[6 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They are as old as time itself, known by many names - the fates, the muses, the graces…the sorrows. They represent the various aspects of the human condition, each one measuring out their meaning before the other grasps the dangling end and takes over. In the lexicon of life, they are destiny redefined, predetermination given a ferocious, often frightening face. Thus Dario Argento had his source material for the marvelous Three Mothers trilogy, a series of films that came to define the Italian auteur’s entire existence. Along with his take on his home country’s famed crime movies - or “giallos” - the maestro’s metaphysical examinations of witchcraft, alchemy, and sexual sorcery have legitimized (and occasionally limited) his legacy. There has never been a genre filmmaker as artistic and influential as Argento - and a film like 1980’s Inferno is a perfect illustration as to why.
After the amazing masterwork of Suspiria (set in Germany and dealing with a ballet school run by a murderous coven), Argento wanted to continue his exploration of the monstrous Mothers - Suspiriorum (‘sighs’), Tenebrarum (‘shadows’ or pain), and Lachrymarum (‘tears’) - and set out to find some new and novel way to present the second. Happening upon a book about architecture and the influence on same via belief in the supernatural and paranormal, the director decided to abandon a straightforward storyline. Instead, he wanted to explore the Mothers’ mythos, to give explanation to what fans had seen before while expanding the narrative to include even more lyrical flights of fear fantasy. The result was Inferno (now available in a stunning Blu-ray release from Blue Underground) and while not quite as satisfying as Suspiria, it rates as one of Argento’s greatest visual achievements.
Dividing the narrative between Rome and New York City, we are introduced to young Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle). Living in a huge old decrepit apartment complex in Manhattan, she is convinced that something evil surrounds her. Buying a book on the Three Mothers from a next door antiques shop, she uncovers clues that her structure is actually built on top of Mother Tenebrarum’s secret lair. Upon further investigation, she meets with a mysterious end. In the meantime, her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) has been studying music in Italy. He gets a desperate letter from his sister, but only responds after a friend of his is inexplicably murdered. Arriving in America, he continues the inquiry into the location of Mother Tenebrarum. Soon, he stumbled upon a frail shut-in (Daria Nicolodi) who has some shocking news about the building. When she too disappears, Mark is left to face the truth - and a ferocious sorceress - on his own.
Many claim that Inferno is all style and no substance. Others argue that its plot is less important than its production value. Both theories have weight, but each are equally misguided. Like all good second halves of proposed trilogies, this amazing middle act fills in the blanks while trying to button down the important bits. Similarly, Argento is exploring ways of making dread more dream-like, investing his visuals with an eerie otherworldliness that transforms them into sensational, spine-chilling tableaus. There is an easy to follow story here -Mark’s investigation into the disappearance of his sister - and lots of symbolism and historical consequence. This is not some David Lynch fever pitch where links can only be drawn within the maker’s subconscious. You simply have to apply the astonishing images to the ideas being explored and you wind up with a truly terrifying - and terrific - experience.
It begins with one of the greatest scare setpieces in Argento’s entire canon. While exploring the basement of her building, Rose drops her keys in a puddle on the floor. Turns out, the water spot is actually the opening to a completely submerged room. From her reading, our heroine recalls a passage explaining that Mother Tenebrarum hides her own personal study in the bowels of her lair, secreting her evil away from the prying eyes of the surface world. As she reaches in for her keys, they drop to the flooded bottom. Rose then decides to dive in, spending several astonishing minutes among the waterlogged rot and decay of the room…before something unearthly comes swimming up beside her, ready to reveal its true nature. From here, the movie goes even more maniacal, throwing in references to Suspiria (the art design of the apartment interiors, the gloved killer) while, again, retreating to frights all its own (the crippled antiques dealer who hates cats).
The first half of the film is all Rose, and as she meets a weird book binder in a local library and attempts to avoid the murderous desires of her target, Argento weaves a solemn, surreal work of suspense. Taking Hitchcock one step further, he builds tension without letting the audience know what awaits the victim. Through color and light, composition and mise-en-scene, he literally chills the blood. Then Leigh McCloskey steps in to play hero, and Inferno reinvents itself. Suddenly, it’s a who/how/whydunit, including the discovery of the Mother’s human identity. The red herrings and half-truths are all in place, and Argento moves around them with all the grace and determination of a great detective. By the end, we are eager for the confrontation and reveal. When it comes, it’s power impacts everything we’ve seen before.
Granted, this is still not his absolute best. This is not some fairytale gone foul, a little girl’s dream of being a ballerina overwhelmed by maggots, murder, and menace. No, Inferno is vicious in its own way, an unwieldy work of vivid imagination that never stops surprising you. Even the throwaway elements - the random pipes in the apartment walls, the false floors leading to sections of absolute architectural disarray - work toward an evil endgame. Discussions about this anarchic approach come in the form of bonus features included on the Blu-ray. McCloskey references alchemy and how famous painters influenced the film. Miracle makes it clear that Argento had his own insular ideas about what the film should be while assistant director Lamberto Bava explains how many of the movie’s more sensational sequences were realized. The overall portrait is one of controlled creative chaos, the audience’s need for rationality never getting in the way of Argento’s eye.
Yet many still dismiss Inferno (and for the most part, 2007’s Mother of Tears) as a mere pretender to the Three Mothers’ throne. Of course, that has much more to do with Suspiria‘s superiority as a work of macabre than the lack of value here. In fact, Inferno is perhaps the best representation of Argento for both good and bad than any other film in his cannon. It doesn’t have the heft of Profondo Rosso or the splatter shock of Tenebre or Opera. It lacks the grace of earlier giallo works The Bird the Crystal Plumage or Four Flies on Grey Velvet and yet stands far away from latter day schlock such as The Card Player. Indeed, Inferno is that rare entity that both defines and defends its maker, allowing all who question his place in the pantheon of horror to fully understand his ranking. Even some thirty years after it was made, it remains a great film…from an equally great filmmaker.