Irene Miracle - Rose Elliott
Leigh McCloskey - Mark Elliott
Eleonora Giorgi - Sara
Daria Nicolodi - Elise De Longvalle Adler
Sasha Pitoeff - Kazanian
Alida Valli - Carol
Feodor Chaliapin Jr. - Varelli
Veronica Lazar - The Nurse
Gabriele Lavia - Carlo
Ania Pieroni - Music Student
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/Witchcraft
Running Time - 107 Minutes
In New York City, Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle) buys a book called The Three Mothers - a book that details how the author (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.) built houses for three powerful witches known as The Three Mothers. One of these houses was created for Mater Suspiriorum [The Mother of Sighs] in Germany, seen in 1977’s SUSPIRIA. After reading and figuring out the clues, Rose realizes that her apartment is a building built for Mater Tenebrarum [The Mother of Darkness]. Her knowledge, unfortunately, leads to her death by a mysterious person.
Before Rose’s death, however, she wrote and sent a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh Mccloskey), who is studying abroad in Rome. Realizing that his sister is missing and in trouble, Mark arrives in New York to investigate. What he encounters are a series of supernatural events that lead to a bunch of murders within or around the apartment building that may make him a victim of The Three Mothers.
In the 1970s, Italian maestro Dario Argento could do no wrong. Films like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, DEEP RED, and especially 1977’s SUSPIRIA brought a lot of attention to Italian horror from all over the world. The success of SUSPIRIA in the US market inspired Argento to quickly capitalize on it with a sequel titled INFERNO, the second part of a proposed trilogy that would showcase each of the Three Mothers. 20th Century Fox, riding high from SUSPIRIA, quickly offered to co-finance the production [along with Italian and German consortia] with a budget of $3 million. Co-writer, actress, and then-Argento flame Daria Nicolodi was inspired by her stay at Central Park for the film’s main setting, while legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava, Lamberto Bava, and William Lustig helped fill in during production to create a good atmosphere and finish shooting scenes when Argento fell ill during production.
INFERNO was released in 1980 in the United States in a very limited theatrical release, which was the total opposite of SUSPIRIA’s release. Apparently, Fox had a change of management at the time, leaving INFERNO’s fate in limbo. The film, outside of Italy, was pretty much unseen until 1985, where it finally went straight to video. The reception at the time wasn’t all that positive, leading to Argento waiting to finish the trilogy in 2007 with THE MOTHER OF TEARS. While the reception of INFERNO has grown more positive over the years, it’s easy to see why this sequel isn’t as beloved as SUSPIRIA. It’s also not as strong as Argento’s earlier films, or later works, such as 1982’s TENEBRE, 1985’s PHENOMENA [aka CREEPERS] and 1986’s OPERA.
That’s not to say that INFERNO doesn’t have great things going for it. The direction, mostly by Dario Argento, is fairly solid and what you would expect from the Italian maestro. If you loved the style of SUSPIRIA, INFERNO will be right up your alley. Like the previous film, the lighting and colors pop extremely well, with many scenes shot in vibrant reds, blues, and greens. In fact, several scenes seem to have been taken right from SUSPIRIA, just with different actors involved. One example is Eleonora Giorgi sitting in a cab as the rain downpours around her, shot in red and blue lighting. It’s totally reminiscent of Jessica Harper’s Suzy at the beginning of SUSPIRIA. It’s a nice throwback that fans will pick up. Same with the film’s final act, which is a shorter play at SUSPIRIA’s ending, but still very effective and fun to watch. Like with many of Argento’s works, the direction comes across as surreal, elegant, and awkwardly titillating when you least expect it. That being said, one of the film’s best scenes wasn’t even directed by Argento. The gorgeous opening sequence involving Irene Miracle diving into a water hole in a cellar, leading to a corpse floating right by to frighten her, was shot by Mario Bava after Argento had fallen ill with hepatitis. It’s well crafted, as the scene slowly builds to that reveal for our first scare. Regardless of who directed what, INFERNO is visually stylish as one would expect.
Adding to the awesome visual presentation are the perverse death sequences that only Argento could picture in his head. The guillotine death, with the use of a window being slammed over a victim’s throat, is pretty brutal. Another person gets stabbed viciously before being mauled to death by a group of cats. And probably my favorite kill - a crippled man falling into water by a sewer [in order to drown cats in a bag], only to get attacked by hungry rats before getting stabbed in the neck multiple times. It may be overkill, but it’s pure Argento and I love it. We also get bizarre imagery, like women hanging, paper dolls getting decapitated, and beautiful women creating a wind and sound distraction in a lecture room. None of these things seem to connect to anything, but the imagery is bizarre and somewhat creepy. Honestly, the direction and visual presentation for INFERNO are the best things about the film.
Another highlight is the musical score. Unlike many of Argento’s other films, INFERNO is not scored by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame. Instead, the musical duties were given to Keith Emerson of prog rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. While not as memorable as Simonetti’s themes, Emerson provides a nice rock and synthesizer score that reflects the turn of the decade from the 1970s to the 1980s. I do think that the music wasn’t used in the proper moments in some cases, creating a jarring effect that hurt these scenes more than help them. Watching a woman sit in a taxi shouldn’t have an upbeat, high-energy rockin’ tune going with it, especially when it hasn’t earned that and only makes the moment silly rather than poignant. And some of the suites are a bit hokey at times. But for the most part, the score works and I liked it. It’s one of the few things that set it apart from SUSPIRIA, so I’m okay with it.
The acting is pretty okay as well. I thought Daria Nicolodi did a good job as Elise, a tenant inside the cursed building that Mater Tenebrarum controls. She’s obviously comfortable working for Argento due to their personal relationship. Plus, she co-wrote the film and knows where her character is coming from. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but she’s always a welcome presence. Sasha Pitoeff is also fun to watch as Kazanian, the bookstore owner. His hatred of cats and how it ended up leading to his fate was handled well, and Pitoeff is great through it all. I also thought Feodor Chaliapin Jr. was great in his short role as Varelli, the author of The Three Mothers. I did feel that Leigh McCloskey wasn’t the most captivating male lead in the world and he doesn’t even get to do a whole lot until the film’s final act. His performance was kind of bland in my opinion, but it’s not a performance that ruins a film. I think the acting is much stronger in other popular Argento films, but it’s still pretty good for the most part.
My real issue with INFERNO is the film’s story. Argento’s films have always been more style than substance, even with his classic gialli and supernatural films having flawed storytelling that you can forgive because it’s a fun ride getting to the film’s conclusion. Unfortunately, INFERNO can be a bit of a chore to sit through at times because the way the plot is presented is really disjoined. The film takes place at multiple locations, going back and forth between them as the narrative plays out until the film’s final reveal. There’s nothing wrong with this - that is if we had characters we could care about. Besides Mark, Rose and Sara, the other characters appear in and out without much character development. Some of them just seem to be in the film in order to die a vicious death. That’s great for a slasher film, but not for a supernatural movie that’s the sequel to a classic. In fact, we’re not even really sure why Mater Tenebrarum would even want to deal with these unlikeable people. What’s her purpose? It’s not like killing these people adds to anything she may be planning. When she finally appears, it doesn’t make much of an impression because the storytelling is all over the place. The mystery and the journey solving it should have been stronger. Maybe it’s because Argento fell ill during the production, or because he felt pressure in topping SUSPIRIA. But INFERNO could, and should, have been better than it is if there was more going on in the narrative. There’s definitely an interesting idea underneath INFERNO and it presents itself during the film’s best moments. It’s just a shame it’s not expressed better. I think even if it had a wider release back in 1980, fans probably would have left wanting more.
THE FINAL HOWL
While not as strong of a film as SUSPIRIA, INFERNO still manages to be a good watch for anyone who is into Italian horror. It’s also a decent continuation of The Three Mothers trilogy started in SUSPIRIA. The film has a lot going for it - great kills, that beautiful Argento visual style, and cool music by Keith Emerson that probably could have been used better at certain points in the film. Unfortunately, the story is all over the place. The characters are weak and things seem to happen in order to fill a gap needed to move the story along. That being said, INFERNO has a ton of atmosphere and a vibe that is sometimes missing in horror films. INFERNO is a classic Argento film that works more than it doesn’t, making it worth a look if you’re a fan of the man’s work.
3 Howls Outta 4