Hot topic: A critical review of “Inferno” (1980)

Out of all the horror franchises in cinema, I don’t know if there’s one more… well, forgotten isn’t the right word, because the first film is very well known. I’m also not talking about a radical dip in quality between entries. Everyone will probably agree that the first films in various slasher series–like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Candyman–are superior to their sequels. The same can be said of classic Gothic horror and sci fi, like Universal’s Mummy, Wolf Man and Creature flicks.

Director Dario Argento’s Three Mother series is unique because it’s the series that most people don’t know exists, even if they know the film that started it all. Among both horror fans and giallo fans, it can be hard to remember that “Suspiria” is supposed to be followed by “Inferno” and “Mother of Tears.” Want proof? When people tell you to watch “Suspiria,” do they immediately add, “And you gotta watch ‘Inferno’ next”? Or when you say you’ve seen “Suspiria,” do they warn you, “Whatever you do, don’t watch ‘Mother of Tears'”?

Of course they don’t. Not no one cares about “Inferno,” and even fewer people care about “Mother of Tears.” And yet, this blog isn’t everybody, as we’re so fond of reminding you. In order to celebrate both Argento’s 80th anniversary and “Inferno’s” 40th, we’re going to be taking a look at that film. Is it a forgotten classic or best resigned to the incinerator? As usual, the answer is not so simple.

“Inferno” begins where “Suspiria” left off, by which I mean it starts with different characters in new locations who aren’t connected to the first film at all. Rose is a young woman living in New York City. A poet, she’s often having around old bookstores. By chance, she discovers a book that suggests she’s living in a building designed by an alchemist to be the home of an ancient witch goddess. As she explores the text and her building, she comes to the startling conclusion it might be true. She writes to her brother, a music student in Rome, begging him to visit come visit her. He does, only to discover she has disappeared.

It’s almost a given that viewers will compare “Inferno” to “Suspiria,” which is both fair and unfair. It’s fair because “Inferno” follows its predecessor’s psychic structure, its dream-like framework and aggressive visuals. It’s unfair because “Suspiria” is a classic and “Inferno” is not.

“Suspiria” supports its towering style with just enough substance–its accessible plot structure, and its themes of isolation and abandonment–that even people who aren’t diehard horror fans can admire the film. “Inferno,” on the other hand, is much looser. Its plot is, at best, episodic. Things happen in the order they do less because it feels planned and more because it’s an order in which things could kind of happen, I guess. If you’re watching “Inferno” for anything like a sensible plot or relatable characters, you will leave disappointed.

None of that is to say “Inferno” is without its charms. In fact, if you liked “Suspiria” for its baroque visuals and surreal horrors, this blog would recommend “Inferno” far ahead of the 2018 remake of “Suspiria.”

“Inferno” is a graphic feast, and accordingly, its best moments are ones that require the eyes more than the brain. Perhaps things never get better than a tense scene early in the film, where Rose must swim through a flooded ballroom to recover her keys, all the while being watched by a mysterious presence. She went into the submerged ballroom on a hunch gleaned from a haunted book, and she readily accepts it as a swimming pool. Why? You might as well ask why one accepts the ability to fly in dreams.

“Inferno’s” characters and contrivances are all like those of dreams or fables. Its first protagonist is named Rose, which feels straight out of a fairy tale, and her portal to another world–or rather her new perception of her own–is a leathery tome about witchcraft. Elsewhere, a spectral witch visits a student in a music class, a character is eaten alive by river rats in the middle of Central Park, and the belly of a Gothic apartment resembles an iron monger’s furnace. These are images before they are scenes, and while they all defy narrative or waking logic, they fit into the dream-like reality of the film perfectly.

Of course, the rat scene lasts a little too long, and its surreality turns into tedium, which is why the film is ultimately not for everyone. Excess is its own worst enemy. It might only be 10 minutes longer than “Suspiria,” but “Inferno’s” slender plot makes it feel half an hour too much.

Curiously, Argento has claimed he wanted a more delicate score than those provided by the band Goblin on his earlier films, so he went with Keith Emerson. If that’s the case, he picked the wrong organist. Emerson’s score is everything you’d expect from the man who banged the keys on “Brain Salad Surgery.” It is loud, fast and eccentric, and while it could hardly be called “delicate,” it is impressive. I’m sure opinions will vary on its appropriateness, but one has to admit nothing fills the climax of the film quite like Emerson’s rococo soundtrack.

If anything, Emerson’s role as prog rock composer might be telling about the film as a whole. “Inferno” is very much a thriller of the 1970s, with its impressionistic plot that takes a back seat to surreal visuals. It might have already felt like an anachronism at the start of the new decade.

The cinema of the 1980s would no be less grotesque or excessive–“Inferno’s” pyrotechnic conclusion would feel at home among any number of 80s action flicks–but it would be a different kind of excessive, one based on pushing the bounds of sweat glands rather than corneas. That’s why this blog can’t easily recommend “Inferno,” but we also refuse to condemn it. The film might not be good, but it is visually interesting. That puts it ahead of a dozen other thrillers that make more sense but fail to fascinate all the same.

How to join a cult: A critical analysis of cult classic media (and some “Doki Doki Literature Club!”)

In news at the top of the year–before news about freeware horror games became obviously less important–it was announced that “Doki Doki Literature Club!” was getting an update. Media outlets labeled the game a “cult classic.” Unlike in the waking world, “cult” isn’t necessarily a dirty word in media reviews. Cult classic bestows a badge of honor upon niche works like “Doki Doki.”

Is it a fair moniker though? In fact, in an age of rapidly moving media and mainstream fandom, what actually qualifies as a cult classic? Coming from a religious studies background–and being a rabid fan of pseudo-intellectual horror–it seems like no one would be better suited to answer these questions than me. My answer to the first question is: I don’t know. Maybe? My answer to the second question is: We’ll get to that. Probably.

In order to decide if “Doki Doki” is a cult classic–or if anything is a cult classic–we’ll have to start by laying some ground rules. The term can be, and should be, narrowly defined. What constitutes a cult classic?

First off, it doesn’t just mean weird. For example, the 2013 movie “Borgman” is weird. It’s well-made-weird, with clean photography, solid acting, unusual characters and an intriguing script. It’s also likely to be categorized as a horror film–it’s structured like a thriller and appears supernatural at points–which is a genre that comes with a built-in audience. I watched it and liked it. I’ve also never watched it again. I’ve never watched a video essay deconstructing it, never read a fan fiction based on it, never seen a sexy Jan Bijvoet cosplay. “Borgman” is weird, but it doesn’t have a cult.

A “cult” in the contemporary sense is a group that has a particular devotion or fascination with a ritual, object or person. There are another couple of factors at play: scope and societal acceptance. Speaking religiously, a cult is a religious group that is smaller, newer and more isolated from the rest of society.

To a degree, those factors can be gauged with familiarity and visibility. The more open a church’s philosophy is or the more numerous its congregants are, the less likely it is to be labeled a cult. That’s why Catholicism is called church but People’s Temple is called a cult (I spent an inordinate amount of time researching the sermons of Jim Jones, so I should know this). Even location is a factor. Mormonism might be considered a routine Christian church in the American Southwest but approached with cult-like caution in the Northeast.

To get really meta, it can be hard to tell where distrust of the outside world by a cult, and distrust of a cult by the outside world, begin and end. From a psychological perspective, they would appear to feed each other. Whether that’s fair or not is a question for a brainier character than the operator of a blog that philosophizes about thrillers.

Now that you have a crash course in cult studies, we can cut to cult media. By the 1970s or 80s, the term appears to have been applied to cinema in largely the same way. A cult movie has a small but devoted following. Since certain genres of media tend to attract certain followings, the label refers as much to the media as to its fandom. For example, Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is arguably a cult film, since both so-bad-its-good sci fi is a niche market and the film’s fans tend to be very loyal. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain” is arguably a cult film as well. It is vastly different from “Plan 9” in concept and quality, but it also has a devoted niche audience: film snobs.

Does “Doki Doki Literature Club” have the earmarks of a cult classic? I am biased toward the game, but I believe so. It is perfectly made for a niche market, since it juxtaposes harem anime with psychological horror. Neither of those genres screams mainstream, but they both tend to attract devoted fandoms.

Indeed, “Doki Doki’s” fandom appears to still be fairly devoted, even three years after the game’s release (three years is an eon in game development time). The “Dok Doki” subreddit remains pretty active, and while YouTube streamers will pop on mods to play, this blog is more interested in the fact that mods are still being made for the game. Most of them lean toward the game’s dating sim side rather than its psychological horror side, but there are still a few interesting examples, including “Rain Clouds,” a retelling of the game’s first level from Sayori’s perspective that retains the psychological twists of the original game, and “Never Doki Lone,” a mashup of mystery and horror featuring Monika as an investigative school reporter.

Outside of the world of streaming, the game still sees meme and animations. YouTube channels like A Few Seconds to Live, woutmees and The Bike continue to create diverse content out of the original game’s assets. The singer OR3O has dropped most of her “Doki Doki” dressings, but she initially achieved fame by singing covers in vocal Monika cosplay (she still creates original content based on indie horror games like “Bendy and the Ink Machine” and “Helltaker”).

Arguably, perhaps even this blog has been keeping the “Doki Doki” fire lit, but I’ve already admitted a bias. When I say the fandom can be clingy, I’m not excluding myself.

Finally, “Doki Doki” has one more thing going for it: a touch of controversy to keep it out of the fully mainstream. Its squirmy subject matter made sure that contemporary mainstream discussion of the game was largely about how weird and niche it was (and note that, even then, it was being labeled “cult”).

Basically, it’s fair to say that “Doki Doki” has a cult. But is it a classic? Here is where I am less certain. Defining a “cult” is easy, since all you need is years of religious studies classes. Defining a classic is harder. That’s something only time can do.

Cute anime girls and jump scares can take you so far, but a game needs more than novelty to be a classic, just like it needs more than weirdness to attract a cult. This blog believes that “Doki Doki’s” themes–its thoughtful and layered explorations of AI, agency, purpose and communication–suggest it has the signs of becoming a classic. Some of us are still talking about it three years out. If we’re still talking about it three years from now, I’ll have a better answer for you, and I’ll have an even better answer if we’re talking about it three years after that. Only time will tell.

Here is where things get truly interesting. If a cult classic requires both a devoted cult and the time to become a classic, is it easier or harder to become one these days? This blog hates to sound like an angry old man–unless it secretly thrives off sounding like an angry old man–but in an era of instant communication, memes of the week and mainstream nerdiness, the problem isn’t for a work to find its fandom. It’s that the work has to compete in an ever expanding marketplace of media and memes about media, and the truly popular runs the risk of either getting forgotten in a week or ascending out of cult status into established church. Almost anything can amass a fandom on social media, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stay active. Cults might become more common, but classics won’t necessarily follow.

Another scorcher: News September 2020

I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but here in the Los Angeles area we’re getting one of those late summer/early autumn heat waves. A lot of people are using it as an excuse for slowing down and taking it easy, but this blog calls those people out-of-towers. A little triple-digit weather don’t bother us none. We’re running on time and under budget.

Let’s get the very LA shameless self-promotion out of the way first. My short story “Life After Roswell” is up and running in Red Planet Magazine, an indie literary journal with a penchant for science fiction. My story is a darkly comic character study of a UFO fanatic whose life changes after the government announces that aliens have been real this whole time. The issue–volume one, issue 11 to be precise–is full of sci fi flavored poetry as well.

For a sample of the company I’m in, check the out the magazine’s currently featured poem, “Singing for the Quiet” by Paige Elizabeth Wajda. It’s a restrained and melancholy piece, and I love the images in the penultimate stanza: “an axe to an armory, a straw to drink / the ocean, a solitary watt in a dark room.” Digital or paper copies of the issue can be purchased through the magazine’s archive.

On the chopping block for the rest of September, there’s a couple of Dario Argento anniversaries coming up that will warrant a movie review. What could this blog be referring to? You’ll have to tune in next week to find out, Tonstant Weader. And if we don’t have much planned after that, well, we can always blame the heat.