Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dario Argento's Inferno (1980)

SUSPIRIA was an extremely successful international hit for Dario Argento, and he was faced with distributors wanting more of the same. The result is INFERNO, another surreal journey through trippy colorful sets and stylish horror scenarios, to the heart of a profound evil hidden away in a threatening architecture, like a secret for the film’s protagonist to unveil. INFERNO is a sequel to SUSPIRIA, but it was unlikely that a sequel was initially planned, so INFERNO takes on the task of relating the two films at the start by accounting the legend of the Three Mothers through a male voiceover that sounds while protagonist Rose (Irene Miracle) is reading a copy of an evil book, simply titled THE THREE MOTHERS. 

Now you don’t need to see SUSPIRIA first to enjoy INFERNO, in fact if there’s that little chance that you haven’t seen SUSPIRIA yet, I’d recommend checking out INFERNO first because there seems to be an inevitable comparison viewers make between the two that really ends up being an unfair fight for INFERNO. So, for the time being, I’m going to try to resist comparing the two films and instead focus only on INFERNO. 

INFERNO is a riddle in itself with a story based around three keys that characters must uncover in order to discover the truth behind the madness. The narration sort of disorients the viewer by shifting between three protagonists for the first half, giving it almost an episodic feel. It is unusual and at the same time very interesting that we at first spend some weird moments getting acquainted with the character of Rose sending a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) studying music in Rome before the story abruptly shifts to one of Mark’s classmates, Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who happens to pick up the letter instead. When Sara reads the letter she ends up being so disturbed and troubled by what she’s read that on her way home she makes a detour to the library to check out a copy of THE THREE MOTHERS, a book that turns out to be more threatening than the Necronomicon. It seems rather hard to believe that a grown woman would be this influenced by the contents of a letter. It’s almost as if Sara is demonstrating a childlike impressionability. 

The following scene of Sara at the Library is fabulous and consists of terrific cinematography and dusty old bookshelves that tower to dizzying heights. A sinister stare from a young lady studying ends up giving off a surreal feeling that something very evil and powerful happens to be stalking Sara.

Due to the high density of disjointed story ideas and emphases on intriguing visuals, the overall vibe of INFERNO is that of so-much-going-on-with-so-little-happening. Or is it, so-much-happening-with-so-little-going-on? But nonetheless, it’s is all very unique and enjoyable, and I think I can confidently say that I’ve never seen anything else quite like INFERNO. 

A frequent use of simultaneous red, blue, and greenish-yellow background lighting contributes to INFERNO’s highly unique feel as well as a sense of existing in an entirely different world, perhaps the realm of the evil entity that has established its rule over the ancient New York Apartment or the marvelous library/alchemy lab in Rome. 

The main villain showcased is the Mother of Darkness, who is described as the most evil of the three sisters, but the Mother of Tears (Ania Pieroni) makes an appearance in Rome, and she is described as the most beautiful of the sisters. A glimpse of her mysterious presence during Mark’s music class does indeed prove her to be the most beautiful. Having her show up during Mark’s class isn’t entirely nonsensical. I thought of it as an indication that the letter Rose sent to Mark was haunted by The Mother of Tears, who put a spell on Mark, hindering him from being able to read it.


I can’t help feeling that the actors in this film may’ve been lost, almost like lost children in search of their mothers. In fact, Argento’s intention was to give the characters a childlike personality, and I could definitely sense this from how easily each character buys into the Three Mothers legend, becoming curious and easily drawn into something no sane adult would ever consider or believe. Suddenly Sara’s response after reading the letter doesn’t seem so silly anymore from this perspective. I believe that the idea is that everything seems much more frightening from the vantage point of a child. 

The character of Mark comes off as confused, exhausted, and very much in the dark the entire time. This was likely the result of an actor who was very much confused about the story he was acting in, but this ends up working out because it mirrors the situation that the character is in. Nonetheless, McCloskey is probably the lesser of Argento’s leads because he really does seem wooden and stands around confused much of the time before deciding to bang a hole in the floor, after recalling a phrase from Rose’s letter, and stumbling upon the final key. Mark’s journey to the truth is very climactic, taking place between the walls of the apartment building and is enhanced with fire and some great operatic rock music from Keith Emerson that also serves as a very fun Three Mothers theme song. 

The apartment building in the film must be very evil and elusive because it does not seem to comply with any fire code. There are no extinguishers or smoke alarms, and the fire department doesn’t arrive until the entire building is ablaze. But of course, what would a movie called INFERNO be without a fiery inferno? 

Argento’s knack for style and attention to detail has a wonderful way of making something that would otherwise be normal and mundane, like mailing a letter, interesting. In fact, INFERNO is probably the most stylish of Argento’s filmography. 

Viewers are in for a visual and terrifying treat when Rose accidently drops her apartment keys in a water hole before deciding to jump in and swim after them. What follows is the unveiling of an entire room underwater, full of antique and sinister looking furniture and is more or less a deliberate attempt to break the Gothic room cliché in a horror film by just filling it with water for the sake of style.

There are several great kill scenes with remarkable performances from the actors, but the one that wins over the rest is the rat attack on the antique dealer, Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff), in the park. This was a scene Argento dreamed up while viewing Central Park from a window in the hotel he was staying at. 

Another very amusing kill is a scene involving an all-out attack from an army of cats on the Countess Elise Delon Van Adler (Daria Nicolodi) and is something that has to be seen to be believed. 

INFERNO was the last film the great Italian filmmaker Mario Bava ever worked on. Bava was solely responsible for some of the film’s more remarkable effects as well as a number of standout sets. Argento felt that certain sequences would require very complicated effects, but Bava managed to pull off these effects using very simple means with remarkable results. And all of the gloved and scaly clawed hands you see doing the stabbing and guillotining are Argento’s own hands, not because he’s an exhibitionist as he says but because he knows how to make scenes with hands very dramatic, a statement very few will disagree with after viewing much of Argento’s filmography. 

"Mater Tenebrarum, Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, but men call us by a single name, a name which strikes fear into everyone's heart.  They call us Death!!!"--The Mother of Darkness

Even if you have or haven’t seen this, I’d recommend taking the time to do yourself a favor by watching INFERNO’S sensational trailer, and be prepared to have the movie’s theme song stuck in your head for a while. Also, if you are prone to falling asleep to older foreign horror films or don’t plan on watching this, checking out the trailer would be very useful since it seriously contains a healthy dose of the type of entertainment INFERNO has to offer in only three and a half minutes, versus the film's lengthy 106 minute run time.



  1. I totally agree that this was a truly artistic example of cinematography, despite the fact that I often found myself just as lost as mark. I loved the room under water, and the man-eating rat seen had me cheering the rats on! And please let us not forget the attack of cats! :)

  2. This is the third time in less than two weeks that this film sort of "calls" me. Never seen it before, I'm not a huge fan of Argento's to be honest. But I believe in coincidences. Great review, and thanks for the remainder.

  3. Over the top, operatic performances, lurid subject matter, muddled plot, but still great. It's just a shame that the Mothers trilogy ended on such a low note.

  4. @ Amanda: Glad you liked it. I think many segments of this movie were left open for interpretation, so it’s definitely not uncommon to feel lost while watching this one. As for the rat scene, I’d say Kazanian got what he deserved.

    @Gekko P.: Your welcome and thanks for the compliment. I hope you like this film if you get around to seeing it. I’d say that this is probably Argento at his most excessive; containing a hefty amount of the eccentricities that people either love or hate him for.

    @Rich: Your words ring true. I think that the combination of everything you mentioned makes INFERNO quite a treat. Even though it’s a pretty bad movie, I still found myself entertained by 2007’s THE MOTHER OF TEARS, but it’s a shame that it will never be as recognized as SUSPIRIA or INFERNO.

  5. Excellent, comprehensive review Giovanni. It's funny you should mention Argento's hands, because I get a weird frisson from the opening scene with Irene Miracle leafing thru the Three Mothers book - her hands are so beautiful. It's probably some subconscious fetish I have, but that scene and the moment where Keith Emerson's music overwhelms the voiceover plugs me straight into Inferno's upside down world...

  6. Thanks Wes! I just enjoyed reading your write ups for THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY at your blog PLUTONIUM SHORES (I seriously did, that wasn’t a plug). That crescendo you speak of is marvelous and easily puts me in the mood to watch INFERNO in its entirety every time, and yes Miracle does have lovely hands and is just wonderful company while she is on screen. Too bad she wasn’t the main lead.

  7. Good write-up, but there's no need to avoid the comparisons to SUSPIRIA. I think the earlier film is just as good as its biggest fans say (me being one of them), but I think INFERNO beats it. Argento is playing to his strengths in both movies, but, with this one, he goes a lot further in cutting the chord of standard narrative and letting his remarkable visual sense take over. His very best moments as a filmmaker happen in INFERNO, one incredible sequence after another (and, admittedly, some that don't work as well as the others).

    I've never heard of it being intended as anything other than a follow-up to the earlier movie. It references SUSPIRIA repeatedly, not just in that opening sequence. One of the images of Sara you use above is such a reference. The cab ride from the earlier film is repeated--even uses the same cabbie. The characters were supposed to be childlike in both films.

  8. Many thanks for the kind word Giovanni. When you mentioned Argento's ability to make the normal and mundane seem interesting and otherworldly, I was reminded of that wonderful quick shot of the water-rippling during Mark's fainting fit. It's a curiously odd moment and I wonder had Lucio Fulci that in mind when he designed that weird echoing shot of Emily running on the top of the stairs in The Beyond

  9. @Cinemarchaeologist: I love SUSPIRIA too, and I’m not so sure if many would agree that INFERNO beats it. It may not have been necessary for me to avoid making comparisons between the 2 films, but INFERNO is widely considered to be inferior to SUSPIRIA even though it is an expansion of SUSPIRIA in concept and style. I was thinking that maybe SUSPIRIA was just too hard to top and this caused viewers to overlook what INFERNO has to offer. It might also be that SUSPIRIA is probably more accessible than INFERNO too since it had a more coherent narrative, but it’s not like SUSPIRIA’s story was top writing.

    HAHA!! Look at me doing what I said I wouldn’t do. I guess you pulled it out of me. I wonder if the Taxi driver from both films was a lacky for the Mothers. I mean what are the odds he’d be in Germany driving Suzy to the ballet school and also in Rome driving Sara to a similar situation?

    @Wes: Your welcome and thanks for reading! I wasn’t sure what to make of the water-rippling after Mark fainted, I considered writing something about it, but it just ended up being a mystery to me. I think the strange echoing scene in THE BEYOND was Fulci attempting to illustrate Liza sensing what it was that Emily was running from. But the way it was done was pretty odd too and could possibly be viewed as being inspired by Argento.

  10. Very nice to look at but almost spoiled by a fake looking "Death" - finale aside, great stuff.

  11. Death in the film was a low production indeed, but the effect of Mater Tenebrarum crashing through the mirror and showing up as death was pleasing and sort of makes up for the “man in a Halloween costume” feel. Though a bit cheesy, I still loved the fiery scream at the end before the credits role.

  12. Hello

    Sorry - I've looked everywhere for your email address to no avail. Forgive me using this platform to communicate an idea.

    Recently I had the good fortune to get some samples of Jake Bannerman’s writing. If you’re a horror fan, then you may have heard of him. If not yet, then you will soon when he releases his book of shorts stories and his novel.

    He asked me to get in touch with selected bloggers who might like to participate in his blog tour to take place prior to publication. Would you be interested in featuring him on your blog, either as a guest post, an interview or a feature on him and his work, sometime soon?

    His links are to familiarise yourself with Jake and his work. The first link is a recent interview with Dark Media City. The second is an interview with FearDex Books.

    Note: Jake is a 19+ author of extreme horror.

    Dark Media: http://darkmediacity.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/proust-confessions-with-author-jake-bannerman/
    FearDexBooks: http://feardex.com/books/interview-with-author-jake-bannerman/

    Please respond soon, either positively (with availability and feature preferences ) or negatively so that I can begin scheduling.

    Many thanks,

    Shah. (wordsinsync - shahwharton@gmail.com)

  13. Hi Shah! Thanks for considering my blog as a participant for Jake Bannerman’s blog tour. Unfortunately I am going to be very busy in the next couple months with work and a phD qualifier for school and I just cannot squeeze in anymore projects. I do cherish and appreciate your friendship as a fellow blogger, and again, thanks for considering me and I wish you and Mr. Bannerman all the luck and success.

  14. I certainly recognize that my view of INFERNO's merits vs. those of SUSPIRIA is a minority one, and outright heresy to many. I probably wouldn't even argue the case, in fact--it's like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD vs. DAWN OF THE DEAD. You identify one of the top reasons SUSPIRIA is given an edge--its more coherent narrative--but also identify the reason why this is mostly a phony edge. Its narrative, like that of INFERNO, is really just an excuse to string together a lot of great audio/visual set-pieces. INFERNO makes less of a narrative pretense, and, as I see it, becomes something even more like a dream in doing so. Which is as it should be.

    Now, I'm off to watch some kick-ass Lon Chaney movies on Turner Classic Movies.

  15. I like your theory about the characters purposely being childlike very much.

  16. I agree with you, I felt lost with the characters! Maybe I should give it another shot but I couldn't focus in on how they were feeling. I did enjoy the movie and the cinematography was beautiful.

    Great review, Gio. :) I think I might watch this again, it's been awhile!

  17. Thanks everyone for your comments, I really appreciate it. Going to be very busy with my phD qualifier and so I will not be posting anything new for a while. I hope the blog is able to ferment on its own in the meantime. Nonetheless, it won’t be that long and be sure to expect my return in October. I have loved writing for this blog so far and I have no intentions of quitting.

  18. what on earth? this movie looks crazy

  19. I loved Inferno. The bright colors and surreal settings were such a delight. I looked for a contact link on your site but couldnt locate it. I am curious if you would be willing to post a link to my page www.funwithhorror.com I have added one to your site! Cheers.

  20. Thanks for joining! Just spent some time at your blog FUN WITH HORROR and enjoyed it very much. Totally agree with your opinion of Lucky McKee’s THE WOODS. From what I’ve seen, I’d say you definitely deserve a place on the link list.

  21. WOW! I am TRULY honored. Your site is one of the greats, so coming from you, that is extra awesome to hear! Thank you so much for linking to my site and thank you for joining, as well!

  22. Oh yes, this film is a true Argento film. Indeed, I must confess that I have understood him not really. Anyway he is very good, uncanny and exciting. The music is absolutely magnificent! Darios cut technology and camera journeys are natural, as usual, with his films: fantastically! I have the film still on VHS and one one leaves Dario Argento: his films are pure horror and thriller pleasure!
    The Italians have it in the matter of horror film absolutely on it and can compete very well against the Americans. The Italian horror film has to my opinion one more advantage American towards: he is unmistakeable... has an unmistakeable style and does not swim thank God on the wave of the mainstream with.

  23. This is a highly underrated film. It had a two-day theatrical run in New York City, but with a 16mm print. I would love to have seen this on the big screen in 35mm. I find the film more beautiful each time I watch it.