Friday, July 3, 2020

Inferno (1980)

... aka: A Mansão do Inferno (The Mansion of Hell)
... aka: Dario Argento's Inferno
... aka: Feuertanz der Zombies (Fire Dance of Zombies)
... aka: Horror Infernal
... aka: Pokol (Hell)
... aka: Rædslernes inferno (Inferno of Horror)

Directed by:
Dario Argento

This continuation of, and elaboration on, what went down in SUSPIRIA deals with The Three Mothers; a trio of evil witch siblings whose reign of terror leaves behind a string of bizarre, grisly murders stretching from Europe all the way across the Atlantic to America. An architect / alchemist named E. Varelli, whose diaries comprise a book on the gruesome gals titled - you guessed it! - The Three Mothers, designed three homes for the sisters to hide out in as they plot their nefarious schemes... whatever those may be. Mater Suspiriorum - the "Mother of Sighs" - calls Freiburg, Germany home. The eldest of three, Suspiriorum is the same witch who was featured in Suspiria and referred to as Helena Markos there. Seeing as how she's killed by Jessica Harper at the end of the film, she's not featured here at all, though the other two are. Mater Lachrymarum (or "The Mother of Tears") is the most beautiful of the sisters and resides in Rome, Italy, while Mater Tenebrarum ("The Mother of Darkness"), the youngest and most cruel of the three, operates out of New York City in the United States. Though the former is featured here in a few scenes (she becomes a greater focus in Argento's 2007 conclusion of the trilogy: The Mother of Tears), the primary focus here is on the latter.

For the record, this mythology is loosely based on Thomas De Quincey's Suspiria de profundis, in particular the essay "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" which involves Roman childbirth goddess Levana and her three companions: Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum. Luigi Cozzi's unofficial pseudo-sequel to these films (1989's The Black Cat), which was made when it looked like Argento had completely abandoned his trilogy concept, concentrates on the Levana character, who's also a powerful witch and causes problems on a movie set filming what's basically an updated remake of Suspiria. Meta!

New York writer Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle), who also happens to be a tenant in the same large, barely-occupied brownstone as one of the Three Mothers, gets her hands on Varelli's book from a next door bookstore run by the mysterious Kazanian (Sacha Pitoëff). We can only assume the book has been left there intentionally to lure inquisitive victims to their doom, though that kind of flies in the face of the concept that the witches want to remain hidden from the world as not to have someone interrupt their evil deeds. Either way, Rose becomes obsessed with the book and the story of the sisters. Three "keys" are pointed out in the text. The first states that the land around the witches' homes will become "deathly and plagued" and start smelling horribly. Second, the secret of the witches is hidden in the cellar underneath the home, which will contain a painting of and the name of the sister occupying it. The third secret "can be found under the soles of your shoes." In this case it turns out to be literal.

After mailing out a letter to her brother, receiving little information from the bookstore owner and already picking up on a foul odor surrounding the area, Rose decides to see if the second clue contained in the book is real. She explores her building's cellar, finds an underground room flooded with water and, hidden down there, the painting of Mater Tenebrarum... along with a rotting corpse! Instead of phoning the police, she rushes up to her apartment and apparently just stays there... for a week or so... or however long it would take for a letter to arrive overseas back in 1980. Meanwhile in Rome, Rose's brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) has received her letter but he's too distracted in class by his "musicology" final and a mysterious beauty (Ania Pieroni) who's seemingly materialized out of thin air with her cat, to actually read it.

After Mark accidentally leaves the letter behind, his friend and classmate Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) hops in a cab and heads his way. However, she decides to first investigate Rose's claims all by herself after reading the letter, which clearly isn't going to end well. That leads her to a library, trying to check out "The Three Mothers," becoming lost at closing time and ending up in the basement for a freaky encounter with a deep-voiced man who appears to be not quite human. Soon after, both she and a neighbor (Gabriele Lavia) are viciously murdered. When Mark finally decides to fly back to the states, he finds no sign of his sister when he arrives as she's been killed herself. He receives little help from the building's other suspicious tenants aside from the mentally-imbalanced Elise (Daria Nicolodi), who really isn't much help herself as she's killed off shortly after she appears, leaving Mark alone to uncover the secrets of the building and of Mater Tenebrarum.

For your money you get a cat eating a rat, a cat attack, a rat attack after someone drowns a bag of cats (?) during a lunar eclipse (??) and a handful of bloody murders, including a neck slashing via window pane, a head hacked with a cleaver, a knife through a neck, eyes gouged out and a burning body falling through a glass window. Giuseppe Bassan's art direction and Romano Albani's photography are both great and it's all drenched in blue, red, green, yellow, orange and purple light so nearly every shot looks vibrant and visually pleasing. Beyond that, this is one of Argento's most frustrating films to sit through.

Inferno is unfortunately sorely lacking in narrative drive. Compound that with the complete absence of a compelling central focal point and the film has a tendency to lurch along looking pretty but otherwise feeling rather empty and aimless. The closest thing we get to a lead is former soap opera actor McCloskey and, while he's not a very interesting on-screen presence, it's difficult to blame him since he's not alone in that regard. Second lead Miracle also doesn't make much of an impression, but in the interview she gave with House of Freudstein, it's not difficult to see why. According to the actress, she was given little direction, no real character to play and more of an outline of the story than an actual script. She also claimed that Argento wasn't even on set when she filmed many of her scenes. Since there's not much of a plot to advance, most of the other actors are there merely as props to die, resulting in long scenes of bland cardboard cutouts wandering around colorfully lit sets looking confused and / or bored.

I've seen the story written off as incoherent but I don't necessarily agree with that sentiment. The film does make sense for the most part. The problem is it's lacking in plot complication, story interest and character motivation. We learn the witches are doing evil things from their residences and that's about all. What's the end game? Why leave obvious clues around for bystanders to find? Why are these all-powerful women doing everything so small scale? Why is so little time spent on them and why do these potentially fascinating characters come off as being so bloody uninteresting and non-threatening here? They're also ultimately defeated in rather pedestrian fashion after their whereabouts are discovered, leaving the final confrontation here feeling extremely underwhelming.

Stylistically, there's too much carried right over from Suspiria, which isn't just limited to lighting, camerawork and set design. Exact moments are duplicated, like the taxi ride with the flashing colors, the exploding lights, shots of street drains, shots of things like the moon shown in three progressively-closer jump cuts and basically the entire fiery final scene. While Suspiria had a genuinely memorable, scary and unnerving score from Goblin, Keith Emerson provides a score here that's a mix of more elegant-sounding compositions with noisier and more thunderous ones, which gets to be distracting and even irritating at times. One thing it's decided not is scary.

Inferno was not given a wide theatrical release outside of Italy, nor did it receive the same glowing critical reviews of Suspiria. It was released by 20th Century Fox on a very limited basis and was considered a box office disappointment upon release. Retrospective reviews since then have typically been much more kind, but I'm not on the same page with people like Kim Newman, who referred to it as "perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980s," (Nope! It's not even Argento's most underrated film of the 80s. That would be PHENOMENA.) It also occasionally ends up on Top 100 horror lists, though usually / rightfully left off in favor of Suspiria and DEEP RED (1975). Time Out threw it on the tail end of their list, with Nigel Floyd complementing it for its "free associative fluidity of the unconscious," which is basically critic-speak for "it lacks a proper plot."

This film is as noteworthy as anything else as being the final film Mario Bava ever worked on. He helped with lighting, special effects, direction and photography, though all curiously sans credit, while his son, Lamberto Bava, actually does receive credit as assistant director. Parts were filmed in New York City, including at Central Park. Andrew W. Garroni and William Lustig (who also isn't credited) worked as production managers on these scenes shortly before filming MANIAC (1980). In fact, at one point Maniac was slated to co-star Nicolodi, be co-produced by Argento and feature a Goblin score but none of that came to pass. The cast includes Veronica Lazar (who later appeared in Argento's The Stendhal Syndrome), Feodor Chaliapin Jr., a completely wasted Alida Valli and Fulvio Mingozzi reprising his Suspiria role as a taxi driver.

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