Monday, May 2, 2011

Inferno (1980)

In my previous review of Deep Red, I introduced Argento as the creepy Italian Brian De Palma. The more Argento I watch, the more this statement turns out to be exactly correct. Also like De Palma, I really like some of Argento's work, while some of it I just find incredibly frustrating and poorly done. Even at his best Argento's plots are so reliant on visuals that they sometimes make little sense, at his worst the viewer is left completely baffled. Nowhere is this frustrating conflict between talented visual storytelling and incompetent plot better represented than Inferno.

On the plus side, it does live up to its name.

In a narration-heavy prologue we're told about three witches with vast power that reside in Rome, New York, and some school in Germany (a reference to Suspiria, arguably Argento's best film). The witches had fancy buildings built for them, and the reader of the book where this exposition is coming from has reason to believe she's currently renting a flat in one of these evil dwellings.

This girl goes exploring in her building's basement, when she drops her keys and they fall through a crack in the floor. Turns out under a section of the basement is an entire room flooded with surprisingly clear water. The girl dives in, finding the room to be unusually deep, with her keys sitting a portrait reading "Tenebraum." Somehow her diving into the room causes a rotted corpse to get released, where it sort of nudges the girl and freaks her out, though she still manages to reach the surface and move on with her day as though something incredibly bizarre didn't just happen. It's just the way emotionally stunted Argento protagonists act, okay? This girl is downright well-adjusted compared to the protagonist from Opera.

Just another boring day in music class.

Next we cut to Italy, which is enough to make me wonder why we're even bothering with a pretense of setting this movie in New York, since it's obviously filmed in Italy and features a cast of Italians. The girl's brother Mark, a bland music major whose most defining attribute is having a mustache, notes that he has a letter from his sister. Instead of reading it, he just leaves it in class after he gets distracted by a good-looking and almost assuredly evil chick checking him out.

His friend Sara reads the letter since it's just sitting there, and she's so freaked out about the sister's secret flooded ballroom corpse adventures that she immediately goes to her local library to read up on these Three Mothers. After being stalked for a few minutes she finally gets out of the library where she meets up with the guy that played the drunk guy in Deep Red, and the two of them go back to her place. Unfortunately both are gruesomely murdered by an unseen figure. Mark shows up and finds the corpses and his sister's letter. On the way out from the crime scene, the same girl from the school is staring at him from a taxicab, just in case someone watching this didn't put together that this girl was bad news.

If my apartment complex had an unexplained body of water in its basement,
I don't think I'd swim in it under any circumstances.

Mark's sister explores some more, only to be guillotined by a window after wandering around aimlessly and making zero progress on the plot.

After Mark's sister goes missing, Mark shows up at her place to... I don't know? I don't think he has any plan or any personal reason for going to New York other than he thinks his sister's cracking up and then when he gets to New York she's already gone missing. He's the protagonist by default even though we know nothing about him except he has a mustache and had a weird sister.

Arriving at his sister's place, he meets the creepy residents, including an old mute quadriplegic and his spooky nurse, a crooked caretaker, an antique dealer who hates cats, and a countess.

The countess is played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento's long-time collaborator and mother of their crazy child Asia Argento, who thankfully saves us the embarrassment of challenging anyone to an arm wrestling match. I've found that my resentment towards Nicolodi as an actress is directly proportional to how much screen-time she gets before she's gruesomely murdered. In Deep Red, where she's on screen all the time and is never murdered, she gets on my every nerve, but when she's introduced as a minor character in the second act who will almost assuredly be murdered, I'm fine with her.

No arm wrestling contests this time.

The Countess and Mark investigate his sister's disappearance by exploring a hidden passage in the building, but Mark just falls over suddenly for no reason. Basically he has a witch-induced heart attack. That's not fair OR interesting to watch. The Countess tries to help but is chased by a masked figure and then is eventually attacked by about a dozen cats (?) before being finished off by the cloaked figure. Seriously the movie really started losing me as I still had no idea what was going on and neither did any of the protagonists. Suspiria worked because it was a mystery that the protagonist was constantly trying to discover. In this film, the witch is just killing people for no apparent reason because otherwise they might figure out what on earth is going on. It might make sense as a strategy but it doesn't make for a very watchable movie.

Somebody off-camera has a cat launcher.

I don't want to get too much more into the plot but there's one scene so absolutely bizarre that I have to comment on it. The crippled antique dealer, without any knowledge of the cats' role in the countess' murder, puts all the cats in a burlap sack, limps out to the middle of a stream leading into the sewers, then tries to drown the cats by tossing the bag into the stream, but falls in trying to nudge the bag under water, whereupon he's attacked by rats. After screaming for help, a hot dog vendor hears him and comes running across the park only to STAB HIM IN THE NECK FOR NO REASON. It was the hot dog guy all along! In a movie that doesn't make much sense this scene raises the bar by being completely unnecessary to further the plot in addition to being completely incomprehensible. I don't understand the actions of any character in this scene, including the rats. I guess the witch is subtly controlling at least one of these parties? Obviously not crippled guy, since he's killing the evil cats, but he doesn't even know they're evil!

While Suspiria gained wide release and attention in the US, Inferno was limited in release and generally disliked by critics, which inevitably caused it to have something of a cult following of fans who apparently decided Suspiria was a movie only posers liked while real fans liked Inferno. This is one of those instances where the critics were right the first time: Inferno's just not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination.

They are never gonna lease this room.

The death scenes, while not terrible, lack the grotesque imagination seen in Deep Red or Suspiria. The music is standard stuff as Goblin wouldn't work with Argento again until 1982's Tenebre. The music might have been fine by itself but it's incompetently used from scene to scene, sucking out tension rather than adding to it because it never, ever lets up.

The setting of New York makes no sense at all and it just adds to the camp value. Why would Argento set a film in a place he's a) not from and b) seems to know nothing about? It would be like me making a movie set in Florence and then filming it entirely in West Texas and peopled entirely with Texans phonetically reading Italian.

Since so much of the plot revolves around one specific apartment building, we get almost exclusively interior locations that lack the psychedelic colors of Suspiria, and just end up looking dull. The plot is incredibly dumb but it hardly seems fair to criticize that since even the best Argento is going to have a dumb plot if you're not actually watching it, but since it's visually dull in addition to being dumb there are times when I just tuned out entirely.

Apologists of the film say that this is a good thing because it is surreal and encourages thought, but most of my thoughts were along the lines of wondering how bored I was or why I should care about beard guy or Italian girl or any of them. It does have a few cool shots, but so much of it takes place in this poorly lit building to people you know nothing about. Also, the lighting just looks really amateurish to the point where it's hard to tell what's going on in a number of scenes.

In short, if you are a big Argento fan and love his peculiar blend of camp, difficult to follow plots, and gruesome murders, Inferno is worth a look. Maybe you'll get sucked into it more than I was. But if you've never seen an Argento movie, do not start with this one. Watch Suspiria first, and if your reaction was "man, this movie rocks, except it's too colorful and makes too much sense and I wish the music was worse," move on to Inferno.

Arbitrary Rating:

2 bags full of cats out of 5

Memorable Quotes:

Sara: Have you heard of "The Three Sisters?"
Carlo: You mean those black singers?

Mark (about Sara): She writes poetry.
Nurse: A past-time especially suited for women.

Argento Trademarks:

Black Gloves? No, but Argento does put on a pair of monster hands.

Goblin? No.

Cruely to Animals? Yes, specifically, cat-throwing and cat-drowning. Live ants are sprayed with bug spray.

Window-related death? Yes, by guillotine.

Overall Argento-ness? A meager 2/4. No wonder I don't like it.


  1. If you ever get this extremely late message, this the most accurate review I could find on this film. Thank you.

  2. if inferno is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, why does suspiria get to be one? they're both good movies (good, not great). i prefer inferno,which has relatively better writing and acting and less gore, but i would never try to write off suspiria. also,you managed the amazing feat of not understanding the few things that made sense in an otherwise nonsensical movie.

  3. This Blue Underground transfer proved a revelation to me. This was maybe my third or fourth viewing of Inferno and, I have to say, there are still major problems with the coherence of the story. The movie is undeniably beautiful, however, and the visuals alone make it worth a watch. Emerson's score (he's one of my favorites keyboard players) is way better than is represented here- the theme is positively haunting- and worth picking up as a soundtrack to see how it wasn't quite utilized properly. Also, Argento is not the Italian DePalma- DePalma is very much the American Argento (and I'm a huge fan of Brian's early work- later stuff not so much).