I’ve been using this October’s horrorthon as an excuse to rewatch and review the films of Dario Argento! Today we take a look at one of Argento’s best and most underrated films, 1980’s Inferno!
“There are mysterious parts in that book, but the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people.”
— Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) in Inferno
When 20th Century Fox released Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977, they weren’t expecting this Italian horror film to be a huge box office success. That it was caught them totally off guard. Though the studio executives may not have understood Italian horror, they did know that Suspiria made them a lot of money and they definitely wanted to make more of it.
As for Dario Argento, he followed up Suspiria by producing George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. He also supervised the film’s European cut. (In Europe, Dawn of the Dead was known as Zombi, which explains why Lucio Fulci’s fake sequel was called Zombi 2.) When Dawn of the Dead, like Suspiria before it, proved to be an unexpected box office hit, it probably seemed as if the Argento name was guaranteed money in the bank.
Hence, when Argento started production on a semi-sequel to Suspiria, 20th Century Fox agreed to co-finance. Though the majority of the film was shot on a sound stage in Rome, Argento was able to come to New York to do some location work, hence making this Argento’s first “American” film. The name of the movie was Inferno.
Sadly, Inferno proved to be a troubled production. Shortly after production began, Argento became seriously ill with hepatitis and reportedly, he had to direct some scenes while lying on his back while other sequences were done by the second unit.
As well, Argento had a strained relationship with 20th Century Fox. Argento wanted James Woods to star in Inferno but, when it turned out that Woods was tied up with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the studio insisted that Argento cast an actor named Leigh McCloskey instead. As a performer, James Woods is nervy, unpredictable, and compulsively watchable. Leigh McCloskey was none of those things.
Worst of all, as a result of a sudden management change at 20th Century Fox, Inferno was abandoned by its own distributor. The new studio executives didn’t know what to make of Inferno and, in America, the film only received an extremely limited release. The few reviews that the film received were largely negative. (Like most works of horror, Argento’s films are rarely critically appreciated when first released.) It’s only been over the past decade that Inferno has started to receive the exposure and acclaim that it deserves.
Argento has said that he dislikes Inferno, largely because watching it remind him of a very difficult time in his life. That’s unfortunate, because Inferno is one of his best films.
“Have you ever heard of the Three Sisters?”
“You mean those black singers?”
— Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) discuss mythology in Inferno
As I stated previously, Inferno is a semi-sequel to Suspiria. Whereas Suspiria dealt with an ancient witch known as the Mother of Sighs, Inferno deals with her younger sister, the Mother of Darkness. The Mother of Sighs lives underneath a German dance academy. The Mother of Darkness lives underneath a New York apartment building. The Mother of Sighs was a witch. The Mother of Darkness is an alchemist.
Beyond that and the fact that Alida Valli is in both films (though apparently playing different characters), there aren’t many references to Suspiria in Inferno. The tone of Inferno is very different from the tone of Suspiria. If Suspiria was perhaps Argento’s most straight-forward films, Inferno is one of his most twisted. It makes sense, of course. Suspiria is about magic but Inferno is about science. Suspiria casts a very Earthy spell while Inferno often feels like a scientific equation that cannot quite be solved.
The film deals with Mark Elliott (Leigh McCloskey), an American music student in Rome. After he gets a disturbing letter from his sister, Rose (Irene Miracle), a poet who lives alone in New York City, Mark heads back to the U.S. to check in on her. (That’s right — Mark and Rose are two more of Argento’s artistic protagonists.) However, when Mark arrives, he discovers that his sister is missing and it’s obvious that strange inhabitants of the building are trying to cover something up.
“May I ask a strange question?”
— Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) and Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey) in Inferno
Even more than with some of Argento’s other films, the plot of Inferno isn’t particularly important. One reason why it’s easy to get annoyed with Mark is because he spends the entire film demanding to know where his sister is, despite the fact that those of us in the audience already know that she’s dead. Argento showed us her being murdered shortly before Mark’s arrival. Argento makes sure that we know but he never bothers to reveal the truth to Mark and one of the more curious aspects of the film is that Mark never discovers that his sister is dead. (By the end of the film, one assumes that he’s finally figured it out but even then, we don’t know for sure.) The fact of the matter is that Mark and his search for his sister are never really that important. Argento doesn’t particularly seem to care about Mark and he never really gives the viewer any reason to care either. (Of course, it doesn’t help that Mark is rather stiffly played by Leigh McCloskey.)
Instead, Argento approaches Inferno as a collection of increasingly surreal set pieces. Much as in Lucio Fuci’s Beyond trilogy, narrative logic is less important than creating a dream-like atmosphere. Often time, it’s left to the viewer to decide how everything fits together.
There are so many odd scenes that it’s hard to pick a favorite or to know where to even begin. Daria Nicolodi shows up as Elise Stallone Van Adler, a neurotic, pill-popping aristocrat who briefly helps Mark look for his sister. Eventually, she’s attacked by thousands of cats before being stabbed to death by one of Argento’s trademark black-gloved killers. After Elise’s death, her greedy butler makes plans to steal her money. Did the butler kill Elise? We’re never quite sure. Does the butler work for The Mother of Darkness or is he just being influenced by her evil aura? Again, we’re never sure. (By that same token, when the butler eventually turns up with eyes literally hanging out of their sockets, we’re never quite sure how he ended up in that condition. And yet, somehow, it makes a strange sort of sense that he would.)
Cats also feature into perhaps the film’s most famous scene. When the crippled and bitter book seller Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) attempts to drown a bag of feral cars in a Central Park pond, he is suddenly attacked by a pack of a carnivorous rats. A hot dog vendor hears Kazanian’s cries for help and rushes over. At first, the vendor appears to be a good Samaritan but suddenly, he’s holding a knife and stabbing Kazanian to death. Why did the rats attack in the first place? Is the hot dog vendor (who only appears in that one scene) a servant of the Mother of Darkness or is he just some random crazy person? And, in the end, does it matter? At times, Inferno seems to suggest that the real world is so insane that the Mother of Darkness is almost unnecessary.
Meanwhile, in Rome, Mark sits in class and reads a letter from his sister. When he looks up, he immediately sees that a beautiful young woman is looking straight at him. She’s petting a cat and staring at him with a piercing stare. (She is played Ania Pieroni, who later achieved a certain cult immortality by appearing as the enigmatic housekeeper in Lucio Fulci’s The House By The Cemetery.) The film later suggests that the woman is the third mother, the Mother of Tears, but why would she be in the classroom? Why would she be staring at Mark?
When Mark’s girlfriend, Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), does some research in a library, she finds a copy of a book about The Three Mothers and is promptly attacked by a mysterious figure. When she flees back to her apartment, she meets Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who was also in Deep Red) who agrees to stay with her until Mark arrives. Is Carlo sincere or is he evil? Argento does eventually answer that question but he certainly keeps you guessing until he does.
Finally, I have to mention the best and most haunting scene in the film. When Rose searches a cellar for a clue that she believes will lead her to the Mother of Darkness, she discovers a hole that leads to a flooded ballroom. When Rose drops her keys into the hole, she plunges into water and swims through the room. (The first time I saw this scene, I immediately said, “Don’t do that! You’re going to ruin your clothes!”) As Rose discovers, not only keys get lost in that flooded ballroom. There’s a dead body as well, one which floats into the scene from out of nowhere and then seems to be intent on following Rose through the entire room. It’s a sequence that is both beautiful and nightmarish. (It certainly does nothing to help me with my fear of drowning.)
In the end, Inferno is a dream of dark and disturbing things. Does the plot always make sense? Not necessarily. But that plot’s not important. The film’s surreal imagery and atmosphere of doom and paranoia casts a hypnotic spell over the viewer. Inferno is perhaps as close to a filmed nightmare as you’ll ever see.
“She writes poetry.”
“A pastime especially suited for women.”
— Mark and the Nurse (Veronica Lazar) in Inferno
Finally, no review of Inferno would be complete without discussing some of the people who worked behind-the-scenes.
Along with acting in the film, Daria Nicolodi also worked on the script. As is so often the case with Daria and Dario’s collaborations, there are conflicting reports of just how involved Nicolodi was with the final script. Daria has said that she would have demanded co-writing credit, if not for the fact that it had previously been such an ordeal to get credited for Suspiria. Others have claimed that, while Nicolodi offered up some ideas, the final script was almost all Argento’s creation.
(Comparing the films that Argento made with Nicolodi to the ones that he made without her leads me to side with Nicolodi.)
Working on the film as a production assistant was William Lustig, the famed exploitation film producer and director who would later become the CEO of Blue Underground. Reportedly, during filming, Lustig attempted to convince Nicolodi to star in a film that he was going to direct. Nicolodi’s co-star would have been legendary character actor Joe Spinell. Disgusted by the film’s script, Nicolodi refused the role and, as a result, Caroline Munro ended up playing the stalked fashion photographer in Lustig’s controversial Maniac.
Future director Michele Soavi worked on several of Argento’s films. I’ve always been under the impression that Soavi was a production assistant on Inferno but, when I rewatched the film, he wasn’t listed in the credits. Inferno is also not among his credits on the imdb. I guess the idea that one of my favorite Italian horror directors worked on one of my favorite Italian horror films was just wishful thinking on my part.
However, you know who is listed in the credits? Lamberto Bava! Bava, who would later direct the Argento-produced Demons, worked as an assistant director on Inferno. That leads us to perhaps the most famous member of Inferno’s crew…
Inferno was the final film for the father of Italian horror. As so often happens, there are conflicting reports of just how involved Bava was with the production. It is know that he worked on the special effects and that he directed some second unit work while Argento was bed ridden with hepatitis. Irene Miracle has said that almost all of her scenes were directed by Mario Bava and that she rarely saw Argento on set.
Mario Bava is often erroneously described as being Dario Argento’s mentor. That’s certainly what I tended to assume until I read Tim Lucas’s All The Colors of the Dark, the definitive biography on Mario Bava. Bava was certainly an influence and it’s certainly true that Argento appears to have had a better relationship with him than he did with Lucio Fulci. But the idea that a lot of Italian horror fans have — that Mario Bava was hanging out around the set of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and offering Argento fatherly advice — does not appear to be at all true. (It’s a nice image, though.) With all that in mind, it’s still feels somewhat appropriate that Bava’s final work was done on one of the best (if most underappreciated) Italian horror films of all time.
“I do not know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium, the life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them.”
— The Three Mothers by E. Varelli, as quoted in Dario Argento’s Inferno