Inferno (1980)

When Italian Maestro Dario Argento made Inferno he was pretty much at his peak. He'd just made Suspiria three years before and had achieved a masterpiece of horror with that film, a true work of art. Inferno perhaps doesn't achieve quite that level of mastery, but still has a lot to recommend it. It's a semi-sequel to Suspiria as far as dealing with the 'Three Mothers' legend, although none of the characters or even settings from the previous film are depicted here. Still, we have a marvellous use of colour and lighting, as well as music, to create a macabre mood seldom seen in any film. For that and the wonderful imagination at work, any enthusiast of cult or horror cinema really should give this one a view.

In New York, Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle) reads from a book written in Latin called 'The Three Mothers', which details the existence of three evil spirits known as Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs), Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears), and Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness). This book was written by an alchemist called Varelli who built three houses for the spirits, one in Rome for Mater Suspiriorum, one in Germany for Mater Lachrymarum and one in New York for Mater Tenebrarum. From these houses, the mothers rule the world, although Varelli describes them more as evil stepmothers who cannot create anything except evil.

Rose reads on. Varelli describes three keys that will allow the reader to unlock the secrets of the mothers. The first key is a pungent smell near their presence. The second key is located in their basement, the third in the 'soles of your shoes.' The owner of the antique store that Rose bought the book from claims that the strange smell in the air is the local cake factory. Later, Rose can't resist going down into the basement of her apartment building, which looks like a picture in the book - and investigating. She promptly finds a flooded room carved even deeper into the pit of the earth. Accidentally dropping her keys into the water, she has to dive in and retrieve them. As she swims deeper she finds a portrait of Mater Tenebrarum, then a rotting corpse brushes up against her and she flees. Her suspicions confirmed, Rose writes a letter to her brother in Rome, Mark (Leigh McCloskey) who is studying music.

During a musicology lesson, Mark sees a strange (and very beautiful) girl in the audience holding a cat, staring intently at him and seemingly mouthing words his way. The girl leaves and Mark follows, accidentally leaving his sister's letter with his companion Sara (Eleonora Giorgi). Sara reads the letter and becomes fascinated by the contents. Through driving rain she attempts to return the letter to him in a taxi, smelling the same sickly sweet odour in the night air. She ends up at the Library instead, wanting to read more about these Three Mothers mentioned in the letter. She finds the book and attempts to leave, but ends up wandering into a dark chamber with bubbling pots of strange liquid. A sinister hooded man works away with his back turned to her, and tells her to leave through the other door. Then he spots the book, and there is a struggle. His hands are gnarled with long talon-like nails, and she drops the book and runs.

Sara escapes back to Mark's apartment block and though a kindly stranger keeps her company, they are bother gruesomely murdered by a knife-wielding black-gloved man, presumably the alchemist that had pursued Sara earlier. Mark returns and finds the bodies, but can explain nothing to the police. He sees the mysterious girl drive past again. He talks to Rose on the telephone and she convinces him to come to New York before mysterious interference cuts them off. Rose returns to the flooded chamber but is attacked and killed by another stranger with gnarled hands, her head almost severed by a giant piece of glass.

Mark arrives at Rose's apartment building and is greeted by a severe, mute old man (Feodor Chaliapin) in a wheelchair and his smiling nurse (Veronica Lazar). He goes up to her apartment, as the female concierge has another set of keys. He meets the nervous Elise (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi) whose husband is away on business. She tells Mark about Rose's fascination for the legend of the Three Mothers. Mark investigates some odd noises outside and seems to collapse with a heart attack. Elise sees him dragged away by a dark-clad man. Suddenly she is attacked by a horde of cats and stabbed to death by the same man.

Mark staggers back into the building and is attended to by the Nurse and the Concierge, who give him "heart medicine". He wakes up back in Rose's apartment, now the place is crawling with ants. The one-legged owner of the antique shop next door shows up to complain to the Concierge about all the cats that plague his shop from the building, but she is indifferent. Later, he traps a bag of them and drowns them in a local pond, but trips and lands face first and completely unable to get up. Struggling in the water, he's aghast as a swarm of rats comes and attacks him. Screaming for help as a lunar eclipse takes place, a stranger seems to come to his aid but savagely kills him with a meat cleaver at the last second. Later, the concierge and Elise's smarmy butler plan on stealing Elise's jewels - but their plans are abruptly stopped by a pair of wizened hands. The butler has his eyes poked out, and the concierge ends up on fire, and her death in fact begins the process of setting the whole place ablaze.

Mark, obsessing with his missing sister and the picture of the building, remembers that one of the keys is meant to be under the soles of his shoes. Seeing ants swarming around a hole in the floorboards, he prises a few up and descends into the chambers of Mater Tenebrarum. Finding a larger chamber, he encounters the old man who through the aid of a voicebox and microphone, identifies himself as Varelli, the man who built the houses for the 'Mothers" and is kept virtual prisoner. He tries to inject Mark with a sedative but in the struggle is strangled by his own voice-cord. Before he dies, he claims he is not the master, just a 'slave'. Mark screams at him to tell him who lives in this house - but the man dies. The ever-growing flames force Mark into another, darker chamber lit with candles, where eerie female singing can be heard. It's the Nurse, although obviously she's someone much more. Mark yells for them both to leave, but something forces the doors shut around them and the woman begins laughing, saying it will all burn down as it did 'before'. The woman says he will never leave, that his journey has come to an end and that someone will take his hand so that he can experience darkness and moments of incredible brightness. As he screams the question of who she is, and where is his sister, the woman reveals her true nature. Crashing through a giant piece of glass in her true form, we hear that men call her and her sisters by one name. Her skeletal visage comes closer...

In my struggle to summarise the plot, I've barely covered how immensely stylised the whole endeavour is. Recalling the lighting used often by Mario Bava, Argento creates a palette of colours that envelop the senses. I believe Bava actually helped with a few setpieces in the film, but wasn't credited. The music by Keith Emerson is not as overbearing - or as wonderful - as the Goblin score used in Suspiria, being more subtle and piano-based until the big crashing ending. We then rip into overdrive and become very Goblin-esque! The acting by all is professional and servicable, but there aren't many subtleties here. Daria Nicolodi does make a memorable character as the flawed friend of Rose. Overall, the film is not as audacious as Suspiria, but is still very much in that intense and over-the-top vein. Given the complexity of the symbolism and the clues being inserted by Argento, the final revelation as to the nature of Mater Tenebrarum is perhaps a bit too simplistic - or even too broad - in it's scope, and the actual appearance of her true form is probably the weakest effect in the film. Still, it doesn't ruin the whole by a long shot. We're still left with many fascinating images and clues to put together and make sense of the Three Mothers legend. The alchemy theme that some claim is the emphasis of the story doesn't play a big part as far as I can perceive, it still seems to be supernatural story with animals and people, for that matter, becoming the unwitting servants of much larger and darker powers.

For a visual and aural horror feast like no other, you really need to feel the Inferno. Dario Argento never made another film quite like it.

© Pater Lugosiosum, 2006.

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Review written: 05/15/2006 16:09:26