This film is a fascinating and frustrating phantasmagoria of the mysterious and the unexplained, a strange journey into realms beyond human understanding, where events happen without rhyme or reason, and little or no explanation is given. Although framed as a conventional horror film (with a protagonists searching for the secret of an evil power lurking in an old building), INFERNO borders on the surreal in its approach. The casual disregard for narrative logic, for the laws of cause and effect, recall Luis Bunuel at his most anarchic; the stylized beauty of the imaginative imagery is reminiscent of Jean Cocteau. However, as an experiment in “Absolute Cinema,” in which form overrules content, INFERNO cannot be reckoned a total success. 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.
At times the storyline feels simply empty rather than esoteric, and one wishes that more effort had been put into making sense of the whole thing. The saving grace is the lingering suspicion that somewhere, tantalizingly out of reach, just beyond the edge of awareness, is an answer to the mystery. Whether or not this is actually true, INFERNO feels like an intriguing enigma, one that holds interest precisely because it withholds any definite resolution.
Writer-director Dario Argento had been plying his trade, making horrific psycho-thrillers (known as giallo in his native Italy) since the early ‘70s, reaching his peak with Deep Red in 1975. Then he took a turn into supernatural horror with Suspiria in 1977 and scored his biggest hit in the United States, where it was released by 20th Century Fox (under a subsidiary label). The financial success prompted this 1980 sequel of sorts, which, unfortunately, failed to equal the financial success of the original. Although the film is much less well-known in the U.S. than its progenitor, it is a worthy follow-up that in some ways exceeds the original, even if it is nowhere near as satisfying on a visceral level.
INFERNO tends to disappoint fans of Suspiria – the Argento film for most North American horror audiences. That effort took the visual extravagance of Deep Red and magnified it to an even greater degree, casting aside the psycho-thriller trappings in favor of an Gothic spook show (actually, Baroque would be a better term, considering the architecture on display). Having distilled the story down to a bare minimum, Argento sustained Suspiria on style, and he pretty much succeeded, with shock effects that went way, way over the top. However, the film was unevenly paced, and the Grimm Fairy tale trappings were less deeply disturbing than the psychological horrors of his previous work.
For INFERNO, Argento crafted a sort of indirect sequel, with no continuing characters. Instead, he sets up a mythology regarding the “Three Mothers,” immortal supernatural beings who control mankind’s destiny, sowing destruction, death, and sorrow. The connection between the two films is revealed when a student named Rose (Irene Miracle) reads a book by an architect-alchemist known as Varelli, who designed three incredible manses, one for each of the Three Mothers: one in Germany, one in New York, and one in Rome. Having introduced the witch Helena Marcos (a.k.a. “the Mother of Sighs”) in SUSPIRIA, Argento centers the film on the “Mother of Darkness.” (The two figures were introduced in hallucinogenic essay “Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow” by Thomas De Quincy, author of “Confessions of an Opium Eater”; a third, the Mother of Tears, finally arrived in U.S. theatres in 2008.) When Rose disappears after her discovery, her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), who has been studying music in Rome (and briefly glimpsed a mysterious, beautiful woman – presumably, the Mother of Tears) returns to New York and searches for clues in the incredible ornate building where his sister was staying. His dream-like quest eventually brings him to a face-to-face encounter with the Mother of Darkness, but a (rather convenient) fire consumes the building, allowing him to escape, physically unharmed but with a new knowledge of dark and troubling things at work in the universe.
For much of the running time, this is an amazingly restrained effort from Argento, substituting a more subtle Keith Emerson score in place of the pulverizing Goblin music used to such great effect in Suspiria. Emerson occasionally reaches for a more frenetic approach to match the horror sequences, but in general the emphasis is more on mood than shock.
Also considerably toned down is the photography. The colors are just as artificial and intentionally unbelievable, but they are no longer as garish. The effect is even mor Bava-esque than in Suspiria, which expanded on experiments by Argento’s predecessor, director-cinematographer Mario Bava, who crafted ornate lighting schemes without regard to realism.
In keeping with this muted approach, no single set-piece ever reaches the intensity of Suspiria’s famous opening. In fact, the gore seems trimmed way back: instead of lingering on the details and dragging them out as long as possible (his usual approach), Argento builds to climaxes and quickly fades out. (This would suggest post-production censorship, but Anchor Bay’s DVD was released with Argento’s involvement, indicating that it represents his director’s cut.) One or two moments of violence even take place entirely off-screen, to be revealed only after the fact. One might almost be tempted to use the word subtlety, but the term is make sense only in comparison to Argento’s previous work.
In at least one sense, INFERNO notably outdistances its progenitor. For all its outre formal experimentalism, Suspiria featured a conventional (and admittedly weak) narrative that followed a lead protagonists in a linear fashion and contained only a handful of murders (all of which happened for reasons that were easy to understand). INFERNO dispenses with almost any semblance of coherence; like Once Upon a Time in the West (the Sergio Leone Western for which Argento co-wrote the story), INFERNO effectively segues from set-piece to set-piece, whether or not much plot connects the individual scenes.
The overall thread of Mark’s search for his sister is clear enough, but that doesn’t stop Argento from killing off any and all peripheral characters who happen to wander into the Three Mothers’ sphere of influence. This is complicated by the fact that these wicked stepmothers do not necessarily act directly but through intermediaries, so it is not always clear who is actually perpetrating the physical violence: a demon, an acolyte, an innocent person possessed by evil? (The point is underlined by a brief montage showing a pair of hands cutting the heads of three paper dolls; each doll is followed by a cutaway to an apparently unrelated event: a lizard eating a bug, a woman committing suicide, the lights going out in the apartment of a character who has learned the truth about the Three Mothers. Though never exlained, one must conclude that the hands belong to the Mother of Tears, who uses the dolls to work her evil magic, causing long-distance death and destruction.) The effect is at once confusing and disorienting, creating a universe in which death and evil lurk ever waiting to claim the unwary, no matter how ignorant and nonthreatening they may be to the forces of darkness at work.
The result is a much smoother piece of work overall, lacking both the intense highs and the lulling lows of Suspiria. This more carefully balanced approach keeps INFERNO floating on a level altitude for most of its running time. Unfortunately, the disregard for narrative also raises suspicion that Argento has simply found a convenient rationalization for his own lack of story-telling prowess; it is almost as if an artist, who could not draw a straight line, turned to abstract art as a way of hiding his short comings. This becomes most apparent in the frankly disappointing ending: as in Hammer Films’ Plague of the Zombies, a convenient fire burns down the abode housing the villain, saving the hero from actually having to do anything. (One should also note that this non-narrative format, in which a variety of loosely connected characters are killed off for transgressing on the territory of an evil supernatural female, was distilled and perfected by Takashi Shimizu in his Ju-On films.)
Perhaps INFERNO’s most effective quality is that it is so damned cryptic! Using alchemy as his metaphor (an esoteric precursor to science meant only to be understood by its practitioners), Argento unfolds this tale, full of implied significances which are never unexplained.* The audience is left, like the film’s hero, feeling as if exposed to a dark mystery with no solution—or perhaps a solution beyond human explanation. As Argento said at an American Cinematheque retrospective of his work: “When I read about alchemy, I kept asking ‘Why?’ But there is no why!” Alchemy is all about process—that is, the journey, not the goal. That’s what Inferno is: a dark journey.
As if to belie this mysterioso approach to narrative, the DVD does reinstate one scene previously missing from American prints of the film: a brief dialogue between Rose and the bookseller from whom she bought the fateful volume that results in so many deaths. Poised like a traditional expository scene (the equivalent of Udo Kier’s brief cameo near the end of Suspiria), the vignette is really more of a “non-explanation” explanation, which really doesn’t elucidate much of anything (“..the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people”). But its appearance so early in the film at least clues viewers in to the fact that they shouldn’t be hoping for a narrative neatly tied up with explanations.
Although INFERNO focuses mostly on the Mother of Darkness in New York, it features a cameo by the Mother of Tears in Rome, who shows up at a music lecture Mark is attending, complete with a white kitty cat (rather like the one Blofeld used to have in the Bond films). Later, the film drops a hint about the dwelling place of the Mother of Tears: as Sara, Mark’s fellow student, approaches the Biblioteca in Rome, she notes a sickly sweet smell – like the one Rose, Mark’s sister, noticed in her New York apartment, signaling the presence of the Mother of Darkness. However, Argento’s later MOTHER OF TEARS ignored this hint and placed the Mother of Tears in a completely different dwelling place. In retrospect, viewers must assume that the sickly sweet smell emanated from the alchemist lair into which Sara stumbles while trying to find her way out of the library.
Denied a theatrical release (or even a handful of art house screenings) in the U.S., INFERNOmade its U.S. debut on a now out-of-print VHS tape, which provided adequate picture and sound quality, but cropped the left and right sides of the widescreen image, chopping down Argento’s carefully framed images and thus deleting much of the atmosphere. Consequently, Anchor Bay’s 2000 DVD release represented the first chance for most American viewers to see the film in something like the form its director intended.
The disc corrects this the aspect ratio with a nicely letter-boxed image (enhanced for 16X9 TV screens) and a choice of Dolby 2 channel or Dobly 5.1 sound. The soundtrack is in English only (no Italian ), which is unfortunate: English-speaking leads McCloskey and Miracle get to speak in their own voices, but the dubbing of the Italian supporting cast leaves much to be desired (check out the lame voice given to Alida Valli, who sounded so much better in Suspiria). The sumptuous colors of Romano Albani’s cinematography shine through, and Keith Emerson’s moody music is sharp and clear. Since the film’s effectiveness comes more from the interplay of visuals and music than from story, this combination is not to be underestimated: if you’ve only seen the film on video and found it disappointing, now is your chance to experience the full effect of INFERNO.
In addition to preserving the film in excellent condition, the disc also offers some relatively brief but entertaining extras: a theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills, talent bios, and a videotaped interview with Argento. The trailer captures the tantalizing quality of the film, despite probably giving away too many of the scare sequences. The stills, all in black-and-white, show a few memorable scenes from the film, plus one or two behind-the-scenes images of Argento at work—not as extensive as one would like, but not bad, either. There are three talent bios, for Argento, for his brother Claudio, who produced the film, and for Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s one-time paramour, who co-starred in INFERNO and co-writer Suspiria. The only extensive bio is for Argento, but the other two hit the main points of interest to the uninitiated; also, the bios for both Argentos benefit from the inclusion of quotes pulled from existing interviews, rendering them slightly more usual than the usual dry rundown of facts. All the bios are followed by selective filmographies.
The highlight of the disc’s extras is the interview with Argento, which is actually more of a brief, behind-the-scenes documentary, including stills, clips, and comments from Argento’s assistant director Lamberto Bava (who went on to direct the Argento-produced Demons and Demons 2.) The interview is presented with the subjects speaking in their native language, and viewers have the choice of watching with or without English subtitles.
Fans of Lamberto’s famous father, director-cinematographer Mario Bava, will be pleased to see that the elder Bava’s uncredited (but always acknowledged) contribution to INFERNO have finally been clarified here. Rumors have abounded that Mario Bava directed the film’s underwater sequence (a genuinely creepy standout), but in truth it was his skill as a cinemagician that was put to use. Although set mostly in New York, Inferno was filmed mostly in Italy. It was Mario Bava who supervised the composite shots that put New York skylines outside windows and in the background of an interior set simulating Central Park. He also contributed a few more noticeable special effects, such as the Mother of Darkness’s disappearance (exactly like a similar scene in Bava’s directorial debut Black Sunday) and reappearance in skeletal form after bursting out from inside a mirror.
The original DVD release also included a four-page booklet that listed the Chapter Selections and contained a brief interview with Leigh McCloskey, who discusses Argento’s enigmatic approach to directing actors and relates how the actor filled in for his stuntman during the film’s fiery conclusion.
Although INFERNO will probably never replace Suspiriain the hearts of many fans, it is an effective horror film that mixes graphic violence with narrative ellipses in an intriguing way that prefigures the work of Lucio Fulci (The Beyond) and Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On: The Grudge). For those wanting easily understandable stories and/or fast-paced shocks, this film may not be for you, but if you are willing to enter a magical sinister world where mysterious things happen for little or no apparent reason, you may find yourself swept up in a nightmarish landscape such as few films have ever created. And there’s always something to be said for a film that studious eschews the oft-repeated admonition of most horror films: “There’s got to be a rational explanation!”
No, there doesn’t. And this film is the better for it.
INFERNO (1980). Written and directed by Dario Argento. Cast: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoeff, Alida Valli, Veronica Lazar, Gabreiele Lavia, Feodor Chaliapin, Aria Pieroni.