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.

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