Some movies are not meant to have a plot, or at least a sturdy one. Dario Argento’s Inferno is one of these films. Argento had previously directed a trilogy of films unrelated to each other in the giallo genre. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet were an animal trilogy involving unsolved crimes, and they were also Dario’s first directorial features. After a couple television gialli and a comedy, he completed his landmark masterpiece, Deep Red. He decided after that to take a slightly different approach to the giallo, adding in a witch plot in the beautiful and mind-bending Suspiria. Many had never seen anything like it. It used dreamlike images, brutal effects, simple but colorful lighting, and hints here and there for the viewer to figure out the story. Three years after that, Inferno was released, now recognized as the second of three films (the third being Mother of Tears) involving the witches known as The Three Mothers. With Inferno, however, story was immediately thrown out the window, and a journey into the imagery abyss awaited any who dared to rent the tape beyond the purple skull’s fiery eyes.
It’s April in New York. A woman, Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle of Puppet Master) is reading a book titled The Three Mothers by E. Varelli. It talks about three covens of witches: one in Freiburg, Germany, the Mother of Sighs; one in Rome, Italy, the Mother of Tears; one in New York, United States, the Mother of Darkness. The author talks wickedly about how he built the witches’ homes, regretting ever doing so. It informs Rose about how the first key is the terrible aura surrounding the house, along with where it sits. The second key to the covens are hidden in the cellar beside their large house. There, a picture of the witch and the name of her living in the house can be found. The third key can be found “by looking under the soles of your shoes”.
Rose then writes a letter to her brother, Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey), in Rome. Rose then heads off to an antique shop called Kazanian’s, where she talks to Mr. Kazanian (Sacha Pitoëff) about the book she had recently bought. As she leaves, she spots a cellar door next to the shop, which just so happens to be next to her residency. Could her apartment building be the witches coven? Rose heads down into the cellar where she spots a hole in the floor filled with water. She looks down into it, but her necklace falls in. She decides to go in after it. It’s much deeper than she thought, and it appears as if the pool is more of a flooded room, with chandeliers and assortments everywhere. She finally finds the broach, but to her dismay, a corpse is floating in the water! She runs away, out of the cellar.
In Rome, Mark is with his friend Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) in class listening to music. He notices a woman a few rows ahead of them with her back turned, stroking a cat. He takes out a letter from his jacket - the same one that his sister Rose had sent. When he turns back to look at the lady, she is staring directly at him, with bright red lipstick, eyeliner, and long dark hair. The song finishes, and the lady has disappeared. Mark runs out, and Sara is left with his letter. She takes a taxi home, but she reads the sister’s message, and decides to go to an old library. She finds a book on The Three Mothers, and takes it with her to the downstairs of the library. Sara comes across an area where cauldrons are burning and bubbling, and she calls out to a man in a cloak, looking for a way out. He tells her to use the other door, but notices she has The Three Mothers book. He runs after her, and she throws the book back at him. She calls a cab to take her back to her place, where she finds a man, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), in an elevator. She asks him to keep her company, and he accepts. When Sara puts on music, the lights and sound start to flicker on and off. Sara searches for Carlo, and finds him stabbed in the neck. She attempts to crawl away, but an unknown figure in black gloves stabs her in the back.
Later that night, Mark finds Sara dead. He soon flies over to New York to see his sister, but she is not there. Her neighbour, Elise Stallone Van Adler (Daria Nicolodi of Deep Red, Tenebre, Shock, etc...) is more than a little weird. She’s not too fond of the large building either, or its many secrets. Meanwhile, Kazanian is having cat problems, and sees it fit to do away with them so that his shop is feline-free. Elise later goes chasing after Mark once she starts to figure out that Sara may not have disappeared by her own free will. She spots a dark figure carrying a knocked-out Mark by his legs, and Elise runs through the building, only to be attacked by multiple cats. What is going on? These witches are playing with fire, and if nobody figures out the key, all will be burned.
If you’re interested in where Inferno’s story is going, you have to jot down every line said. It’s very detailed, and pretty easy to follow, but you must have a keen ear. Much like Mario Bava’s Lisa and the Devil in the sense that the visuals overpower the plot any time of day, Inferno also hosts bizarre scenes probably taken straight from the maker’s imagination or bedtime dreams. The difference between Lisa and the Devil and Inferno is that the colors and dreamlike states are far superior in Lisa, as well as the story and symbolism. That’s not to say that the latter is a bad movie, but if you’re going to take out a story and in its place input random acts of beauty, you better be ready to go all out. Once again, Dario returns with his famous red and blue lights from Suspiria, and as atmospheric as they are, they begin to lose their effect after a while. A strong suit going for Inferno is the creative mini-adventure, such as Rose’s dip into the underground pool, Mark’s eerie confrontation with the lady in eyeliner, Sara’s tense chase with the mysterious library blacksmith, and of course the many mini-parts that followed.
Situations are not all that realistic. Mark doesn’t look too concerned upon the discovery of Sara’s dead body, and as is usual for Italian gialli, there’s a lot of over exaggeration, here so more with the reactions than the verbal. Carlo has a couple hours to kill, so that is why he spends the night with Sara, all because she said that she was frightened. One may wonder if Carlo had other plans in store for our young lady friend. An effective scene with Carlo and Sara involves when Sara puts on classical music, and both the lights and sound go on and off. She’s always calling out the man’s name, but the pauses between music with lights and no music without lights is unsettling. As the presentation moves forward, the entire film up to that point starts to grow on you as you continue to reflect on what you have just witnessed. You forgive Leigh’s so-so performance, Daria’s small part, and the crazy story that has to be dusted off for confirmation every five minutes. At times Inferno feels more like a fantasy film, but it always reminds you of its roots when something creepy happens. That lady with the cat continuing to stare at Mark is scary as well as the multiple chase scenes, many of which do not have a visible chaser present.
Animals are an interesting touch to this piece. We have ants, cats, rats, and even cobwebbed lizards about. They are sympathetic creatures, and yet spooky and ferocious nonetheless. The scoring is once again brilliant for this Argento piece, as a group of vocalists half sing and half shout out the lyrics to a theme that you can barely make out. Words stick out, and I’m pretty sure ‘suspiria’ was mentioned a few times. Even the odd instrumental sounds, such as when Sara is taking a taxi home, that do not seem to have a specific tune, are unique and nutty enough to grab a hold of your interest for the time being. The twists discovered are pure Argento work, and the ending finally gives meaning to the title, Inferno, where a blaze of fire spreads everywhere. The architecture of the witch’s house in New York is stunning to gaze upon at night time, and it’s moments like these that boost the movie into a completely different territory. The finale is like Suspiria’s witch confrontation ending, except it had the disadvantage of a weak costume decision. Skeleton outfits aren’t the easiest to make, but for a production such as this, it could have been much more. Bloody violent, original, and hypnotic, Inferno is still a few colors short of a rainbow. Find time in your life to fit in a date with the Mother of Darkness, only be warned: it doesn’t always make sense, and even with the haunting atmosphere, there are some dull scenes. Find it on an Anchor Bay or BlueUnderground DVD, and enjoy the film for what it is – an art gallery and a lights show, with some heart racing situations thrown in for good measure. Rent it!