Dario Argento made Inferno (1980) as his follow-up to Suspiria (1977) but before making Tenebre (1982). Sandwiched between two of his most iconic and critically acclaimed works, Inferno tends to be overlooked. It’s the second film of a thematically linked trilogy which Argento has called his Three Mothers Trilogy. As is the case with Suspiria and Mother Of Tears (2007), Inferno addresses the magical powers of one of these Mothers Of Sorrow who are themselves a supernatural manifestation of humankind’s instinctual fear of the concept of death.
Inferno bears all of the stylistic characteristics associated with Argento; there are the sweeping and highly animated POV camera shots, the use of Catholic symbolism, the expressionistic lighting and the use of opera on the soundtrack. The rat attack in Central Park in Inferno, though it isn’t an orgy of pleasures, predicts a similar sequence in Argento’s The Phantom Of The Opera (1998). Argento also employs a number of genre tropes associated with the giallo picture in Inferno such as the unseen killer wearing black gloves, the lone bystander who becomes a quasi-detective out of moral necessity, and finally the copious amounts of blood and gore during scenes of violence. With Inferno Argento moves beyond the giallo genre that made him famous into a world of horrors that is far more personal. Though he retains a number of stylistic flourishes derivative of the giallo, Inferno is more invested in humanity’s quest to understand the nature of mortality.
The abstract themes that populate the loose narrative of Inferno are further aided by Mario Bava’s participation. A sometime mentor to Argento, Bava’s influence can be felt in almost everything Argento ever made. The much talked about lighting and framing in Argento’s pictures comes from Bava’s films of the sixties. Inferno (itself bathed in blue, red, and violet lights) owes its production design, entire sets, and almost all of its special effects to Bava. Argento has called Inferno his “great collaboration” with Bava.
The fantastic look of Inferno compliments the disjointed narrative structure of the film. On a fundamental level Inferno is about a man’s search for his sister in an apartment building in New York city. Around this minimal plot Argento and an uncredited Daria Nicolodi have written a film whose focus is quite literally the act of searching.
Inferno opens with Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle) visiting a book shop looking to learn more about the tome The Three Mothers which she recently acquired. Spurned by the disgruntled shopkeeper Kazanian (Sacha Pitoëff), Rose leaves but is drawn into a mysterious passageway nearby that takes her into a basement where she discovers a chasm filled with water from a leaking pipe. As Rose investigates she drops her pin into the hole. In an effort to recover her accessory she dives inside. Submerged in the water it soon becomes clear she’s in an apartment frozen in time by the stillness of the pool. Then, from out of nowhere, rotting corpses begin to float up at her.
Inferno is composed of what is essentially nothing more than variations on this sequence repeated in different locations. The characters move through these magical nightmare spaces motivated only by the desire to know why these spaces exist. Nothing more than that compelled Rose to go into the basement. These are characters of instinct that, rather than taking action, only react. When Rose is murdered her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) comes from Rome to find her, to know and understand what’s happened, and becomes drawn into the same mystery that ensnared Rose. It’s important to note that Argento does not permit any of these quests for knowledge to succeed. Characters are either killed or the objects that could provide any explanations are destroyed.
Dario Argento describes himself as a pessimist and Inferno is the fantasy of spirituality from such a perspective. For Argento the human need to understand existence is synonymous with mankind’s obsession with death. The search for answers regarding these cosmic riddles is a doomed one for Argento. In this way, in Argento’s body of work, it is an inevitable doom that rules human existence.