Updated: Jun 5
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Inferno (1981, directed by Dario Argento)
With guest reviewer Sean M. Thompson
Jonathan Raab: I have a lot of fondness for Dario Argento’s Inferno, as it is a strong example of supernatural Italian horror—and yes, I would consider it a giallo, even if the emphasis is on the occult goings-on rather than the black-gloved killer.
Inferno very much works as a sequel to Suspiria, and, depending on my mood, sometimes I like it more than its predecessor. But I will admit it is not quite as visually interesting or coherent as the original, although the luxurious red, pink, and blue-purple lighting is wonderful, and many of the apartment building interiors have a delightful Art Deco flair that evokes the dancing academy of Suspiria.
It’s hard to describe the film’s plot, or even what it’s about, really, but I suppose we should give it a shot. The film begins by immediately connecting itself to the mythology of the first film through overwrought exposition delivered to us via an excitable narrator reading from a book called The Three Mothers by E. Varelli, which describes three powerful witches in three great houses in the U.S. and Europe. Inspired by the book’s reference to keys hidden away in secret areas, our heroine decides to go bother the antique bookseller, then climbs into a hidden basement, and loses her snake charm in a flooded, underground chamber below that.
The scene is actually quite beautiful, with the water giving the submerged room and its contents an ethereal, dream-like quality that will hang over the rest of the film. It doesn’t really make any sense whatsoever, but the corpse that emerges from the depths is fantastic, and the idea of swimming through that water makes my skin crawl.
SEAN M. THOMPSON: I love that during the water scene in question the logic goes from, okay let me just stick my arm into this water and try to reach for my jewelry to immediately like, okay, well, one attempt did not work so let me just SUBMERGE MY ENTIRE BODY into this gross standing water, in a basement in New York City. Girl, that’s how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born! Anyway, the scene is certainly interesting, even if it is just a ploy for Argento to begin the string of women in soaked-through dresses throughout this film.
I like Inferno well enough, but I have to admit I literally memory dump any semblance of the “plot,” as soon as I finish watching it. For instance, the next scene, where we cut to a middle-aged man who is apparently in college (sigh) named Mark. Yeah, I did not remember this scene at all.
Mark is studying musicology, listening to some classical, and he looks across the room to see a woman staring at him lasciviously… holding a cat. Because, you know, I guess in Rome they just let you take your pets into your university classes?
As you mentioned before, it’s hard to describe the film’s plot. Inferno is more about atmosphere, and those sweet, sweet red and blue Argento gels. The purpose of this university scene is to show that Mark, rather than being a CPA is in fact in college (sure), and has received a letter from his sister in NYC—the woman in the water from the earlier scene we now learn is named Rose. I mean, I think we learn that.
Damn it, there is a woman with a cat we keep cutting back to who disappears—you can forgive me if any other aspect of the scene is lost on me. I don’t really remember who this woman is supposed to be. Maybe she’s the lady from the next scene? Christ, I don’t know, shut up and watch the pretty colors.
JR: Funny you should mention memory. I’ve seen this film three or four times now, and, aside from a couple of set pieces (the underwater scene, Mater Tenebrarum’s transformation into Death), it’s like watching it for the first time, every time. That could have something to do with how the plot is structured: first we follow the sister, then the brother briefly, then his girlfriend (?), then him again, then the weird neighbor lady, then the brother again—with a few offshoots with side characters here and there.
I think the woman holding the cat in class is the Mother of Tears, the third mother-sister-witch, but I’m not really sure what she’s up to, to be honest.
It’s also interesting that I don’t seem to have space for this movie in my head outside of the vague impressions of color and weirdness, as this film is very much about space. On Twitter a few weeks ago I was talking to people about “horror movies about architecture,” and Inferno certainly fits the bill. The setup is literally about the forbidden knowledge of the Three Mothers as recorded in a book by a friend of the architect who built their great houses—and the architect even plays a role in the film’s final act.
Inferno is obsessed with secret spaces, wings, holes in the wall, ventilation systems that allow conversations to carry at great distances, a labyrinthine library, the secret flooded sub-basement, and the black-gloved killer’s manipulation of locks, doors, and the crawl spaces of the apartment building itself. These spaces enable violence and magic to seep into the world of the protagonists, or, rather, represent the unreality that they have ventured into themselves. There’s a moment where one of the female leads cuts her hand on a glass knob that shatters, drawing blood, thus gaining her entrance to these esoteric passageways.
ST: Yes, and in this regard, Inferno works as a wonderful horror film dealing with architecture. Arguably, some of the buildings are more characterized than the people, much in the vein of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
There’s a real dreamlike quality to the film. There are moments, for instance, when the character of Sara goes to the library, where it’s like one moment she’s in the library, picking up the book about the Three Mothers, and then she wanders into the basement, and really, barely even hidden is a passage to a basement lair. In the lair is supposed to be an alchemist or wizard of some sort—who then of course proceeds to shove her head into a vat of boiling liquid. It is an Argento film, after all. I want to talk about the music in this film for a second. The soundtrack is, frankly, one of the more schizophrenic combinations in any of Argento’s oeuvre. Unlike the soundtrack by Goblin from Suspiria, Keith Emerson does the main score for Inferno, which is more of a traditional style of score, if not very operatic… until it isn’t. There is one track, and I swear to you, it is just the theme to a level of Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
This music in part seems to contribute to the scattered nature of the film, as the score goes from one style, to a completely different style, from scene to scene. It almost plays like the music from completely different films spliced together. That’s not to say I don’t like it, it just comes across as really odd at times. I mean, the whole movie is really odd, so it fits. And man, this movie does not mind killing off characters. If there is a main character I suppose it’s Mark, but jeez, we’ll spend 20 minutes with someone just to have their head pushed into a vat of boiling liquid, or have them stabbed, or stabbed in a different way, or cut: there’s a lot of knife action.
JR: Speaking of knife action, I know there’s purists out there who don’t consider these movies as representative of Argento’s giallo work, but to me they are inseparable. There’s a black-gloved killer and faceless others, including the alchemist/weirdo in the library underhalls, who commit all sorts of gnarly violence against our protagonists.
Before we let this one go, I want to say that I really, really like this movie, and think it’s almost as good as Suspiria in its own right.
And I can’t wrap up this conversation without mentioning the cats. There is a cat-attack scene wherein I believe you can see someone’s arm in the frame, because they just throw cats at the poor actress or stuntwoman or whomever, and those cats look pissed. Then there’s the weirdo antiques dealer who drowns a bag of angry cats and then falls into the water and is attacked by rats. A nearby hot dog vendor, possessed by the power of the eclipse or something, rushes over to slit his throat. This is all displayed without context or explanation. Magnifique.
The film works for me because it’s a joy to watch. It’s a beautiful mess, one born out of Argento’s messed up vision and iteration on the more pure gialli preceding it. Head into this one ready to absorb it into your subconscious, because trying to interpret it as anything other than pure black-magic chaos might just leave you frustrated.
ST: I want to say I’m iffy on this film, except I’ve seen it like three damn times, or possibly even more? This is a slippery piece of cinema. Is it giallo? Is it merely supernatural horror? Is it architecture porn? Is it all of them? The point is, it’s entertaining, it’s bananas, and if you want a good film to laugh and make fun of, one you can also appreciate the cinematography of, Inferno is a great pick. I think Suspiria is the better of the two films, but, as stated, I could still watch this film over and over. And damn if it doesn’t make you want to binge some more Argento. Amen.
Sean M. Thompson is the author of the novel TH3 D3M0N, the novellas Farmington Correctional and Hate From The Sky, and the short collection Too Late. He has had stories featured in Vastarien, Unnerving, Letters of Decline from Orford Parish Books, Behold the Undead of Dracula and Terror in 16-bits from Muzzleland Press, and Test Patterns from Planet X Publications. Though a native of Massachusetts, he recently uprooted his life and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the air is as dry as his sense of humor.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.