If you’ve read my previous piece on Dario Argento’s 1977 occult horror Suspiria, then you’ll know that I rate it as the most perfect horror ever made. Inferno was Argento’s follow up, and I guess you can call it a sequel because it’s set in the same cinematic universe as before. And yet no characters from it (apart from one tiny cameo) make a reappearance, although one of the actresses – Alida Valli – does re-appear in a different role. The thing is, Suspiria could have remained a closed movie – yes, it featured plenty of allusions to a wider world where the prospect of sequels could happen, but it didn’t leave you wanting more. It was and is an utterly satisfying cinematic experience.
Inferno takes Suspiria and builds a bigger mythology around it, introducing the concept of the Three Mothers; three witches devoted to evil, suffering, etc, and who each reside in their own house of monstrousness. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Helena Markos, the Black Queen of the Tanzakadamie in Suspiria, was the Mother of Sighs, aka Mater Suspiriorum, the oldest and wisest of the three, who by now has already been dispatched. This leaves the Mother of Tears, who will get her own movie much further down the line in the rubbish film of the same name, and The Mother of Darkness/ Mater Tenebrarum, who is the focus of Inferno, and who resides in New York.
Unfortunately, compared to the success of Suspiria – both critically and commercially – Inferno floundered. However, like all of Argento’s films from his classic 1975-1987 period, it has garnered a substantial cult reputation, and there are even some horror critics who rate it a notch above Suspiria. Undoubtedly, it showcases the director at his wildest, throwing all kinds of logic, structure and normality to the wind. It has a truly insane, unpredictable charm that genre fans will get a kick out of, despite, or maybe because of its apparent problems. Of all of Argento’s classic-era films, those all-too familiar accusations of zero plot and incoherence are arguably best levelled towards this one. I never thought Suspiria was incoherent myself, but I must admit that Inferno often resembles a stream-of-consciousness that can be as thrilling as it is infuriating. Unlike its predecessor, which delved deeper and deeper into its catacombs of terror with such delectable and crowd-pleasing precision that it managed to cross over into near-mainstream acceptance, Inferno regularly jolts you out of its occasionally hypnotic pull with a random subplot or a tendency towards silliness. People have berated scenes in Suspiria like the bat sequence (which I love), but that’s nothing compared to the cat-attack in this film. To put it mildly, cats are not the most disciplined of actors, and they’re not going to pounce under anyone’s orders, not even Dario Fuckin’ Argento, so what we get is a set-piece involving felines being somewhat inelegantly thrown into shot onto poor Daria Nicolodi, possibly by the crazy cat lady from Zombie Simpsons, and it’s more amusing than funny.
Stuff like this added up to an ever-so-slightly disappointing experience for me upon first viewing – Inferno seemed all over the place, too silly. Yet there were many – dozens at least – examples of stunning little moments, bravura set-pieces, insane music and gorgeous visuals that made me realise I should give it more time. No, it didn’t quite satisfy me first time round but that only made me hungry to watch it again, to try and make sense of it all. I wanted to love it more. And indeed, I soon loved it for what it was, not for what it wasn’t. Inferno is illogical if you try and treat it as a regular horror film – unlike Suspiria it is far too choppy and odd to have caught on with the mainstream viewer, but for those who are willing to be taken for an idiosyncratic ride, it delivers many, many twisted pleasures. This is the kind of film cult cinema is made of – it follows its own rules, is totally individual and yet thanks to Suspiria‘s success, has had a delightfully large chunk of money thrown at it. I mean, it looks amazing. Let’s be honest, story and dialogue are not Argento’s strong suits, and the bigger budget he had to work with, the more he was able to go full throttle with his visions and as such compensate for his failings in other areas. Low-budget Argento movies as a result are usually pretty scrappy, cheap affairs – Inferno isn’t one of those movies. In fact, when you see the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare that some prints of the film begin with, you’re almost fooled into thinking that this might be a mainstream film. Yeah, right. Okay, the film feels more contemporary and tied to the real world than Suspiria, where the shut-in atmosphere was very oppressive, and granted, the film is set in New York, and that might suggest a more Hollywood influence, but it’s a Big Apple viewed through the Italian horror/Argento lens. Central Park has never looked less like Central Park than it does here.
The plot, on the surface at least, is very simple. Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle – yes, that really is her surname!) has been reading up on The Three Mothers and it turns out that the apartment block she lives in is the dwelling place of the Mother of Darkness. She writes to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) about the weirdness of her surroundings, but gets murdered before he turns up. Mark takes over detective duties but only finds out what we all knew from the start – this house is FUCKED and the Mother of Darkness is not a very nice person. It all ends with…. an INFERNO.
In addition, we get side-characters like Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who unwittingly gets dragged into this whole conspiracy when Mark leaves the letter Rose sent him behind without reading it. She reads it, does a little detective work of her own and gets murdered, along with a sleazy but ultimately good guy (Gabriele Lavia – Carlo from Deep Red!) who ‘has nothing to for the next few hours’ and decides to keep Sara company right up to and including both of their deaths. There’s also Kazanian, the crotchety old antique seller who really, really hates cats and who knows a little about what’s going on, but not enough to help him make it to the end credits. There’s a countess who knows too much – she doesn’t last long. Other residents in the building seem to be in on the Three Mothers game to varying degrees of importance. None of them make it either. I think the only characters who do survive are Mark, but even he seems oblivious as to how he’s managed to do so, and the mysterious Third Mother, who has an unforgettable brief appearance in a lecture theatre, along with her astonishing cat. She will re-emerge decades later in Mother of Tears, albeit played by a different actress. The actress playing her in this film – Ania Pieroni – would star in Argento’s next film Tenebrae, but as payback for her having survived Inferno, her character’s the first one to be murdered.
The first half or so of Inferno is unrelentingly fantastic. Fuck three-act structure, it’s just non-stop weird momentum all the way. Not quite as unforgettably intense as the opening of Suspiria, admittedly, but a magnificent, immediately hypnotic experience nonetheless. Unlike the sparse, direct information directed to us by the narrator in Suspiria, here we get an onslaught of mythology derived from The Three Mothers, a tome written by an architect named Varelli who built the dwelling places where the eponymous witches settled. It’s best not to try and take it all in – to be fair, the narration is even drowned out at one point by the music score, so it’s pointless trying to keep up. There’s some stuff about hidden keys, one of which is in a cellar, and another, somewhat cryptically, can be found ‘under the soles of your shoes’. Our main character, Rose Elliott is reading The Three Mothers, and appears to be residing in the New York house of the Mother of Darkness, which, unlike the dance academy of Suspiria, is an apartment block. Rose visits Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) to try and get a grasp on the weirdness between the pages and her surroundings too (it literally smells funny round these parts). She checks out the cellar (there may be a key down there…) – and, you know, what the hell, she only goes inside, where there’s a leak in the pipes that leads to a shallow-looking puddle that’s not shallow at all – in fact, it’s a hole that leads into a sunken ballroom!
This is bizarre Argento logic at its best – this is like a dream set to celluloid, and just like a dream, inexplicable behaviour ensues. That’s right, Rose accidentally drops her brooch into the ballroom and decides to swim underwater to retrieve it! What follows is pretty much what you’d expect to happen in a film like this. From there on we’re rolling, and Argento doesn’t let up – the next scene introduces Mark and Sara at music theory class, and Mark seems to be the only one who can see the Mother of Tears staring directly at him, mouthing incomprehensible whispers, and petting her super-fluffy cat. No one else seems to notice, not even when the windows burst open and gales of wind come through. He’s so freaked out by this he doesn’t even read the letter Rose sent him, and just as we were getting used to Rose being out of the narrative, Mark takes a walk too and we’re left with Sara. This kind of perspective jumping might rub some viewers up the wrong way, but for a good chunk of this film, it works. Now, the music in this film has been impressive, yet almost restrained given who the composer is. Until now.
Yep, fair play to Argento for trying new things – the formidable Goblin were jettisoned here in favour of Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer – his approach is even more prog-influenced than this predecessors. After all, he was one of the major players of the genre at the time, and he doesn’t hold back in his ornate, wildly over-the-top approach. Sometimes chilling, sometimes beautiful, often extravagant, Emerson gives Inferno a feel all of its own. His tendency (as was ELP’s) to update classical pieces to modern-day instrumentation is in full flow here, as evidenced by his (some would say garish) update of Verdi’s Nabucco during Sara’s taxi ride sequence. When I first heard this music, I almost choked – it is so, so, so silly. And yet it’s kinda brilliant! Absolutely, utterly mad. The eagle-eyed will notice that Sara’s cab driver is the same bloke who drove Suzy to the Tanzakademie in Suspiria – a brilliant touch. Who’d have thought a cabbie’s route would encompass continents? More crazy logic ensues as Sara arrives at the library to find The Three Mothers. She asks the librarian where she might find a copy – turns out there’s one right behind her! Now this is the sort of shortcut storytelling that might piss off a fair few viewers. To be honest, I found it quite funny. She attempts to steal the book (very naughty) but winds up getting lost, finding herself in some odd subterranean kitchen. The chef seems quite happy to point her in the right direction, but then he realises she’s got The Three Mothers in her possession, and ends up trying to kill her over it. Sara relinquishes the book, but she’s already doomed. Talk about entrapment. I mean, why make the book loanable if you’re only going to kill anyone who tries to borrow it? Trust me, I work in a library. This stuff is important.
Sara goes back to her apartment block but doesn’t want to be alone, so sleazy Carlo is more than happy to keep her company. Carlo is a sports journalist and given that he has no artistic bones in his body (he believes only in what he can see….and what he can touch) and doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, he’s just got to die. Saying that, almost everybody dies in this film, regardless of their outlook. Sara tries to steer things towards the highbrow by putting on that same Verdi piece we heard earlier (‘you probably recognise this’, she says – I bet dollars to donuts he bloody well hasn’t), but when she tries to ring Mark to tell him about the letter, the electricity in the room starts to go off and on, making the music stop abruptly before restarting. This is great, this bit – instead of a quiet-quiet-LOUD shock we get a loud-loud-QUIET scare, and it’s very effective. There’s also a bit in this sequence that really stands out – we cut to a pair of gloved hands creating a daisy chain of cut-out figures, proceeding to decapitate them with scissors. It recalls the extreme close-ups of the gloved hand playing with their mementos in Deep Red. Then we cut to a woman being hanged. Who is this woman? It is never explained. It throws you out of the narrative with immediate effect, and it’s quite unnerving. It’s proof of Argento’s willingness to experiment – there is nothing like this moment in Suspiria, nothing that knocks you sideways in this manner. Now some may say this is a good thing or a bad thing – for all of Suspiria‘s otherworldliness, its approach is nevertheless streamlined and consistent, whereas Inferno disrupts its own spell with a new spell, and the effect may intrigue as much as it may annoy.
Back to the film though, and Carlo tries check the fuse box but Sara next sees him with a knife through his neck – we get some grisly close ups as he slobbers gore over her during his death throes. Sara’s the next to go – ouch. Mark shows up with no idea as to what’s happening, and the telephone line’s glitchy when he tries to call Rose, so he’s still none the wiser. We stay with Rose, who has proved to be too inquisitive for her own good. She ends up dead in a terrifically creepy scene where she hopelessly wanders the building. The lighting in this scene is amazing. Like Suspiria, Inferno has a rich, intense colour scheme – the first great example of this is in the opening scene where the camera moves away from Rose writing her letter to Mark and focuses on an illustration of her apartment block. The music builds up and we cut to the building itself from the outside, the lower section bathed in lovely pink lighting.
The lighting goes into overdrive for Rose’s final scene, which ends with a horrible shock as a pair of wizened hands seize her head and place it under a broken window, which is used as a guillotine that doesn’t quite get the job done – the first attempt to kill her has the window stopping just before it hits her neck, and the decisive strike doesn’t even give her the easy option of a swift decapitation, with the killer letting the window settle halfway through her throat, her fingers still moving. We never see her get decapitated, if indeed she does, and while the gore hound in me might have wanted more, I’m actually pleased Argento fades out the scene when he does. Decapitations can be unforgettably scary in some horror films (The Omen‘s ‘pane of glass’ scene remains the final word on the matter), but sometimes it looks goofy. In the third A Nightmare on Elm Street film, the character of Taryn (the former junkie turned bad ass dream warrior) was originally meant to have been injected with so much drugs that her head exploded, but the effects never really worked out so they ended the scene early. I’m quite glad about this, because the scene in the final cut is really, genuinely disturbing. In both this and Inferno, both scenes are incomplete enough for us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, and they’re all the better for it.
Up until now, Inferno has been relentlessly brilliant, a bit silly, and lots of fun. There’s still an hour to go though, and all of a sudden I’m thinking about David Lynch’s Lost Highway, another film where the first third and a bit is unimaginably brilliant, director on top form, etc. and the rest of it is scattershot and not quite so focused. New characters are introduced – the fey countess (Daria Nicolodi, back in front of the camera after missing out on Suspiria, which she co-wrote) is one of the better ones, yet she’s dispatched post-haste. We see more of Kazanian, and then there’s the building’s concierge (Alida Valli, who thanks to dubbing, sounds very different from Miss Tanner) and the countess’ servant, neither of whom are interesting, except when they get killed, especially the latter – bleurgh!!! Then there’s also a mute old man (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr) and his nurse (Veronica Lazar), who appear to be strictly comic relief….or are they……? Mark wanders in and out of their schemings and shenanigans, is sometimes ejected from the narrative altogether and ultimately solves almost nothing in the process. There’s a telling bit when one character says ‘I suppose you know who I am?’ to Mark and the latter admits he has no idea! The character of Mark has been slated being inactive and clueless, but I think it’s all part of the joke.
One big problem I have is that the two best characters are killed too soon. Rose and Sara exude curiosity, vulnerability and their deaths are the film’s most effective dramatic moments. However, this is where Argento’s love for narrative mischief works against him, as he kills both of these characters way too early! You know how Argento used to get called the Italian Hitchcock early in his career, but then that cute title got rebutted by critics and even the man himself? Well, it’s not entirely unwarranted. After all, he can’t resist the rug-pull shock of killing off his main character halfway through, although to be fair he seemed to have lost interest in Rose for a brief while a third of the way into the plot anyway. However, while the shock of killing of Marion Crane was a bold move in Psycho, it was compensated by focusing on the fascinating character of Norman Bates. In Inferno all we’re left with are a bunch of randomly assigned nobodies, the most intriguing of which is an old bastard who likes to drown cats.
Censorship in the UK has been a history of ups and downs right from when it began, and the 1980’s were one of the most turbulent periods. This was the era of the video nasties, and James Ferman with his edit-happy tendencies. Seriously, I’m surprised he wasn’t nicknamed James Scissorhands. Maybe he was. I should check. Many of Argento’s films suffered from BBFC-enforced snips, and most of them were for the intensity and longevity of his murder scenes. However, there was also the instances of animal cruelty. Now while the BBFC has become far more lenient towards sex and violence in its guidelines, its stance on animal cruelty is still pretty immovable, and I’m fine with that. If you’re killing an animal in the name of entertainment, then fuck you. As I’ve already said in my review of Wake in Fright, I’m a hypocrite because I’m not a vegetarian, but there you go. Argento’s always had a predilection for animal cruelty, but in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it was all cool because all that stuff about eating cats wasn’t real (it wasn’t even seen on-screen), but by the time we got to Deep Red he was actually sticking pins through lizards and filming dog fights and it all started to get a bit ugly. Luckily, only a fake bat got done over in Suspiria, but with Inferno Argento’s mean streak had returned.
Please understand that I’m not against simply depicting animal cruelty on screen – hey, if it’s all fake, and no one got hurt, then it’s okay. I suppose. But I don’t think some of this was faked. The bit when Kazanian takes a bag full of cats and drowns them in Central Park isn’t a problem because it’s not real, but the scene just before where actor Sacha Pitoeff grabs a feline and carries it over to the other side of a room is a hell of a lot more problematic. At first it doesn’t seem so bad because holding cats by the scruff of their neck shouldn’t actually hurt them (indeed, that’s how mother cats hold their kittens) but after a while it’s obvious the cat’s clearly in distress (see above), and it’s not like we’re talking about the cat pretending to be in distress. It’s not an actor. Cats can’t act. That poor animal is clearly not having a good time. Bizarrely, the BBFC left this bit in the UK print, whereas the shot of it’s head being knocked on the side of the chair to render it unconscious was removed. I mean, of course if that bit really happened then fucking hell, Argento needs to be cat-scratched more than a few hundred times for that one, but that may be a fake cat we’re looking at. I can’t tell. Still, it looked real enough, so out it went. I don’t know why the blatant animal cruelty of the previous shots were allowed to stay in though. There’s also a later scene with Mark is close to discovering the answer to the mystery when we get a few cutaways to a cat eating a mouse. It’s fucking gross, but, I hear you say – cats eat mice, so what’s the big deal about showing nature at its nastiest? Well, I suppose the issue was that the mouse was deliberately served up as dinner for the sake of art, and cats usually eat mice for the sheer fuck out of it, not for survival reasons, so out it went.
Elsewhere, there are loose ends, stray plot threads, bizarre cutaways, strange motifs (water = bad omen/just cut yourself on something? Uh-oh/ seen a cat? = you’re fucked) and some of it does kind of make sense the more you watch it, and some of it doesn’t. Maybe it all makes complete sense to Argento or maybe he’s just working on instinct and having fun? People end up getting murdered and I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure who did the dirty deed at any given time- the killer with the freaky hands is never identified, and unlike Suspiria there aren’t any plausible suspects! Later on, it looks as though the concierge and the butler appear to be in on the whole scheme, but the latter is murdered for no real reason – maybe the death of the Countess (for which I think the concierge was responsible) angered Mater Tenebrarum? But why would she be angry? I guess I shouldn’t be thinking too much about this – after all, this is a film where a bloke screams for help whilst being devoured by rats and the nearby hot dog vendor who comes to ‘assist’ hacks the back of his neck! For no reason! I mean, where the fuck did THAT come from? It’s a bit like the dog turning on Daniel in Suspiria, but even more insane. You may be stunned beyond belief or crack up at the sheer madness of it all.
To be honest, I’d have forgiven the second half its eccentricities more if the ending had made it all worth it, but it is anti-climactic. You know that tagline for Suspiria that went something like ‘the only thing more scary than the last twelve minutes of this film are the first ninety?’ – despite that tagline being utterly inappropriate (it makes it sound like the ending’s a disappointment!), it actually would have been far more appropriate for Inferno. While Mark’s descent into the hidden chapters of the apartment block is pretty fun, and a bit like Being John Malkovich‘s secret floor, overall it’s not just very frightening, no matter how hard poor McCloskey tries to look terrified during the final confrontation, which is a let down to say the least. Whereas Suspiria‘s conclusion was an astonishing culmination of dread and horror, Inferno‘s is rather silly. This isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s just…. okay, let’s take the music: this is where we first hear Emerson’s thunderous ‘Mater Tenebrarum’ piece, which on many levels is absolutely terrific – think a funk version of ‘Ave Satani’ from The Omen. Now that obviously sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? And it is! It’s so, so, so overblown, a great example of Emerson at his maddest. The problem is that it’s just not scary. Maybe being scary wasn’t the point? Maybe I shouldn’t be comparing this film to Suspiria all of the time? I can’t help it, sorry. Well, either on its own terms or any others, the final stretch of Inferno remains enjoyable without really being suspenseful. The first of the two final confrontations is pretty good actually: the mysterious Varelli turns out to be the bloke in the wheelchair that Mark encountered in a lift earlier on, and there’s some good dialogue where he compares the structure of the building to a human body. However, after that we get the limp showdown with Mater Tenebrarum (Varelli’s nurse), which also ties in with another of my issues with Inferno.
Or is it the directing, or maybe the dubbing?
Either way, something’s a little off. Okay, Suspiria‘s performances weren’t quite award-worthy, but they were great for what they were. Inferno‘s turns don’t work quite so well. They snap you out of the spell of the film all too often – here are some lines that, taken out of context, won’t mean much, but every time I watch the film they make me laugh:
‘Tell me who you are!’
‘I’m coming to get you!’
‘They’re eating me alive!”
Mater Tenebrarum’s big speech at the end doesn’t have much punch – some of it is to do with the strange, almost distant delivery, but it’s more to do with how on repeat viewings you can’t ignore what’s about to happen on screen. That’s right, I’m talking about the true face of death, also known as the tall person in the skeleton costume. It looks a little like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the 1970 musical version of A Christmas Carol, the one with Albert Finney. It’s not too bad looking, but it’s just a bit too obviously artificial. In fact, it’s so underwhelming that it negates the rather clever trick shot leading up to it, where we discover that the approaching Mater Tenebrarum is actually a reflection, culminating in her smashing through the glass. In true Mark fashion, he doesn’t even deliver the killer move that ignites the inferno that destroys Mater Tenebrarum. The fire just kinda starts. He makes a run for it through the building that’s falling apart (very reminiscent of Suspiria) and Tenebrarum just stands there and screams with her arms up in the air as she perishes in the fire. Meh. I was bemused, a little amused, but not frightened. Pity. Cue Emerson’s theme. Roll credits.
To be fair, there’s also some humour in Inferno, and by that I mean intentional. Argento dabbled in humour in his Animal Trilogy – remember that absolutely mad bit where ‘Hallelujah’ comes in out of nowhere on the soundtrack to Four Flies on Grey Velvet? Or the bloke who ate cats in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? He also once made a comedy of sorts – The Five Days of Milan – and no one apart from anyone writing dissertations on the man has watched it. There was some comedy in Deep Red, most of which was rather cruelly edited out of the international version, but I thought was rather splendid. Then there was that scene involving ‘people whose names start with ‘s’ are the names of snakes!’ bit in Suspiria. Here we get a scene where a seemingly innocuous nurse (she’s actually a MOTHER) confuses musicology with toxicology, possibly in purpose. I mean, it’s not actually funny but you can tell it’s trying to be. Then we get Carlo, the guy who lives in the same block as Sara. The joke about him assuming The Three Mothers are ‘those black singers’ made me laugh enough at the time to have not realised that Sara actually incorrectly refers to them a moment earlier as ‘The Three Sisters’, which does sound more like the name of a girl group I suppose, but would she really have made that error after only almost having died over a copy of the book? Why am I questioning logic in a film like this?
Inferno is a progression from Suspiria in some respects – there’s more experimentation in technique and narrative, but this ambition can serve to detract from the atmosphere. Whereas the former enshrouds you in its cloak of atmosphere, I spend a lot of Inferno distanced from it, admiring it for its spectacle and neat cutaways and cool tricks. It makes for a consistently dazzling viewing experience, but not one likely to cut into my core being and scare me senseless. Still, it’s not fair for me to berate the film for what it’s not. What it is still a remarkably inventive film, always entertaining, and an essential watch: my advice is to see Inferno on the biggest screen possible – there its flaws will be as close to obliterated as possible.
PS: It has been brought to my attention that the woman in the lecture theatre with the cat isn’t actually referred to as the Third Mother. This is absolutely true, and to be honest, I didn’t identify her as such when I first watched it, but it seems like everyone agrees that it is her, even if we’re all just guessing!