Inferno (1980)

Director: Dario Argento

Starring: Irene Miracle, Leigh McCloskey, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi

Curiosity first drew me to the work of Dario Argento, and it is that same curiosity which keeps me coming back for more. In total spite of that old saying which involves the grim fate of a certain four-legged animal, my curiosity demands that I press on. Dario Argento’s 1980 supernatural thriller “Inferno” is considered a sequel of sorts to “Suspiria,” with which it shares similar characteristics in both style and content. Both movies are based in part on “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas de Quincey. No mention of the plot from “Suspiria” is ever made, and the two films share none of the same characters (although it has been said that the taxi drivers from both films are in fact the same actor, which would not surprise me in the least). It is the connection to Quincey’s work, the concept of “Our Ladies of Sorrow” which is the only real link between the two.

The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) finding an old book called “The Three Mothers,” written by a man named Varelli. The book tells of three evil sisters (i.e. witches) who dwell in separate homes in Rome, Italy, Freiburg, Germany, and New York, USA. Rose, a New York native, believes that she lives in the domain of one of these evil sisters. She’s right, of course. Following a clue provided by the text, she investigates the cellar. Dropping her apartment keys down a hole in the floor, she discovers a flooded ballroom. Inside, there is at least one rotting corpse floating around. How this ballroom came to be flooded, who the dead person is, and why Rose doesn’t just ask her landlord for a spare set of keys instead of recklessly diving into that hole in the floor are things which are never explained. You’ll find that to be a common theme in this movie.

After this admittedly well-produced sequence, the focus shifts to Rose’s brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome. In class, he attempts to read a letter from his sister, but a female student’s gaze has him distracted. Although she’s never named on-screen, this “music student” is really one of the three evil sisters: Mater Lachrymarum, the most beautiful of the three and, as we’ll discover in a later film (2007’s “The Mother of Tears”), the most powerful as well. She’s already down one sister. Mater Suspiriorum (“Mother of Sighs”), or Helena Markos as we knew her, was vanquished at the end of “Suspiria.”

First on the chopping block is Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), another student in the music class who reads Rose’s letter to Mark after he leaves it behind, and is inspired to seek out a copy of “The Three Mothers” at the library. Someone else there recognizes the book, a mysterious figure who attacks her and sends her racing home. Uncomfortable with the idea of being alone, she asks a neighbor to stay with her. Soon, both are killed. Arriving at the scene too late, Mark sees the “music student” again through the window of a passing taxi cab.

Not long after a phone call with her brother is cut short, Rose dies in another elaborate murder sequence. Having survived for nearly half the film, she’s the “Janet Leigh” of this movie. Unaware of his sister’s fate, Mark travels to New York, where he meets Countess Elise (Daria Nicolodi), a friend of Rose’s, as well as the wheelchair-bound Professor Arnold, his nurse and Carol, the building’s caretaker. Odds are pretty decent that one of the three women will turn out to be Mater Tenebrarum (“Mother of Darkness”), the antagonist of the film. The others will be innocent victims. But what’s up with the guy in the wheelchair?

A bit more dreamlike than some of Dario Argento’s other early films, “Inferno” is also that much more confusing. Its greatest assets are the cinematography and the bait-and-switch it pulls at about the midway point. The way the plot moves in the early-going, you’re led to believe that Rose is meant to be the main character. It’s too bad she wasn’t, because her brother is a poor substitute. I get that Argento was likely trying for an everyman with Mark, but he’s just a little too weak for it to work for me. The ending is also somewhat of a letdown. The set-up to the confrontation with Mater Tenebrarum is good, but the execution once we get there falls a bit flat. Reminds me of the reveal of Donald Pleasance (who, coincidentally, features in Argento’s “Phenomena”) as Blofeld in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice.” Once it’s done, it can’t be undone, and the film suffers for it. I would have also liked to hear another score from Goblin but, alas, that was not to be this time. Argento wanted a more laid back musical composition, and so turned to Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Where “Inferno” may be lacking in other areas, it does make up for it a little bit by being beautifully filmed. Like with “Suspiria,” certain scenes are dressed in reds, blues, greens and yellows. These brilliant colors, like the soundtrack, are more subdued this go-round, but that adds to the disorienting atmosphere the film creates. “Inferno” is by no means a bad movie. You will want to stay with it through to the end. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it won’t kill you. Just don’t go in expecting something on par with “Suspiria” or “Deep Red.”

  1. vinnieh says:

    Great review, I really need to watch more Argento movies. I think I saw one of his years ago, but the dubbing was a little off putting.

    • Definitely, you should! “Deep Red” and “Suspiria” in particular are not to be missed. I’ve still got a few left to track down, myself. One I’ll be reviewing presently, others I’ll be saving for much later.

      I agree that the dubbing can be bothersome at times, but the same is true of a lot of Italian horror. The only times it truly bothers me are when they use an American actor but dub their voice with someone else’s anyway, and when they hire someone for dubbing who reads their lines as if they are constantly out of breath.

  2. Sylvia Wiliams says:

    I really admire your ability to write clearly and logically about the plot of this movie with its convoluted and complex story line! The cover art for the movie is striking, isn’t it? How old was Dario Argento when he directed this film?

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