Synopsis: A young woman stumbles upon a mysterious diary that reveals the secrets of “The Three Mothers” and unleashes a nightmare world of demonic evil. As the unstoppable horror spreads from Rome to New York City, this unholy trinity must be stopped before the world is submerged in the blood of the innocent.
Written and directed by Dario Argento, Inferno is considered to be the sequel to his classic Suspiria. This surreal shocker stars Irene Miracle (Night Train Murders), Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red) and Leigh McCloskey (Dallas), and features a pulse-pounding original score by Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
eyelights: the style.
eyesores: the substance (or lack thereof).
‘Inferno’ is the second part of a trilogy that Dario Argento built around The Three Mothers, or “Our Ladies of Sorrows”, as originally found in Thomas de Quincey’s book ‘Suspiria de Profundis’. The first was ‘Suspiria‘, revolving around Mater Suspiriorum (Mother of Sorrows), while ‘Inferno’ concerns itself with Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Darkness).
While the first took place in Germany, this one takes places in Rome and New York. The notion is that The Three Mothers each reside in a large city and, thus, each film is rooted in the principal mother’s home city. Mater Tenebrarum lives in New York, and that is where we spend most of our time, but we also visit Rome in the beginning where Mater Lachrymarum (Mother of Tears) is rooted.
The story begins with Rose, a student who happens to find a book about The Three Mothers. She begins to explore the connections between the myth and the strange happenings in her neighbourhood. Meanwhile, her brother Mark comes from Rome to visit (at his sister’s insistence) and discovers that she has disappeared. He subsequently follows her leads, trying to find her and solve the mystery himself.
While in Rome, however, he gets his first taste of what’s to come. Not only is a friend of his murdered after she also explores the myth of The Three Mothers, but he crosses paths with Mater Lachrymarum, a strange, but strikingly beautiful woman with features (the eyes, in particular) similar to a young Madonna Ciccone. Her presence has no significant impact but it disturbs him greatly.
(As a side-note, it’s unfortunate that Argento didn’t complete the trilogy film shortly thereafter, because this actress would not be in ‘La terza madre’, which was made 27 years later (!), thereby affecting the continuity of the series.)
‘Inferno’ tries to be clever, but it doesn’t succeed one iota. Its core conceit about The Three Mothers is so loose that it makes for a veritably poor mythology: 1) The Mother is scary, 2) She will be underground, 3) Look under your soles (whatever that means). This is a mythology that Argento only established in ‘Inferno’, having made no effort to even hint at it in ‘Suspiria’.
Frankly, it’s as though Argento attempted to give his films some fundamental clues but failed to come up with something intelligent or coherent. I mean, say what you will about ‘Gremlins‘, but at least it has some very clear ground rules that it followed closely: 1) Keep them out of sunlight, 2) Don’t give them any water, 3) Don’t feed them after midnight. That worked.
I mean, the idea of creating a trilogy around Our Ladies of Sorrow is intriguing, for sure, but it would have been great if it had been well-thought out. Or at all. Having said this, the problem of coherence seems to be par for the course in Dario’s films: we are often treated to excellent concepts that, from a plot perspective, are developed particularly poorly.
Case-in-point, the development in ‘La terza madre’ hinges on coincidences and illogical behaviour on the characters’ part:
Why does Rose go exploring the underground space? Normally, someone would go change into the proper clothing (she is in high heels, a skirt and a transparent blouse) and come back to spelunk afterwards. Then her keys just happen to fall off her belt and into the water? Come on! Then there’s that scene when Mark sees ants coming from the floor, so he decides to lift the floorboards and then bash the concrete floor underneath, digging a hole and effectively causing structural damage,so that can go check things out. Just call an exterminator, you fool!
…et cetera, et cetera.
Even the murders are stylistic but not at all possible the way that they’re filmed:
The guy who gets stabbed in the neck was talking mere moments before, and yet we don’t hear him scream or anything – nor do we see the killer anywhere. Plus which the knife was impaled in his neck in a position that would typically require the killer to be upside down. Then there’s the moment when the killer grabs hold of Rose’s face but isn’t even trying to hold her – sort of half-heartedly embracing her face with rubbery hands. And yet she doesn’t manage to escape his/her grasp.
…et cetera, et cetera.
Is ‘Inferno’ meant to be surrealistic storytelling? Well, whatever the case may be, it’s quite clear that it cannot be accepted at face value – as was the case with ‘Suspiria’. One hopes that this was intentional, that it was a stylistic choice, and not a series of major lapses on Argento’s part. Either way, I remember just how infuriated I was with the film when I first saw it: I just couldn’t believe the rubbish I was seeing on screen and swiftly shelved my VHS tape. Forever.
However, if one can accept the irrationality of everything that takes place, if one can watch the film from a purely stylistic point of view, it has a number of qualities that make it worth watching. For starters, it has a unique visual aesthetic that is not too far removed from the one in ‘Suspiria’, from the camera work to the lighting (although it isn’t nearly as accomplished). I’m sure that it was in a class of its own at the time.
Sadly, the score for ‘Inferno’ wasn’t nearly as impressive this time. While Keith Emerson (yes, from Emerson, Lake and Palmer!) is an excellent musician and composer, his score is merely okay, being too traditional in some areas and too proggy in others; it doesn’t make its mark in quite the same way that Goblin’s music for ‘Suspiria’ did. It’s a shame that Goblin weren’t used here, because original music like theirs would have helped to tie the series together.
One of the big surprises is that ‘Inferno’ is one of the rare Argento films where most of the actors are decent. We’re not talking award-winning, here, but Argento’s pictures are frequently littered with outlandish performances that defy all credibility. So “decent” is very much welcome, all things considered. Still, there are a few “typically Argento” moments, like when we are introduced to Rose’s neighbour, or when Mater Lachrymarum shows up. But that’s about it.
Gosh. I remember hating ‘Inferno’ like crazy. I originally gave the movie a 3.0, because I simply couldn’t stand its incoherence. The whole time that I watched it, I was in total disbelief, reacting violently to each illogical element and irrational twist. Now, after having watched so many Dario Argento films, I’ve come to expect a certain level of nonsense and it doesn’t bother me nearly as much.
But would I recommend it? Not to most people: it’s definitely an acquired taste.
Date of viewing: April 6, 2013