Dario Argento’s “Inferno”

Italian poster for “Inferno” (1980).

“Inferno” (1980) is the sequel to “Suspiria” (1977) and the first of the Three Mothers Trilogy to actually delve into the concept of Our Ladies of Sorrow, which originated from the work “Suspiria de Profundis” (1845) by Thomas De Quincey.

Title page from the 1874 edition of Thomas De Quincey’s “Suspiria de Profundis”.

According to the lore of the series, there are three “Mothers”: Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum, and Mater Tenebrarum (Mother of Tears, Mother of Sighs, and Mother of Darkness) whose raison d’être is to benight the world through their respective powers of doom and death. These mothers approached an architect named Varelli who constructed homes for them to use as their bases of activity. For the Mater Suspiriorum he built the Tanz Akademie in Freiburg; for the Mater Tenebrarum he built the apartment building in New York, and for the Mater Lachrymarum he built a mansion in Rome, after which he disappeared and was assumed to have died.

Rose reads Varelli’s “Three Mothers”.

The story opens with a young woman, Rose Elliot, who lives alone in a sparsely tenanted apartment building in New York City. A frequent patron of the “Kazanian” bookstore next door she purchases a book there called “The Three Mothers”, by Varelli, which tells the tale of his acquaintance with the three witches and his agreement to make the three homes for them. It also leaves some cryptic clues about the buildings and their inhabitants. Intrigued, she returns to the shop after hours and tries to get the shopkeeper, Kazanian, to tell her what he knows about the book, but he is dismissive and leaves her with a weird comment before showing her out of the door “There are mysterious parts in that book but the only true mystery is that our lives are governed by dead people—good night.”

Kazanian and Rose.

Still not satisfied, she remembers a passage in the book which reads “The second key is hidden in the cellar”. This takes her on a trip into the cellar of the basement where she finds the key as well as a sunken room. Accidentally dropping the key into the water, she dives after it and sees a portrait with the title “Mater Tenebrarum”. Upon retrieving the key she is confronted with a nasty surprise floating amidst the submerged furniture and bric-a-brac. From the buzz I have seen on the Internet concerning this sequence, it seems to be legendary and much is made of how long actress Irene Miracle stayed under water (according to the interview with Argento on the “Inferno” DVD, Irene told him she had done some synchronized swimming as a young girl) as well as the skill employed in the scene’s filming.

German lobbycard depicting the underwater scene with actress Irene Miracle as Rose Elliot.

Spooked by her discovery, she bails out of the water and returns to her apartment and commences to write a letter to her brother Mark, telling him of her discoveries. This sets off the chain of events that leads to the violent demise of most of the characters in this secondary installment of Dario Argento’s “Mother Trilogy”. The rest of the film follows Mark as he tries to retrace his sister’s steps and ends up discovering the secret of the Mater Tenebrarum.

Sara and Mark follow along to the “Va pensiero” chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco”.

Although there is some attempt to bring some color to the scenes via colored filters, there are none of the lushly painted architecture of “Suspiria”; none of the velvety walls or baroque murals. All in all, it’s visually lackluster in comparison to its predecessor. Also, the soundtrack by ELP keyboardist Keith Emerson is just distracting and too damn busy most of the time. Unlike the unsettling Goblin atmospherics of Suspiria, Mister Emerson seems to be trying to place a dissonant piano concerto indiscriminately throughout the film.

Keith Emerson’s original soundtrack to “Inferno”.

There are scenes which don’t pan out, or seem superfluous, like the use of the gorgeous young woman who stares down Mark as he is trying to read his sister’s letter in his music class. Although many other online reviewers assume she is  an avatar of the Mater Tenebrarum, this isn’t even hinted at, nor does she appear anywhere else in the film.

Actress Ania Pieroni as the mysterious woman who stares down Mark as he tries to read his sister’s letter. Is she an avatar of the Mother of Darkness?

The deaths also seem contrived in a way that is hokey and not as creative as their counterparts in Suspiria, especially the deaths of Mike’s lady-friend Sara who does some snooping around of her own and, after a narrow escape from harm at a local library, barely lives long enough to rue her inquisitiveness. She and her neighbor, who agrees to sit with her for a spell so she won’t be alone, are both murdered by a mysterious attacker who puts a knife through the neighbor’s neck and stabs her to death.

Italian lobbycard showing Sara’s good intentioned neighbor, Carlo, with a knife in his neck.

The scene depicting the revelation of her corpse is so ridiculously overdone one cannot help but laugh upon seeing it. Others also die unnecessary and elaborate deaths which don’t seem to enhance the narrative at all.

Dario’s then wife Daria Nicolodi (mother of Argento’s infamous daughter Asia) also makes an appearance as the sickly countess Elise Stallone Von Adler, who befriends Mark when he responds (too late) to his sister’s request for his aid in solving the mystery she has uncovered. She is lovely, but doesn’t last long once things start rolling.

The Countess (Nicolodi) goes snooping.

The most interesting part of the story was the reveal of the true identities of Varelli and the Mater Tenebrarum, and the final scene where she turns into the personification of Death (a trick which Mario Bava apparently helped orchestrate) is truly impressive.

German lobbycard depicting the finale where Mater Tenebrarum reveals herself in the personification of Death.

All in all, Inferno is not a bad movie, per se, but definitely disappointing as a follow up to his masterpiece “Suspiria”.

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2 Responses to “Dario Argento’s “Inferno””

  1. That girl who stares down Mark in music class isn’t an avatar of Matar Tenebrarum. She’s supposed to be Matar Lachrymarum.

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