Inferno (1980)

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threehalfstar

After the surprising international success of Suspiria, Twentieth Century Fox offered to help co-fund Argento’s next project, a sequel of sorts to that film titled Inferno. The conceit of Inferno (and, later, Mother of Tears) is that Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum (“The Mother of Sighs”), the villian of Suspiria, was only one of a trinity of powerful witches. According to the supporting materials, these witches use their great power to manipulate events “on a global scale.” I place those words in quotation marks because, although they appear frequently in the Argento apocrypha, neither of these stories feels global; Suspiria was a relatively confined story, as most haunted house plots are, and Inferno, despite featuring a narrative that takes place in both New York and Rome, also fails to feel like it takes place on a significantly larger scale. This isn’t meant to disparage either film, necessarily, but it does imply that Argento was shooting for something here that he doesn’t quite pull off.

Suspiria took its name from the title of an unfinished work, Suspiria de Profundis, by Thomas de Quincey, best known as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater. Although the book was never completed, the section entitled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” was, and its concept, that there are three Sorrows just as there are three Fates and three Graces, was the initial inspiration for Suspiria, although you wouldn’t know that simply from watching the movie. After all, Suspiria was a largely self-contained story, with nothing to imply that Markos was one of these three Sorrows, or that her power reached far beyond Freiberg, or that her influence did not begin and end with her coven. Even if this was always intended to be the case, an audience who is not familiar with this idea can’t help but feel that Inferno is attempting to graft new plot elements onto Suspiria retroactively, in a way that cheapens the earlier film’s nigh-perfection; Inferno feels like a cheat and a knock-off at the same time.

The film opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle, who was hired for her ability to hold her breath for a long time—no kidding), a poet living in the most baroquely Old World apartment building in New York. She reads in a book titled The Three Mothers that there are three evil sisters who rule the world with tears, sorrow, and darkness, and that the book’s author, an architect and alchemist named Varelli, was hired by the sisters to build a home for each one: in Freiberg, Rome, and New York. Rose has become obsessed with the idea that the building she lives in was one such home, based on clues left in the book. She writes a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a musicology student living in Rome, asking him to visit her. Mark is distracted by a beautiful woman (Anna Pieroni) in his classroom who is mouthing words at him* and loses the letter, which is collected and read by his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi).

After reading the letter, Sara tracks down a copy of the book but is attacked by a strange figure who recognizes the tome. Sara narrowly escapes this person and returns to her apartment building, where she asks her neighbor Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who previously appeared in Profondo rosso as Carlo, although they cannot possibly be the same character) to stay with her while her nerves settle, only for both of them to be murdered by an unseen figure. Mark arrives at her apartment and finds their bodies, before seeing the same woman from his class leaving the area in a taxi. He calls Rose, who begs him to come to New York before she is murdered herself.

Mark arrives in New York and meets the building’s caretaker Carol (Alida Valli, previously Miss Tanner in Suspiria), elderly and infirm tenant Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin Jr), Arnold’s nurse (Veronica Lazar), Rose’s rich but sickly friend and fellow tenant Elise van Adler (Daria Nicolodi, Gianna Brezzi in Profondo rosso and Argento’s wife and writing partner at the time), van Adler’s creepy butler (Leopoldo Mastelloni), and neighboring antiques dealer Kazanian (Sacha PitoËff), who sold Rose The Three Mothers in the first place. Each of these people come to a tragic end, save for the nurse, who turns out to be Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness, as revealed to Mark by Professor Arnold, who is actually the ancient Varelli. The apartment building burns to the ground (accidentally, which says more about the nonsensical nature of this plot and the irrelevance of all intentional character action than I ever could), and Mark escapes while Tenebrarum seems to be crushed by falling rubble.

Inferno is… not a very good movie. It has too many good moments in it to be a bad movie, but the overall structure leaves much to be desired and the experimental approach to narrative is rather frustrating. Like Suspiria, Inferno has an intentionally dreamlike ambience, but lacks the former’s vivid color and narrative intensity and is (somehow) an overall less coherent movie, despite the fact that there are parts of Inferno that are superior. Inferno feels like a series of vignettes, each one designed to exploit a particular fear; devoid of context, they are actually scarier, creepier, or more unsettling than analogous scenes in Suspiria, save for the fact that each one goes on just long enough that the impact is diminished, and that they are held together with a narrative so flimsy that it ultimately does a disservice to the dark imagery and mood contained within itself. Argento’s decision to forsake the previous film’s focus on witchcraft for an investigation of alchemy is ironic, given that even he could not turn the disparate, good parts of this film into a cohesive whole.

The score, composed by Keith Emerson, is particularly awful, especially when compared to Argento’s collaborations with Goblin; it features terrible rock organ music paired with Omen-esque Latin chanting, and the result is far too silly to be effectively unsettling. The sets, some of which were designed by the great Mario Bava himself, are fantastic, however. As for other elements that are effective, Rose’s underwater scene near the start of the film is a particular highlight, as is every scene with Nicolodi (who contributed to the story for this film as she had for Suspiria, but she had to fight so hard for her on-screen credit in that film that she decided not to bother to do the same here). The death of Sara and Carlo is extremely well done, as the record Sara is playing cuts in and out along with the lights as the electricity flickers. The scene in which Kazanian attempts to drown a bag of cats (evil cats which do the bidding of Tenebrarum, it should be pointed out, although it is still horrifying) only to be eaten by hundreds of rats is also well-done despite the scene’s inexplicable conclusion. If anything, “inexplicable” is the watchword here, as much of the narrative is clunky and scenes fail to flow organically from one to the next.

This is perhaps best evinced in Rome: Sara, inspired by Rose’s letter, goes to an unidentified building for some reason. There, in a library, she finds the copy of The Three Mothers, and then descends into the building’s basement for some reason, rather than checking the book out or coming back the next day. She somehow finds a room where, like, potions are being made, and she tries to communicate with the misshapen person tending the pots for some reason. Apparently she knew that this library would be the place to find this book, and that this library was also (maybe) the home of the third sister, somehow? It’s creepy and effectively unnerving, but it doesn’t hold up to even the most passive narrative scrutiny, which is the best description of the film as a whole as well. There are elements here that work very well, but this is more of a clip show of ideas Argento couldn’t put anywhere else than a movie. If you do choose to check it out, make sure to rent/buy the Blue Underground DVD release, which features Italian audio and English subtitles, as well as interviews with Argento, Miracle, and assistant director Lamberto Bava, son of Mario.

*I can’t decide if this is an effective misdirection or the vestigial remnant of a cut subplot. If you know how Argento works, this first seems like one of his giallo trademarks–the misunderstood early clue that is later explained, much like the unheard words said by Pat at the beginning of Suspiria. Even if you’ve never seen an Argento movie before, the focus on and attention paid to these unheard words seems like a clue. Regardless, nothing ever comes of it, and this character does not reappear after Mark leaves Rome, although it can be inferred that she might be Mater Lachrymarum. We’ve got nearly three decades of Argento movies to get through before we reach Mother of Tears, though, so I wouldn’t expect an answer soon.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Suspiria (1977)

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I first became aware of Dario Argento during my freshman year of college. At the time, television channel Bravo was still transitioning from the arts-oriented channel that it was when it was first incepted into the reality-TV landfill that it is now; I was visiting home and caught the re-airing of their 2004 miniseries 100 Scariest Movie Moments. It’s a smart list, even if the ascending algorithm of fright is contentious (I adore Nightmare on Elm Street, but scarier than Jacob’s Ladder or Rosemary’s Baby? Please.), and it was from that list that I learned the name “Suspiria.” It ranked relatively high, coming in at number 24, and was the second-highest rated non-domestic feature on the roster (Japan’s Audition claimed the number 11 spot), which also included thrillers like Deliverance and Night of the Hunter, films that wouldn’t normally fall under the banner of “horror” per se.

Thus, I didn’t begin my journey into the Dario Argento oeuvre with his earliest work, I started with Suspiria. In fact, before beginning this project, I had not seen Argento’s films that preceded this, his most well-known picture. I Netflix’d the DVD of Crystal Plumage sometime in 2008, but never got around to watching it before sending it back, a casualty in my mad, gluttonous rush to consume every episode of Veronica Mars. The other films of his that I did uncover and watch, like Phenomena and Opera, all came from the middle of his career, after he had forsaken pure giallo and before he moved on to making the mediocre miscellanea of his later career. And, at the risk of sounding cliche, Suspiria was a revelation to me then and a revelation to me now.

The story follows young American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who has been accepted to a prestigious dance academy in the Black Forest of Germany. She arrives during a torrential downpour, and makes her way to the school just in time to see another young student flee into the woods, screaming about secrets. This same young woman is later murdered, brutally, and the friend with whom she took refuge is also killed. The following morning, Suzy meets school’s vice-directress, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett in her final film role), and dance instructor Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), who appear to be strict but matronly. She also befriends Sarah (Stefania Casini), who was friends with the murdered girl and continues her investigation into the strange goings-on about the academy. Strange events begin to happen: Sarah experiences an unusual fainting spell that forces her to relocate to the school’s dormitories from an off-campus apartment, maggots rain from the ceiling after having infiltrated “spoiled food” being kept in the attic, and disoriented bats fly into open windows while faithful service dogs turn on their owners. It’s hard to describe the film’s plot without it sounding like a standard haunted house movie, but it’s so, so much more than that.

What is a movie? Or, perhaps a better question, what should a movie be? In the West, we have been trained to have certain expectations of films, to be receptive to a particular cinematic style with a mostly-linear structure, to recognize certain constants and feel secure in them. As a comparison, think about how you were first introduced to poetry as a student: poems were words arranged in a particular pattern, with meter and rhyme. You were likely given something palatable to read, something not too dissimilar from nursery rhymes, with an easily-identifiable structure. Then, you were introduced to something completely different, something that wasn’t recognizable as a “poem” within the limited context that you were taught. Films are much the same, as studios make the majority of their money from regurgitating the same kind of mediocre pablum over and over again across all genres: Meg Ryan is a relatable career-oriented everywoman who doesn’t realize that there’s something missing from her life, every superhero has to learn the hard way that with great power blah blah (I won’t even bother finishing that thought because you’re already ahead of me), and every generation has a raunchy sex comedy to mislead them about the birds and the bees. But sometimes, a movie comes along that doesn’t just repeat the same ABAB CDCD EE rhyme scheme of other movies you’ve seen before. Auteurs earn their credibility by taking the same things we’ve seen over and over again and tearing them to pieces, or forsaking them altogether, or using them in a transcendent way by playing with or manipulating audience expectation.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that movies which forego some element of cinema in order to exalt another aspect of film can be a worthwhile endeavor, and that putting narrative consistency on the backburner in order to focus on aesthetics or mood doesn’t necessarily make a film less successful than the median anymore than ee cummings was a lesser poet than Robert Browning. Suspiria is a movie that does just this, by honing in on atmosphere and tone rather than plot, and the film is well-served by this attention to detail. That’s not to say that the plot is irrelevant (this isn’t The Five Days, after all), but color and immersion are much more important here than they are in a lot of other films from the same period (or today). Contemporary critics took issue with the film’s plot structure, apparently failing to realize that Suspiria is intentionally dreamlike, influenced by fairy tales and nightmares more than monomyth. Even the opening narration, which others consider to be out of place and somewhat silly, contributes to the film by acting as a kind of horror-tinged “once upon a time.”

Daria Nicolodi, who has a co-writer credit on the film, stated that she based her contribution on stories her grandmother had told her as a child, like the misadventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and, supposedly, the elder woman’s discovery that the faculty of a school she attended was secretly into occultism. Argento has claimed that this story is false, but I prefer her whimsical lie to his pragmatic honesty, as it’s a fun and intriguing fiction that’s better than the truth; that’s one of the things art is for, in my opinion. Argento has also said that he initially wanted the film to star adolescents, but that this was quickly nixed (watch that first murder scene and imagine that the victim is twelve years old, and you can see why this change was necessary); to maintain that viewpoint, the set was designed with all doorknobs at eye level so that the subconscious recognizes the actors as being smaller and more childlike. This kind of set detail, along with the omnipresence of bright, vivid colors, contributes to the film’s overall surreal ambiance. It’s a movie that’s experienced and felt more than it is one which is interpreted, and it’s all the better for it.

This is perhaps best encapsulated by the experience of the main character, Suzy. Suzy spends a great deal of her screentime being sedated each night while the heavy-lifting of the mystery is largely performed by others around her. Pat, the girl who flees the school in the opening, kept notes about the faculty’s suspicious behavior and practices; Sarah listens to the steps being taken by the teachers at night and records them so Suzy can use this information to discover the coven later; Suzy’s disappearance leads Sarah to Dr. Mendel (Udo Kier, of all people), who introduces her to exposition-laden Professor Milius (Rudolf Schundler). Suzy is a character who is acted upon more often than she is one who has agency, but isn’t that so often the case with dreams? In another movie, this would be a detraction, but here it’s actually a feature. If you haven’t seen this movie already, what are you doing here? Stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it, right now.

Additional notes:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t address this above, but this was prog-rock band Goblin’s second time collaborating with Argento, and the movie’s score is absolutely phenomenal. Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Suspiria includes a copy of the soundtrack, which has long been out of print but must be heard. It’s like the apotheosis of what a horror film score should be, at once delicate and disquieting, unsettling but eerily beautiful and vaguely mystical. Halloween’s may be the best-known horror score, but Suspiria‘s is technically and thematically superior and one of the best scores of all time.
  • When I first saw this movie, I had never seen any previous Argento films, so I didn’t know what his recurring motifs were. Although this is not a giallo film in the strictest sense of the word (obviously, the “mystery” here is much less important than visuals and mood), his trope of a character witnessing something at the beginning of the film that they struggle to comprehend is present here. As in Deep Red, a mirror holds an important clue and plays a key role in the resolution of an investigation. Most amusing to me, however, was the fact that Suzy’s ultimate defeat of the evil coven queen requires her to use a crystal-handed dagger that is part of a sculpture of a peacock, presumably the same genus as titular Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
  • He doesn’t factor into the film all that much, but Suzy’s love interest Mark (Miguel Bosé) is a total babe. Yowza.
  • A minor quibble: Why do the witches even care to bring Suzy into the school in the first place? In a more standard Hollywood film, they would probably be looking to use her in some way (see: Rosemary’s Baby) or convince her to join the coven, but there’s no real reason given or explored here, further adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. We never get an answer, but if this frustrates you, you may be missing the point.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond