who is taken on a literal trip through Hell by the poet Virgil (Arturo Pirovano) so that he might find the path to salvation, and he encounters many historical figures, as well as people in his own life, along the way. The visual element is obviously what sells the tale; this is one of the first epic horror-fantasies ever committed to film, and its creators went all-out in their effort to blow audiences' minds. We get an all-nude cast of hundreds (full-frontal in some cases) roasting in mountains of fire, dismembered and disemboweled denizens of the pit, a swirling storm of twisted, agonized sinners, a talking severed head, the flailing limbs of traitors trapped in ice, and many more horrific set-pieces, climaxing with a visit to Lucifer himself. Many the horrific but strangely beautiful images seem like Gothic illustrations come to life; in fact, some scenes are based on engravings done for a popular book edition of The Divine Comedy by artist Gustave Doré. Some of the effects look quaint by modern standards, but in 1911 they had viewers recoiling in terror.
The Inferno is not only significant in the history of horror, but to film in general: it's the first feature to come out of Italy, and the first full-length film (around 70 minutes) to be screened in US theaters. It was a box-office success as well, earning over $2 million in the US, which is pretty damned impressive (this was 100 years ago, after all). Even if you haven't seen the whole thing, you may have seen excerpts of the more epic scenes used in other films depicting the fires of Hell.
The most popular DVD release of The Inferno arrived in 2004; it's a choice find for genre soundtrack fans, thanks to a newly-created score by pioneering electronic artists Tangerine Dream – the composers behind '80s favorites like Near Dark, Legend, Firestarter, The Keep and many more. A later version was released on the film's 100th anniversary, and both are easily obtainable, but the TD version is my favorite. Here's a sample...