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Inferno

This year has brought an avalanche of well-deserved attention to Dario Argento’s popsicle-colored opium nightmare of a Nancy Drew witchcraft mystery, SUSPIRIA (1977). With a new 4K restoration playing in some cities, a Blu-Ray finally on the horizon and somebody apparently having the audacity to do a remake, the film is being widely written about, discussed and discovered by a new generation.

No big surprise here: I tend to consider it Argento’s masterpiece. The combination of its boldly colorful stylization and rocking, growling, hissing, demonic incantation of a score by Goblin (their very best, in my opinion) put me in some sort of cinematic state of delirium where normal narrative logic is not necessary, or even desirable. SUSPIRIA is creepy in some deep subconscious way far beyond the tyrannical reach of sense or explicability.

But after watching them both many times over the years, including this week, I confess I’ve become more attached to Argento’s 1980 follow-up, INFERNO. Technically part two in a “Three Mothers” trilogy (it connects to the witch from SUSPIRIA and the one from MOTHER OF TEARS 27 years later), it works as its own surreal adventure. The score by Keith Emerson is crazy and bombastic by any standards other than being compared to Goblin. Argento, his SUSPIRIA production designer Giuseppe Bassan (SUPER FLY T.N.T.) and new cinematographer Romano Albani (PHENOMENA, TROLL, TERRORVISION) elaborate on the evil-DICK-TRACY red blue and green lighting and ornate furnishings. There’s alot of beautifully textured wallpaper designs and a door handle so artsy it becomes a danger; its pointy metal fronds catch on a character’s blouse during a chase, catching her like an animal in a trap.

It is my position, though, that INFERNO has a more involving mystery than SUSPIRIA, and even higher peaks of surrealism and violence. I’m not here to argue that it’s better, but just to encourage you to see it if you haven’t, and confer with you about it if you have.

This viewing was the first time I felt like I totally followed what was going on. Up to a point. Upon analysis it’s sort of a puzzle: a New Yorker named Rose (Irene Miracle, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, PUPPET MASTER) reads an old leatherbound book by an architect named Varelli. It describes three buildings he designed for three witches, with riddle-like clues about how to locate them. She comes to believe that she is living in one of the buildings, and investigates. She brings other people in: a letter and phone call summon her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey, Dallas, HAMBURGER: THE MOTION PICTURE, Santa Barbara) from music school in Rome, a fragment of the letter get his friend (Eleonora Giorgi, BEYOND THE DOOR) and her neighbor (Gabriele Lavia, DEEP RED) mixed up in it, and then Mark comes to New York and, unable to find his sister, works with her neighbor Contessa Elise (Daria Nicolodi, co-writer of SUSPIRIA and mother of Asia Argento).

All of these people are plagued by, and in many cases killed by, mysterious forces: a beautiful apparition-like staring woman (Ania Pieroni, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, TENEBRAE), men with unseen faces and clawed hands, biting cats, an angry alchemist who rampages when he notices in a reflection that Sara is holding a copy of The Three Mothers. (Talk about censorship.)

My favorite weird character is Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff, LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD), the antique dealer who sold Rose the book. I’m not saying his customer service is great, and he’s not very friendly to Mark when approached with questions, but he’s not a villain. He provides the information about the Mothers and becomes victimized for it himself, with someone sneaking in and stealing three other copies of the book (which can’t be cheap). He senses an intruder and there’s some suspense about this helpless old man on crutches potentially being attacked, but he only finds a cat from Rose’s building next door, which seems to be an ongoing annoyance to him. He goes over and complains to the owners.

He’s basically a curmudgeonly good guy or neutral party, so it’s a hilariously shocking twist when his fight against cat intrusion escalates to ghastly animal cruelty in one of the most bugnuts scenes I’m aware of existing on film. He captures the cats in a bag and hobbles out to a lake in Central Park, dunking them and poking at the bag with his crutch to make it sink. It’s a long process, and he keeps looking around to make sure he’s not seen, sometimes chuckling mischievously. Meanwhile, real rats are swarming in a nearby culvert, and after he’s succeeded in sinking the bag and walking away victoriously he stumbles and the rats crawl up him and start to eat him and he yells that they’re eating him.

But wait! In the distance there’s a hot dog truck with its light on. The man who runs it is chopping some meat and he perks up, seems to hear the screaming. He sees Kazanian and runs to him–

Oh, but then he raises his knife in the air and swings it at Kazanian’s neck, nearly chopping his head off! Who is this hot dog man? Why does he do it? Luckily the movie doesn’t answer.

Did I mention that a lunar eclipse also happens during this scene? It does. And I mean, why not?

(Also IMDb trivia says “a Plexiglass bridge was placed just under the surface of the pond to make it appear that the vendor runs across water guided by supernatural forces,” but I have never noticed this.)

There are at least two other scenes that would be the craziest part of any other movie. One of them is a horrifying cat attack on Elise. It’s mostly implied with sound effects and closeups of cat teeth and claws, but there are some shots of actual cats flying onto her. It’s such a disturbing image because the crew were clearly throwing cats at somebody, and that’s not good for the cats or the person. Anybody who has been around cats can picture how those claws feel even if they’re just trying to land and not attack. All the fur you can see floating around in the sunbeams is an extra-disgusting detail. Anybody would get allergic.

A more ethical and spectacular scene happens when Rose is snooping around the damaged building basement and drops a key into a puddle. In true dream logic she then dives into the puddle and searches for the key in a fully submerged room. A fully submerged Argento room, I should say, with decorations and designs on the carpet and everything. This would be cool enough even if she didn’t get scared off by a rotting corpse that floats at her. Argento uses our senses against us by forcing us to imagine the feeling of our bare feet slipping across the wet head of a bloated corpse. Eww!

There’s something very elemental about the movie. Two of those three knockout scenes I mentioned take place in water. A gust of wind blasts Mark inside a lecture hall. There’s an elaborate catching-on-fire-then-falling-and-smashing-through-glass death, and yes, the movie ends in an inferno. I’m not sure where earth comes in except that Varelli digs into it to create his architecture and foolishly expects to be shielded from it. He describes the building as his body, a sort of mech-suit armor and extension of his sickly physical form. But the hallways he describes as his veins can’t help but be infected by dander-spewing cats, rats, and a trail of ants that lead an unwanted visitor to the brain – to him.

It’s also about the fragility of the human body. A pin on the door handle of a taxi pokes a finger, a cracked doorknob cuts a hand, a broken window guillotines a neck. Kazanian is on the crutches and can be overtaken by rats, Varelli’s is in a wheelchair, needs to plug in a neck vibrator to speak, and nearly strangles himself on the cord. The Contessa is sick and weak, she walks around the building bare foot, seemingly in danger of cutting herself. Only Mark (played by a future soap opera star) is strong and able-bodied, but he’s easily incapacitated with poison. All of them fear yet seek the Mother of Shadows, who literally becomes the spectre of death at the end.

Varelli hides himself in this building, designed with a system of pipes to eavesdrop on all the rooms, to always know what’s coming. Yet he wrote that book, available next door at Kazanian’s, that basically has directions (cryptic though they may be) to his house. Part of him must want to be found.

I could be imagining it, but it seems to me like INFERNO is lighter on dialogue than SUSPIRIA, and has more stretches without it. There’s a line that really made me laugh, though. Sarah asks her neighbor Carlo if he’s heard of “The Three Mothers,” and he says, “You mean those black singers?”

Which reminds me, the actual mothers are not fans of the arts, I don’t think. The nurse (Veronica Lazar, THE BEYOND), who seems to be connected to the witches in some way (SPOILER SHE’S THE FUCKING MATER TENEBRARUM), makes it clear that she doesn’t understand music or poetry and calls artists “strange.” Mark is taken totally aback by it. I guess he doesn’t have to be around many normals at his music school.

In real life McCloskey is and was a painter. He looks like kind of a standard issue hunk guy in the movie, but watch the interview with him on the Blu-Ray. He’s very interested in and thoughtful about the movie and shares 1) a detailed ink drawing he gave to Argento that encapsulates all the themes of the movie and 2) a project he did more recently, a painting that covers an entire room and requires 3D glasses to be “multi-dimensional.” I guess you don’t escape the Inferno without learning something.

Argento tempts us with a sort of science – something in a book, presented matter-of-factly, with rules, by an expert – then give us the opposite. I believe INFERNO is one of the great horror movies of the type that mines our fascination with the unknowable: death, the meaning of dreams, the intentions of animals, the sinister powers we imagine could exist in old books, buildings, symbols, lunar cycles. It takes the form of a treasure hunt that descends into hallucination; a puzzle, a quest, that bleeds into unpredictable madness unchained from our reality. Like an alchemist, Argento has transformed style into substance.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 31st, 2017 at 1:35 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Inferno”

  1. I do enjoy this one, though for some reason it makes less sense to me than SUSPIRIA (which objectively, only sort of makes sense). My main takeaway is that I wish INFERNO was shot in 2.35, and that its visuals are more bathed in pastels than its predecessor’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS-inspired primary palette. It’s definitely due for a revisit.

  2. Thanks for this, Vern. This is one of my Argento blind spots and I noticed the other day it’s currently streaming on Shudder. I can’t wait to watch it.

  3. Rewatched this one last weekend. I love how Keith Emerson’s score goes into some kind of triumphant climax during the inexplicable hot dog vendor attack as though the hot dog man is the film’s hero. What is he doing with his truck in the middle of the night next to some rat-infested lake? Is he making hot dogs out of rats?

  4. There’s some potential that was never explored between prog rock and horror filmmakers. Parts of some King Crimson albums would be perfect soundtrack material for a good scare.

  5. I must admit I haven’t watched INFERNO with Jean-Claude Van Damme in a while, but I can’t remember it being remotely like this…

  6. This is one that I’d like to check out at some point. I mentioned in another thread here somewhere that I’ve tried but struggled to get into Argento and giallo, despite having watched SUSPIRIA, PLUMAGE, and DEEP RED. I tend to feel like the outside-looking-in person who doesn’t “get” filmmaker x (Malick, Lynch, Inarritu, etc.) and furthermore doesn’t get what it is others “get” about him. But I’m willing to try INFERNO in my continuing quest to get it. Seriously, no facetious-mo.

  7. I’d be surprised if Inferno is the one you’d like if you don’t like the other ones but I highly support you doing it.

    And go watch Most Likely to Die too, since you like slashers.

  8. DEEP RED is the one I usually recommend to Argento neophytes, as it’s got all his style and verve but the plot is fairly comprehensible and the ending makes sense.

  9. I watched DEEP RED for LAST year’s Halloween and never got around to mentioning it.

    It was my first Argento movie and it totally blew me away, what a cool as hell movie, I knew I was watching something I’d never seen before in the scene where the guy’s exploring that beautiful art nouveau mansion while that groovy Goblin music is playing, it’s such a weird combination but it totally works.

    So I definitely want to see SUSPIRIA but I’m waiting for that blu ray.

    By the way, last night for Halloween I watched a Hooper and Romero movie as a tribute to them, MARTIN and EATEN ALIVE, both of which I have never seen before, MARTIN is friggin’ great, EATEN ALIVE is well….. I can’t call it a legit good movie, but I was entertained, it’s a fine slice of southern fried weirdness and creepiness, Neville Brand is legit good at playing a maniac.

  10. Beautiful set design and sumptuous colours are mainly what I remember about this one … and the usual preposterous dubbing and dialogue. I can only imagine that seeing these overheated Italian horrors with subtitles would help keep them on the right side of comedy, but I’ve never managed that. This kind of Giallo is often described as following a dream logic that defies rational plot structure, but it’s hard for me to think that was the intention … it feels to me like the filmmakers just weren’t very good at stitching together a rational plot, so what’s left is a series of beautiful and startling sequences that make no sense. Not that I’m complaining, but I find I really do have to judge a movie like this with different criteria from the normal. Usually you try to find depth in the characters, see how they interact, measure how well the director gets you to empathise with them, well … phht … none of that applies here. As soon as you get to know a character they get killed off in some colourful fashion; I remember this one having about four women who I thought were going to be main characters, only for them to be summarily slaughtered.

    On an unrelated note, I wonder if the future there will bring a backlash against these movies from animal rights activists, seeking to bring directors to book for the animal cruelty in their films. Kind of like how people in the movie industry are now being called to account for past sexual misconduct. I don’t know how these things go in Italy, but I wonder if a Twitter storm would be whipped up if an American director had made a film back in the day with animals being tormented or killed.

  11. I think that is why I can get into a film like MULHOLLAND DRIVE or TREE OF LIFE, because it feels like the characters are pretty effecting and substantial, and even though the plot does not move in a neat linear fashion, there is an underlying sense of substance or cohesion and the dream logic (in Lynch’s case) or mystical visual storytelling (in Malick’s case) seems to be a legitimate aesthetic sensibility that is part of the artist’s vision. With Argento, it tends to feel more just shoddy and incoherent from a narrative or acting perspective, and then the kills are so hyper-stylized and kind of goofy that for me it is not enough to carry the film. It’s definitely strange and distinct, allowing me to appreciate the film as historical artifacts, cultural oddities, or influences on other films and filmmakers, but I have not had the same level of enjoyment or engagement with what is happening. Still, I will give INFERNO a try on the strength of Vern’s enthusiasm and characterization. In other words, I have to see that hot dog truck man scene.

  12. @Numpty
    The animal rights backlash against films like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has been going on for quite a while.

  13. I knew CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and other films like it were controversial from the start, but I was curious whether a bigger backlash might develop now with the help of social media and the kind of storms of outrage that have blown up recently over a variety of issues. I don’t personally think it will, but maybe I’m wrong; maybe it already has … I don’t keep a close eye on social media.

  14. Mario Bava also helped with certain effects in this. Most prominently in the climax so I won’t describe it. This movie does make sense though. You just have to watch it a few times. The hot dog vendor though? Can’t really explain that one. Doesn’t mean it isn’t great.

  15. Yo, this is on regular Amazon Prime in the colonies here right now. Now it’s definitely going to happen.

  16. This is just a seriously great review. So much insight and interesting description. I say this as a regular reader and owner of famed Segalogical texts.

  17. INFERNO dialogue:

    Woman in distress: “Can I ask you a strange question?”
    Man comforting woman in distress: “How strange?”
    Woman: “Have you ever heard of the Three Sisters?”
    Man: “You mean those black singers?”

  18. I somehow skipped that part of Vern’s review, but the dialogue is just priceless.

  19. Best context-establishing subtitle ever: “New York – The Same Night in April.”

  20. SPOILERISH
    ………….
    ………….
    ………….

    I was quite engaged with this for the first 50 minutes. Great atmosphere and production design, some really nice mood pieces and set pieces. I enjoyed the backlighting, the look of the cast, the shadowy, catacomby, labyrinthine basements, the lecture hall scene, the cat scenes, the rat scene, the hot dog guy kill, the underwater corpse encounter, creepy alchemist dude with burnt serpenty hands. Lizard eating moth. Backlighting. Giant urban gothic buildings. Vern is right about the nightmare dream logic being at the forefront. There’s also a bit of a ROSEMARY’S BABY vibe as far as the sinister urban high rise populated by dubious inhabitants. It’s got really great atmosphere and look, and is hypnotically creepy for the first half or so. Also reminds me of EYES WIDE SHUT a bit (or vice versa). So far, so good.

    Then it kind of falls apart for me in the last half. From the outset, the whole Three Mothers mythology feels pretty vague and half-baked, and it doesn’t necessarily evoke much in the way of primal power to terrorize or horrify. The whole thing is vague, quaint, and frankly toothless. The Three Mothers are supposed to be these primal, mythological agents of global evil, but their reach seems surprisingly local, plodding, and pretty unambitious. In New York, the Mother kills a couple five people and then burns her own mostly empty lair down to the ground and doesn’t even manage to kill the main dude who is no sooner warned that his doom is sealed than he’s escaping out the front door. In this latter half, the film never engenders anything beyond a soft, vague, sense of mystery and dread.No payoff, just a dude in a discount grim reaper costume who burns his/her own lair to the ground for no particularly good reason.

    I like the same elements Vern likes, but as usual with Argento, I come away feeling like he’s all premise, atmosphere, and setup and can’t see a film to the finish line. All set-up, but then it stalls and ultimately unravels with a limp-ass punchline. The same could be said about Lynch, but I think he tends to be even more stylish, lean, and in command of his craft. Argento gets digressive, plodding, bogged down. The mythology is a mist, a one-note nothing that collapses under its own unjustified pretension.

    Man, no joke, at the 40 or so minute mark, I was confident I’d be coming here to report on how I’m finally ready to drink the Argento Kool-aid.

    Vern’s review is great, as usual. Just can’t get there with Argento. He’s a very frustrating filmmaker, b/c he does show these flourishes of greatness but these are like great 5-minute music videos or 20-minute short films stretched into 90 minutes of turgid nonsense.

  21. Speaking of the establishing subtitle, Argento has occasional weird Godardian moments like that in his films. Most obviously there’s, “You Have Been Watching Suspiria.” But PHENOMENA also has a very odd moment where a voice-over appears midway through the film (and no where else) to narrate a single line (in a fairy tale tone) about a car arriving at a boarding school.

  22. Ha! Yeah, some of that stuff is so weird and random that it’s hard to believe it’s just artistic genius at work, but maybe so, or maybe it’s cultural or something. SPOILER The Wal-Mart Halloween costume-level quality of the Grim Reaper dude at the end of INFERNO is such an incongruously weird misfire in a film that otherwise looks pretty stylish and professional, that I’m not sure what to make of it.

    One other thing I forgot that I really dug is when the dude gets knifed through the head and then the stabbing in the back right after that. Pretty effectively intense scene there. Again, that first 50 minutes are quite solid.

  23. I always want to love Argento- and I’ve definitely grew more a fan of his work, but I have a REALLY hard time remembering anything coherent about his films. They are total sight, sound, and emotional phantasmagoric horror treasures that make little sense outside of the beautiful imagery. Maybe that’s why they fail to make a huge impression on me when I try to remember what they were about… (“was this the one with the razor wire or the puddle that becomes a pool? Or the decapitation via the broken window? Or the decapitation via the necklace in the elevator shaft? Or the raining maggots?” All good stuff, but I can’t help but feel like a lot of his work is a collection of memorable scenes that really could be interchanged into any of his movies. And you know what, that’s fine. I think my problem is I need to either see them in a theater, or with someone as fully invested in them as myself… a less-than-thrilled wife doesn’t make for the best Argento viewing partner…

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