LIST CANDIDATE: INFERNO (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Alida Valli, Daria Nicolodi

PLOT:  The second in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, Inferno follows his masterpiece Suspiria. The earlier film is not referred to explicitly, and it’s not necessary to have seen Suspiria to enjoy Inferno—though it might get you in the mood.

Still from Inferno (1980)

Rose, a poet living in New York, buys an old book about the Three Mothers from a neighboring antiques dealer and after reading it begins to suspect that the basement in her apartment block is home to Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, one of a trio of sisters who are the age old matrons of witchcraft.

After investigating a strange, flooded ballroom below the building, Rose and a neighbor are murdered by an anonymous, black gloved killer.

Rose’s brother Mark is a music student in Rome.  He receives a letter from his sister mentioning the Mothers and flies to New York to investigate.  The apartments she lives in are home to a small group of strange people, given to uttering premier league non-sequiturs, asking weird questions, and performing bizarre actions.

Mark explores the building, discovering the weird architectural features designed by the Mothers’ architect, Varelli, the one whose book kick-started the whole affair.  After a long ramble through tortuous crawlspace, Mark uncovers the lair of Mater Tenebrarum.  She reveals herself to be Death; the building burns to the ground; a dazed looking Mark wanders out unscathed; the end credits roll; you wonder what you’ve just witnessed.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Its dream logic story line and stylized cinematography mark it out as weird, but Inferno really pales next to Suspiria. It features some wonderful scenes and startling images, but they’re too widely spaced out, and the film is marred by some wooden acting and inadvertently hilarious dialogue.

COMMENTS:   Inferno is a very enjoyable film, not always for the intended reasons.  The dialogue is so disjointed and at times downright bizarre as to be chucklesome. It also features the inconsistent acting and wooden delivery common to any number of giallos (understandable given the speed of some productions and the vagaries of international dubbing); after watching a number of giallos, you may come to view them as a feature rather than a flaw.

Inferno features a number of Argento trademarks: an oneiric story flow, driving soundtrack (this time by Keith Emerson), unexplained plot lines, and theatrical death scenes.  Sometimes these elements are knit together more smoothly than others, and Inferno shows the joins a little too much to be a classic. Like a curate’s egg, though, Inferno is very good in parts.

The movie’s outstanding scene is when Rose makes the rash decision to explore the basement of her building and discovers a small hole in the floor which opens onto a flooded ballroom.  Here the previously constant music stops, and we follow her bold underwater exploration to a background of gurgling bubbles and gentle lapping of water.  The lighting is dim and algae green, silt floats about from Rose’s slightest movement, and she seems weightless as she drifts around examining the furniture and décor, including a portrait of Mater Tenebrarum.  The tension builds gradually and steadily the longer she is underwater.  The space seems paradoxically huge and claustrophobic.  Behind Rose a door swings open very slowly, perhaps moved by the water current she’s creating.  Suddenly there’s a jarring chord and a moldering corpse floats into view, flashing a crumbling grin towards the camera as it bumps against Rose.  Understandably she bolts, swimming fast for the surface, missing the hole, flailing about, dragging the body behind her, kicking out at it in a convincing moment of panic and disgust.

The dictionary defines horror as “painful or intense fear, dread or dismay; something repulsive.”  The underwater ballroom scene is a bravura example of horror.  There is wonder at the unexpected discovery and tension as Rose explores, spending too long swimming about; the viewer urges her to surface.  Argento is like a master musician here, mixing the instruments and controlling the timing and rhythm of the piece to evoke the maximum emotion in his audience.  He takes his time, builds the tension to breaking point, and then just at the right moment bursts forth with the horror of the corpse.  There’s a logical explanation for the body “following” Rose: she’s stirring up the water, creating currents; the corpse is decomposing but has bloated flesh still attached and possibly retains some buoyancy.  That’s analysis for later though; it’s not what the viewer feels as the scene plays out.  Irene Miracle is so good at this point that I find myself wondering if she did get caught up in the moment, underwater, with this ugly thing bobbing around her, trapped against the ceiling, searching for the escape route.  When she kicks out at the corpse, her face squirms with repugnance.  Any arachnophobe who has struggled to shake an unexpected spider from a sleeve will recognize the look of panicky disgust.

Argento pulls another winning trick from his bag later.  Rose returns, wet and scared to her apartment, bringing with her a neighbor to keep her company.  Verdi’s “Va’ pensiero” features throughout the film, and it is used to great effect in this scene.  Rose puts on the music and she and Carlos are about to relax when the power starts to cut in and out.  The lights flicker off and on; the magnificent music blasts and is silent, over and over.  Carlos goes to investigate, only to fall prey to the mysterious black gloved killer.  It’s another disorienting scene: Rose’s room is plunged into darkness and silence, then the music blares and the light bursts out, over and over and over, until the viewer is as tense and shaken as Rose.  It’s almost a mercy when Carlos eventually staggers out with a knife in his throat.  In an echo of the persistent corpse he collapses on Rose, clawing at her for help as she tries to retreat, pushing him away with exclamations of disgust.

Argento clearly understands horror, but his work is inconsistent; not just from film to film, but from scene to scene.  The death of the antiques dealer, attacked by rats whilst drowning a sack of cats, before being finished off by a possessed hot dog vendor is as unintentionally amusing as the previous examples are horrifying.  The whole of Inferno is a downward journey in terms of quality, leading to an anti climactic ending which is a genuine shame compared to the strong beginning.

Is Inferno worth your time? Absolutely! Any lover of weird cinema or stylish horror owes it to themselves to see the glorious flooded ballroom and the inventive apartment murder; they almost earn the film a place on the List on their strength alone.  The rest of the film, though, is just too patchy to make Inferno a winner.

Remember, if you move to somewhere new and the area has an overpowering, bittersweet stench of evil, that’ll be the cake factory.

The release used to compose this review was the Region 0 Blue Underground DVD.  Upscaled on my PS3 it looked very good; the picture was sharp and clear and the blacks were handled well.  An internet search suggest that the Blue Underground Blu-ray release is a crisp transfer, though problems with sound seem to have persisted.  The soundtrack is a bit of a stumbling block anyway, occasionally detracting from the mood rather than enhancing it, and it is sometimes so far up in the mix that it obliterates the dialogue.  This is an irritation, as there is no subtitled version.

The Blu-ray (buy) extras include additional interviews with cast members, in addition to interviews with Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava that are also featured on the DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…borders on the surreal in its approach… The combination of the beautiful and the bizarre is hypnotically entertaining, but imagery does not resonate quite deeply enough to compensate for the lack of conventional virtue.”–Steve Biodrowski, Cinefantastique (DVD)

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