Now On Patreon: INFERNO (1980) Review

Did you know I have a Patreon that helps support me and my writing? Patrons at the $10 and above levels get exclusive writing. This week they got a review of Dario Argento’s Inferno,which I’ve excerpted below. If you want to read the whole thing, become a patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha!

This does contain spoilers for Inferno.

Almost no one in the US has seen Dario Argento’s Inferno on the big screen, and that is a crime. The sequel to Suspiria, one of Argento’s defining films, Inferno fell between the cracks during a studio restructuring and was released straight to video, getting only a short New York City theatrical run. But Inferno is very much a big screen movie, and I don’t just mean that in terms of visuals; the film plays best when it envelops you in its dream logic, when you’re away from your couch and forced to sink into its surreal and sometimes nonsensical moments. Inferno isn’t just a movie with scary scenes, Inferno is a movie that shows us the world as inherently twisted, skewed and frightening, a place that cannot be understood. The horror here is often exquisitely existential.

Inferno is really a loose sequel to Suspiria. It’s the second in Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy (the last would not be released until 2007, and it is the underwhelming Mother of Tears), about three powerful witches who rule the world. The Mother of Sighs, Mater Suspiriorum lives in Germany, as seen in Suspiria. Mater Lachrymarum, the most beautiful of the three lives in Rome. And Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness and perhaps the most wicked of them all, lives in New York City. That larger mythology is how Inferno is connected to Suspiria; there are no characters or events that cross over (although weirdly the death of Mater Suspiriorum is mentioned in the Latin lyrics to the driving soundtrack number “Mater Tenebrarum”). But there is a sense of escalating surreality that comes out of Suspiria; Argento dives right into the world of the weird in Inferno, spending no time at all creating a ‘reality.’

This is what elevates Inferno to the next level – there are no scenes set in normality, no rational world from which our characters cross over. Most of the characters in Inferno already live in the high strangeness of Mater Tenebrarum’s New York City highrise, and even the outside characters are immediately thrust into the bizarre. The world is broken right from the start, things are wrong and nothing makes sense. What’s more, Inferno is full of characters who are introduced for the sole purpose of dying, and while this is a giallo/slasher trick the way it’s utilized here gives Argento’s mad witch world a nihilistically sinister sheen. 

The film opens with Rose (Irene Miracle, best known for Midnight Express) already neck deep in the occult. By the time the movie opens this poet living in a mysterious apartment building has already discovered the mythology of the Three Mothers and is, unwisely, getting at the secrets that lay beneath the complex. That’s literal – in one of the movie’s most outstanding sequences Rose submerges herself below the basement of the building into a sunken ballroom; it’s a moment of intense and pure dream logic – why is there a ballroom in a sub-basement? Why is the sub-basement flooded? Why is there a rotting corpse floating around in there (and whose corpse is it anyway)? None of this matters as Rose goes through the familiar slow motions of our dreams, when our bodies are locked into paralysis that infiltrates our nightmares, making us move so slowly, run through molasses, unable to bring our arms down with the right force.

Within that nightmare underwater feel is a sequence of pure beauty; there’s balletic grace to the movement, and Argento spends a lot of time looking around the sunken ballroom, lavishing his attention on the bizarre imagery of luxurious beauty floating in this silent tableau. But beyond that, the lengthy survey of the ballroom adds a level of tension that slowly ratchets up – a door opens and closes, perhaps moved by waves, perhaps by something else – and that eventually becomes overwhelming. This scene is Inferno as a fractal image of itself – the familiar made strange, with the endless threat of something even stranger and more terrifying ever looming. 

To read the rest of the review, become a $10 patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha!