Today I saw the slow horrible death of a cripple, met the grim reaper and watched the drowning of angry kittens in a bad. This didn’t actually happen in real life unfortunately… I mean fortunately. This is just the typical work of the legendary Dario Argento. The director who brought us the classics Suspira, Profondo Rosso and Tenebre, as well as Phenomena where Jennifer Connelly talked to insects and a chimpanzee chopped up a dwarf with a cut throat razor. So don’t mess with Argento, he knows his weird horror shit.
Inferno is the sequel to Suspira and like all good sequels it tries to expand on the original’s storyline and make everything twice as big and exciting. Unlike all good sequels it fails to actually be even half as good as the original. Not that it’s without some really brilliant stuff, but it’s also got some real crap, and the most beige hero ever made. I mean not just in that he is incredibly dull and flat, which he is, but also that he wears a beige suit with a beige shirt, he has a beige suntan and his hair is beige coloured. He is all beige, and I’ve said that word enough for a lifetime now. Here he is in stark contrast to Argento’s usual crazy art direction/red light combo, where actually it kind of makes sense:
The film starts with a long bit of dialogue explaining about three witches (or mothers, what does that say?) who rule the world in three different houses. One in Germany (which was the plot of Suspira), one in Rome and one in New York. This is what will be known at the Three Mothers Trilogy. This big chunk of exposition is read out from a convenient book which explains what the hell is going on, and then the rest of the film proceeds to illustrate what we’ve just learnt in the first five minutes, so there’s pretty much no mystery whatsoever.
Now let’s stop for a moment. We all know that Argento’s films are not about the scripts or the story, and certainly not about the dialogue or the often lifeless acting. What they are about are the incredible set pieces, the magical camerawork, lighting and set design, and the extreme, but beautiful violence. Inferno is probably the epitome of this line of thinking, because the story is not only explained in the first five minutes but really is just an expanded version of Suspiria‘s tale, and makes little to no sense. But this theory is unfair to some Argento’s best work, because SuspiraDOES have a great story with a solid central mystery. It is also well paced and some of the acting is well above what you’d expect. Well with Jessica Harper it is anyway. Not so here, the story is all over the place. We spend a big chunk of time with characters we never see again later, mainly because they’ve died horribly but still…
In the early part of the film we follow Rose (Irene Miracle) around as she works out that the New York apartment she is in is hiding deep, dark secrets. She ends up, in the film’s best bit, in an underwater ballroom deep below the building because she foolishly dropped some jewellery down there. The way she drops it in there is so contrived and badly executed though it makes you think that maybe Argento was only doing this so we’d get to see Miracle’s breasts through her wet top (which we do). She gets freaked out when she finds a corpse under there and writes a letter to her brother in Rome begging him to come over. After we invest all this time with her, Rose is then killed, but not as horribly as we’d expect of an Argento film. There’s no close up of a beating heart being stabbed, just a cutaway. A cutaway! The shame of it.
Meanwhile her brother, Mr Mark E. Beige from earlier, is in New York failing miserably to read his sister’s pleading letter. This is mainly because he is being distracted by this person:
…who for some reason is allowed to bring her cat into lectures at university. This might be because she is very hot in a 1980’s Euro-with-too-much eyebrow kind of way. Or it may be that she’s the third witch Rose read about earlier. Not that this is explained. And not that she is ever seen again either of course. This is a bewitching little scene though, she is both intoxicatingly beautiful and deeply unnerving in the way she stares at Mark, and at the audience at the same time.
There are a lot of cats in this film, understandable for a film about witches. However, I’m not sure they are handled very well. There’s an old cripple who runs the bookshop next to the New York apartment who is constantly being harassed by cats presumably because he sold that witch book to Rose, but also because he’s a mean old git and cats love picking on people at the best of times. Later he gets revenge on them by tying them up in a sack and drowning the little fuckers. Or poor little blighters, depending on if you like cats or not.
There’s another bit where the cats attack and kill a butler. They swarm over him tearing his skin apart. I think this scene is meant to be serious and terrifying, however it is quite apparent that getting cats to act how the filmmakers wanted wasn’t going to happen. So, there are three types of cats here:
1) Stuffed cats which have been stapled onto the man’s clothes, these look neither real nor terrifying.
2) Cats which are being thrown at the actor from off screen by members of the crew. These cats look real but seem more terrified than terrifying. The moment they land on the actor they seem to be bolting out of shot as quickly as possible.
3) There is one rogue cat who stands behind the actors head taking swipes at his scalp with his claws. This cat seems to be having the time of his nine lives.
Anyway, picking on cats seems like a bad idea in Argento land because no sooner has the cripple drowned them than he is attacked by their best friends the rats. We all know rats and cats hate each other so you’d think the rats would give him a ratty pat on the back but no, they attack and eat him alive. Well, they’re meant to but it takes such a long time for them to do this that someone else has to come along and finish him off. I worked on 28 Days Later and there is a scene when our heroes break down in a tunnel and a swarm of rats race past them. When filming this scene we set up a giant green screen box with a camera in it to film the rats running. However, rats are worse at taking instructions than cats and mostly they just sniffed the camera and humped a lot. We ended up having to create CG rats. Poor old Argento would not have had this option in 1980. What we are left with therefore is a bunch of rats milling around on a poor actor screaming and splashing about like his life depended on it, while the rats seem more interested in having a nap then tucking into him.
According to Inferno, witches are well into animals and animal death. Sure, the rats live but the cats are doomed and even a bunch of ants get murdered for no good reason. Can you murder an ant? Well it seems you can, although there are a load of them so really this is genocide.
Argento does have some good stuff in here. The sets are spectacular, especially the apartments in New York, although not as good as the ballerina school in Suspiria. There’s some weird imagery and odd ball moments galore, plus some extreme use of red and blue lighting gels. But the set pieces are not a patch on the prequel. The music, not by his usual band Goblin but by Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) often sounds like the soundtrack to an old silent movie, hammering home key moments of fear and terror with all the subtlety of an ear fuck with an iron bar wrapped in strong cheese.
I still liked it, but I didn’t love it. Twenty-eight years later Argento completed the Three Mothers Trilogy with Mother of Tears and by then he had jettisoned all sense of style and decent camera work, but on the flipside it had more gore and nudity, so you win some, you lose some. I wonder if you combined both the sequels to Suspiria you’d have one decent film. You’d have to digitally enhance the hero’s clothes though. In 1980 the audience might have been able to cope with that colour scheme but not now, it all just looks like too much beige.