Inferno is a 1980 Italian supernatural horror film written and directed by Dario Argento. The movie stars Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Sacha Pitoeff, Daria Nicolodi, Alida Valli and Veronica Lazar.
A thematic sequel to Suspiria (1977), the film is the second part of Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. The concluding entry, The Mother of Tears, was released in 2007. All three films are partially derived from the concept of “Our Ladies of Sorrow” (Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum) originally devised by Thomas de Quincey in his book Suspiria de Profundis (1845).
The film’s cinematography was by Romano Albani and Keith Emerson composed the film’s thunderous musical score.
Argento invited his mentor, filmmaker Mario Bava, to provide some of the optical effects, matte paintings and trick shots for the film. Some of the cityscapes seen in Inferno were actually tabletop skyscrapers built by Bava out of milk cartons covered with photographs. The apartment building that Rose lived in was in fact only a partial set built in the studio—it was a few floors high and had to be visually augmented with a small sculpture constructed by Bava. This sculpture was set aflame toward the end of production and served as the burning building seen in the climax.
Bava also provided some second unit work for the production. Film critic Maitland McDonagh has suggested that Bava had his hand in the beautifully lit and celebrated watery ballroom scene, however, the sequence was shot in a water tank by Gianlorenzo Battaglia, without any optical effects work at all. Bava’s son, Lamberto, was the film’s assistant director.
Unlike Suspiria, Inferno received a very limited theatrical release and the film was unable to match the box office success of its predecessor. While the initial critical response to the film was mostly negative, its reputation has improved considerably over the years. Film critic Kim Newman has called it “perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980s.”
A young woman called Rose (Irene Miracle) becomes curious about her gloomy apartment block having found a reference to it in an old book about alchemy called “The Three Mothers”. Increasingly spooked by her strange discoveries, she writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), an American music student living in Rome. Mark’s girlfriend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) sees the letter first and, intrigued, heads for Rome’s central library to look for the book Rose mentioned.
Supernatural forces menace Sara in the bowels of the building, and on her return home, she and a neighbour (Gabriele Lavia) are murdered. Traumatised by Sara’s death, and worried for his sister’s safety, Mark travels to New York, however, he finds that Rose has gone missing.
In the course of his investigations, he meets Rose’s friend Countess Elise (Daria Nicolodi), a rich neurotic who lives in the same block, and a neighbouring antique dealer, the bad-tempered Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), from whom Rose bought the book. Neither is much help and soon Mark too is beset by occult forces. To survive he must attempt to decode a riddle pointing to an ancient evil hidden somewhere close by…
If Dario Argento’s Suspiria had some critics backing off with their hands over their ears, its 1980 follow-up Inferno bamboozled them altogether. Taking the daring colour extravagance and shrieking rock music of Suspiria down just a few notches, and selecting a cast from areas as diverse as TV soap opera Dallas (Leigh McCloskey) and art-house classic Last Year in Marienbad (Sacha Pitoeff), Argento plunged deep into his most avant-garde cinematic labyrinth.
Inferno blends Gothic mystery and modernist abstraction into something utterly unique. The story, though watchable separately to Suspiria, is linked to its sister film by references to the opium-derived writings of 19th Century decadent author Thomas De Quincey. One piece in particular, from the collection of essays “Suspiria de Profundis”, provided Argento with a few tantalizing fragments on which to base his occult mysteries. “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” told of the dominion of three female spirits, Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum. Argento eagerly adopted these manifestations and begins Inferno with a voice-over that relishes their names as a litany of evil.
On first viewing, Inferno is complicated to the point of incomprehensibility. The storyline is gossamer-thin yet tangled, dissolving away as one tries to put a finger on its labyrinth of mysteries. The process of searching for clues is itself the theme of the film so that the quests conducted by the protagonist and the viewer become enmeshed.
“What’s that, a riddle? I’m not good at riddles,” snaps one of Inferno’s gallery of grotesques, and viewers with a low tolerance for confusion and mystery may feel the same; Inferno communicates vital information with casual misdirection while lingering enigmatically on facets that prove to be little more than weird, picturesque non-sequiturs. It requires our engagement beyond the level of narrative comprehension and teases with the suggestion of codes to be deciphered and connections to be made.
Argento, who suffered heavily with viral hepatitis during the shoot, took his fevered fascination with the occult to greater lengths here than Suspiria. The dominant theme this time is alchemy, not witchcraft, but nevertheless, both films share the mystic’s mistrust of language. (“Wherever we have spoken openly we have actually said nothing. But where we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth,” attests the genuine alchemical grimoire “Rosarium philosophorum”, published in 1550.)
In both Suspiria and Inferno, the protagonists find language inadequate and obstructive, whereas the breakthroughs are invariably conducted in silence. Inferno’s Mark, who is trying to solve the mystery of his sister’s disappearance in a rambling old New York apartment block, discovers little of value by quizzing the other occupants and finds simple verbal exchanges fraught with opaque significance. Sharing a lift with a nurse, he tries to make small-talk about his study of musicology, only to have the chit-chat go askew when she persists in hearing the word as ‘toxicology’. Another inhabitant communicates from room to room by means of a network of air vents permeating the building – her voice, which at first seems to come from nowhere, drifts in and out of audibility as it is wafted by capricious air currents.
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Elsewhere, telephone calls are broken up by static, a mute character struggles to pass on a secret message by scratching with his fingernail, and an attempted seduction is pointillised by a loud classical record switching on and off, fitfully in synch with a flickering power failure. Even the clearly heard lines sound like the efforts of aliens to fake the English language: “He says it’s his heart. We must give him some heart medicine,” announces a gargoyle-faced woman when Mark suffers a mysterious collapse.
Mystics believe that truth can be heard “more freely, distinctly or clearly […] with a silent speech or without speech in the illustrations of the mysteries, both in the riddles presented with figures and in words” (C. Horlacher, “Kern und Stern der vornehmsten Chymisch-Philosophischen Schrifften”, 1707). This is a theme to be found in both Suspiria and Inferno.
During the films’ respective climaxes Suspiria’s heroine Suzy and Inferno’s Mark advance along the route to knowledge in silence (although Suzy has her every move accompanied by a raging score from Goblin and Mark rides pillion with prog-rocker Keith Emerson’s ‘switched-on Verdi’).
Mark in particular, in a film filled with music, makes a key discovery by looking in silence at a drawing of the building where his sister disappeared, and by quietly observing an ant disappearing into a tiny hole between the floorboards of her old room. Meanwhile, on a visual level, Argento fills the screen with images of ravishing beauty. There are rooms and spaces and characters and situations in this film that feel like the syntax of dreams caught on celluloid. Argento may have fallen from grace over recent years, with a string of dubious or dreadful films, but really, who can complain when he gave us something as bold and strange and magical as this?
Inferno sits in the middle of the most intense and inventive period of Argento’s career, and in many ways can be seen as the high watermark of Italian horror. Revelling in the creative freedom afforded by the massive success of Suspiria, Argento was free to explore his vision without restraint: the result is the most daringly avant-garde horror film ever to emerge from his native country.
Stephen Thrower, MOVIES and MANIA
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