The year 1980 saw the start of an incredible output of new age slasher horror in the United States while over in Italy, legendary genre filmmaker Dario Argento (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage) premiered Inferno only to be met with relatively low critical reception. Eventually finding a larger audience later on in the decade and contemporarily amongst cult fans, the film has found a more appreciative base as one of Argento’s finest pieces of work. Written, directed, and narrated by Argento, Inferno takes place over a few unfortunate days in April when “A woman’s discovery of a rare, demonic diary sets forth a nightmarish set of events that spreads from Italy to New York as evil calls for blood.”
Starring Leigh McCloskey (Dallas), Irene Miracle (Midnight Express), Daria Nicolodi (Deep Red), and Eleonora Giorgi (Black Belly of The Tarantula), Inferno governs a surreal phantasmagoric murder mystery that sees the continuation of Argento’s Suspiria de Profundis inspired conception. It might come second in line for a number of reasons, but when we take a closer look at the film it’s painfully obvious that Inferno belongs among the ranks of the supreme it extends the reach of an obscure coven, maintains Argento’s iconic style, and provokes the very essence of ubiquitous fear.
I’d Like To Talk To You About That Book
Dario Argento is widely known for his legendary supernatural giallo, Suspiria, the first installment of his Three Mothers trilogy. Inferno stands as its direct sequel followed up by Tenebre to complete the coven collection revolving around a fictitious, but cursed text, The Book Of The Three Mothers written by a man by the name of Varelli. Though Inferno is the first to delve into the lore of these powerful witches, each of the films can be enjoyed individually. Expanding on the alluring world established in Suspiria, Inferno delves into the motives and universal power of the witchy trio building on a world of secrets and mystery ranging from New York to Italy To Germany. Utilizing slasher style motifs combined with otherworldly forces at work, Inferno leads a narrative of its own down a twisted dark hall full of curious encounters and intriguing exploration.
Poetry student Rose inhabits an ancient building and happens upon the lore of The Book Of The Three Mothers. When she reaches out to her brother who is busy studying music in Italy, Mark, the two become pulled toward uncovering the mystery around its contents as well as those around them while a vicious murderer kills anyone before they get too close to the truth.
“[…] Inferno belongs among the ranks of the supreme […] [it] provokes the very essence of ubiquitous fear. “
The menacing trail of curiosity follows Argento’s signature fold of a faithful crime giallo with supernatural myths and happenings. From a faceless assailant donning black gloves to suspicious secondary and minor characters acting as red herrings to a high body count made up of brutal death sequences, Inferno literally leads viewers on a blood trail as Rose and Mark, subsequently, piece together a wicked legacy that far exceeds their initial piques of interest.
As the responsibility of the mystery jumps from one person to the next and the demonic manifestations take on a nefarious identity, Argento gives viewers much to analyze and take in with their eyes, ears, and mind. The foreboding motifs and ominous tone present a genuinely unsettling atmosphere that withstands its hour and 45-minute runtime. Swift splices of uncomfortable imagery and a disorienting pattern of events are complemented by subtle symbology in reflections, animals, and even the wind to create an omniscient, universal presence that haunts every frame of the story regardless of location. Argento’s play on the unknown, the realistic slayings of characters, and his ironic in-your-face hints at what’s to come dance around the existence of these three witches, ultimately daring viewers to probe and doubt the surreal circumstances throughout Inferno.
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Spooks And Stuff
Elaborating on Inferno’s core mystery, Argento continues his signature aesthetic by casting the film under a veil of whimsy with the sharp lure of danger. Beautiful even at its most ugliest moments, every scene and frame of Inferno is crafted with an artistic eye. Gentle and delicate one minute to harsh and foul the next, the overall look of his visual storytelling is an experience in its own right.
The soft, rich environments clashed with feverish color and darkness are an extreme, and expected, exercise in hue. Shocking red and blue illuminations blend to create soft purples highlighted by natural moonlight. The glowing spurts of color cast ghostly silhouettes and shadows in organic spectral charm. Calming greens and pastels are used to disarm viewers, but then the loud reds and blues return as danger emerges. It’s not a giallo without the appliqué of vibrant crimson, and this palette certainly delivers turning gore into optical art. In addition to the unnerving display of color, Argento uses random sudden closeups, Voyeuristic perspectives, and long drawn out sequences to brilliantly draw out the suspense amongst other magical techniques.
“Argento’s play on the unknown, the realistic slayings of characters, and his ironic in-your-face hints at what’s to come dance around the existence of these three witches, ultimately daring viewers to probe and doubt the surreal circumstances throughout Inferno. “
Further adding to Inferno’s daunting composition, the film’s set scapes bring another layer of perplexing mystery. The set pieces are dressed with lush antique furniture and unique decorating that fills the spaces all held together within luxe architecture. The layouts, particularly Rose’s historical residence building, have a puzzle-like quality including hidden doors, hallways, alleys, staircases, odd windows, looming curtains and drapery, and even unusual holes in the ground. Argento expertly creates confusion and feeling of entrapment within the film’s set and movement that it could almost go unnoticed. As the characters of Inferno find themselves in inescapable positions throughout their investigation, viewers willingly follow along none the wiser.
Inferno goes even further to disorient the audience, and characters alike at times, through its grand compilation of sound. Whispers and eerie creaking accompany orchestral swells and pounds that conjures up a strange fast-paced energy that is immediately stifled with silence.
Inferno’s score, composed and performed by progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s keyboardist, Keith Emerson, goes from lighthearted to haunting in just a few changes of the key. The classical piano and organ notes carry an off-putting sense of sophistication through the film’s horrifying affairs while operatic rock suddenly blasts out of nowhere. The alternative auditory medley is just as successfully distinct as the visual structures, working together in terrifying harmony. All of Inferno’s cinematic elements are crafted with the very effective intention to attract, confuse, and scare all involved parties, viewers included.
They Call Us… Death!
The saying “curiosity killed the cat” is an unspoken notion that runs deep, literally, throughout Inferno. Though the narrative is marked by a handful of brutal deaths ranging from sharp penetrative kills to animal attacks, two of the film’s more memorable scenes don’t involve a drop of that thick red blood. Without giving too much away, the initial underwater scene in the first act is notably terrifying. Sending viewers straight into the film’s more surreal and dreamy tone, we follow Rose into a watery hole and can’t help but beg her not to dive any further.
The murky exploration is an anxious venture, occurring on top of a stranger’s looming presence, that seems to last hours in an immersive claustrophobic pit of dread submerged in watery silence. The entire scene is enchanting and absolutely frightening so much so that I recommend Inferno to new viewers strictly based on it alone. It immediately sets up the film’s uncomfortable ongoing sense of doom and to its internal message that physically manifests in Inferno’s final, and second most memorable, act.
“As the characters of Inferno find themselves in inescapable positions throughout their investigation, viewers willingly follow along none the wiser. “
The fear and impending promise of death is not only suggested throughout Inferno, but it hangs heavy in the air from the moment Rose breaks the seal on The Book Of The Three Mothers. When Mark comes face to face with Mater Tenebrarum, the ‘Mother of Darkness’, in the film’s finale their true nature is revealed. She laments on the subject of death as the building is set ablaze in a lovely, yet scary monologue that dictates the film’s hidden meaning.
Transforming into the personification of death itself, a cloaked skeletal reaper brings the film to a fiery close. To some, it might seem like a hokey costumed villain, but to others it can be quite a surprising monster that grants a figurative representation to the omnipresent doom that has consumed Rose, Mark, and others from the beginning. Mater Tenebrarum preaches an important message that details the unstoppable force that comes for everyone, even for the Three Mothers. The reaper acts as an unexpected, if not interesting, visual expression of the universal puzzle that both intrigues and frightens us like any good mystery: Death itself. Mater Tenebrarum ultimately warns that if you go looking for death, you just might find it… or her.
Dario Argento’s Inferno is currently streaming on Shudder, Tubi, Vudu, and Kanopy. Again, it’s entertaining and comprehensive to watch on its own, but like the Three Mothers, it’s best enjoyed as a complete trio.
Are you a giallo fan? Have you seen Argento’s trilogy of The Three Mothers? What do you think about Inferno? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!