Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 12, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1980)

6. Inferno

“Suspiria” was, in many ways, the break-out film for Argento, at least in this country. “Inferno” was not only a sequel to the director’s most successful film but was also produced by a big-budget film studio, 20th Century Fox. Unfortunately, the movie ended up being too weird for the studio brass. “Inferno” sat on the shelf for six years before being crapped out on video.

And the movie is pretty weird. If you thought “Suspiria” was out-there, this movie will probably prove indecipherable. There’s no shortage of strange imagery, but what’s really odd about “Inferno” is there’s no real story to speak of. We are introduced to what we assume is our main character, a young woman reading a book about the mythology of the Three Mothers. The film is set in New York, the supposed home of the youngest mother, Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Shadows. The girl begins to suspect she is living in the home of Mater Tenebrarum and goes about investigating. After frightening encounters in an underwater ball room, the girl is violently murdered. The Hitchcock-style protagonist switch sets us up with the girl’s brother, Mark, just back from Rome. He investigates her murder, stumbling onto a supernatural conspiracy involving architecture, witches, violent murder, a mute old man, and the apartment’s plumbing.

That might seem somewhat straight-forward but doesn’t explain the film’s off-pace structure. We are introduced to a number of characters. Fifteen minutes in, we meet Mark’s friend, Sara, who, for reasons never well explained, investigates the Three Mothers herself. After a frightening encounter in a creepy old library, she meets up with a random dude and is then violently killed. There’s the old man on crutches, who runs an antique shop in the building. Daria Nicolodi gets in her required appearance as a friend of the sister. There’s a grumpy butler, a female caretaker, a nurse, a mysterious beautiful woman. Most of the cast seems to exist solely to add to the film’s body count. Even the characters that appear to be involved in the witches’ coven fall victim. The movie almost plays like a series of vignettes, revolving around each personal investigation and the bloody death that follows. The stream-of-consciousness pacing is deliberate but doesn’t make “Inferno” the easiest film to follow.

Detractors of Argento have accused him of being all style and no substance. If there was ever a film that proved that statement, it’s “Inferno.” The messy plotting and thin characters are another sign of Argento’s disinterest in a traditional narrative. “Inferno” is all about the visuals and creating a unique, dream-like atmosphere. I’m not complaining. The movie is visually gorgeous.

The motifs of “Suspiria,” the colors and architecture, are carried over. However, while “Suspiria” was heavy on screaming, glam-rock Technicolor, “Inferno” instead opts for cool blues and purples. Shadows are obviously a visual theme of the movie, what with the antagonist being the master of them. The very deep blue shadows certainly make for a memorable atmosphere. When the titular inferno breaks out in the last act, it makes for a strong contrast against the previously established look.

The architectural theme of the movie is impressive as well. The majority of the film was shot on stage. If the colors set up a horror atmosphere where anything can happen, then the set design solidifies it. Certainly, the school in “Suspiria” was a location with a personality, but the apartment here seems so much more alive to me. If nothing else, “Inferno” is a beautiful film, a visual-fest for horror nerds.

Of course the movie is pretty. But what about the horror, son? “Inferno” is a mixed bag in that regard. Much like “Suspiria,” it’s got a great first ten minutes. It’s a long sequence involving a late-night swim through an underwater ball room. Yeah, why would somebody do that? But you don’t find yourself thinking that while watching because it’s such a wonderfully shot, surreal sequence… That leads up to a killer jump-scare.

Some fantastic moments follow. Mater Tenebreum’s agent either have hairy, clawed demonic hands or dress all in black. The first appearance of these agents are in a suspenseful sequence in a library, involving a shirt caught on a door. Sara’s dead body is discovered when it falls through a blue sheet, tearing it in half. There’s a pretty cool kill featuring a shattered window. The entire third act, when Mark encounters the Mother of Shadows, didn’t impress me on a first viewing but on my most recent viewing, at three o’clock in the morning, I found it surprisingly creepy. Mater Tenebrarum is certainly an intimidating figure, especially when she explodes out of a mirror as a green-boned spectre of death itself.

Not all the stand-out moments are horror-related. A minor plot-point is that the piping in the apartment allows sound to travel from room to room. In the best shot in the film, the camera goes inside the pipes and travels through the building.

But what about the sequences that don’t work? Sadly, “Inferno” has got some real head-scratchers. Cats show up all throughout the film and animals factor importantly into two murders. In one, a woman is attacked by a group of felines. Now, I know cats can be vicious, mean-spirited little fuckers. But, sorry Euro-horror filmmakers, they aren’t scary. The visuals of somebody getting kitties tossed at them by a stagehand just off-screen is comical, not frightening.

A character, midway through the film, gets fed up with all the cats and decides to drown a whole bag of them out in a lake. Yes, this shot features a beautiful silhouette skyline shot of New York City, but once our man gets to the water… His shouts of “They’re killing me!,” fake fuzzy looking rats, and a, frankly, utterly confounding conclusion, makes the whole sequence a joke.

Goblin took a break from scoring this one. Instead, prog-rock superstar Keith Emerson was brought in to provide the score. The synth-heavy music certainly has some silly moments, such as any of Emerson’s trademark bloops or bleeps. As our hero crawls into an underground tunnel towards the finale, a bombastic choral piece kicks in. While it’s definitely over the top, and the electronic organ hasn’t aged well, it is a very memorable musical moment. The score is serviceable, I’d say, and successful at times. But I can’t help but wonder what Goblin could have done with this material.

So, “Inferno” is a seriously mixed bag. It’s a beautiful film, with some fantastically executed scenes. It’s a film with a grab-bag, thrown-together plot that forges a mythology out of thin air and sticks a bunch of random characters together. Not even fantastic special effects, some provided by the late great Mario Bava, can save the movie’s most embarrassing bits. I’d still recommend it to adventurous horror fans. I think I even like it better then “Suspiria.” I’ll certainly take a chilling, bellowing, glowing grim reaper over a garbling, invisible, wrinkled old woman. [Grade: B]

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