October Horrorshow: Inferno (1980)

Three years after horror auteur Dario Argento gave us the vibrant classic Suspiria, he waded back into brilliant color and dreamlike atmosphere by writing and directing Inferno. Described as a thematic sequel to Suspiria, Inferno is the second film of Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. Whether this film was truly intended to be related to Suspiria or if such a decision was commercial in nature is debatable. Either way, sequel or thematic cousin or whatever, Inferno is clearly an Argento film.

The film stars Irene Miracle as Rose Elliott. She’s a young poet living in New York City. She discovers a book written by an alchemist/architect named Varelli that claims the existence of three witches. One lives in Freiburg, Germany (here is the strongest connection to Suspiria), another lives in Rome, and the third lives in New York City. Wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that Rose’s building is where the third witch, known as the Mother of Darkness, or Mater Tenebrarum, resides.

Rose sets out to explore her building and uncover the mystery behind the book and the witches. Thus begins the supernatural events that dominate the film.

Meanwhile, Rose’s brother, Mark (Leigh McCloskey), is a music student in Rome. Whatever is happening to Rose reaches its way across the Atlantic Ocean and begins to screw with his life, and that of his lady-friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi). After some bloody violence and a brief phone call with his sister, Mark is off to New York, ready to help his sister and find out just what is going on.

There is more to this plot, but not much. Advancing the story seemed to be of secondary concern compared to atmosphere for Argento. Plot in this movie has about as much importance as it does in a dream. This was all intentional, of course. Argento returned to many of the same filming methods he used to such effect in Suspiria. In this film, Argento’s surrealist method has been further honed, so much Infernoso that everything else is pushed to the periphery. Romano Albani handled the cinematography in this film, building on the work of Luciano Tovoli from Suspiria.

This film has a running time of 107 minutes, and Argento milked every second of it. Shots and sequences linger long past what most filmmakers would be willing to put on film. Most of the time Argento’s deliberateness works. There are only a few instances throughout the film that tried my patience, but this is not a swift film by any means. Since Argento prioritized atmosphere over everything else, he made sure that the audience had time to drink it all in before moving on to the next fully-considered shot or sequence. This has the effect of drawing a viewer deep into the beauty of the film, so much so that it no longer matters whether or not the story is moving at all.

Argento was not one to go subtle with a soundtrack. He hired Keith Emerson to make the music for Inferno, and his heavily synthesized work incorporates Verdi. It’s orchestral and then poppy and spans over a century of musical styles. It’s also, at times, as important as what Argento is showing on screen. The music can dominate entire shots in this film, and whether or not one likes the music can have a vast effect on the quality of a scene. This isn’t a soundtrack designed to enhance a movie as much as it is an essential part of Argento’s cinematic style. He dazzles the eyes with colored lights and outlandish sets, and also hits the audience with music that can’t be dismissed as background.

Not a lot happens in this film, but should one measure the quality of a film by the amount of stuff crammed into the plot, there are plenty of other alternatives out there. Inferno is a visual and aural experience meant to evoke an altered state of consciousness. Whether that be dream, hallucination, or even a preview of an afterlife doesn’t matter. Place and time are not fixed things but interpretations of our senses. With Inferno, Argento shows again that he was best when he took the normal rules of perception and twisted them around. Keeping a sense of place is difficult while watching this film, and that creates an underlying layer of stress that enhances the scares. Inferno is a classic example of atmospheric horror.