Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #97
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 7, 1980
Country of Origin: Italy
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Assistant Director: Lamberto Bava
Producer: Claudio Argento, Salvatore Argento, Guglielmo Garroni
Screenplay: Dario Argento
Narrator: Dario Argento
Special Effects: Germano Natali
Visual Effects: Mario Bava (uncredited)
Cinematography: Romano Albani
Score: Keith Emerson
Art Direction: Giuseppe Bassan
Editing: Franco Fraticelli
Studio: Produzioni Intersound
Distributor: 20th Century Fox, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Blue Underground, Arrow Film Distributors
Stars: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi, Sacha Pitoëff, Alida Valli, Veronica Lazar, Gabriele Lavia, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Leopoldo Mastelloni
Suggested Audio Candy
Keith Emerson “Inferno”
With Crimson Quill’s 100th Appraisal looming larger than Friar Tuck in a patisserie, I figured it is high time I revisit one of the more avant-garde classics of horror modern cinema. It simply had to be Dario Argento as few can boast of blurring the lines between horror and fine art so effortlessly as he. He’s the closest we have to our very own Vincent Van Gogh and, during his most flush period around the turn of the eighties, was creating the kind of brush strokes most filmmakers could only ever dream of. The work I am about to place under the microscope was incredibly divisive back on its release in 1980 but time has been kind to Inferno and it is now given the respect it so richly deserves. Unquestionably flawed and amounting to little more than a collection of beautifully shot set-pieces to the untrained eye, it is also one of his most ambitious ever films.
Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy inaugurated in 1977 with the undebatable masterpiece Suspiria inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis and wouldn’t be concluded until forty years later with the largely misunderstood Mother of Tears but its inter-joining fable opts for an entirely different approach to storytelling by opting for visual mastery over any form of notable linear narrative structure whatsoever. To aid Argento in creating his sumptuous visuals, he enlisted the talents of Mario Bava, whose keen eye for detail assisted him no end with his transcendent revelation. Sadly, Bava passed away shortly before the film’s release but I’m sure he would have been more than satisfied by the results of their collaboration as Inferno both looks and plays out like a dream. As with Suspiria before it, the palette of colors used is fundamental to the unsettling surreal ambiance which is evident throughout, with Keith Emerson’s haunting score expertly adding an extra layer of consternation to proceedings.
This time the central focus is the second of the Three Mothers, Mater Tenebrarum, and our story begins in New York where poet Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) has come across ancient scriptures denoting the whereabouts of Tenebrarum’s evil blueprints for demonic devastation. Convinced that the building she occupies is in fact the configuration she reads about, her investigations lead her to a subterranean vault where a sunken cavity awaits. Now, while Argento has given us many fantastical moments of optical enchantment over his long career, I would be hard pushed to select one more beguiling, enchanting, tantalizing and, in turn, oppressive than the ballroom scene of the opening act here.
There simply aren’t sufficient adjectives to sum it up and Argento wholly succeeds in leaving his audience as breathless as his inundated maiden. He draws it out for as long as he possibly can and, like Rose, we are desperate to come up for precious air. Lighting plays an integral part in its ambiance, as does that delirious score. Ingeniously veiled light sources dance off the water creating different hues of Argento’s vivid insignia. Indeed, the director very near burned himself out creatively making Inferno (a bout of Hepatitis certainly didn’t help either), and it’s no small wonder as instances such as this are beyond breathtaking. I would even go as far as to list the underwater ballroom incident in the ten most magnanimous of horror history which, considering the shortlist, is high praise indeed.
It isn’t this extended moment of exquisite aquatic artistry alone though, far from it. A Roman university lecture amphitheater is also used to incredible cinematic effect and, even in such an imposing architectural structure, he is never once overawed and the precision in his craft shows an intricacy few filmmakers will ever possess and that’s all filmmakers, not just those who dabble in the macabre.
Meanwhile, the art direction and production design are simply off the scale and lend an ethereal mood to Inferno unlike any other movie in existence. It’s fruitless attempting to pick holes in the admittedly flimsy narrative structure when your eyes are being made love to constantly for 107 minutes but ultimately this is the only thing separating this from the likes of Suspiria. Granted, that film was hardly brimming with logic but it felt more measured with regards to storytelling and this is deemed largely redundant in the grand scheme of things here.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t a plot to follow and it primarily centers around Rose’s brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) who catches the next available flight out of Rome to piece together any clues left upon her sudden disappearance. The role was originally intended for James Woods but previous commitments with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome prevented his involvement and McCloskey does his level best to make sense of something the audience are just as clueless about. Argento’s muse at the time and frequent collaborator Daria Nicolodi also pops up in a minor role as Countess Elise but, alas, while we’re still marveling at her perfectly proportioned deep red-painted toes, she is sent packing to the sidelines as is sadly too often the case in Argento’s films. Other characters are largely superfluous to proceedings and seemingly exist only to deliver to our next moment of dread and horror.
Once our beleaguered hero learns of the building’s dark secret, we are supplied the Inferno of the title but, regardless of all its fire and brimstone, it never capitalizes on our fear quite as effectively as its distinguished precursor did previously. That said, it’s certainly not lacking in the panache stakes and is still a fittingly pressure cooker finale. As for the picture on the whole, Suspiria is still my personal darling and the reason for this is its more intricate framework.
However, there can be no doubting the technical prowess on exhibit and, once again, Argento’s vision is one which exists only in the deepest sanctums of our subconscious, which is precisely why he evokes such unanimous reactions from his audience. It’s a tour de force of devastatingly haunting imagery and, technically, on entirely another level to any other horror movie of its time. Sure it makes less sense than a Pauly Shore monologue but, when the end product is so beautifully crafted, I’m more than happy to take each inevitable rough edge with its smooth compatriot.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: It is of eternal bewilderment to me why the DPP completely overlooked this film’s magnificent artistic broad strokes to focus on the supposedly ghastly bloodletting. Inferno featured on the nasties list until 1985 but when it did eventually see the light of day in 1987 it was over four minutes lighter. Long since restored, truth be known it isn’t nearly as grisly as we were led to believe and it’s hard to fathom why the censors took exception to this as opposed to Suspiria but a dash of animal cruelty likely didn’t help it cause. That’s not to say there isn’t plentiful profondo rosso on the table. Throats are stabbed clean through, shards of broken window glass used as makeshift guillotines, eyes gouged, rats fed and bodies burned until extra crispy. However, for Keeper, a single instance resonates over all others. One unfortunate female victim receives a knife to her lower spine and the acoustic of said blade making contact will haunt my dreams perpetually. As for sins of the flesh, Argento shows an unusual amount of restraint and the closest we come to bare flesh is a sodden blouse. On the plus side, Irene Miracle’s perky pink pellets are every bit as miraculous as her birth name and almost warrant a token credit all by themselves.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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