Dario, Dario, wherefore art thou Dario? As I eagerly await Argento’s next film (yes eagerly; once a fan, always a fan), I thought I’d take a gander at the film that was supposed to put him over the top in North America, and instead sat unseen on this side of the pond until it was dumped on video in 1985. Of course, I’m talking about Inferno (1980), the sequel to his surprise hit Suspiria (1977), which took the world by the color form collar. Inferno did not have the same impact upon its release, but it is a very effective exercise in style trumping substance.
Twentieth Century Fox co-ponied up $3,000,000 dollars in the hopes of another smash (they also distributed Suspiria), but a changing of the guard stateside is a likely reason for the five year shelving. A pity then; while it can’t match Suspiria’s sustained delirium, Inferno does offer up beautiful nightmares like only Dario can.
The story (well, more of a mosaic really) basically goes like this: through voiceover we learn of the Three Mothers - Mater Lachrymarum (Our Lady of Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), and Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness); the first in Rome, the second Freiburg, and the third in New York. Between the three and their witchcraft, they can control the world. When American student Rose (Irene Miracle – Midnight Express) comes across a copy of the book The Three Mothers, she soon finds out that some folks don’t want the tome to be found, and she sends a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey – Dallas) in Rome asking him to come see her because she believes she’s in danger.
But before Mark can head over to New York, he and his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi – Black Belly of the Tarantula) have their own problems to deal with – namely, a beautiful and mysterious woman who may be the third Mother herself…
It may not seem like there’s a lot going on in Inferno judging by the above description; but actually this is Argento at his most eventful, at the cost of the story completely. The barebones plot is there to prop up a series of fragmented set pieces that, while gorgeous and creepy, hold little narrative water to pull the viewer through. They don’t need to though - after all this is an Argento, where even a plot heavy film such as Deep Red is known more for its visuals than its words; however it does give Inferno an episodic feel, or a nonsensical nightmarish one, depending how much of a stickler one is for convention.
This is as close to stream of consciousness as Argento gets; throwing all of his considerable talents at the screen – mood, atmosphere, a potent adherence to the aesthetic – he simply can’t be denied the visual acuity he brings to his work, and this has a few of his best, standalone moments.
I may as well list them: a gorgeously shot underwater sequence set below a decrepit building; a man drowns a bag of cats beneath the moon before he himself is butchered; a cloaked skeletal figure bursts through a mirror; an impromptu window guillotine; many, many stabbings.
I’m sure there are more, but this is what I keep coming back to: Inferno feels closer to a sizzle reel than a coherent film. I’m certainly okay with that - the discombobulation adds to the brightly hued phantasm, befitting a globe trotting adventure such as this. One can see Argento trying to tie together strands in 106 minutes, and then abandoning that once he realizes he’s thrown too much at the screen. Or perhaps he’s just showing the random wheel of fate, as people are rushed in and out of one another’s lives with breathless abandon? Much less poetically, there’s also a chance that he simply wasn’t as focused because he came down with hepatitis during the shoot; I could see that as a hindrance to success.
It may be one of his least favorite films for this reason, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a success; Inferno lets Argento get ambitious, expanding the mythos of Suspiria and weaving visual ties throughout. Color schemes once again play a prominent role, with Suspiria’s engulfing reds giving way to Inferno’s pinks and blues; the former showing the dominance of the female energy even when spread out around the world, with the latter emphasizing the struggle between the female and male forces within. Mark is ostensibly the lead, but doesn’t really make an impact until the second half of the film; and even when he is in it, he doesn’t register as strongly as the women, proving that this particular corner of Argento’s imagination is filled with strong willed (and occasionally sinister) sirens.
Regardless of its haphazard plotting, Inferno stills haunts to this day, forty years on. The old saying goes, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, but I think it’s fair to say that busy ones are just as inclined to tinker with the dark side. Inferno is anything but idle.
Inferno is available on Blu-ray from Blue Underground.Next: Class of 1980: Celebrating the Great Genre Films of 1980 with Bill Moseley, Axelle Carolyn, Graham Skipper, Kelli Maroney, Brian Collins, and More [Part One]