Inferno (1980) – Rock N Rolla

Inferno

Inferno feels like a mashed-up jukebox with lots of gore and blood spilling out from the four corners of the screen than a plot driven about witchcraft. You have a DJ here mixing the songs and giving us what we expect from Dario Argento without caring much about how we get there. Yet, what Argento promises, he delivers: rollicking background scores drumming up the intensity and scenes flowered with artistic brilliance. Not to ignore the gory sights of human destruction at the hands of supernatural forces.

Inferno feels more b-grade than its predecessor and is more in line with Mario Bava’s films than Suspiria (1977). No wonder as Bava worked as Argento’s advisor in Inferno overseeing the visual effects. His son, Lamberto Bava, is the assistant director. Inferno is the second installment of Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. It’s more explicit in explaining the nuances of the three death-personified women than Suspiria was, and treads a path more honest to the gaillo genre than its predecessor.

That doesn’t mean it’s equally compelling or artistic. It takes the theme forward through Mater Tenebrarum—the most dangerous of the three witches—from Mater Suspiriorum in Suspiria. Comparisons are bound with the former as Inferno is a thematic sequel to Suspiria and that may have been the undoing of this otherwise grisly movie.

Mater Tenebrarum is the Mother of Darkness. In Suspiria, we saw the eldest witch, Mater Suspiriorum, popular as Helena Markos. She was the Mother of Sighs. In the much-delayed third part, we round off the trilogy with Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears – the most beautiful and powerful of the three witches. She makes an appearance in Inferno as the cat-eyed, hypnotic music student (Ania Pieroni), but not much is shown after her brief appearance and the blood that she deliciously spills.

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Inferno opens with Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), a poet living in an apartment in New York. Her next-door neighbor owns an antique store where she buys classic books. One of the books she acquires is the Three Mothers – a loose biographical musing of Arnold Varelli. Varelli, we learn, was an architect and built three mansions for the Three Mothers – one in Freiburg, another one in Rome, and the last one in New York. Those three mansions are the dwelling places of the witches and the land in and around the area are cursed forever because of their sheer presence.

Rose becomes engrossed in the book and suspects that she might be living in one of those Varelli marvels. She writes to her brother in Rome about it. And, there begins a fatal turn of destiny, as those who have read the book remain in danger of dying. Apparently, there are only five copies of the books. Three of them are destroyed by the end of the movie – leaving only two.

In Suspiria, the male characters were all underscores in Suzy Bannion’s investigation of the occult. That’s not the case in Inferno. Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey) has a pivotal part in unraveling the mystery of the horrific second witch even if he does it by chance and fate – more than will and appropriate planning. That is the problem with Inferno.

There’s no concrete point-of-view to follow. We travel from New York to Rome and understand the events through the eyes of Mark’s fellow music student, Sara (Eleonara Giorgi) as she happens to read Mark’s letter from his sister, Rose, which ticks her curiosity on the matter. She proceeds to a traditional library and gets her copy of the Three Mothers. This leads to the episode of witch haunting, or Sara’s passage into nightmare. The place of library is suggested to be the home of the third and most deadly mother.

The perspectives keep altering between Rose and Sara, and we see a rehash of one of the famous plot points from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961).

Even in Suspiria, you could say that all the pieces slot in right together, but – unlike in Inferno – Suspiria was a high-octane horror, with a captivating mystery angle and a plot furthered by Suzy’s inquisitiveness. In Inferno, the inquisitiveness is lacking, or feels rather deceptive, and the resolution that Varelli hints at in the book stumbles upon the characters without a pretense of struggle.

For much of the movie, things happen randomly. And, a lot happens – for sheer pleasure than narrative compulsion. Dario Argento’s screenplay, consequently, lacks crispness in punctuating key points of the movie. The blood and gore are the only highlights of the movie, with the story serving merely as a bonus.

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This doesn’t make Inferno boring to watch. It makes it less exciting than the first part. The sequel mayn’t have been necessary. I don’t think many would have minded, yet it suffices to say that we’d have missed the brilliant visuals and cinematography (Romano Albani) of the film. The underwater scene with Rose in the underground cellar is astonishing and beautiful to watch – heightening the senses, beautifying the movie. To think, Irene Miracle did it all naturally is a humbling aspect and a testament to Argento’s mastery as an artist.

The artist that he is, nonetheless, the music (Keith Emerson) isn’t as gravitating as the Goblins’ master class in Suspiria. It’s too loud at times, mistimed at others – and doesn’t have the same chill or hypnotism.

Inferno is poor man’s Suspiria. If you enjoyed Suspiria, you won’t dislike it. If you go in with the expectations of another Suspira, you’ll be disappointed. The key, therefore, lies in forgetting Suspiria and enjoying for what it is – Dario Argento’s visual magic and the folklore of Italian gaillo.

Indeed, it’s all going to burn down just like before. In Suspiria, the movie was phoenix ashes. In Inferno, it’s just ashes. Once it burns down, you forget about it.