September 10, 2015 Dario Argento’s Inferno Burning 35 Years Later
This past April marked the 35th anniversary of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento’s 1980 film, Inferno. Starring Leigh McCloskey (Just One of the Guys 1985, Cameron’s Closet 1988), Irene Miracle (Midnight Express 1978, Puppet Master 1989), Veronica Lazar (Last Tango in Paris 1972, The Beyond 1981), Daria Nicolodi (Tenebre 1982, Phenomena 1985), Alida Valli (Eyes Without a Face 1960, Suspiria 1977), Inferno was written and directed by Dario Argento and produced by Claudio Argento, Dario’s brother, and their father Salvatore Argento. Like the screenplay for 1977’s Suspiria, Dario’s then wife Daria Nicolodi co-wrote Inferno, but received no on-screen credit. She explains that she had to fight just to get her name on-screen for Suspiria, decided that she did not want to go through that mayhem again, and that she would let the film speak for her.
At the time of release, due to a change in key management at Fox, Inferno did not see a wide release, and was dumped virtually straight to video in 1985, and thusly deemed a financial failure. Even more unfortunate, was that almost all the critics were expecting a sort of Suspiria part 2, and were disappointed with the final result failing to meet expectations. While some were disappointed, Variety stated Inferno was a “lavish, no-holds-barred witch story whose lack of both logic and technical skill are submerged in the sheer energy of the telling,” but then complained that the film “fails mainly because it lacks restraint in setting up the terrifying moment, using close-ups and fancy camera angles gratuitously and with no relevance to the story.” Conversely, Cinefantastique described the film as “the stuff of all our worst dreams and nightmares and a tour de force from Italian director Dario Argento[…] Inferno brings his personal redefinition of the genre close to perfection.” Regardless of what critics said, thirty-five years later, it is the avid fans who are the final judge on this overlooked classic.
The story of Inferno plays out with Rose Elliot (Miracle) reading from a book entitled, “The Three Mothers,” which is the confession of the alchemist, Verrelli, about how he built houses for Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs in Germany, Mater Lachrymarum, The Mother of Tears, in Rome, and Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, in New York. The Three Mothers are evil witches that can control the world from these locations. After reading further, Rose begins to suspect that she is living in one of these houses. The book states that there are three clues to determine if it is the dwelling of a Mother: a sour smell surrounding the area, in the basement there will be a portrait and name of the Mother, and the third key is under the soles of your shoes. Rose writes a letter to her brother, Mark (McCloskey) in Rome telling him to come to New York as soon as he can.
She runs next door to the store where she bought the book, Kazanjian’s Antiques. She questions Mr. Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff: Anastasia 1956, A Tale of Two Cities 1958), but he dismisses it as just a book, and the smell surrounding the building is just from the cake factory. She reluctantly accepts his answer and walks away, when she notices a bunch of cats in the alley near an access that leads to the basement. Rose ventures down and finds the basement to be heavily damaged with a broken pipe spewing out water into a large hole in the floor. When she leans over the hole, her keys fall into the water. Out of necessity, she jumps in and we see some odd decorations and a part of a portrait that reads, Mater Tenebrarum. After she locates her keys, Rose swims back up towards the hole and runs into a badly decomposed body. Soaking wet, she escapes through the hole and back up to her apartment. When she gets into the lobby, she hears people whispering about her snooping around and sees some ominous shadows as she escapes up to her apartment.
Meanwhile, in Rome, Rose’s brother Mark is in class at the music academy with headphones on listening to music. He opens the letter, then looks up and catches the bewitching gaze of a woman (Ania Pieroni: House by the Cemetery 1981, Tenebre 1982), holding a cat and muttering, and Mark begins to feel ill. His friend, Sara (Eleonora Giorgi: Black Belly of the Tarantula 1971, Beyond the Door 1982), pulls his attention back down to the sheet music they are supposed to be following. When the music is over, the Woman disappears, and Mark leaves, forgetting the letter at his seat.
Later, Sara is in a cab with the intention of delivering the letter to Mark, but curiosity gets the better of her and she opens the envelope. The letter describes the book and the houses of the Three Mothers. Sara tells the cab driver (the same cab driver from Suspiria) she wants to go somewhere else, and he takes her to a large and creepy library where she grabs a copy of The Three Mothers. As she reads, the library is closing and she hears her name whispered in a sinister tone. Frightened, she looks around to find the room empty and escapes through the door closest to her. Unfortunately, it leads her down into the depths of the library, where she stumbles upon a cloaked figure working on some curious concoctions. She asks him for the way out, and he tells her, but he spies the book she is holding in a mirror and attacks her. She drops the book and narrowly escapes back to her apartment. Wet from the rain and sure someone is following her, she finds Carlo (Gabriele Lavia: Deep Red 1975, Beyond the Door 1982) waiting in the lobby and asks him to sit with her for awhile. She calls Mark, begging him to come over and see the letter, but the power goes out. Carlo elects to check the fuses down the hall. When the power comes on, Carlo reappears with a knife through his throat, and a black gloved killer coming after Sara. Mark arrives at the apartment to find Sara’s body and calls the police. When he walks outside, he sees the mysterious woman from class riding in the back of a limousine, staring directly at him.
Mark goes home and receives a call from Rose, who is insisting Mark comes right away to New York when suddenly, the line goes dead. Rose starts hearing footsteps, then sees two shadows standing outside her door, and runs out to the back stairway, where she is cornered by another figure. Rose runs down the twisting and turning hallways until she is eventually caught and dispatched in a most gruesome manner.
Finally, Mark arrives in New York at the apartment building and is greeted by the desk clerk, Carol (Valli), and rides the elevator with the curiously dimwitted Nurse (Lazar) and her patient Professor Arnold (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.: Moonstruck 1987, The Church 1990). Mark arrives at Rose’s apartment to find it empty with the phone off the hook. He calls her name, but no one answers. A moment later, he hears a woman calling Rose’s name from all around him. He goes out into the hall and finds Elise (Nicolodi) walking away. It turns out that there are pipes with holes in them all throughout the building that carries voices of the tenants. When Mark finds some blood on the floor outside of the apartment door, he sets out on a perilous quest to unravel the mystery of his sister’s disappearance and the connection to the vile Three Mothers.
Historically, Inferno is the second film in Argento’s “Three Mothers Trilogy,” with the first being Suspiria, and the final film, The Mother of Tears, in 2007, and while nowhere near as popular as Suspiria, it is nonetheless a well made film. The entire trilogy was based on “Our Ladies of Sorrow” from the book Suspiria de Profundis by Thomas de Quincey. The names of the three mothers, Suspiriorum, Lachrymarum, and Tenebrarum, were the names used in the films. Suspiriorum is the Mother of Sighs and the oldest of the three, Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, is the most beautiful, and Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, is the youngest and most cruel.
Interestingly enough, originally, James Woods was cast to play Mark, but it fell through, so the head of production at 20th Century Fox got in contact with McCloskey to get in touch with Argento, who cast him. Included in the initial DVD release of Inferno was an interview with McCloskey in which he explains that he did his own stunts due to his double having a broken leg, so at the end of the film with all the fire and the building collapsing, it is Leigh McCloskey running through the flames and dodging burning beams. Nicolodi turns in a very fine performance, playing the kind, yet mentally distraught, Elise. Veronica Lazar also plays her part well as the Nurse/Mater Tenebrarum, although she is not seen much until the very end of the film. Ania Pieroni was credited as Musical Student, but in reality she was Mater Lachrymarum.
Musically, the score for Inferno was not done by Argento mainstay, Goblin, but instead by Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer due to Argento’s request for a more delicate score. Emerson’s music was met with a mixed response from critics, some of whom compared it unfavorably to Goblin’s score for Suspiria. Scott Meek noted that “Argento’s own over-the-top score [for Suspiria] has been replaced by religioso thunderings from the keyboards of Keith Emerson.” A review of the 2000 Cinevox CD by AllMusic notes, “The keyboard selections are rather unremarkable, except for the finale, “Cigarettes, Ice, Etc.,” on which Emerson uses his full keyboard arsenal to excellent effect. Unfortunately, the choral segments sound rather pretentious and dated.”
Making Inferno visual what it is, all of the makeup FX were well-done by Germano Natali (Deep Red 1975, Suspiria 1977), but all the visuals, models, matte paintings, etc, were done by the legendary Mario Bava (Director of Bay of Blood 1971, Baron Blood 1972), who receives no on-screen credit for his fantastic work, other than a special thanks. Mario’s son, Lamberto (Director of Demons 1985, Demons 2 1986) also served as assistant director on Inferno. William Lustig (Director of Maniac 1980, Maniac Cop 1988) served as an uncredited production manager.
Overall, Inferno is a great Argento film through and through, even if the acting sometimes feels flat, or the dubbing is not quite on par. In the eyes of followers, it is a very good follow-up to Suspiria in that it explains the entire mythology of the Three Mothers, and thirty-five years later, deserves proper recognition.