Inferno: A “mater” of life and death

Inferno directed by Dario ArgentoInferno directed by Dario Argento

Inferno directed by Dario ArgentoIn Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria, the viewer learns that the ballet school known as the Tanz Akademie, in Freiburg, Germany, was the home to a coven of witches led by a being later revealed to be the Mater Suspiriorum, Latin for “Mother of Sighs.” And three years later, in Argento’s semisequel, Inferno, the viewer learns something even more disturbing. The Mother of Sighs, the oldest, was apparently only one of three sister entities; living somewhere in Rome, there exists the Mater Lacrimarum (Mother of Tears), the most beautiful of the three (we DO get a look at her in Inferno, I THINK, in the guise of a music student played by Ania Pieroni), while in New York City abides Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness), the youngest and cruelest of the bunch. Together, the trio has caused woe to mankind for untold ages.

And when a young poetess named Rose (Irene Miracle, whose work in Aldo Lado’s 1975 film Night Train Murders had recently impressed me) discovers, by reading an alchemist’s book called The Three Mothers, that she just might be living in the same apartment building as Mater Tenebrarum (the creepiest NYC apartment building, perhaps, since Rosemary Woodhouse’s Bramford!), all sorts of diabolical things start to occur. In Rome, her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) receives a letter from Rose asking him to join her; this letter is intercepted and read by his friend Sarah (Eleonora Giorgi), leading to some horrendous slayings in the Eternal City. And once in NY, Mark, along with helpful neighbor Elise (Daria Nicolodi, here in her second of six films for the director), encounters even more gruesome doings; it would seem that the Mother of Darkness just might be living up to her reputation…

Though deficient in the Coherent Plot Department — indeed, the story line of Inferno just barely makes sense, and then only if we are willing to indulge in some major guesswork — the film yet remains an atmospheric and riveting experience. Contributing hugely to that atmosphere is the background music provided by Keith Emerson (yes, ELP’s late keyboard genius), whose eerie piano tinklings and Gregorian, Latinate bombast prove central to the picture’s feel. Long stretches of the film proceed with very little dialogue, and a surreal, nightmarish quality is often engendered by the director. The film boasts extremely handsome production values and is often quite gorgeous to look at, with excellent special FX; that burning building at the end, for example, looks infinitely more convincing than the house conflagration in Argento’s much-beloved film of 1975, Deep Red.

In essence a supernatural giallo, Inferno also features any number of stylish and grisly murder sequences, including slayings by knife (to the neck, back and chest), glass-pane guillotine, maddened cats, frenzied rats, fire, and eye gouging; the gorehounds out there will NOT be disappointed. As to the perpetrator of these ghastly deeds, again, the viewer will ultimately need to exercise his/her imagination, although the film’s ultimate scene left little doubt for this viewer. Inferno also highlights many puzzling/weird/illogical sequences.

For example, if you were exploring a creepy cellar in a building that you believed was the domicile of a witch, and you accidentally dropped your keys into a pool of water in the cellar floor, would you dive in after them, as Rose does?!?! Not that I’m complaining, as this action leads to one of the more surreal and shocking sequences in the entire picture! Other puzzlers: What was going on in that Roman library basement, with all the bubbling vats? Bookbinding? What’s the deal with the mirror-image copy of the Three Mothers book? And why does this rare volume seem to be so easy to find (it’s in that Roman library, and NYC book dealer Kazanian has no less than four copies of it!) if the Three Maters are so touchy about its being read by the general public? Who knows? And, oh … perhaps I should add here how nice it was to see Alida Valli, the one-time-beautiful Italian actress, on screen again; Valli had also appeared in Suspiria in a completely different role … I think. Food for thought, there.

As for the DVD of Inferno itself, the one that I just watched, from Westlake, is an absolutely bare-bones affair, with not an extra to be had; not even chapter stops or the ubiquitous FBI warning! From what I’ve read, the DVD from Anchor Bay would be the wiser choice, although the Westlake DVD still looks fine enough. Bottom line: Two Maters down and one to go. Time to check out Argento’s conclusion of the trilogy now, 2007’s Mother of Tears


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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