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INFERNO - 1980
Produzioni Intersound / 20th Century Fox
Rating: Finland: BANNED / Sweden: 15 / UK: 18 / USA: R
Widely regarded as both Dario Argento's (PHENOMENA, TENEBRE, SUSPIRIA)
most confounding and visually stunning film, INFERNO also has the distinction of being his most ambitious project to date.
Made on the heels of SUSPIRIA, and during Argento's
most prolific period, INFERNO is the only sequel the director has ever done. And while it's not a true
sequel (in the sense that none of the characters from the original film
return, not even the antagonist) it does carry forward the ideas that
first appeared in SUSPIRIA, particularly the ones spawned from Thomas
De Quincey's essay Levana and our Lady of Sorrows (see
my SUSPIRIA review for a more detailed
commentary on De Quincey's essay).
INFERNO's plot is a disjointed one, dealing with an apartment building in New York
City. Poetess/resident Rose (Irene Miracle: WATCHERS 2) purchases a book, entitled The Three Mothers, written by an
alchemist named E. Varelli. The book tells of three mothers, Mater Suspiriorum (the mother of sighs), Mater Lachrymarum
(the mother of tears), and Mater Tenebrarum (the mother of darkness). It appears that
Varelli built each of the mothers a home, one in Freiburg Germany, one
in Rome, and one in the heart of New York City. From these homes, the
mothers rule the world "with tears, sighs, and darkness". The
book also offers clues about how to find "keys" to unlock the
secrets of the mother in charge of each house. Rose (and later her brother Mark, played by Leigh McCloskey) begins to unravel
the mystery of the building, and all hell breaks loose in the process.
Perhaps the film's greatest flaw is that Argento's plot never lives up the film's
central premise - that Mater Tenebrarum controls this part of the world.
Everything takes place in the insular world of the apartment building
or right nearby. All of the film's victims are non-entities whose life
or death affects nothing. That someone like Mater Tenebrarum would even
concern herself with these people seems implausible when we've been led
to believe that she's one of three witches who control the world. In essence,
the plot has too narrow a scope to live up to the grandeur inherent in
Plot problems aside, INFERNO succeeds because it's such a beautifully shot film. Argento pulls out
all the stops here, creating one of the most visually arresting genre
films ever made. Everything is designed to hit the viewer with maximum
effect - be it the lush and lurid use of color (reminiscent of SUSPIRIA), the subtle, but intriguing scene transitions, the
wild murder sequences, or Keith Emerson's rock-opera score - there's an over-the-top grandness to INFERNO that makes it incredibly appealing. Subsequent viewings only reinforce
that feeling, as Argento nearly overwhelms the viewer's senses the first
The film's performances are all good, especially those of Daria Nicolodi (DEEP
RED, PHENOMENA, TENEBRE)
as Elise, one of the building's tenants. Also noteworthy are Feodor Chaliapin
Jr. (THE CHURCH) and Veronica Lazar (TENEBRE)
as alchemist Varelli and Mater Tenebrarum, respectively. Also, keep an
eye open for Ania Pieroni (TENEBRE) who appears
in several sequences as Mater Lachrymarum.
Keith Emerson handles the scoring duties, taking over for perennial Argento
favorites Goblin. The soundtrack is a solid one, sounding almost operatic
in spots. The piece played during the film's climax, with its gothically
sung chorus, seems a bit hokey, but it really fits in with the mood of
both the scene and the film overall. At any rate, it's far better than
the heavy metal soundtracks that would come to dominate later Argento films.
The direction of the film is fantastic. Building on what he'd begun with SUSPIRIA, Argento
makes INFERNO stand out as an artistic horror film. Lurid colors and strange lighting
register in every shot, giving the proceedings a nightmarish feel. The
film is set in New York, but instead of offering us drab, bleak cityscapes
as countless other directors have, Argento gives us a city alight with
vibrant reds, green, and blues - making it a New York that we're only
vaguely familiar with (Argento would later use some of the same techniques when portraying Rome in TENEBRE). Art director
Giussepe Bassan (SUSPIRIA) has done a splendid job creating the highly stylized apartment building, as well as its hidden
lairs discovered in the film's climax.
Italian FX legend Germano Natali (TERROR AT THE OPERA, THE BEYOND, SUSPIRIA) once again handles
the film's special effects. The murder sequences are all nicely done,
particularly one savage stabbing near the middle of the film. Equally
impressive is a segment where one character is attacked and killed by
a horde of murderous cats. The only FX flaw is a really lame looking Grim
Reaper that appears late in the film. Those scenes aside, the film's most
impressive sequence was created by the late, great, Mario Bava (BLOOD
AND BLACK LACE, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, BLACK SUNDAY). Early
in the film, Rose wanders into the building's basement, where she finds
a hole in the floor leading to another room underneath the building, this
one filled entirely with water. When Rose accidentally drops her keys
into the hole, she's forced to dive into this submerged room, finding
a picture of Mater Tenebrarum as well as some other things she didn't
expect to discover. This sequence would be Bava's last film contribution,
as he would die shortly after. Unfortunately, Bava wasn't mentioned in
the film's credits.
Despite its shortcomings, INFERNO is a fine film. It's an ambitious project that doesn't always hit on all
cylinders, yet its arty aspirations more than make up for its flaws. While
the plot seems to be little more than a series of events required to connect
the endless array of elaborate set pieces that Argento has conceived,
there's still a discernible plotline and a genuine sense of atmosphere
throughout. And while it falls just short of the masterwork status bestowed
upon SUSPIRIA, TENEBRE, and DEEP RED, it's still a fine example of the
horror film as art. For that, it earns every one of its Four Shriek Girls.
Now let's just hope that Argento gets to make the third film in this cycle,
this one dealing with Mater Lachrymarum.
4 Shriek Girls
copyright 1999 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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