Inferno (1980)

Inferno first published by Little White Lies

If Dario Argento’s supernatural classic Suspiria is a danse macabre set in a ballet school in Germany, its sequel Inferno turns for inspiration to the melodramas and murders found in opera – although it also begins with a book and a letter. The book, an alchemical tome entitled ‘The Three Mothers’, has attracted the nervous attention of Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle), who has come to believe that her apartment building in New York may have been designed by the book’s author to accommodate a cruel witch known as the Mater Tenebrarum, or Mother of Darkness.

So Rose writes a letter summoning her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), who is a musicologist studying opera in Rome – but anyone, it seems, who comes into contact with her letter, or communicates the story of the Three Mothers, is doomed to suffer a terrible death. For when it comes to witches and alchemy, silence is golden – and Mark’s search for his missing sister is bringing him ever closer to an ancient, unstoppable evil.

This 30th Anniversary Edition makes Inferno available for the first time in the UK in digital formats, newly restored and completely uncut. The film itself is something of a mixed bag. The performances are so bland that you might for a moment imagine that Argento had taken a leaf out of Werner Herzog’s book (circa Heart of Glass) and hypnotised his entire cast before shooting. The perfunctory nature of the dialogue does not help. Keith Emerson’s pompous soundtrack is just too silly to match the ritualised terror of Goblin’s score for Suspiria.

Similarly the attention to set design and lighting that made Suspiria look so exquisite here seems lazier, as though flooding any old stairway or corridor in red and blue tones will somehow make everything look more uncanny. Expositional material comes in unnecessarily lengthy and often repeated voice-overs, without adding much to the overall narrative. And the ending, while certainly fulfilling the title’s promise, disappoints with its cheap parlour tricks and cheesy Halloween costumery.

Still, even if barely anything here seems especially integral to a plot that often just meanders from one baroque set-piece to the next, that does not take away from the individual impact of the set-pieces themselves. Here death comes in many forms. Sure there are Argento’s trademark gloved hands wielding their upraised blade giallo-style, but there are also eclipse-frenzied rats, guillotines improvised from panes of glass, ravenous feline strays, and, most memorably of all, a corpse swimming surreally through a submerged ballroom.

Meanwhile, by casting Sacha Pitoeff, the celebrated tritagonist of Alain Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad, in the role of the crippled antiques dealer Kazanian, Argento seems to be indicating that his infernal fairytale of architecture and alchemy is not so much a straight story as a Marienbad-like labyrinth of winding corridors, false paths, hidden chambers and fragmentary narratives designed to entrap us in a web of confusion and contradiction. Well, maybe – or maybe the film is just messily conceived and messily realised.

Irene Miracle has reportedly claimed that the director, who was stricken with a severe case of hepatitis during the production, only rarely put in an appearance on set. In any case, for all its underlying incoherence and irrationality, Inferno certainly delivers all the death that we could want. Just be careful what you wish for – here Death is not quite all she is cracked up to be.

© Anton Bitel