Friday, March 27, 2015

INFERNO (1980)

Dario Argento, 1980
Starring: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi

Rose Eliot, a young poet in New York, collects antique books and stumbles across a terrible secret with the recent purchase of The Three Mothers. She learns of three powerful witches — Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum — and discovers that Tenebrarum may be located in the very apartment building Rose calls home, built by an eccentric architect named Varelli, also the author of The Three Mothers. She writes a letter detailing her findings — and her fears — to her brother Mark, a music student in Rome, and he comes to visit just as Rose goes missing.

While Suspiria, the first film of Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, is a dark fairytale, Inferno is a nightmare and a fever dream. In fact, Argento was seriously ill for much of filming and veteran horror director Mario Bava stepped in to handle some second unit work. Perhaps as a result of this, Inferno seems indebted to Bava’s candy-colored descents into the underworld and meditations on the supernatural, such as Hercules and the Haunted World and “The Drop of Water” segment from Black Sabbath. Bava was also responsible for some of the matte painting and optical effects, and his son, Lamberto Bava, acted as assistant director on the film – a few years later, Argento would collaborate with the younger Bava on Demons.

Despite – or perhaps because of – Bava’s involvement, Inferno was initially poorly received. This is likely due to a number of factors: its perhaps unfair comparison to Suspiria, the disorienting sense of dream logic, and the fact that the somewhat fragmented film has a number of protagonists. Like Suspiria, the cast is still female-dominated and focuses on characters like Rose (Irene Miracle), her friend Elise (Daria Nicolodi), and Mark’s friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), all of whom are inexplicably drawn to the mystery of the Three Mothers. Mark (Leigh McCloskey) is brought into this world almost against his wishes and is left alone to contend with the evil in Rose’s apartment building. Like Suspiria, this is a fundamentally hostile, strange world where bureaucratic, natural, and supernatural forces conspire against the protagonists.

Inferno certainly has many parallels with Suspiria: there’s a key scene with a protagonist swimming, secret passages are important to the conclusion, a beast-like killer preys on young women, and there is an animal-related death in an open park/square. But while Suspiria has a marked contrast between a sedate, fairytale-like mystery plot and over-the-top, incredibly violent and unusual death scenes, Inferno is more concerned with elaborate set pieces. In addition to the central location of a cavernous old apartment building in New York, there’s an antique shop, a beautiful Roman library, an old ballroom suspended in water, and an alchemy lab – plus, the plot is set in motion by an old book, a letter is of key importance, and one of the protagonists is a writer.

This focus on the literary and the historical is countered by a disorienting emphasis on doubles. Rose and Sara share the same sense of wonder and fascination that draws them towards The Three Mothers and its mysteries, which also leads to their deaths. – The two main protagonists are siblings and there are plenty of protagonists who turn out to have dual roles within the film, particularly the other residents of Rose’s apartment building. The importance of doubling is compounded by the appearance of several actors from Argento’s previous films – Alida Valli, who plays a domineering instructor and part of the witches’ coven in Suspiria returns here as the suspicious caretaker of Rose’s building. Daria Nicolodi was previously seen in Deep Red as a plucky reporter who teams up with the protagonist to find the killer. Her role here is a sort of Gothic twist on the crime-solving sidekick; she helps Mark uncover clues while wearing a flowing nightgown, has an illness that makes her physically weak, and wanders around the dark building like a frightened child. Gabriele Lavia, last seen in Deep Red as a troubled musician, briefly shows up as Sara’s friend and protector.

Somewhere I read this described as a blend of The Wizard of Oz and Dante’s Inferno, which isn’t far off the mark. If Suspiria was influenced by Snow White, where a young princess takes on a wicked witch in a foreboding forest, Inferno is more of an ensemble piece set in an alternate dimension. The blue, yellow, and red lighting is certainly otherworldly and the central building seems to be an underworld universe all its own, with secret passageways, hidden floors, and an incongruous sense of style suggesting that all time periods exist there at once. Even the score is a blend of contemporary electronic music – from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Keith Emerson – spliced together with Verdi’s opera Nabucco, a biblical-themed work about the titular Babylonian king who conquers and exiles the Jews.

Inferno comes highly recommended and is one of Argento’s most underrated works, if not one of the most underrated horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. This dreamy, disorienting film is not for everyone, but offers rich rewards for those willing to lose themselves in Argento’s hellish, yet colorful world of magic, mystery, and murder that does end with the promised inferno. Fortunately, the film is available in a wonderful Blu-ray edition and should be part of every film lover’s collection. It’s a shame that Argento followed up the brilliant of Suspiria and Inferno with something as flawed and problematic as Mother of Tears.

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