I confess that I haven't been a fan of Argento movies, as evidenced by my reaction to Suspiria (TSPDT #506): "I felt the movie trying to willfully box me into a state of terror with its relentless migraine-inducing music, oversaturated lighting schemes and gross-out impalement effects." In Inferno, Argento's garish shock and awe methods are still present, but taken to such an extreme that the elaborate duochrome lighting schemes and overwrought scenarios for deaths and dismemberments do less to shock than to present themselves as objets d'art.
The story of three youths who try to untangle the ancient mystery of three diabolical sisters, one of whom is possibly hiding out in a New York apartment building is told in such an elliptical manner that it seems pointless to critique the storytelling. Similarly the characters are so underdeveloped that one must assume it is by design. Shifting from one generic protagonist-victim to the next with little emotion invested in any of them, the detached aura of the proceedings suggest that Argento is striving for an abstract essence to the horror aesthetic. He does this by eschewing the conventional satisfactions of credible storytelling or empathetic characters in favor of grandiose set pieces and the lurid fascinations of red and blue lights bathing female bodies as they wander forlornly through shadowy spaces.
While it doesn't achieve the pure horror abstraction of say, a Peter Tscherkassky film, it's best moments suggest an approach to horror filmmaking that elicits aesthetic contemplation as much as impulsive reaction.
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First, I want to dedicate this entry to Chris Benedict, better known as Chris-435 on IMDb Classic Film, where I've long admired his thoughts on a variety of movies. Many of us on IMDb have enjoyed his direct, down-to-earth tone in writing about films, and he is perhaps best regarded as the quintessential horror film buff, possessing more knowledge about horror films than just about anyone I've ever encountered.
When I first expressed my less than enthusiastic opinion on Argento's Suspiria a few years back, he was first to offer an informed rebuttal. And so I had to ask him what he felt about Inferno, to which he directed me to his online review:
Inferno is a striking movie: it is gorgeous to look at and is packed with unforgettable images. Perhaps the most striking of these is the underwater ballroom from which our heroine must retrieve her keys, dodging corpses as she swims. Other sequences are similarly baroque. Inferno is a cruel movie, too, in much the manner that all of Argento's movies are cruel. The violence in Inferno is sudden and shocking, staged with the elaborate style that Argento developed while making his giallo thrillers. What Inferno is not is comprehensible. Like Suspiria before it, Inferno attempts to scare the audience with pure abstraction. To this end, Argento uses a lot of saturated colors, a loud electronic score, and the bizarre set pieces I have already mentioned. Unlike Suspiria, Inferno doesn't have a strong center with which to anchor the rest of the movie. Jessica Harper was the soul of Suspiria. Inferno has no comparable character. The central thesis of both movies is more or less the same: there is an irrational, utterly terrifying world hiding behind the curtain of mundane reality. Suspiria rips the curtain away after depicting the prosaic reality of a hoity toity dance school. Inferno presents no veneer of mundanity. The curtain of reality has already fallen in Inferno and unreason holds full sway from frame one. The downside of this is that Inferno makes no sense from the get go instead of letting the rational universe crumble around the viewer. And yet, the imagery is potent. To an extent, by ignoring verisimilitude in this movie, Argento has created something that is all of a piece. I'm not going to claim that Inferno is successful. It isn't. But Inferno is certainly watchable, for all of that. It is one of the most interesting failures anyone is ever likely to make.
Chris goes on to write in his reply to me (and here you can really get a sense of the pleasant conversational tone of his writing):
I should be surprised that Inferno is on the list, actually, but I'm not. Its principle proponent is Kim Newman at Sight and Sound, and his writing on it is much better than mine, if you can find it. Newman says of Argento (in paraphrase, because I don't have it handy) that the murder sequences in his films are the equivalent of musical numbers in musicals and calls Argento "The Vincent Minnelli of Ultraviolence." Of Inferno, he notes that Argento has eliminated everything that isn't a set-piece, which results in a movie that's coherent in form, if not in plot. This is a conclusion I draw myself at the end of my review when I note that it's all of a piece, though I'm not as sanguine about it as Newman.
In truth, I think Argento peaked with Deep Red, which is the pivotal movie in his output (and never mind the cult of Suspiria). Among other things, it forges an unmistakable link between the giallo mystery and Michaelangelo Antonioni, is an early example of a meta-cinematic deconstruction of Argento's family life (he likes to kill off his family members on-screen, usually with himself acting as the killer), demonstrates Argento's lifelong obsession with art as an agent of chaos and death, and so on. Plus, Argento plays fair with the audience in Deep Red, which makes the plot of the movie cohere in a way his plots usually don't. But the most interesting thing about Deep Red is its position in Argento's filmography and its relationship to Argento's primary thematic concerns. For all their violence, the giallos prior to Deep Red (and including Deep Red, to an extent) are grounded in reason but offer glimpses of a darker world of unreason. Deep Red--especially in concert with Suspiria as a hypothetical double feature/turning point--tears down the curtain. Then follow completely un-reasonable movies like Inferno and Phenomenon. It's almost like Argento's career and individual movies follow the same plot. Go figure.
Inferno is pretty well represented on YouTube, with no less than four clips from key scenes in the film: The original English language trailer:
[youtube]Fb-aak8Luj8[/youtube] The celebrated underwater scene:
Death by cats:
Lord knows why someone bothered to upload this tedious sequence of Leigh Mackenzie crawling around to Keith Emerson's hackneyed rip-off of Carmina Burana: [youtube]TlRWHAAdBHY[/youtube]
Branislav L. Slantchev's essay on Gotterdammerung.org is worth checking out if only for the copious screen captures.
The Wikipedia entry on the film has an extensive synopsis, production details, an overview of the film's critical reception, and many useful references.
Critical reception of the film seems quite polarized between two general camps. There are those who critique it along the lines of failing to satisfy conventional demands for coherent storytelling and compelling characters. Others defend it as a successful attempt at a purer, more abstract kind of horror cinema. To wit:
While Inferno has often been criticized for terrible acting, dialogue and an incoherent plot, this compelling filmâ€”which Argento calls his "purest and most sincere"â€”seems less concerned with traditional narrative trajectories than it does with the art of horror film-making. Recalling the Russian Formalists' emphasis on form over content, "device" over message and strangeness over familiarity, Inferno involves the viewer in its "mind-boggling artificiality" to dramatise the aesthetic and experiential links between film-making and viewing which Christian Metz, in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, likens to dreamingâ€”a motif that Inferno takes up with a vengeance by turning that dream into nightmare.
This notion of "alchemical reasoning" implies that Argento's reflections on horror conventions rely on a series of "correspondences" which "move by a relation of counterparts and doubles, and [are] subject to dangerous distortions and interferences." And so, in response to the charge of incoherence, I would argue that Argento's Inferno demonstrates his affinity for analogies and parallelisms by way of "poetic connections" that give rise to the film's dream-logic.
In the labyrinthine design of our dreams, we often meet with enigmatic figures whose cryptic utterances seem absurd to the waking mind. In Inferno, such exchanges are commonplace and they create an overwhelming sense of strangeness, much like one would have in trying to explain the meaning of a dream in full upon waking. The exchange between Mark and the nurse illuminates this idea:
Nurse: ...What do you do? Mark: I'm a student. Musicology. Nurse: Oh, wonderful! A professor! Toxicology.
Later, when Mark has fainted, he is awakened by the building's concierge, Carol. Their conversation is equally strange:
Carol: It was your heart. Mark: I don't have heart problems. Carol: We gave you some heart medicine just the same.
In the absence of a dense plot, Argento directs our attention towards specific symbols - keys, doors, mirrors - that are loaded with connotative significance. But Argento also denies us a logical (or at least linear) narrative progression, severing the connection between the signified and the signifier. Like the film's characters, we become adrift, disoriented, out of control, as though we were dreaming. But where lesser directors employ dream logic to gloss over narrative shortcomings, Argento is very deliberately acting in a diaboloical manner not unlike the alchemists, giving us a sort of cinematic cryptogram that confounds our methods of deduction. Inferno is a self-contained work of art, filled with allusions to other works but, like Varelli's book, possessed by its own singular vision. One does not watch Inferno so much as dream it.
Perhaps the film's greatest flaw is that Argento's plot never lives up the film's central premise - that Mater Tenebrarum controls this part of the world. Everything takes place in the insular world of the apartment building or right nearby. All of the film's victims are non-entities whose life or death affects nothing. That someone like Mater Tenebrarum would even concern herself with these people seems implausible when we've been led to believe that she's one of three witches who control the world. In essence, the plot has too narrow a scope to live up to the grandeur inherent in Argento's idea.
- Review by Mike Bracken at Feomante.com
If the film is lacking in any department, it's in its casting. More specifically, Leigh McCloskey, a dull veteran of American soap operas and teen comedies, makes for about the least colorful Argento protagonist to date. According to the disc's liner notes, James Woods was actually up for the part - one can only shake their head in wonderment at Argento's decision to go with McCloskey instead!
- By Troy Howarth at DVD Maniacs
This movie is also famous for being the last film worked on by Mario Bava, the Italian horror master best known for films like Schock, Diabolik and Blood and Black Lace. It is a popular myth that he was responsible for the underwater sequence near the start of the film. In fact, Bava was not involved with that sequence: it was created by Lorenzo Battaglia, while Bava worked (uncredited) on a number of other scenes, including the burning house, the Central Park bridge shot and the mirror transformation during the climax. It is unclear where the myth originated from, but virtually every single reviewer seems to have taken it as fact, despite the fact that Argento himself has denied it several times.
- from DVD Times review by Mike Mackenzie
A flat-out pan by Eccentric-Cinema.com
There's no lack of material covering Dario Argento and his overall filmography:
Slant Magazine features an extensive film-by-film review of Dario Argento's career.
Then there's Michael Mackenzie of DVD Times, who offers a heartfelt testimonial as to why Argento is his favorite filmmaker. Dario Argento fansites:
German Dario Argento tribute site features extensive filmography, biography and many more links to other sites