Placed between the two greatest Dario Argento releases Tenebrae and Suspiria, this second journey into a supernatural nightmare is never remembered quite as fondly; despite it being a thematic follow up to the latter. But this is strange considering that on the surface much of it is the same. The weird dream like visuals are still here, the shock deaths and surreal set designs are similar, but somehow there's something missing. It's not the music despite Claudio Simonetti and the rest of Goblin being passed over for a different sound from Keith Emerson. And it's not the really plot since a lot of these films are not heavily focused on character depth or super complex storylines. Yet there's something lacking that will need further exploration.
The blend of hazy red and blue lighting, the weird locations and the prog rock music are all present and correct. The score mixes softer piano tunes, intense choir music and keyboard motifs. It's pretty dramatic and the addition of Verdi to the soundtrack adds to some of the most memorable moments, including a hypnotic university scene. The sets are never quite as eye catching as Suspiria but there are still some great choices including a hellish book binding room under a library filled with bubbling glue and fire, and there are some choice black and red designs inside the main apartment building setting. In terms of dressing this is all on course to being another memorable jaunt into a world of witchcraft and killers with scary hands. What is missing?
The weakest link is definitely the focus and structure of the story. Mark, an American music student living in Rome receives a letter from his sister Rose who thinks something odd is going on in the place she lives. She's found an old book that says it's one of the residences of The Three Mothers, a group of witches who have homes in Rome and New York. She seems to be the hero for the lengthy opening, which makes sense. Maybe they'll team up later? But before things settle in it changes pace and focuses on ... Mark's friend Rose who finds the letter before he can read it. Later there are random tangents which include Rose's neighbour Elise (Dario Nicolodi) and then a local bookshop owner and some of the people working and living in the same New York building.
After he arrives from Italy the plot frequently diverts to show what the others are up to, and while at times it seems as though they are in on the sinister events, later they seem strangely oblivious. Eventually after several deaths Mark does get to investigate though it's pure luck that he discovers the standard hidden rooms and isn't killed by the standard black gloved murderer. All the jumping from once place to the next also detracts from the nature of the locations - the effects of feeling trapped in a ghastly building are diminished when it changes between countries and characters so frequently. This isn't to say that the horror set pieces aren't all great, particularly a submerged basement sequence and a chase through a disused service area of the New York building.
I don't think people realistically would live somewhere that has hidden tubes which carry sound, and back doors that lead to dilapidated areas full of abandoned taxidermy. Some parts are far too silly, particularly the two animal attacks that crop up. I get that witches have familiars but the staging and technical elements make these hilarious instead of nail biting. Dialogue is absurd when one character shouts about being eaten alive and later crew hands are visible throwing cats into the frame. In Rome there are also some weird moments; after a classic suspense build up there's a ludicrous murder reveal as the victim falls through a huge canvas sheet that appears from nowhere in their living room.
It's all overblown and a lot of the time style is very much in place of substance as you might have guessed. There are random cuts to things like lizards eating moths and people hanging themselves that are not connected to the story at all. I guess that's why it's strangely watchable but some parts do suffer from a lack of internal logic. The finale is a biggest problem here, where instead of discovering the secrets of the evil Mother of Shadows, Mark is given a bunch of cryptic riddles before escaping just before a fire coincidentally burns the place down. It's not the sort of story that needs heavy handed exposition but something stronger would have been nice. For a bizarre series of horror shocks and suspense vignettes this is fun, but don't expect a true classic by any means.