Further into the Inferno: The Follies of Deepening Suspiria’s Mythology

I love Dario Argento’s Suspira. It’s very high among my favorite titles from the Italian genre film legend, matched only by the likes of Opera & Tenebre. At the same time, I could not care less about the story Suspiria tells if I tried. Like the murder mystery gialli Argento cut his teeth directing, this is explicitly a style-over-substance endeavor, one that pays much more careful attention to the lighting of a kill & the menace of the soundtrack than the logic or structure of its mythology. Suspiria is a gorgeous, gore-coated object that overwhelms in its sensual pleasures, but does little to develop its central story beyond the elevator-pitch premise of “A ballet school run by witches.” Argento doesn’t even save the revelation of that premise for a mysterious reveal; one of the earliest scenes features a track from prog band Goblin where whispers of “Witch, witch-witch-witch” overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s such a weird impulse, then, for each of Suspiria’s later follow-ups to lean so heavily into the witchy dance school’s background mythology as if that was something the original film was missing. No Suspriria descendent follows this trivial pursuit as thoroughly as Luca Gaudagnino’s 2018 eponymous remake. Guadagningo’s Suspriria sprawls into almost a full extra hour of runtime to make room for exploring the political struggles of the coven who run the dammed dance academy, the childhood background of their latest victim Susie Banion, the cultural climate of the country outside the academy’s walls, and any number of other lore concerns that were not on Argento’s mind as much as staging witchy, ballet-themed kills. The truth is, though, that Argento himself was just as guilty of needlessly fleshing out Suspiria’s mythology; he just saved that indulgence for his own sequels to the original film. It’s also true that no mythology-minded Suspiria follow-up—whether from Guadagningo or Argento—has been especially bad, even though every single one is remarkably goofy.

Argento himself wasted zero time diving into Suspiria’s unexplored mythology in his own sequels to the film. The second title in what would eventually be know as The Three Mothers Trilogy, 1980’s Inferno, opens with characters reading large blocks of text out of a fictional book titled The Three Mothers that details lore only casually referenced in the previous film. While Suspiria briefly mentions that its German setting is just one of three connected, international covens – the others located in Rome & NYC – it doesn’t waste much time wondering what’s going on with the witches who run those other houses. Inferno, by contrast, explains in plain academic dialogue how the Mother of Sighs, the Mother of Tears, and the Mother of Darkness divvy up their geographically disparate power structure—connecting its tale of NYC witchcraft to the German events of the previous film. Still, the actual narrative of Inferno has little to do with this suddenly complex lore until the final showdown staged with the Mother of Darkness witch who resides in New York. Mostly, Argento slips back into the sensory indulgences of complexly constructed kills that guided the overall trajectory of the first film, even joking with the supposed seriousness of its mythology when a character mistakes “The Three Sisters” for an R&B vocal group. It wasn’t until the much-delayed conclusion to the trilogy, 2007’s Mother of Tears: The Third Mother, that he really committed to pretending Suspiria’s lore actually meant something, now having spent decades fleshing out its legacy. In the film, his real-life daughter Asia Argento reopens the same The Three Mothers book to kickstart her fated path to confront the titular third Mother in Rome; only this time the pursuit of that mystery & confrontation are made to be the main thrust of the text, so that the brutal gore (and shoddy CGI scares) that interrupt the mythology are more a distraction than they are the entire point. It’s no coincidence that the most mythology-obsessed entry in the Three Mothers Trilogy is also the weakest picture, artistically. Its Roman Catholic mysticism & ancient texts mysteries approximate a mid-00s horror version of The Da Vinci Code, except its guidance under the Dimension Extreme label makes it way cheaper & meaner than that may sound.

As Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is a shameless indulgence in pure excess, it can’t help but eat up all of the lore stretched out across the entire Three Mothers Trilogy in a single sitting. Gaudagnino goes beyond the establishment of there being a coven of witches in three major cities to ask who these witches are, what political climates they have to deal with, how they delegate power, and how they select their victims. He also picks up the idea of their being a book explaining the mechanics of these covens and their respective houses by filling entire notebooks with handwritten, geometrically diagrammed explanations of how witchcraft works in this universe on a practical, if not mathematical level. This elaboration of core mythology may seem philosophically opposed to the barebones, imagery-distracted lore of the original Suspiria, but it does touch on the most core aspect of Dario Argento’s work: excess. The giallo legend may have poured more of his excessive, obsessive detail into the lighting & staging of a kill than establishing a sense of logic in the witchcraft behind it, but Guadagnino’s overly-detailed attention to the lore is still in the same sprit of unbridled, maybe even ill-advised excess. Oddly, that over-commitment to mythology ultimately has the same effect on the audience that the disregard for it achieved in Argento’s original version. There’s so much going on in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria that it’s difficult to pay attention to or emotionally invest in any one narrative thread, so that what mostly remains is the film’s sense of style. Suspiria (’77) & Inferno recognize this effect outright and fully commit to Argento’s witchcraft giallo aesthetic once they establish the basic tenants of the lore that drives their conflict. Mother of Tears & Suspiria (’18) are much more frantic in their relationship with mythology, chasing a sense of meaning so desperately in their embellishment of witchcraft lore that an overindulgence in backstory & narrative itself becomes part of the filmmaking style.

Whether keeping the mythology as thinly sketched out as it was in the original film or over-explaining superfluous new wrinkles to the lore, the overall strength of a Suspiria follow-up still lies in the pleasures of its sense of style. Inferno may be the most underrated in this regard– mixing the neon witchcraft aesthetic from its predecessor with the gloved-hand giallo kills of other Argento works & Fulci-level shameless gags singular to its own vision (there are a couple cat & rat-themed eco-horror kills I find especially pleasurable) to achieve something truly special. Suspiria (2018) is similarly pleasurable in its stylistic deviations (ultimately landing somewhere between Possession & Society, but nowhere near Argento), even if its attention to lore often feels like wasted energy. Mother of Tears is the clear weak link in the chain, but even the cheap & cheesy violence of its large-scale horror mystery has a kind of charm to it, like an especially gory episode of Masters of Horror or an expired box of Easy Mac. There are no bad Suspiria movies, but there are certainly ones that try way too hard to pretend the series’ core mythology means something; it very much doesn’t.

-Brandon Ledet

Inferno (1980)

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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